America and the World: Elections in El Salvador

RICHARD C. HOTTELET, Moderator: America and the World. On June 1st, what looks like a quiet miracle is consummated in El Salvador. A freely elected president is inaugurated and an elected legislature constitutes itself as the supreme lawmaking body, with one-quarter of the seats held by former rebels, members of the FMLN. The Furabundo Marti (Front of National Liberation) fought a bitter guerrilla war for 12 years. Today it is a political party, the constitutional opposition. It all seems unreal. From 1980 to early 1992, the civil war in El Salvador was a horror - bombings, murders, the infamous death squads, massacres, kidnappings and assassinations. By 1989, both sides were looking for a way out. They, and the leaders of Central America, turned to the United Nations. We want to talk about what happened then with the U.N. official who, probably more than any other, helped to make it happen. He is Alvaro De Soto of Peru, the Secretary General's Advisor on Latin American Affairs. Mr. De Soto, you helped to negotiate the peace agreement of 1992. 

ALVARO DE SOTO, United Nations Special Advisor to the Secretary-General: Yes, indeed, it was a major challenge for the U.N., one which came out - I'm happy to say - so far, quite well. 

HOTTELET: With us is an American journalist, Mark Danner, who has studied America and the World (NPR), May 28, 1994 the U.S. involvement in Salvador. He has just published a book, The Massacre at El Mazote. Mr. Danner, that was not America's finest hour? 

MARK DANNER, Staff Writer, 'The New Yorker' and Author, 'The Massacre at El Mozote': No, it wasn't. The events described in the book happened at really the darkest stage of the war at the end of 1981, when the government was having serious doubts about whether it could defeat the guerrillas of the FMLN. An American-trained unit called the Atlacat Battalion entered a hamlet in Northeastern El Salvador and massacred almost 800 civilians. It was indeed the darkest- a dark chapter not only in the civil war, but in the history of U.S. foreign policy as well, I think. 

HOTTELET: This is one in a series of broadcasts, conversations with American and foreign experts and world leaders, produced by the Council on Foreign Relations in association with station WNYC. I'm Richard C. Hottelet. The civil war in El Salvador was so long and so violent because it was part of the super-power cold war. The Reagan Administration saw it as a war against communism and gave billions of dollars to the right-wing government. The FMLN was armed and supplied by the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, who got their arms from Cuba, whose weapons came from the Soviet Union. El Salvador, a country the size of Massachusetts, lost some 75,000 dead in the 12 years of war. Mr. De Soto, are this spring's elections seen as basically fair? Is the new president, Armando Calderonsol, accepted as the legitimate head of state? 

Mr. DE SOTO: No one disputes the election of president-elect Calderonsol, and there is little doubt as to the broad general fairness of the presidential elections. There were, however, many, many irregularities in the conduct of the elections as a whole; more than should be acceptable in a country which has had elections even during the war years for a number of years. And the- it is- it- it- There is a general sentiment shared by the president-elect as well as by the opposition that something major needs to be done in order to overhaul the electoral system, which is, by the way, one of the things that was called for in the peace agreements. 

HOTTELET: Of course, the United States' approach to- to the Salvador problem or the Salvador picture is an entirely different one, isn't it? 

Mr. DANNER: You mean than it was in the early- in the early '80s? Yes, I believe so. The- Obviously, the policy in Salvador is much less under the spotlight than it was in the early '80s. In fact, the reporting on the- the elections, the second round at least, didn't even make the front page of The New York Times, which was sort of a jolt to me after the center-stage position it had throughout the- much of the early '80s. So the concern is somewhat less I would say, and the work involved, in some ways, is- is harder. Which is to say, trying to help the Salvadorans build political institutions that can, as Ambassador De Soto just said, can possibly form the basis of elections that are gradually fairer and more inclusive, have a less- lesser degree of fraud, and- and we hope keep the politics of the country within the formal political structure, rather than letting them spill over into death squads, massive demonstrations and so on, that led up to and characterized the beginning of the war. 

HOTTELET: Mr. De Soto, you mentioned the irregularities, that they were- they were considerable, but not enough really to call the legitimacy of the election into question? Mr. DE SOTO: Not of the presidential elections, though there is some dispute as to whether the result would have been different in terms of the legislative assembly as well municipalities, the local election, had the elections been more orderly. 

HOTTELET: Does that open the door to a challenge, perhaps legal, perhaps through force? 

Mr. DE SOTO: No, there have been some specific challenges in- in the cases of some of the municipal elections, but it hasn't gone beyond that. But the- We must not lose sight of the fact that the elections are a little more than a blip in the peace process. The peace process has to go far beyond simply having free and fair elections. There's a little bit of a tendency today to catalogue and file away El Salvador as a success story which we needn't worry about any longer, and hence it gets relegated to some of the back pages of the newspaper. But, in fact, the jury is still- still out on- on El Salvador, and unless a- a- the profound transformation envisaged in the peace accords is carried out in- in full, we could have a recurrence of conflict in that country some years from now. 

HOTTELET: Well, actually, there were killings, weren't there, perhaps, or maybe imputed to death squads in the months preceding the election? 

Mr. DE SOTO: This is something about which not only the Secretary General but also the Security Council was quite alarmed and concerned. It shows that the-the labor of peace has not yet taken root. It shows that some of the therapeutic effects which were desired when the Commission of the- on the Truth was created as part of the peace accords, have not given the- borne the fruit that they should've done. 

HOTTELET: The- Is the fact that the Arena Party, the old right-wing party, which was led at one point by - What is it? - Roberto D'Aubuisson - who was described by a former American ambassador as a homicidal maniac - that this party is still in power, does- does that make a difference? 

Mr. DE SOTO: There is a new generation in charge in Arena, a far more pragmatic one, of which the- the epitome was President Cristiani. He did not seem to have a- a major ideological baggage as the driving force. He was prepared to do whatever was necessary in order to achieve peace, and what was necessary was to carry out pretty profound transformations, including institutional ones, in that country. We have not reached the stage though, yet, where the country has taken into its ethos, as it- as it were, the- the idea that you have to relive the past and understand it and vow not to relive it in order to be able to face the future. 

Mr. DANNER: It's- It's interesting that we tend to talk in this country about democracy, implanting democracy, restoring democracy, for example, in the case of Haiti, and very rarely do we discuss how complicated and really mysterious a matter that is. How do you start or how do you form an independent judiciary which can gain the confidence of all sides and all sides of the political spectrum in a country and be accepted as a way to mediate disputes? How do you start- How do you implant the idea of a loyal opposition? Which is actually a very strange idea, an opposition that's going to accept the rules of the political game and be trusted as accepting them by the party in power. These sorts of matters are difficult. They take a long time. And, you know, our- our news- our press, television and so on, is really oriented very much along either blood or ballots. That is, war or elections. And we have this belief that once the election comes off, the only question to be settled is was it free and fair? And if it was, you have a legitimate party in power, and that's it. And, of course, as Ambassador De Soto says, the real work is- is very much yet to be done in Salvador. 

HOTTELET: So it's too soon to say whether this democracy is irreversibly implanted? 

Mr. DE SOTO: I'd say it was a bit soon. I think that one of the fundamental pending tasks is a profound transformation of the judiciary. Without that you will not have a complete institutional framework within which human rights will be respected and guaranteed. An important step in that direction has been taken by the removal from the armed forces of any responsibility, except- exception- save in exceptional circumstances, in the maintenance of internal public order and the creation of a new, national civil police. But without a judiciary, you don't have human rights. 

HOTTELET: You are, in effect, trying to dismantle a whole, old political system and really, in a way, in an extended way, an old society and to build something new. What are the various aspects of it? One is to cut the army at least in half. 

Mr. DE SOTO: I- I should emphasize that the U.N. wasn't given a trusteeship or a mandate in the case of El Salvador. What we did is assist the parties in reaching peace agreements which they did not go into blindfoldedly [sic] or- nor did they sign a blank check to. But they provided for certain key institutional reforms. The removal of public order, internal public order functions of the armed forces, is an idea whose time all Salvadorans felt had come. The armed-armed force's soldiers are trained to kill. They are trained to defeat an enemy. They are not trained to maintain public order. So creation of a democratic police which lived as part of the community rather than in barracks, that was not opposed to the- the population but rather a part of it, was an- an important part- ingredient in these agreements. But without completing the picture, without providing the entire framework, it could still fall apart. 

HOTTELET: One of the basic problems really, and it's a societal problem, is the redistribution of land. Salvador is a densely populated country, and the land has been held by the large landowners, the- the oligarchs, that would be a kind of social upheaval, as well as a political one, would it not? How is that going to be accomplished?

Mr. DE SOTO: Well, under the peace agreements they didn't actually go into the question of land reform. What was provided was for transfer of land on a soft-loan basis, but on the basis of pay-as-you-go nonetheless, rather than as grants, of land to former combatants as well as people who had occupied the lands in the conflict areas during the- the war. 

HOTTELET: Squatters, as it were. 

Mr. DE SOTO: That's right. Land reform is- is something that was legislated during the Christian-Democrat government in the- in the '80s and that had come to a standstill during the- the Arena government. Whether that will be picked up again depends largely on whether the lessons of the war and the rather unfair distribution of land have been learned or not. 

HOTTELET: One aspect of this land redistribution problem, of course, is money. And it's just at this time that the America- that the Clinton Administration is cutting the aid, the budgeted aid, for Salvador about in half. Will that, do you think, hinder the process, or make it impossible? 

Mr. DANNER: Well, I think in all of these matters, the United- whether it's the United Nations or the United States, outside elements can't do these things. What they can do is establish a clear set of incentives, guidelines, that will try to influence those in power to carry out what they've agreed to do. The clear incentives, as far I'm concerned, from the United States should be - rule of law, reform of the judiciary, and implementing many of the very ambitious proposals that are contained in the peace agreements and other documents. I think it's inevitable that the United States is going to cut foreign aid to certain areas of the world. You know, depressing as it is, U.S. policy tends to resemble a great spotlight that will shine on a certain area which many Americans know nothing about, whether it's Vietnam or Central America or, indeed, Kuwait; shine there, brightly illuminating it for a few moments of time and then when the threat, as perceived, is over the spotlight turns somewhere else. We leave it in darkness again. And I think, to some degree, because we're a democracy, because budget deficits are- are- have been very difficult in the last seven or eight years, that sort of process is inevitable. I think what's more important than the magnitude of the funds is a set of clear incentives toward the- that will govern their- their granting to El Salvador. That is that, you know, we've had - certainly during the cold war - this sort of ambivalence between- in our interventions in foreign countries- I mean, in all interventions not just military between reform, encouraging reform on the one hand, and risking instability on the other. 

HOTTELET: Let me interrupt to remind our listeners that we're talking with United Nations Assistant Secretary General Alvaro De Soto, who helped bring peace to Salvador, and with Mark Danner, author of The Massacre at El Mazote, who tells what has happened on the way. Is there resistance, in measurable resistance, inside Salvador to this enormously important and profound process that you're trying to set in train from those who are bound to lose their economic and political privileges? 

Mr. DE SOTO: I believe that there is some resistance. And we have, we the United Nations, have detected and so reported to the Security Council. There seems to be at- at some nether level a desire to not accept the concept of a civilian police and, indeed, to remilitarize it in a somewhat surreptitious way. And, also, in trying to implement the reintegration programs so that all of these disgruntled combatants can be lured back into legal society, we have, in particularly the land transfer programs, we have found some considerable resistance at the- at a bureaucratic level behind which, presumably, lurks the- the wish that things might remain as- as they- as they are. 

HOTTELET: Apart from the vested interests who are- who can be expected to oppose the loss of their privilege, what about the suspicion which must've seeped deep into the- into the body politic after 12 years of- or more of poisonous guerrilla war? The parliament under the old government which is still the Arena party, the previous government, voted an amnesty to all those whom the- your Truth Commission had held responsible for heinous crimes. That is not likely to- to improve the- the atmosphere and-- and- and bring- bring about any healing. 

Mr. DANNER: Well, the- the amnesty means essentially that many of those responsible for the most horrible crimes depicted in the Truth Commission report.

HOTTELET: And in the book on Mazote. 

Mr. DANNER: Yes. Also, the- the massacre at El Mazote is certainly one of those. No one declared responsible for those within the- the report will be prosecuted in any way. Certainly I think that brings disappointment and distrust. On the other hand, as your listeners probably know, this is parallel to other processes within countries, particularly in the southern cone that have made a transformation from military rule. And the- It certainly has been true- In Argentina there were some prosecutions, but they were in the end, strictly limited. In Chile it limited even more. Many countries have decided that again stability, stability of the transformation, is more important than actual prosecution. And they've settled for an attempt to try to get out the truth, which was the purpose of the Truth Commission report, to have- to actually verbalize this part of the history so the population and others in the world will know what exactly happened. 

HOTTELET: I want to focus on the- on the- the work of the- the U.N.- the U.N. presence. You are not there, as you pointed out, as a government. You are not there as a peacekeeping force. I think, at the- at your peak, you had maybe a thousand various observers in- in El Salvador, and you fathered this Truth Commission among other things. Describe a little bit how you- how you went about this- this job of translating a war-weariness on the side of the two parties into a, sort of, a- an, apparently, viable peace. 

Mr. DE SOTO: What the FMLN wanted to address, and- and this I'm sure that they had a very widespread support amongst Salvadorians was the problem of impunity, that is people not being punished for crimes being committed. They would have liked exemplary trials and exemplary punishments. Obviously, this was not going to be granted to them, certainly not in the negotiation. What was accepted in the negotiation by both sides was that an independent panel composed of three foreigners appointed by the Secretary General, would examine the most egregious misdeeds of the war years and produce a public report. 

HOTTELET: So it was not to be the agency of either the government or of the opposition, but of an impartial-

 Mr. DE SOTO: Neither of them. Appointed by the- the Secretary General of the United Nations. The philosophy behind it, as agreed by the parties, that- was that in order to be able to face- in order to be able to face the- to get over- to get over the- the- 

HOTTELET: Sort of the history- 

Mr. DE SOTO: -the trauma of the war, Salvadorians needed to be able to go through the catharsis of facing the truth about it and about themselves. Now, they- the Commission on the Truth certainly produced the kind of report that would have brought as- about the results of a catharsis, but the- the- it was not followed up properly. And the implementation of it was, at best - and- and still is because it has not been fully implemented - somewhat grudging. 

HOTTELET: What needs to be done? 

Mr. DE SOTO: Oh, there are a number of things that need to be done. One of them is the- the reform of the judiciary, and I'd like to emphasize the institutional reforms aspect which were recommendations which are binding under the peace agreements, by the way, according to which you would take a number of measures to ensure that events such as those that occurred during the '80s would not be repeated. 

HOTTELET: And human rights- 

Mr. DE SOTO: Oh, yes. And- And a lot had been done in the peace agreements, but what the Truth Commission, in effect, recommended was finishing the job that was not completed in the course of the negotiations. 

HOTTELET: Should a tribunal be set up now, despite the parliamentary amnesty, to take up these cases? 

Mr. DE SOTO: It seems difficult to envisage. But, certainly, some of the- Certainly the institutional reforms should be carried out. Certainly the compensation of the victims of the- of these misdeeds should be carried out. It- It- A number of the ad hominem recommendations of the Commission on the Truth, that is that civilians who were involved in these activities should be removed for office- from office, that is a much more difficult one to carry out, but one which they may wish to contemplate as a political decision. And most of the leadership of the army that was involved in the- in these- in these matters has already been removed, as a matter of fact, as part of the purge of the army. 

Mr. DANNER: I don't know under whose auspices such a tribunal might be held, but it's important to underline, first of all, that the Truth Commission report is really a remarkable document, I think, and deserves more attention, I think, in this country. 

HOTTELET: You know, South Africa is now talking about a Truth Commission to take- to take up all the excesses and the- the- the- the brutalities of the South African Security Force. Is this Truth Commission something that can be applied now more generally, do you think, as a- as a- as an aid to healing? Because you- the U.N. is not in a position of imposing anything on Salvador or anyone else. All you can do is raise these questions and perhaps stimulate some- some positive reaction. 

Mr. DE SOTO: It's a very difficult judgment to make. This was- The creation of the Truth Commission was part of the peace agreements, as well as the essential ingredient that whatever recommendations they came out with, would be binding on the parties. Whether you can repeat that experience is just a judgment that you have to make case by case. But the will of the parties has to be strongly and unequivocally behind it. If you don't have that, who- who knows whether it will work. 

HOTTELET: Thank you- 

Mr. DANNER: Sorry, I was just going to say the will of the international community has to be strongly behind its implementation. 

HOTTELET: Thank you, gentlemen. We've been talking with U.N. Assistant Secretary General Alvaro De Soto and with Mark Danner, author of The Massacre at El Mazote. From the Council on Foreign Relations this is America and the World. I'm Richard C. Hottelet. Mr. De Soto, Mr. Danner, a moment longer. Is the hope for normality at last reflected in- in daily life in Salvador?

Mr. DANNER: Well, certainly there- If you can talk about comparative normality, certainly things have changed a great deal since the war. On the other hand, a lot of the problems that led to the war still persist in- in El Salvador. It's- It's interesting that after 12 years of war, 75,000 dead, perhaps $4 billion in U.S. aid, what has been achieved is the integration, perhaps a very fragile integration of the left part of the political spectrum, moderate left to far left, if you will, into the formal politics of the country. But we should emphasize that that integration is fragile and that the, sort of, transformation of civil institutions that Ambassador De Soto has talked about is fragile as well. I mean, it's- it's very much that the first step has been taken, but there's a long way to go. And I think outside pressure and incentives are quite necessary. I mean, the Ambassador mentioned the civilian police force, which it seems clear unless there is constant - I don't know if vigilance is quite the right word - but constant encouragement on the part, not only of the United Nations but the U.S. and other donor countries, could become something very, very different than what was intended under the- under the peace agreements.

HOTTELET: Mr. De Soto, has the- has the United Nations made the people feel more secure and, if you wish, more normal? 

Mr. DE SOTO: I- I believe so. A prior question to that is what is normalcy in El Salvador? 

Mr. DANNER: Yes. 

Mr. DE SOTO: Things have clearly improved, as Mr. Danner has pointed out. The fact that you have former guerrilla warriors occupying a quarter of the seats in the legislative assembly is- is no mean feat. At the same time, you have to complete the institutional reforms and you have to ensure the reintegration of the combatants and their supporters into working society. 

HOTTELET: How long will your U.N. operation remain in El Salvador? 

Mr. DE SOTO: Well, at least until near the end of 1994. I think that this is very important because, as Mr. Danner points out, the spotlight of the international community's attention can be crucial, and even that is not always enough. 

Mr. DANNER: It seems clear that, I mean, at some point the United Nations has to leave. And certainly, you know, this will- at present is thought of - if we're going to put things into columns - as one of the bright spots of- of the United Nations recently. 

HOTTELET: Thanks again, Alvaro De Soto and Mark Danner. See you next time.

Mark Danner in conversation with Alvaro De Soto, U.N. Secretary General's Advisor on Latin American Affairs, moderated by Richard Hottelet, America and the World, National Public Radio

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