Salvadoran Rebels Anticipated Soviet Fall, Shifted Tack

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SAN SALVADOR – EL SALVADOR’S leftist guerrilla movement began moving away from Marxism-Leninism several years before the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991, they and independent analysts say.

Since the FMLN was already in transition, the Soviet Union’s collapse “wasn’t like a bucket of cold water, but of water which was already warmed,” says William, a pseudonym for a high-ranking 15-year veteran of the Salvadoran Communist Party, one of five rebel organizations that make up the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) coalition.

On Feb. 1, El Salvador’s 12-year civil war came to an end as a result of UN-mediated negotiations. With the FMLN now a legal entity openly participating in the political process, its members are willing for the first time to discuss previous clandestine relations with the Soviet Union and other countries.

“We’ve studied all the texts, Marxism-Leninism, Mao, and social democracy,” says Chano Guevara, a peasant who rose to become a top FMLN comandante in the rebel stronghold of Guazapa volcano. “But if we had followed the socialist camp we wouldn’t exist now. We continue to exist [because of] the politically and economically rooted problems in this country.”

Despite their ongoing ties to Cuba, the FMLN is one of the largest leftist insurgencies in the world to accept democracy. The decision to make reforms in advance of the Soviet Union’s collapse is a main reason the FMLN remains a viable political force in El Salvador, Western experts say.

“The age of the romantic revolutionary linked with Marxist-Leninist ideology is finished,” said Wayne Smith, a professor at Johns Hopkins University, who was the chief United States diplomat in Cuba in the early 1980s. “[But] movements such as the FMLN, who champion the poor but who do it through electoral means, are going to have a growing place in Latin America.”

The FMLN’s transition began as a direct result of changes in the Soviet Union. Although by the late 1980s, the FMLN was not dependent on the Soviet bloc to continue fighting, the insurgency would have needed direct foreign aid if they had ever taken power by force. But as early as 1986, the reform government of Mikhail Gorbachev communicated to the FMLN that it favored a negotiated settlement and would not finance a new leftist government, FMLN sources say.

Guerrilla leaders left secluded base camps in northern El Salvador to embark on a nine-country tour of Latin America in October 1988. FLMN leaders had always viewed themselves as within a broad vein of Latin American nationalism. But on this tour, they received criticism from many governments considered allies, such as Mexico, Argentina, and Peru, all of whom encouraged the rebels to consider a negotiated settlement.

THE rebel leadership was especially influenced by the dramatic decline of the Nicaraguan economy in the late 1980s, which signaled that no revolution in Central America could survive in isolation, FLMN sources say.

FMLN leaders were also swayed by changes in Eastern Europe. Most, including the FMLN’s top comandante and strategist, Joaquin Villalobos, supported popular reform movements there. Two months after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, a January 1990 internal document was published, which praises the “social forces that demand more democracy and independence” in Eastern Europe and openly rejects a one-party state.

“The people are removing the authoritarian, inept, and corrupt governments,” notes the document. “The masses feel … they must sweep out the mistakes of the parties in power, as well as their old and closed formulas.”

More than 1,000 Salvadoran revolutionaries received political and military training in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Cuba, and Nicaragua, they and East German sources say.

“During the week we had classes in Spanish,” says William, who was in the Soviet Union for nine months in 1979-80. “On weekends, we all had military training.”

The Soviet Union, Cuba, and to a lesser degree Nicaragua provided funds, weapons, and training to the FMLN throughout the war, FMLN veterans here say. But the support was heaviest in the early 1980s, they say.

While Moscow began to distance itself from the FMLN in 1986, East Germany continued to train Salvadorans until the collapse of the Berlin Wall, according to an East German who worked with the FMLN there.

In order to make up the aid shortfall, the FLMN developed new sources of weapons and funds from radical third-world countries including Vietnam and North Korea, and won substantial funding from church groups in the US and Western Europe, FMLN veterans say.

The Cubans, however, were the FMLN’s most consistent backers, providing specialized military training, as well as materiel and other support to the Salvadoran insurgency throughout the war, FLMN veterans say.

“We still have relations with Cuba, Vietnam and others,” says Ramon Medrano, a member of the FMLN’s top political commission, “and we have a right to.”

The insurgency also received substantial funds from several social democratic Scandinavian countries, especially in the early 1980s, according to FMLN veterans.

This eclectic base of support boosted the insurgency, FMLN leaders say. Nonetheless, they insist that the insurgency itself was domestically rooted, and that degree of foreign support was always exaggerated by the US.Some Western experts agree. “I don’t think there’s any question the Cubans helped the FMLN,” said Dr. Smith. “[But] the movement would have continued without any outside help at all.”

FMLN units extorted war taxes — running as high as $60,000 from individual coffee growers during harvest season, rebel and coffee-producing sources here say.

Throughout the war, these and other funds were used to buy weapons from the Salvadoran military, which ran a ubiquitous business in sales of US-provided weapons, according to FMLN operatives and civilians involved in arms transactions with Salvadoran military officers.