Negotiations or Total War

Morazan, El Salvador — Compa, read the posted handwritten note, “Why did the insurrection not occur?”… Many people at all levels of El Salvador’s leftist guerrilla movement genuinely believed that they would be raising their flag over San Salvador by March of this year. But at a base in the rebel stronghold of Morazan province, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (F.M.L.N.) has to question its own views. This process of self-criticism and re-evaluation has been described by sympathetic Salvadoran political analysts as the rebels’ Vatican II.

In short, both the leadership and the rank and file of the F.M.L.N. are weighing whether they can negotiate a compromise settlement with the government and still remain true to their revolutionary vision. Although this debate is more than five years old, never before in the history of the Salvadoran guerrilla movement has the concept of negotiations taken root so deeply. The reasons are both internal and external to El Salvador’s nine-year-long civil war.

First, rebel leaders cannot but take into account the geopolitical realities of Central America. Like it or hot, the Reagan Administration successfully demonstrated that the United States retains veto power in its backyard, and the Bush Administration is unlikely to depart radically from the old framework. Nicaragua, where most of the F.M.L.N. leadership has been living for the past year, has just marked the tenth anniversary of its revolution facing the worst economic crisis in its history. Regardless of the origins of that crisis, Salvadoran rebel leaders know that a second successful revolution in the region cannot afford to engage the wrath of the United States.

Second, the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev has voiced its opposition to a military victory by the Salvadoran rebels. Although its influence over the F.M.L.N. as an insurgency is marginal, it has nonetheless made it clear that a post-revolutionary El Salvador should expect much less than Nicaragua in the way of support. Again, the point is that a revolutionary El Salvador would face even narrower options than Nicaragua in trying to establish its independence from the United States.

Third, the F.M.L.N. has always perceived itself as being within a broad vein of Latin American nationalism. But on their nine-country tour of Latin America last fall, the two top Salvadoran rebel leaders, Leonel Gonzalez and Joaquin Villalobos, received unexpected criticism from sympathetic countries such as Mexico, whose views they take seriously. The message from the continent was clear: Pursue negotiations rather than a victory on the battlefield.

Fourth, the F.M.L.N.’s attempt to achieve a military win by way of popular insurrection did not succeed. Certainly, insurrection has not been abandoned. Part of the strategy behind it is to make the country ungovernable, forcing the government either to negotiate or collapse. But the rebels’ dream of seizing power through revolt this year didn’t happen; in fact, they didn’t even come close.

And fifth, in light of the failure of this insurrectional strategy, rebel leaders are aware that a military victory over an army that is so heavily bankrolled and equipped by the United States is not a viable option.

As in any such process of rethinking, it will take time for a consensus to form in light of these changes. Debate over whether the F.M.L.N. could genuinely support negotiations and a compromise settlement as its ultimate goal remains vibrant. But rather than pitting rebel factions against one another, the split — as far as one exists — is largely between the F.M.L.N.’s leadership and its rank-and-file supporters.

One frequently painted image of the F.M.L.N. is that of a band of zealous ideologues manipulating innocent civilians. But the irony is that, over time, the F.M.L.N.’s peasant base has grown more radical than its leadership. At least 90 percent of the F.M.L.N.’s combatants and civilian supporters are drawn from the ranks of El Salvador’s radicalized peasantry. Their participation in a revolutionary movement has been an experiment in empowerment; most have gruesome tales to tell of army repression. Unlike their leaders, who are better attuned to geopolitical realities, these radicalized peasants resist equating revolution with elections and negotiations with “the enemy.”

In January, for instance, the F.M.L.N. made the unprecedented offer to participate indirectly in elections (through the left-of-center Democratic Convergence) and to their outcome, on condition that the vote be delayed for six months. For the, F.M.L.N. leadership, the most difficult exercise was, not to persuade its adversaries of its sincerity but to convince its supporters that taking part in elections did not mean selling out the revolution.

The concept of negotiations and power sharing also raises a number of ideological questions for groups that have grown up within the Marxist tradition. But it is worth noting that the dominant element in the F.M.L.N. today is one of the least ideologically driven of the five rebel groups. The People’s Revolutionary Army (E.R.P.), led by Comandante Villalobos, is regularly misidentified as the “most dogmatic Marxist-Leninist” rebel organization. But the group was armed in the early 1970s out of the New Left tradition and not, like other member organizations of the F.M.L.N., as a splinter group from the Salvadoran Communist Party.

The E.R.P. can be called radical, even ruthless, in its tactics. The eight mayors assassinated by the F.M.L.N., for example, were all killed in areas under E.R.P. control. Nevertheless, the E.R.P. is politically pragmatic, and the group least constrained by the kind of Marxist orthodoxy that was dominant within the F.M.L.N. as recently as five or six years ago.

Writing in the Spring issue of Foreign Policy, Villalobos told his U.S. readers that the F.M.L.N. is committed to a third way of revolutionary democracy. “The Salvadoran revolution is conditioned by the geopolitical realities of Latin America and the United States,” he wrote. “The F.M.L.N. pursues an El Salvador that is open, flexible, pluralistic, and democratic.” Critics may be skeptical, but this position is entirely consistent with the E.R.P.’s own history and the internal evolution of the F.M.L.N. as a whole. Even so, the situation remains fluid, with no single group calling the shots for the F.M.L.N. Smaller rebel units acting independently are widely believed to have been involved in the recent wave of assassinations of high-ranking Salvadoran government officials, actions not authorized by the F.M.L.N. General Command.

How the cards ultimately fall will depend in large part on the response of the U.S.-backed Salvadoran government and army. While there has been considerable pressure on the F.M.L.N. both at home and abroad to re-evaluate its position, there has been no corresponding pressure on its opponents. Rather, El Salvador’s newly inaugurated government, led by the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena), has shifted the country’s political balance markedly to the right.

Arena, like nearly everyone else in El Salvador, believes that the U.S.-advocated ‘low-intensity’ approach to the Salvadoran conflict has failed. Arena is right; a change in tactics is bound to occur. The question is whether the government will attempt to end the conflict via negotiations or the all-out military strategy that some army commanders favor.

How one chooses to measure the insurgency is important, and will weigh heavily on the course that the government ultimately decides to pursue. By conventional military standards, the F.M.L.N. may appear to have been weakened. In 1983, for instance, the rebels controlled more than one-third of El Salvador’s territory. Operating in large columns of several hundred fighters, the F.M.L.N. was able to overrun key economic and military targets and control, many major towns and highways. But a turning point came with the introduction of increased U.S.-supplied air power by the Salvadoran government that year, bolstered by the bipartisan consensus on U.S. policy in El Salvador that crystallized after the election of President Jose Napoleon Duarte 1984, The combination of increased air power tilted the balance in the war. Saturation bombing of guerrilla strongholds such as the Guazapa volcano, nearly twenty miles from San Salvador, wrought havoc on the rebels’ network of civilian supporters. Helicopter strafing of guerrilla columns inflicted high casualties on rebel fighters.

But the F.M.L.N. adapted accordingly, and by unconventional standards — as a rural-based guerrilla insurgency — it is stronger and more deeply rooted in 1989 than ever before. To avoid presenting an easy target to the government, a normal rebel unit is now made up of only three to eight fighters. Since 1985, these smaller and more mobile guerrilla patrols have concentrated on bleeding the Salvadoran economy and wearing down the army through classic guerrilla tactics such as land mines and ambushes. The F.M.L.N.’s most important change, however, has come in the political arena, especially in the attempt to reorganize and expand its civilian support base. On the slopes of the San Vicente volcano, for instance, the rebels have built organized support among coffee pickers. Growers there, who include El Salvador’s newly inaugurated President, Alfredo Cristiani, used to pay their workers about 65 cents (U.S.) for picking twenty-five pounds of beans. They now pay more than $1 — the wage demanded by the F.M.L.N. and imposed under threat of reprisals for noncompliance.

For the past three years, the rebels have focused on organizing pickers in areas that produce crops for export, such as San Vicente, Usulutan, the San Salvador volcano and the western province of Santa Ana, while the army protects the growers. On the volcano of El Tigre in Usulutan, for example, peasants who voted for the Christian Democrat Duarte in 1984 now work diligently making homemade contact bombs for the F.M.L.N.

The F.M.L.N.’s new, stronger and more highly developed civilian infrastructure presents a problem for those who wish to eradicate the rebels militarily. Although the F. M. L. N. may still be far short of taking power, the government is even farther away from its goal of defeating the guerrillas now than it was when hostilities began.

The U.S. approach to the problem has been to continue advocating counterinsurgency techniques similar to those employed in Vietnam — small-unit patrols to root out the rebel fighters, coupled with “hearts and minds” civic action and psychological operations to wean away the rebels’ civilian base. But the Salvadoran Army looks all too much like the A.R.V.N. forces in Vietnam. “It’s like chasing a mosquito with a hammer,” complained one U.S. military adviser. The Salvadoran armed forces have become too dependent on their U.S.-supplied firepower, which they use to defend themselves more than to attack. Motivation is also a problem. Press-ganged into military service, most Salvadoran Army soldiers would rather try to obtain a visa to the United States than fight. And civic action projects? As long as the rebels defend coffee pickers and the army defends coffee growers, no amount of free government handouts will be able to conceal the class-based nature of El Salvador’s civil war.

Yet the Arena government, together with hard-line elements in the army, have another plan: an escalation of the counterinsurgency effort to approach something that leading Arena deputy Sigifredo Ochoa, formerly a top field commander, calls ‘total war.’ Like many critics of U.S. policy in Vietnam, Ochoa accuses the United States of having “no political will to end the war.” He is correct. The Salvadoran insurgency is simply too strong and too well entrenched to be defeated without the violation of human rights on a massive scale. That is a price Arena may be willing to pay, but that U.S. policymakers may not.

For all intents and purposes, the U.S. military option is dead in El Salvador. And the F.M.L.N. is not about to go away. The country will become more ungovernable the longer the war drags on. Two ways remain to resolve it: negotiations or total war. Although both the United States and the Salvadoran government missed an unprecedented opportunity by refusing the F.M.L.N.’s January peace proposal, the window is still open. But with an Arena government in power it may be closing fast. The United States must choose which path it wishes to pursue. If it does not, the Arena government and the Salvadoran Army will make the choice themselves.