Salvadoran Abyss

Escalon, San Salvador — “They should either kill them all or negotiate,” the well-to-do Salvadoran businessman said in nearly flawless English. Leftist guerrillas had taken over this usually quiet suburban neighborhood, and some had even passed the night in his home. “This thing has to end,” he added. “We need a solution.”

The November military offensive by the F.M.L.N. has forced a watershed in El Salvador’s history and overturned all conventional assumptions about U.S. policy here. In Escalon and other wealthy areas of the capital, the rebel drive has generated a new sense of pragmatism among right-wing people who had never entertained the concept of negotiations between the government and the F.M.L.N. Within the Salvadoran military, however, the offensive has strengthened the hand of the most ruthless and uncompromising army and air force officers. Unless there is swift action in Washington, total war may break out, leaving the United States with the choice of embracing the bloodshed or cutting off aid — thereby risking a military victory by leftist rebels. Events are moving at lightning speed, and the window of opportunity closes a little further each day.

A negotiated solution is Washington’s best hope for avoiding a policy disaster. But policymakers should abandon self-serving illusions, remove their ideological blinders and recognize the consequences of the November offensive.

First, it demonstrated that despite ten years of U.S. intervention and more than $4 billion in aid, the Salvadoran government and armed forces still cannot defeat the F.M.L.N. Militarily, the offensive was the rebels’ most spectacular demonstration of strength of the war. Politically it fell short of becoming a general insurrection or a seizure of power. But tens of thousands of Salvadorans collaborated, with a sophistication that demonstrates the rebels’ deep and highly organized base of clandestine support.

Second, the offensive prompted the government to shed its mask of democracy and civility with amazing speed. Its behavior surpassed even the worst expectations of its critics. The level of human rights abuses has been unprecedented since the early 1980s. The indiscriminate strafing, rocketing and bombing of heavily populated neighborhoods was appalling to behold.

Third, an overwhelming sense of terror has seized the country. The killing of the six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter seems irrational to the naive denizens of Washington, but in El Salvador it made perfect Machiavellian sense. The Jesuits were vociferous critics of the government and the most persuasive advocates of a negotiated settlement. Their murders sent a message: Anyone who even thinks of supporting the F.M.L.N. or a negotiated solution is at risk. And no one, from highly visible critic to anonymous peasant collaborator, is immune.

Fourth, the country’s political center has collapsed. With the exception of a few leaders, the left-led popular movement has been driven underground. Formerly U.S.-supported Christian Democrats find themselves either threatened or irrelevant. Church-based community activists have been targeted for repression. The only two political options that remain are the Salvadoran Army and the F.M.L.N.

Fifth, President Alfredo Cristiani is technically the commander in chief of the military, but he is an inexperienced politician who is in over his head. A bloc of ultraconservative military officers, including Gen. Juan Rafael Bustillo of the air force and Vice Minister of Defense Juan Orlando Zepeda, has effectively assumed command. Zepeda is the officer that army defector Cesar Joya Martinez named as ordering military death squad assassinations as recently as last June. Bustillo has ordered his planes to buzz and drown out several presidential press conferences in open mockery of civilian authority. Bustillo himself may soon be headed for retirement, but he and his ilk have built alliances with junior and senior commanders throughout the military, reducing Cristiani’s role to little more than figurehead.

Sixth, Cristiani’s middle- and upper-class supporters have been left dumbstruck by the offensive. They once believed the predictions of Cristiani and the U.S. Embassy that prosperity was just around the corner. After F.M.L.N. guerrillas appeared literally on their doorstep, they are now leaving El Salvador en masse for Guatemala or Miami. Their exodus is likely to precipitate a long-term economic divestment. U.S. aid, which offset this trend in the early 1980s, can no longer be absorbed. And El Salvador is already more dependent on U.S. aid than any nation since South Vietnam.

Finally, although this aid and intervention represent the greatest U.S.-backed counterinsurgency effort since the Vietnam War, the ability of the United States to influence or control events here has been reduced to almost nothing. In previous years, policymakers argued that current levels of U.S. military and economic assistance were necessary to support “moderates” in the Salvadoran military and to avoid a bloodbath. But the bloodbath has begun and the “moderates,” it seems, are either impotent or nonexistent.

Faced with the choice of negotiations or all-out war, the Salvadoran military has begun to opt for war. Its most powerful officers believe the United States will tolerate any level of abuse in the name of anticommunism, whatever that now means. Only a substantial cut in U.S. aid when Congress reconvenes in January will make them see things differently.