El Salvador: Reminders of War

Article excerpt


Only a few years ago the crisis in Central America--from the perspective of the Reagan administration--centered on El Salvador, which similarly occupied the attention of liberals and the left. The undisguisable brutality and the sheer level of horror perpetrated by the U.S.-backed government was a regular object of criticism and protest. Congress pressed for "certification" of human rights abuses and in 1981 over 100,000 people marched in Washington to oppose U.S. interference in that country. Today, on the other hand, there is little debate in Congress over the U.S. role in the Salvadoran war; liberal interest in El Salvador has largely vanished, displaced by increasing concern over the alleged threat posed by the Sandinistas. On the liberal left, many now devote their political energies toward defending Nicaragua while others are distancing themselves from the avowedly Marxist-Leninist Farabundo Marti Liberation National Front (FMLN). Indeed, the Reagan administration can count as one of its greater foreign policy achievements the disappearance of El Salvador from the center of "legitimate" political debate.

Three key factors account for this apparent "success" of the right. First, the administration's decisive intervention in El Salvador has changed the character and the nature of the war. The visible and regular bloodbaths of Salvadoran security forces and government-backed death squads have been reduced--though by no means eliminated--and rendered less visible. U.S. aid, on the order of over $1.84 billion since 1979, and the presence of U.S. advisors and trainers, have transformed a demoralized, nine-to five army into a somewhat stronger and certainly better equipped fighting force, especially since 1984. Counterinsurgency training and U.S.-supplied transport helicopters enable the Salvadoran army to put larger numbers of combat units in the field at a faster rate; surveillance flights by U.S.-piloted planes have enhanced air-to-ground communications, and hence military assaults against the FMLN and its supporters are better coordinated. Moreover, the Salvadoran airforce has taken the fight to the skies and has conducted what can be described as the heaviest bombardments in the history of the

Western hemisphere. This air war against the civilian supporters of the FMLN-FDR (the Democratic Revolutionary Front--the political arm of the revolutionary movement) has been perhaps the most successful part of the U.S.-designed counterinsurgency program, aimed at making production, and even life itself, impossible in the "zones of control" under guerrilla influence. The human rights group Americas Watch noted in 1984 that "thousands of noncombatants are being killed in indiscriminate attacks by bombardments in the air, shelling, and ground sweeps. Thousands more are being wounded. As best we can determine, these attacks on civilian noncombatants in conflict zones are part of a deliberate policy."

The air war may now be less "indiscriminate" and more selective in its choice of targets, but the impact is the same: to disrupt production and logistics in the control zones, force civilians sympathetic to the FMLN to flee--in essence, to deprive the FMLN of its rural support by depopulating the areas where it exercises control. Moreover, the air war is accompanied by regular army sweeps of rebel areas. In February 1986, for example, the Salvadoran military initiated its ironically titled "Operation Phoenix" by yet again bombarding and attacking the Guazapa Volcano area, a rebel stronghold just fifteen miles north of San Salvador, and forcibly relocating hundreds of civilian FMLN supporters. When twenty-three religious workers attempted to help six hundred refugees return to their village of Aguacayo near Guazapa in July, they were promptly arrested by the Salvadoran military and charged with being in a war zone without government permission and with endangering civilian lives. …