Ending Central America's Bitter Cycle of Violence Activists Battle Long Tradition of Military Rule and Extremism Series: GLOBAL FRONTIERS. Part 4 of a 4-Part Series. Third of Nine Articles Appearing Today
David Clark Scott, writer of The Christian Science Monitor and Joyce Hackel, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
WHEN Amanda Villatoro, one of eight trade unionists recently elected to serve in El Salvador's National Assembly, drives home from work, she clasps her steering wheel in one hand and a pistol in the other.
"Some crazed extremist is still likely to see one of us on the street and pop a bullet in our head, believing he's liberated El Salvador from a 'communist traitor, Ms. Villatoro says.
Ending the cycle of violence is one of the greatest challenges to political progress in Central America. Yet the feisty 29-year old organizer and her colleagues see tensions starting to ease as peace negotiations progress.
"Now we've been given a quota of respect, and we're confident in the Assembly we can push through some laws to aid workers," Villatoro says.
For the first time ever, labor leaders form a significant block in the 84-seat Assembly. The trade unionists are likely to ally with the nine deputies from left-of-center parties who entered the Assembly this month. This "Group of 17" is expected to push for rights that their counterparts in industrialized countries often take for granted: the freedom to organize, strike, bargain collectively, and enforce a national labor code.
The return of unionists and parties of the left to Salvadoran politics is but one indication of the historic steps being taken toward greater political participation in Central America. A decade ago, only one nation in the region, Costa Rica, could lay claim to democratic rule. Now all are on that path. Indeed, the myth that Latin America was inherently or culturally disposed to authoritarianism is being laid to rest.
Yet, progress is limited, to varying degrees, by continued political violence and the pervasive influence of security forces. "In Guatemala and El Salvador, the military virtually define the extent of civilian authority and influence most aspects of government policy," according to a report "Latin America in the 1990s," by the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue.
To a large extent, the military's influence is a by-product of war. Increased United States military aid coupled with expansion of the armed forces to combat guerrilla insurgencies have provided institutions already rife with patronage and corruption the opportunity to extend their influence.
"The Army is a business, the biggest business and most profitable in El Salvador," says a former officer who requests anonymity.
In El Salvador, as the Army's ranks swelled, so did its social security fund, which has reportedly grown to well over $100 million. In a small nation, that gives the Army considerable financial muscle - which it flexes by investing in real estate, new businesses (including a funeral parlor), and influencing political decisions which may affect its business interests. In Guatemala, the Army owns one of the five national television stations.
For these and other reasons, a key demand of the leftist insurgents in the current Guatemala and El Salvador peace talks is to reduce the influence of the military in their respective countries. They also want to strengthen institutions - judicial, electoral, law enforcement, mass media - in order to encourage greater political participation.
In essence, the aim is to develop enough trust in the institutions so that rather than turning to a gun, people turn to a judge or a legislator for justice.
In January, Guatemala's second elected civilian government in a row took office. "The process of change is deep and irreversible.
The military understands the winds of change in the world," says Fernando Andrade, a former foreign minister and adviser to the Guatemala peace talks. …