Monday, September 27, 2004

El Salvador in the U.S. military imagination (updated)

Did anyone else catch that reference to El Salvador yesterday by Gen. Abizaid, Commander of the U.S. Central Command, who was interviewed about Iraq on Meet the Press yesterday?
MR. RUSSERT: Do you believe there's a possibility, though, that the elections may occur in just parts of the country and not all of it?

GEN. ABIZAID: My belief is that elections will occur in the vast majority of the country. I can't predict 100 percent that all areas will be available for complete, free, fair and peaceful elections. I assume that there will be certain areas of the country that will have to be fought over in order to have the elections take place.

That having been said, if we look at our previous experiences in El Salvador, we know that people who want to vote will vote. We look to our own example that we see taking place right now in Afghanistan. We know that there are certain provinces along the Pakistan-Afghani border that are going to be very, very difficult. We also see that al-Qaeda and Taliban troops and activities are starting to increase in those areas, but we believe that we can deal with those challenges. We believe that we'll set the conditions for successful elections, although they won't be perfect conditions.
First of all, it's notable that the U.S. military -- like the State Department and the United Nations -- continues to allude to the Salvadoran conflict as one of its great success stories. Of course, the allusion to El Salvador in this case is strange. Presumably he's referring to elections in 1982 and 1984, which were the only ones the FMLN rebels tried to disrupt in any significant way, but even then only in a few places. Of course, the U.S. military was not occupying El Salvador at the time either, as they are in Afghanistan and Iraq.

So neither in terms of potential disruption (and, hence, the potential for electoral turnout) or security protection, El Salvador simply doesn't compare to the current situation in Iraq and Afghanistan. So why mention El Salvador at all, if the case doesn't really compare? Perhaps it's because there aren't other "successful" cases that the U.S. military can point to in recent years. It says alot when El Salvador is the best you can come up with.

UPDATE: To see just what election day was like (and I realize we're not there yet in Iraq, but that's what Abizaid alluded to) in El Salvador in 1982, I turned to Raymond Bonner's Weakness and Deceit: U.S. Policy and El Salvador, p. 299:
There were indeed guerrilla attacks on election day--in Apopa, San Antonio Abad, Zacatecoluca, Usulután. But in total there was one major battle and fewer than a dozen fire fights. "Despite the 'ballots over bullets' news frame, over 85 percent of the 260-300 (reports vary) polling places were opened and peaceful, and two to three percent experienced fighting," wrote a professor [sic] of political science at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, Jack Spence, who analyzed all the election coverage in the major newspapers, in the magazines and on the networks.
In the end, a more memorable parallel between Iraq and El Salvador may turn out to be the covert support for particular candidates. This was less the case in 1982 than in 1984, when the CIA funnelled some $2 million to Duarte -- who won the presidency -- against the candidacy of ARENA's Roberto D'Aubuisson. This week's issue of Time magazine reports that about a secret "finding" issued several months that would have helped specific candidates in the upcoming Iraq elections. Apparently, these plans were "scaled back" after pressure from Congress.

The logical corollary: The U.S. intervenes not just on behalf of pro-American candidates in foreign elections, it actively intervenes against groups that are antithetical to U.S. interests. In Iraq, the U.S. feels compelled to level the playing field because some parties are clearly getting financial support from Iran. In El Salvador 20 years ago, the U.S. government felt a similar need to level the playing field: they were worried that D'Aubuisson might actually win against Duarte, given the millions that the country's wealthy elite poured into the 1984 presidential elections.

Hmm. As we know from recent history, yesterday's enemies can easily become today's bedfellows, and vice-versa.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Whenever I hear that old chesnut being tottted out again, I always go back to this quote from Oscar Arias
Sanchez's Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance Speech:

"I know well you share what we say to all members of the international community, and particularly to those in the East and the West, with far greater power and resources than my small nation could never hope to possess, I say to them, with the utmost urgency: let
Central Americans decide the future of Central America. Leave the interpretation and implementation of our peace plan to us. Support the efforts for peace instead of the forces of war in our region. Send our people ploughshares instead of swords, pruning hooks instead of spears. If they, for their own purposes, cannot refrain from amassing the weapons of war, then, in the name of God, at least they should leave us in peace."

Take care,