Wednesday, September 29, 2004

More debate on the Iraq/El Salvador parallels

Longtime Salvador watcher, lawyer and political scientist Bill Barnes has this to add to the debate spawned by David Brooks' NYTimes op-ed two days ago.
It makes no sense to try to talk about the intersection of elections and insurgency in the abstract or across widely disparate cases.

As to the 1982 election specifically: here are two relevant footnotes from an article of mine published in Spanish in El Salvador (shorter version published as "Incomplete Democracy in Central America: Polarization and Voter Turnout in Nicaragua and El Salvador," Journal of Interamerican Studies and World Affairs, V. 40, #3 (Fall 1998) Prior to 1988, voting was technically mandatory in El Salvador, and registration somewhat less complicated. At least (or particularly) with regard to the 1982 constituent assembly election, it was considered to be dangerous to fail to vote. There was no registration. Soldiers and police would frequently ask to see the identity documents on which certification of having voted was to be stamped, in a context in which the FDR- FMLN had called for a boycott of the election, and death squads linked to the army and the police were killing on the order of 800 people every month for suspected links to the FDR-FMLN. Defense Minister Garcia advised the public that failure to vote would constitute treason, while electoral authorities advised that abstention equaled "support for subversion." Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador, 2nd ed. (Boulder: Westview, 1995), pp. 156, 159. James Dunkerley, Power in the Isthmus (London: Verso, 1988), p. 405; Gary Bland, "Assessing the Transition to Democracy," in Joseph Tulchin, ed., Is There a Transition to Democracy in El Salvador? (Boulder: Lynne Rienner, 1992), p. 197.

I discount the 1982 constitutional convention elections (officially claimed turnout of 1.55 million) because many believe the results to have been fraudulently inflated, and because of the extreme level of fear and duress during this period, likely to have led to coerced voting. See note 25 above. On fraudulent inflation see "Las elecciones de 1982. Realidades detras de las apariencias," Estudios Centroamericanos (May-June 1982), pp. 403-04. Tommie Sue Montgomery reports that U.S. Ambassador Dean Hinton eventually acknowledged the merit of this analysis. Op cit., p. 160. In October 1983 interviews, high-ranking members of both the PDC and ARENA admitted to North American scholar Terry Karl that they had submitted fraudulently inflated figures of voter turnout in the 1982 election. "Imposing Consent? Electoralism vs. Democratization in El Salvador," in Paul Drake and Eduardo Silva, eds., Elections and Democratization in Latin America, 1980-85 (San Diego: University of California Center for Iberian and Latin American Studies, 1986), p. 19, note 16.

More generally, the 1982 election was not part of anything positive, rather it as part of the 1974-83 retreat from meaningful elections in the major urban areas (and continuing disallowance of meaningful competitive political activity in the countryside) and part of the Right's finishing off the driving out of open politics of the real champions of electoral democracy, the center-left, whose last gasp was the short-lived 1979 Junta. An electoral regime became meaningful and began to play a positive role ("sucking the oxygen out of insurgency") only very gradually and against the grain of the policies of the first Reagan administration. Such evolved out of the combination of (1) the work of elements of the Church, and in particular UCA's Social Projection, Martin-Baro's development of IUDOP, his and Ellacuria's appearances on Canal 12, their insistence that their could be no military victory for either side; (2) the impact on U.S. policy of the partnership between Congressional Democrats and the anti-intervention movement in the U.S. and the leverage that gave to the moderate professionals in the State Dept and AID against the eaganauts (the hardcore Reaganauts had always been more interested in Nicaragua than El Salvador and beginning in 1984 they took Nicaragua policy entirely for themselves while leaving Salvador largely to the moderates at State); (3) the Reagan administration's need to compete with and try to outshine the 1984 Nicaraguan election; (4) the unraveling of Iran-Contra, leading to some defanging of the Reagan Doctrine (the Reagan Doctrine, parallel to current Bush/neocons, stood for the pipedream that military defeat of Third World "Communists" would lead automatically to the emergence and success of "democracy"); (5) Oscar Arias' work; (6) the profound delegitimation of the Salvadoran military by its 1989 murder of the UCA's Jesuit leadership, and the Bush administration's bowing to that delegitimation; (7) the shocking of the right by the strength of the FMLN's 1989 offensive; (8) the gradual revival of the center-left in Salvador at the end of the 80s and the gradual recognition by both ARENA and the FMLN that they should accept a growing role for such, the latter made possible (for both ARENA and the FMLN) by the fall of the Soviet bloc (9) the UN's massive and sustained presence and commitment to peace negotiations and processes, and the courageous service of prominent people in various truth and reconciliation commissions, and the Bush administration's willingness to countenance all that and lend some support, including to the purging and reduction of the Salvadoran military and security apparatus. It is impossible to imagine either the first Reagan administration or the similarly deluded current Bush administration behaving in a parallel manner.

There are no functional equivalents to most of these things at the present moment re Iraq. And of course it took a full ten years (1984 to 1994) in Salvador to get to elections that were beginning to be what passes for free and honest, and elections continued to have low participation for another 10 years. Something that is parallel between the two cases is that in both El Salvador and Iraq, a highly centralized and militarized government had profoundly suppressed civil society, except for religious leaders and groups, who were killed if they became too political, but otherwise allowed to survive and maintain their institutions. But in Salvador the Church/the religious were split only along left/center/right lines, and the most powerful and resourceful institutional presences, UCA and the Archbishop were super-humanly committed to what amounted to center-left, pro-democracy, anti-militaristic positions. In Iraq, religious leaders and groups are much more highly fragmented in much more sectarian ways; neither they nor their cadre having experience with elections or democracy; many are pro-insurgency; and many are only conditionally anti-insurgency (in Salvador the cadre and leaders of Christian Democracy and Liberation Theology had a good deal of experience with elections from the 1960s and 70s). Is there any potential for Sistani to play a role parallel to Ellacuria and Martin-Baro in Salvador?

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