To the Editor:
Elliott Abrams claims too much credit for the Reagan administration in El Salvador [“The Deal in Central America,” May]. Although Reagan deserves plenty of credit—his record on El Salvador is certainly better than that of his major critics—the particular overreach in Mr. Abrams’s article needs to be corrected because it reinforces a widespread misunderstanding of Salvadoran history that is harmful in the current debate.
Mr. Abrams gives the Reagan administration credit for getting the Salvadorans to hold free elections and to move toward a more “open, competitive politics.” But when Reagan came to office, Salvador was already committed to free elections. It was governed by a Revolutionary Junta (JRG) which was a year-old partnership between the new army (which had thrown out the old regime on October 15, 1979) and the Christian Democratic party (PDC). In its original proclamation the new army leadership had committed the country to free elections (as well as to land reform), and it renewed this commitment in the pact it made with the PDC at the beginning of 1980. (See my article, “Can El Salvador Be Saved?,” COMMENTARY, December 1981.)
Rather than reinforcing the democratic commitment of the new army, the Reagan administration took the easier course and accepted the conventional wisdom that only José Napoleón Duarte and the PDC stood for democracy and reform, and that the army was a substantial threat to these values. As I argued at the time, this was a serious mistake tactically as well as factually. (See “The Record in Latin America,” COMMENTARY, December 1982.) The army was at least as committed to free elections as the PDC was.
We are still paying political costs for the Reagan administration’s failure to present the situation in El Salvador correctly in the early 80′s. (Of course, part of the problem was that many in the administration did not understand what had happened in the Salvadoran army. Some even bought the extreme Left’s view that by preventing a Nicaraguan-type outcome the army leaders showed that they were not true reformers.)
It is true that the Reagan administration provided support against the right-wing threat to the government of El Salvador, but that threat did not come from the army. It is not by chance that the right-wing leader Roberto D’Aubuisson has been out of the army for ten years.
Mr. Abrams also gives the Reagan administration credit for essentially eliminating the “notorious death-squad killings.” The issue is too complicated and different from American perceptions to discuss here, so this claim is not as easy to straighten out as the one about free elections—and it has some truth. But the Abrams formulation, in order to give the Reagan administration more credit than it deserves, implicitly accepts part of the false picture of events in El Salvador in the early 80′s that the Left is still using in its attacks on El Salvador.
As the war between the guerrilla forces of the FMLN and the government of El Salvador comes back to our front pages, it is important to remember that the FMLN was created after the old regime in El Salvador had been removed, after the PDC had been brought into the government, after the commitment to free elections, and after the largest land reform in Latin America in fifty years. From the beginning of the war in spring 1980, the Salvadoran army has had much more popular support than the guerrillas, partly because it made the commitment to free elections, on its own, without pressure from the Reagan administration.
While one can sympathize with Mr. Abrams’s reluctance to go out of his way to challenge the conventional wisdom about what happened in El Salvador, since he has other important points to make, it is also important not to let the Left’s view of history go uncorrected. Each lie sold in the debate on Central America is a tool that will be used against us in the next struggle.
The Potomac Organization
Chevy Chase, Maryland
To the Editor:
A reader of the May issue could scarcely avoid being intrigued at noting the authorship of “The Deal in Central America”: none other than the czar of the former administration’s Central American policy, Elliott Abrams. Here, one could not resist thinking, is a writer of truly remarkable credentials: point man in Ronald Reagan’s machinations to obstruct the Contadora and Guatemalan accords, relentless apologist and advocate for every fascoid organization in the hemisphere, inexorable enemy of all popular movements, a man with a sociopolitical philosophy two steps to the Right of Hitler. Surely the article would be in the inspirational tradition of Jeane Kirkpatrick and Jesse Helms.
The reader was to be disappointed. Butter would not melt in Mr. Abrams’s mouth these days. One encountered no explicit celebration of the export of death, no reference to the blackmailing of foreign governments, no mention of the violation of international law or the breaching of U.S. domestic law. These, however, were merely errors of omission, perhaps understandable in psychological terms as the natural repression of a conscience-stricken individual confronted with his culpability for war crimes of tragic magnitude. What is less easy to forgive is the author’s endeavor—five years after 1984—to portray the administration’s pathological crusade to maintain U.S. hegemony in the region as “the establishment of democracy” and “pursuit of human rights.”
Which of the two is a more cynical claim it is hard to say. While it is true enough that the administration apparently came to possess a preference—if only for public-relations purposes—for the application of a civilian façade to cover the prevailing structures of privilege and power (such as the army), the ritual of constrained formalistic elections does not a democracy make to anyone but the Department of State and its supporters (and not even there if the country is Nicaragua). Equally indefensible is the attribution of a concern by the administration for human rights, although here again there lurks a half-truth. Distrustful of generalized repression as counterproductive, it opted for the selected variety as most consistent with the old “hearts-and-minds” approach to population control. Nevertheless, under the stewardship of the good Assistant Secretary, the State Department worked assiduously to manipulate the human-rights issue as a propaganda tool. Celebrating with righteous indignation all transgressions, real, rumored, or imagined, of Nicaragua, it ignored, minimized, or condoned those atrocities committed by the governments of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.
In sum, Mr. Abrams creates a picture so surrealistic that it cannot but bring to mind another affinity with Hitler: he too was an aficionado of the Big Lie.
University of Guanajuato
Elliott Abrams writes:
Throughout the 1980′s Max Singer took the Reagan administration to task for its El Salvador policy, which he kept saying was doomed to failure and could never possibly work. Now, in retrospect, when it is clear that the policy did work to build democracy in El Salvador, promote free elections, and stave off a Communist victory such as the one next door in Nicaragua, Mr. Singer switches tactics. Now, all of a sudden, Mr. Singer is arguing that there never was much of a problem in El Salvador, or even that the Reagan administration itself was a problem.
The heart of Mr. Singer’s argument is that the Salvadoran army was totally committed to democracy by 1979, a commitment it reached “on its own, without pressure from the Reagan administration” and indeed before Reagan had been elected. It is hard to believe Mr. Singer is as naive as his letter makes him appear. His evidence that the army was committed to free elections is that the army leadership so stated in a proclamation. In fact, the army was much divided, and I know of not a single observer who agrees that free and fair elections were a sure thing. The army’s commitment to real elections came rather later—probably in 1984—and came as a result of numerous factors, one of which unquestionably was U.S. pressure.
Every coup in recent years, from Pakistan to Peru, has been followed by the ritual promise of free elections. Sometimes they do follow, and sometimes they don’t. In El Salvador they did, but this was no foregone conclusion in 1979 or the early 1980′s, whatever the new military leaders were saying publicly. The Salvadoran military leaders who understood and supported their country’s demand for democracy deserve great credit, but there is plenty left over for American policy, which on balance proved politically more sophisticated than Mr. Singer’s own analyses.
As for J.W. Barchfield, his letter is a potent reminder that vituperation and vulgar Marxism form the sum and substance of Latin American studies on many campuses these days. If it were a crime to pollute the academic environment, the EPA would no doubt have put him away long ago.