From the 1930s to the 1970s, authoritarian governments in El Salvador employed political repression and limited reform to maintain power, despite the trappings of democracy. During the 1970s, the political situation began to unravel. In the 1972 presidential election, the opponents of military rule united under Jose Napoleon Duarte, leader of the Christian Democratic Party (PDC). Amid widespread fraud, Duarte's broad-based reform movement was defeated. Subsequent protests and an attempted coup were crushed, and Duarte exiled. These events eroded hope of reform through democratic means and persuaded those opposed to the government that armed insurrection was the only way to achieve change. As a consequence, leftist groups capitalizing upon social discontent gained strength.
By 1979, leftist guerrilla warfare had broken out in the cities and the countryside, launching what became a 12-year civil war. A cycle of violence took hold as rightist vigilante death squads in turn killed thousands. The poorly trained Salvadoran Armed Forces (ESAF) also engaged in repression and indiscriminate killings. After the collapse of the Somoza regime in Nicaragua that year, the new Sandinista government provided large amounts of arms and munitions to five Salvadoran guerrilla groups.
The Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua ended in 1979 with a massive uprising led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), which since the early 1960s had conducted a low-scale guerrilla war against the Somoza regime. The FSLN established an authoritarian dictatorship soon after taking power. US-Nicaraguan relations deteriorated rapidly as the regime nationalized many private industries, confiscated private property, supported Central American guerrilla movements, and maintained links to international terrorists. The United States suspended aid to Nicaragua in 1981. The Reagan Administration provided assistance to the Nicaraguan Resistance and in 1985 imposed an embargo on US-Nicaraguan trade.
On March 28, 1982, Salvadorans elected a new constituent assembly. Following that election, authority was peacefully transferred to Alvaro Magana, the provisional president selected by the assembly. The 1983 constitution, drafted by the assembly, strengthened individual rights; established safeguards against excessive provisional detention and unreasonable searches; established a republican, pluralistic form of government; strengthened the legislative branch; and enhanced judicial independence. The newly initiated reforms, though, did not satisfy the guerrilla movements, which had unified under Cuban auspices-while each retained their autonomous status-as the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).
In late January 1984, Secretary of Defense Weinberger authorized an increase in U.S. Navy presence operations off Central America during the period of 1 February through 31 July to demonstrate support for El Salvador during elections, deter Nicaraguan aggression, and build confidence in the U.S. commitment to Central America. On 13 March, America left for operations off the east coast of Central America that coincided with Salvadoran elections on 25 March. Similar operations through the year included battleship, carrier, and amphibious warfare operations.
Duarte won the 1984 presidential election against rightist Roberto D'Aubuisson of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) with 54% of the vote and became the first freely elected president of El Salvador in more than 50 years. In 1989, ARENA's Alfredo Cristiani won the presidential election with 54% of the vote. His inauguration on June 1, 1989, marked the first time that power had passed peacefully from one freely elected civilian leader to another.
Upon his inauguration in June 1989, President Cristiani called for direct dialogue to end the decade of conflict between the government and guerrillas. An unmediated dialogue process involving monthly meetings between the two sides was initiated in September 1989, lasting until the FMLN launched a bloody, nationwide offensive in November that year.
In early 1990, following a request from the Central American presidents, the United Nations became involved in an effort to mediate direct talks between the two sides. On December 31, 1991, the government and the FMLN initialed a peace agreement under the auspices of then Secretary-General Perez de Cuellar. The final agreement, called the Accords of Chapultepec, was signed in Mexico City on January 16, 1992. A nine-month cease-fire took effect February 1, 1992, and was never broken. A ceremony held on December 15, 1992, marked the official end of the conflict, concurrent with the demobilization of the last elements of the FMLN military structure and the FMLN's inception as a political party.
During the 12-year civil war in El Salvador, human rights violations by both left- and right-wing forces were rampant. The accords established a Truth Commission under UN auspices to investigate the most serious cases. The commission reported its findings in 1993. It recommended that those identified as human rights violators be removed from all government and military posts, as well as recommendingjudicial reforms. Thereafter, the Legislative Assembly granted amnesty for political crimes committed during the war. Among those freed as a result were the ESAF officers convicted in the November 1989 Jesuit murders and the FMLN ex-combatants held for the 1991 murders of two U.S. servicemen.
In response to both domestic and international pressure, the Sandinista regime entered into negotiations with the Nicaraguan Resistance and agreed to nationwide elections in February 1990. In these elections, which were proclaimed free and fair by international observers, Nicaraguan voters elected as their president the candidate of the National Opposition Union, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro.
- Central America Ed Brown's Resource Information
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