Of Bullets and Ballots: Portrait of El Salvador

updated 03/15/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/15/1982 AT 01:00 AM EST

Little known to Americans a few years ago, the tiny Central American nation of El Salvador has been defined by the Reagan Administration as a fulcrum of U.S. foreign policy. American soldiers are training that nation's troops and dollars are shoring up its economy, while leftist guerrillas attempt to overthrow the government of President José Napoleón Duarte. El Salvador's immediate concern is the outcome of the elections on March 28 for a national assembly that will select a new President—elections which are being boycotted and otherwise sabotaged by the insurgents. To assess the situation on the eve of this critical event, PEOPLE Senior Writer John Saar, a correspondent for LIFE covering Vietnam from 1969 to 1972, visited El Salvador. He interviewed the incumbent President and his principal right-wing opponent (see following pages) and offered this report on a country in turmoil.

The distinctive thwack, thwack of a Huey helicopter drew me to the hotel window. Here it is again, I thought, 10 years later, on the other side of the world. The fuselage doors were drawn back just as they used to be in Vietnam when those battle taxis flew GIs into hot landing zones.

The sights and sounds of El Salvador stir uncomfortable memories for journalists who reported the war in Vietnam: the occasional glimpse of American military advisers (called "trainers" in this war), the reports of "body counts," which turn out on investigation to be grossly inflated, and the talk of land reform.

Yet the contrasts between El Salvador and Vietnam are more striking than the similarities. For one thing, El Salvador is close to home; the flight from Miami takes only two and a half hours. The size of the contested area and the scale of the war are far smaller than in Vietnam, and there has been no invasion from a neighboring country. Interviews with guerrilla leaders here are arranged with ease and relative impunity. Only the U.S. personnel, who stay in rear-base areas away from the fighting, are off limits to reporters.

In some sections of the country, government troops openly tolerate the presence of guerrillas. In others, the army confronts the insurgents in major actions. The guerrillas have established permanent bases and production zones, one within 25 miles of the capital. (The Viet Cong were unable to reach that very significant stage until quite late in the war.) The morale of Duarte's fighting forces, drawn largely from the same underprivileged social class as the guerrillas' rank and file, may not sustain a grinding, protracted war.

But violence has moved away from the capital city, San Salvador, and the war gets little attention in the newspapers. The discos are thriving, nightclubs have reopened, and the city's restaurants are doing big business. To those who recall the lessons of history, the apparent normality is ominous: Revolutionaries have always preferred to win their wars in the countryside and encircle the cities gradually in order to keep their infrastructures intact.

As in Vietnam, the government has attempted land reform, breaking up some of the huge coffee plantations into peasant-owned cooperatives. But the left rejects these efforts as too little, too late, and the displaced oligarchs demand the return of their land Coffee production, the nation's major source of income, has plummeted almost 20 percent, and the rich are fleeing in great numbers to Florida and California, taking their capital with them. War-related causes and the world recession have cut the country's annual income from $1.2 billion to $600 million.

In a country of about five million people, the toll of war has been devastating. There are no exact figures, but some estimate that 20,000 to 30,000 noncombatants have been killed for political reasons during the past two years, the proportional equivalent of 1.2 million in the U.S. Many of these were among the society's most valuable human resources—peasant leaders, doctors, politicians, organizers, social activists and priests.

Whoever wins the election, whichever side wins the war, they will inherit a nation plainly on the brink of economic and cultural collapse.

President Duarte struggles to build a democracy that both left and right oppose

Only on Sundays does José Napoleón Duarte live in the El Salvador of his dreams. Shut away in a home studio, crammed with the paints, jars and brushes of the serious amateur artist, the President crouches over an easel, painting sun-drenched buildings and idyllic landscapes. Here there are no rampaging guerrillas or stiff-necked generals, only the consoling beauty of his country. "I relax from the pressures when I paint," Duarte says, touching up a still-life bowl of lilies. "Instead of thinking of all the problems, I have to think which color to use."

Every working day the horror returns. After kissing his wife, Inés, Duarte leaves for the presidential palace in an armored jeep with motorcycle outriders and three carloads of bodyguards. Gesturing at the inch-thick windows, Duarte, still a self-confessed innocent in matters of security, guilelessly describes the weapons the glass can repel—and the ones it cannot. Two machine guns and two headsets rest on the front seat between Duarte and his driver, an army captain. "If we have to fire from inside the vehicle," he says chattily, "the noise would blow your ears out, so we must wear these."

When he joined the government two years ago, he was by far the country's most popular politician. The son of a Salvadoran tailor and a dressmaker, he was educated in the U.S., working his way through Notre Dame by washing dishes. He returned home in 1960, founded the Christian Democratic Party and campaigned for economic reforms. His three terms as Mayor of San Salvador were a notable success—the capital's street lighting and central market were Duarte projects—and his popularity grew so great that in 1972 Duarte won the presidential election. At that, to protect the oligarchy which had controlled the country since the Spanish Conquest, the army took over; Duarte was kidnapped, threatened with death and beaten so badly he required plastic surgery on his face. "It was like a film," he recalls. "I saw my life going by—my family, my kids, one by one. Later I entered a peaceful condition, ready to die. I knew then that my life had been worthwhile." When the repressive military regime was toppled by young officers in 1979, the U.S. began pressing for Duarte to be added to the new junta. His commitment to reform had made him a national hero, but since he entered the government, his reputation has been tarnished by association with the still-repressive military.

In his sparsely furnished, flag-decked office, Duarte discusses El Salvador's situation with the unfailing optimism of a man made from, and for, hard times. There are many in the country who believe that Duarte is a president in name only, that he is virtually the puppet of the country's generals. "This is a government formed by two groups," as Duarte puts it. "We have to get together to make all the main decisions. It is not a matter of fighting each other for power." Yet the President's inability to control acts of terror by security forces clearly galls him. A member of his own party recently reported to Duarte that his home had been pillaged by National Guardsmen. The man and his wife were tied up and their three teenage daughters raped. Duarte could do nothing.

Duarte claims respect for law and justice is being slowly restored, citing the indictment last month of five National Guardsmen for the 1980 rape-murder of four American missionaries. The National Guard, the all-volunteer branch of the army that polices the countryside with brass-knuckle brutality, is notoriously close-mouthed. "The investigation was slow and difficult," Duarte says, "but the direct pressure to find out who did it came from us."

No matter how successful the election may be for his party, Duarte has no illusion that it will end the fighting. "The left wants to negotiate power, not an end to the war," he says. "They have been presenting alternatives, but it is the same thing all the time. They want unconditional surrender." Duarte believes the U.S. permitted democracy to fail in his country by refusing to intervene in 1972; he now thinks freedom will prevail only if American military and economic aid continue to fuel what he calls "a battle of ideologies" in El Salvador. There is no mistaking the urgency in his voice when he makes his pitch for U.S. dollars and military equipment. "We have spent everything we have," Duarte says. "We need help."

Duarte, 56, has considered quitting. "Sometimes I get so low, so down, and I say to myself I might as well go," he says. But he stays on in the conviction that he serves his country. "There are no other politicians of his stature," says a friendly diplomat. "He stepped into the breach and has kept this government afloat for two years."

Such sentiments sustain him through 14-hour workdays until he can return to the sanctuary of his villa, where he and his wife have raised their six children and where they intend to stay, come what may. Duarte is not sure how his dreams for El Salvador will come to pass, but he seems certain that, against all odds, they will. "Don't ask me what I'm going to do here or there," he says. "One thing I'm sure of—this will be a democracy."

The right wing's candidate, 'Major Bob' D'Aubuisson, says that Duarte is close to the Communists

The caravan of six jeeps filled with armed men clatters into the center of Cada Sucia, a dusty, tumbledown town of 2,000 close to El Salvador's border with Guatemala, and an uncommon stillness settles over the marketplace. Peasants crowd close as a tautly muscled figure in a white T-shirt and blue slacks takes his stand on a flatbed truck. Roberto D'Aubuisson, 39, a former army major, reputed master of a clandestine terror ring and the front-runner of the Salvadoran right wing in the upcoming election, is taking his campaign to the people.

The candidate carries a Browning 9-mm automatic in his waistband. Behind him stands a bodyguard with a German automatic rifle in his hand and a pistol and hand grenade at his waist. The show of arms is no guarantee of safety; on a campaign swing just two weeks ago, D'Aubuisson was slightly wounded by a would-be assassin's bullet. Still, the scene evokes an image of power and capability calculated to enlist his countrymen's abiding admiration for machismo. In a 40-minute harangue, D'Aubuisson speaks with passion and confidence. He vows to turn back the Communist "invasion" of his beloved homeland and repeats the promise of his party, ARENA (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista), that El Salvador will be the burial ground of the "Reds." He smears President Duarte's party as "the right wing of the Communist Party," and, declaring that he alone can bring peace, he leaves the crowd cheering and excited.

His popularity is perplexing in Cada Sucia, a town beset with stinking open sewers, miserable housing, disease, illiteracy, unemployment and slave wages. D'Aubuisson offers no prescription for change. The oligarchs and extremist military leaders who back him actually want land reforms reversed and the old order reinstalled. Yet even here D'Aubuisson is enjoying a surge of popularity. Nationwide polls give him a shot at taking up to 20 seats in the 60-member constituent assembly, and in some reckonings he could emerge as the leader of a right-wing majority coalition. One leftist professor calls D'Aubuisson "a most dangerous man, a perfect fascist, a man with a simple vision and tremendous faith in the cleansing power of fire, bullets and death."

A strong factor in D'Aubuisson's showing is his sexual magnetism. At rallies women rush to kiss the pale cheeks that mark him as having much Spanish blood in his ancestry. "You hear them say, 'This is a man with balls,' " says a center-left politician.

Most of El Salvador is anti-Communist, but D'Aubuisson is rabidly so. Born to a middle-class family, he went through El Salvador's military academy, trained with the U.S. and Taiwanese armies and rose to intelligence chief of the National Guard. D'Aubuisson was dismissed from the military soon after the new junta took power in October 1979. Twice accused of attempting coups d'état against the current government, he has never been brought to trial. Despite American aid to El Salvador, he has little affection for the U.S. On one occasion when the American Embassy in San Salvador was sprayed with machine-gun fire, the U.S. chargé d'affaires claimed the attack "had all the hallmarks of a D'Aubuisson operation." No suspects were ever arrested.

Sipping coffee and chain-smoking Marlboros in his spacious suburban villa, D'Aubuisson responds to criticism by invoking "the Communist threat," which he traces not only to the guerrillas but to Duarte's Christian Democratic Party as well. "No one seemed to want to take the lead in eradicating this influence from the civil-political sections," he says. "I went out to do that." It is widely believed that his methods have included assassination and torture. He was held after the 1980 murder of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero—and, though he was never prosecuted, former U.S. Ambassador Robert White calls D'Aubuisson a "pathological killer" and flatly accuses him of ordering Arnulfo's murder. Asked if he considered the Archbishop a justifiable target, D'Aubuisson shrugs: "It is possible." D'Aubuisson has always denied any connection with the right-wing death squads, which have been blamed for much of the country's political violence, but he unhesitatingly—chillingly—justifies them: "If the military are blocked from doing their jobs for political reasons, they will seek other ways."

Though running for election as a civilian politician, D'Aubuisson projects the image of a frustrated field general. If elected, he promises, he will put down the insurrection within six months, even if that means using napalm on his densely populated country, which is about the size of Massachusetts. Because of death threats, his wife and four children live in another Latin American country and change houses frequently. "I feel like a bird without a nest," says his wife, Yolanda, 36. "I fear for him, for me, for our children..."

Some observers think his election would further polarize the country, ultimately helping the guerrillas. "He stands for the extermination of everybody," says Julio Adolfo Rey Prendes, a leading Christian Democrat. His election "would increase the civil war, increase the bloodshed 10 times more." The view is partisan, but it is one to which D'Aubuisson himself would not greatly object.

From Our Partners