The El Salvadoran Civil War
Was the United States justified in providing aid to the El Salvadoran military between 1980 and 1991?
El Salvador is a small, Central American country bordered by Honduras, Guatemala and the Pacific Ocean. In recent years, it has been plagued by violence and poverty due to over-population and class struggles. The conflict between the rich and the poor of the country has existed for more than a century.
In the late 1880s, coffee became a major cash crop for El Salvador. It brought in 95% of the country's income. Unfortunately, this wealth was confined within only 2% of the population. Tensions between the classes grew , and in 1932 Augustin Farabundo Marti formed the Central American Socialist Party and led peasants and indigenous people against the government. In response, the government supported military death squads which killed anyone who even looked Indian or may have been supporting the uprising. The killing became known as La Matanza (the Massacre) and left more than 30,000 people dead. Marti was eventually arrested and put to death.
The struggle continued through the 1970s. Both sides continued to fight back and forth in an endless string of assignations and coups. As the presence of guerillas existed, the military reinstated the death squads in order to combat the rebel forces. In 1979, yet another military junta overthrew the government. When the Junta made promises to improve living standards in the country but failed to do so, discontent with the government provoked the five main guerrilla groups country to unite in the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).
In 1980, El Salvador's civil war officially began. The government-supported military targeted anyone they suspected of supporting social and economic reform. Often the victims were unionists, clergy, independent farmers and university officials. Over the ensuing twelve years, thousands of victims perished. Some of the most notable were Archbishop Oscar Romero (shot to death 1980), four US church workers (raped and murdered 1980) and six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter (shot to death at home 1989). The military death squads wiped-out entire villages believed to be assisting the guerrilla efforts. In 1981, the military killed over 1,000 people in the village of El Mozote . The first reports of the attacks were denied by both El Salvador and the United States, but after the mass graves were uncovered, it was hard to deny what had taken place.
As the military defended their stand of killing any alleged rebels, the FMLN also worked to blow-up bridges, cut power lines, destroy coffee plantations and anything else to damage the economy that supported the government. The FMLN also murdered and kidnapped government officials. As time passed, guerrilla efforts became more advanced. The FMLN progressed from using machetes and small pistols to using grenade launchers and other imported arms. Their advances became more strategic and better planned.
The war persisted despite efforts from both sides to bring an end to the fighting. The FMLN refused to participate in presidential elections, feeling that any election results would be adjusted in favor of right-wing parties. The government refused to attended peace talks organized by the FMLN.
Today many people say that that the Salvadoran civil war never would have lasted so long without the support of the United States. Like many countries engulfed in civil war, El Salvador exhausted its resources fighting itself. The government was able to continue its efforts with help from the US, which had begun supporting the government with financial and military aid as soon as the war started. Although the US temporarily suspended funds after the rape and murder of the church women in 1980, apparent growing socialist support in Nicaragua encouraged President Reagan to reactivate support for El Salvador. Military and monetary aid supporting the Salvadoran government from the US continued until 1990. During the height of the war, aid averaged 1.5 million dollars a day. The US finally ceased support only in 1990 after the United Nations became involved, and Congressman Moakley confirmed reports of human rights violations. Eventually, the military aid from the US became reconstruction aid. Currently, the US sends about 30-35 million dollars annually to El Salvador.
Throughout the war, critics in the US fought to end US aid to El Salvador's government and argued that America was pouring money into an organization that committed incredible violations against human rights. Some say that the US choose to remain ignorant to the violations in order to justify its actions. In addition, many argued that America had no business in Central America as many regional countries, including El Salvador, were ripe for internal unrest.
On the contrast, others supported the government' decision to intervene. They agreed with President Ronald Reagan when he said, “What we see in El Salvador is an attempt to destabilize the entire region and eventually move chaos and anarchy to the American boarder.” Some felt paranoically that it was essential to protect America from any possible communist advance. The FMLN rebels were seen as communist supporters because they accepted some weapons from Cuba and had the verbal support of Cuban leader Fidel Castro. (Evidence is said to be found in certain "White Papers", but has not been confirmed.) Acceptance of any Cuban support was viewed as acceptance of Soviet support. At the time the Soviets were viewed as the greatest threat to the United States.
In the end about 75,000 people died as result of the civil war between 1980 and 1992. Most of these people were simply civilians in the wrong place at the wrong time. Whether the US was right or wrong in supplying aid to the government of El Salvador is an issue still being debated today, as more evidence of war crimes emerges and more former government officials are prosecuted. Did the US really know about the thousands of unarmed civilians being killed? Was Fidel Castro actively supporting the rebels? These are all viable questions to be answered before deciding if the US was right or wrong.
There are many sites that contain information about the civil war in El Salvador, including:
America and Guerilla Warfare. Lexington, 2000. Gives a background of guerilla warfare in general and describes the US experiences with guerilla warfare around the world, including in El Salvador.
Our Own Backyard: The US in Central America. Chapel Hill, 1998. Gives a description of US involvement in El Salvador and Nicaragua.
A Decade of War: El Salvador Confronts the Future. New York, 1991. Describes the history of El Salvador, the civil war and the beginnings of post-war reconstruction.
El Salvador: Central America in the New Cold War. New York, 1991. Good book giving a brief history of El Salvador and then the war quoting many people and documents.
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