The United States Takes a Hand

The United States Takes a Hand

The Carter administration had lost considerable leverage in El Salvador when the Romero government renounced United States aid in 1977. The United States therefore welcomed the October 1979 coup and backed up its approval with an economic aid package that by 1980 had become the largest among Western Hemisphere recipients. A small amount of military aid also was provided. United States advisers contributed to the third junta's agrarian reform program, particularly Phase III, of the reform, the socalled Land to the Tiller decree of April 28, 1980, granting title to smallholders. Phase II, expropriating holdings between 100 and 500 hectares, was decreed in March 1980, but implementation was postponed. The government cited lack of administrative and financial resources for its inaction; many observers believed that political considerations were equally influential.

United States policy and influence in El Salvador, however, was fitful and inconsistent from 1979 through 1981. It was driven by two conflicting motivations in the complex and shifting political prism of El Salvador. The first motivation was the prevention of a leftist takeover. Both economic and military aid for the junta governments seemed to be intended to promote a centrist alternative to either a Marxist-led revolution or a conservative military regime. The assumption of power by the FSLN in Nicaragua increased the pressure on the United States to prevent a similar result in El Salvador; this pressure grew by 1981 as the Sandinistas consolidated their dominant role in the Nicaraguan government.

The second motivation was human rights. The Carter administration had established the promotion of human rights as a cornerstone of its foreign policy, particularly in Latin America. Like many Salvadorans, United States officials were frustrated by the inability of the junta governments to contain political violence. Nevertheless, Carter's policy was sufficiently flexible to allow increased aid levels despite a generalized upswing in human rights violations in El Salvador, as long as the government there appeared to be making good faith efforts at reform. It was not merely the general level of violence, however, but the specific murders of United States citizens that most affected dealings with El Salvador. As previously mentioned, the December 1980 murder of the four churchwomen produced a complete cutoff of aid pending an investigation of the case. On January 4, 1981, two American land reform advisers from the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD) were gunned down along with a Salvadoran in the Sheraton Hotel in San Salvador. This action alarmed not only the White House but also the United States Congress, and it added fuel to the effort to disburse aid based on improvements in the Salvadoran human rights situation.

The launching of the "final offensive" lent a new urgency to Washington's approach. On January 14, 1981, four days after the offensive began, Carter announced the approval of US$5 million in "nonlethal" military aid; an additional US$5 million was authorized four days later. The low level of the aid and the impediments to its rapid disbursement meant that it had little direct impact on the Salvadoran armed forces' response to the guerrilla offensive; the renewal of military aid, however, established a trend that President Reagan would build on when he assumed office on January 20, 1981.

The Reagan administration initially appeared to stress the need to shore up El Salvador as a barrier against communist expansion in Central America. The United States Department of State issued a special report on February 23, 1981, entitled Communist Interference in El Salvador, which emphasized Nicaraguan, Cuban, and Soviet support for the FMLN. The report was widely criticized in the American media and the United States Congress. Nevertheless, the administration succeeded in increasing substantially the levels of United States military and economic aid to El Salvador, first by executive order, then by legislative appropriation. Although Reagan downplayed the importance of human rights considerations, Congress voted in January 1982 to require certification by the executive every six months of Salvadoran progress in such areas as the curbing of abuses by the armed forces, the implementation of economic and political reforms (particularly agrarian reform), and the demonstration of a commitment to hold free elections with the participation of all political factions (all those that would renounce further military or paramilitary activity). The administration accepted the certification requirement, albeit reluctantly, and proceeded with a policy that emphasized economic maintenance in the face of guerrilla attacks on the country's infrastructure, military buildup to contain the insurgency, and low-key efforts in the human rights area.

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