A REMARKABLE, although perhaps less than surprising generalization that can be made about this first crop of books about El Salvador in reevolution is that none presents a picture even remotely resembly the official view of that country's recent history urged upon us by the Reagan administration.
The five authors, all professional Latin America watchers, see the causes of El Salvador's current paroxysm off political violence and civil war in the country's socio-economic history and idiosyncrasy, and reject or relegate to minor importance the key elements cited in U.S. policy and propaganda, namely the geopolitics of East-West struggle, "communist subversion" manipulated from abroad, allegations of Necaraguan and/or Cuban arms supplies and Marxist ideology.
It must say something -- not least about the growing disenchantment between American academics specializing in Latin America and their State Department counterparts -- that the official rationale for putting U.S. troops in combat areas for the first time since Vietnam and committing nearly a billion dollars in aid monies should evoke so little intellectual resonance.
El Salvador has not been a frequent subject of American writing, even in academia -- a notable exception being Thomas Anderson's 1971 book Matanza (University of Nebraska Press, reprinted 1981), a compelling account of the historical antecedent of the current violence, the uprising in 1932 that ended in wholesale massacre of peasants and Indians by the Salvadoran military.
Each of the books reviewed here suffers from the laacunae in evidence and argument tat are inevitable in works written in a rush to narrate a crisis in its throes.
Robert Armstrong and Janet Shenk in El Salvador: The Face of Revolution provide a briskly readable, unabashedly partisan account. They build their story on the unquestioned premise that the vast majority of Salvadoran people have come to support the collage of grass-roots organizations, center and leftist political parties, and Marxist guerrilla groups opposing the U.S.-backed military forces. Their book comes close to projecting an all-out revolutionary victory, in contrast to the negotiated settlement advocated by the authors of the other books under review.
Armstrong and Shenk work for the North American Congress on Latin America, whose 15-year track record of solid, albeit partisan, research has made it an established fixture in the Latin American studies field. True to that reputation, this book provides a wealth of appendices documenting the economy, political alignments, U.S. aid and foreign investment that help to balance an otherwise one-dimensional treatment.
Where Armstrong and Shenk are passionate, Enrique Baloyra's El Salvador in Transition is detached and painstakingly argued to persuade his intended audience of academics and policy-makers. Much of the research for his book was the result of a study of the Salvadoran political process done under State Department contract during the Carter administration.
He avoids characterizing the events in El Salvador as a revolution, focusing instead on the disputes and factions inside the ruling military and civilian groups who either are promoting or resisting the dismantling of a half-century of "reactionary despotism." The October 1979 coup that overthrew dictator Carlos Humberto Romero and installed a shaky colition of civilians and reform-minded military officers was the latest in several previous attempts -- at least one bolstered by the United States -- to bring democracy and development to El Salvador, he says. In all cases, the attempts shattered on the implacable opposition off the oligarchy -- the family network controlling Salvadoran trade, land and finance, which Baloyra characterize politically as the "disloyal right."
U.S. policy is based on a forced wedding of those rightists, their former military allies and the anticommunist centrist reformers around Christian Democrat Napoleon Duarte -- a coalition Balovra concludes is probably doomed and never should have been attempted. He describes the process, in late 1979 and early 1980, in which the Communists, Social Democrats and parts of the Christian Democratic Party withdrew in protest from the government. The U.S. diplomatic mission, he says, subsequently made "strenuous efforts to bring together two actors as dissimilar as the Christian Democrats and the (rightist) Salvadoran private sector. The irony is that if similar efforts had been made to bring together the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats and the Communists ... the Salvadoran process of transition would have turned out quite differently."
"A democratic outcome to the present process is not possible without the reincorporation of the democratic left," he concludes -- that is, real negotiations of all parties instead of a U.S. policy of minimizing and discrediting the left while trying to defeat it militarily.
Baloyra examines the March 1982 elections and pronounces them fair but counterproductive to their democratic purposes. "In the short run, the disloyal right profited the most from the election," he says. "If precedent prevails," he concludes from his study of the country's political history, "the disloyal right will have its way, and the election of 1982 will have marked the end of another attempt at a democratic transition -- a cruel irony."
Cynthia Arnson's compact El Salvador: A Revolution Confronts the Unites States is most valuable as a dissection of Washington's role in the Salvadoran tragedy. She turns the Reagan administration thesis of Soveit-Cuban manipulation of Central American events on its head, arguing that the U.S. government's ideological preconceptions and overweening influence have prolonged the country's agony.
At the root of U.S. policy, she argues, is "a distortion of the definition of U.S. national security. Since the onset of the Cold War and the policy of containment, U.S. policy-makers have viewed the complex processes of postwar decolonization and development through a single anti-Soviet prism. Movements for reform and wars of national liiberation have been stripped of their historical foundations and their legitimacy. They have been seen only as extensions of Soviet power or as results of direct Soviet intervention."
Arnson, an Institute for Policy Studies visiting fellow who for several yeas has issued periodic "fact sheets" on U.S. activity in Central America, recommends a "Zimbabwe option" to end the Salvadoran conflict. As Britain did in that country, she says, the United States should actively promote a negotiated settlement while neither contending party is in a position to gain an upper hand militarily. Such a resolution could be justified with the same argument former secretary of state Henry Kissinger used with regard to Zimbabwe, namely that "the more the rebels gain by force of arms, the more radical the government that ultimately emerges will be."
The inner workings and thinking of the guerrilla side of the war is best covered by Tomie Sue Montgomery in Revolution in El Salvador: Origins and Evolution. Montgomery spent 11 months in El Salvador in the volatile 1979-1980 period before the country's political debate -- and opposition leaders -- had been forced underground. She also examines the key role of the Catholic Church as a quasi-opposition institution, suggesting a complex intermingling of revolutionary and religious ideas in the leftist organizations, which she traces to a decade of peasant training by church workers in so-called Christian Base Communities.
She tells the stories of the popular heroes of the Salvadoran left -- martyed Salvadoran archbishop Oscar A. Romero and 10 other priests murdered for their work in peasant organizing. Based on her evidence, however, she appears to overstate somewhat the role of the church in claiming that "the church, at the parish level, spawned the mass popular organizations that in less than six years brought El Salvador to the brink of revolution."
Whatever their origin, the four so-called popular organizations on the left, with a combined membership estimated at over 100,000 when repression forced them underground six months before full-scale fighting broke out, are the key to understanding how relatively small guerrilla forces have been able to survive and gain ground in a densely populated country offering no mountain areas rugged enough for sure refuge.
In tracing the often bitter factional fights among the guerrilla grups (including the murder of a guerrilla leader by rivals), Montgomery makes a case for the groups' ideological independence -- say from the small Mocow-oriented Salvadoran Communist Party, which was a reluctant latecomer to the uerrilla struggle. But her research also suggests that the conflicts on the left are likely to reappear as a disruptive element in any leftist participation in the negotiated settlement she advocates for El Salvador.
The four books offer the raw material for understanding a country and its internal struggle. They are milestones, not definitive statements, in the overall debate ovver U.S. policy in Latin America. Their criticism of that policy should, in effect, place the ball in the administration court, with a scholarly challenge to back its case as thoroughly.
The following books on El Salvador, in addition to the above, have benn published recently:
The Word Remains: A Life of Oscar Romero, by James R. Brockman (Orbis, paperback, $12.95). A well-documented biography of El Salvador's prime Catholic leader and critic of government abuses. Archbishop Romero was assassinated while saying mass in 1980.
Tilting at Windmills: Reagan in Central America, Piero Gleijeses (Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies, $3.95). A critical essay on administration policy by a prominent Latn Americanist.
El Salvador: Peaceful Revolution or Armed Struggle, by R. Bruce McColm (Freedom House, paperback, $1.50). An apology for Reagan administration arguments that a lack of American government and military resolve under previous administrations created a window of vulnerabiity in Central America through which Cuba and the Soviet Union have entered to threaten the United States.
Report on Human Rights in El Salvador, compiled by Americas Watch Committee and the American Civil Liberties Union (Vintage, paperback, $3.95). A full study to back up the opposition of human rights organizations to the Reagan administration's certification of human rights improvements in El Salvador.