SAN SALVADOR, MARCH 16 -- Two years after his death, rightist leader Roberto d'Aubuisson still casts a long shadow over the presidential and legislative elections scheduled Sunday in El Salvador.
D'Aubuisson's name is regularly invoked to loud applause in the campaign waged by the Republican Nationalist Alliance (Arena), the party he founded in 1981 to defeat the nation's leftist insurgency. Young right-wing candidates try to win support by imitating his speech, hair style and dress. Arena presidential candidate Armando Calderon Sol, a d'Aubuisson protege, misses no opportunity in campaign speeches to quote "the Major," as d'Aubuisson is affectionately known.
Calderon Sol, the 45-year-old former mayor of San Salvador, the capital, is favored to place first in the presidential vote. But polls show he is unlikely to win more than 50 percent of the vote, meaning he will likely face a runoff against Ruben Zamora, the candidate of several leftist parties, including former Marxist guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).
After signing a peace agreement with the government 16 months ago and vowing to seek power through the ballot box rather than the gun, the FMLN is participating for the first time in elections. The former guerrilla group's transformation into a political party is seen by many as the formal close to a long period of civil war, when this small Central American country was a major battleground in the East-West struggle.
But the challenge now for Arena, founded on radical anticommunism, is to hold onto the d'Aubuisson identity -- necessary to rally the faithful -- while expanding the party's appeal in a war-weary nation that perhaps wants nothing more than to forget that past.
A cashiered army intelligence officer who was a hero to many on the right, d'Aubuisson has been linked by U.S. intelligence reports, an independent Truth Commission and former death squad members to the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero as well as the organization of paramilitary groups that killed thousands.
Many outside the party, and some businessmen who hoped to remake it from within, believe the public veneration of d'Aubuisson undercuts Arena's claim that it has left behind radical anticommunism and is now a modern, conservative party.
Alfredo Cristiani, picked by d'Aubuisson as the party standard-bearer, won the presidency in 1989, in elections in which the FMLN did not participate. He cannot seek reelection. D'Aubuisson died in February 1992 of cancer at the age of 48.
With U.S. interest waning -- for the first time in a decade Americans are not backing candidates -- many here fear d'Aubuisson's legacy. The Reagan administration blocked d'Aubuisson's election as provisional president in 1982 and covertly funded his moderate opponent, Jose Napoleon Duarte, in 1984. But the United States actively promoted the idea that, with the election of the moderate Cristiani, Arena had become a new party.
"The question is, what is Arena going to be?" said one businessman close to Arena. "Are we going to be fanatics, shouting against communism, or are we going to be a modern, conservative party? With Calderon, we don't know. He reflects whoever he is with at the time."
Sitting in his office, where a large, framed photograph of d'Aubuisson hung behind his desk, Calderon Sol tried to reconcile the two sides of the party, praising d'Aubuisson but acknowledging the need to broaden the party's appeal.
"We have left behind the language of confrontation, of clashes," said Calderon Sol, a lawyer who joined Arena when it was founded. "We are faithful to our past in the defense of free enterprise, a market economy, private property and individual liberties. But we use a different rhetoric, softer, more profound, easier for other groups to understand. When Arena was born, it commanded 30 percent of the vote ... but we need more to govern. And to get more we have to reach people who did not like our rhetoric, with a position of tolerance."
Calderon Sol defended the use of the Arena anthem, which says "Reds" will end in the "tomb" and includes a chant of "Fatherland yes, communism no." There is even a new rap version of the anthem, played at youth rallies.
"It is a historic part of the party," Calderon Sol said. "Some people criticize us because they say it is too strong. But communism is not dead, communism is latent."
To the surprise of many, the FMLN has not made Arena's past a key theme of the campaign. Bill Zimmerman, an American consultant to Zamora's campaign, said the strategy was deliberate because the party's internal polls showed people did not want to rehash the violence.
But some Salvadorans have. One of the harshest public condemnations of d'Aubuisson's legacy came from Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas, the leader of the nation's Roman Catholics. In a nationally televised homily on March 6, Rivera y Damas urged the nation, which is 85 percent Catholic, to vote "looking to the future."
"How can you vote looking to the future if you turn a blind eye to the assassins of Archbishop Romero and the one that organized the plot against his life and gave the order to assassinate him?" Rivera y Damas said. "... Whether they like it or not, the shadow of this sacrilegious crime pursues those who, after 14 years, continue unrepentantly to idolize the man who wanted to solve El Salvador's problems through blood and fire. We have forgiven. But we cannot remain silent about what the Truth Commission proved to the entire world."
The Truth Commission, created as part of the peace agreements, investigated the nation's worst human rights abuses. It concluded that d'Aubuisson participated in planning and ordering Romero's murder. But Cristiani and Calderon Sol both deny Arena had a paramilitary wing.
"I have never understood why they say Arena was paramilitary," Cristiani said. "Certainly there was the element of security that Arena maintained, and it is no secret the main targets of the FMLN were Arena leaders ... but there was never a paramilitary mentality."
Cristiani, who surprised many by successfully negotiating an end to the 12-year civil war between the FMLN and his U.S.-backed government, said that, without d'Aubuisson's support, the pact might never have been reached.
"Perhaps many people do not want to see it, but I say that the principal element in the party's support to the process was d'Aubuisson's support for it," Cristiani said. "The fact that he was supporting it meant that party members could not come out against it."
But recently declassified U.S. intelligence documents on El Salvador paint a very different picture from the modern Arena described by Cristiani and Calderon Sol. In sharp contrast to U.S. government statements then, the intelligence assessments repeatedly describe a party with a strong military component that carried out terrorist activities. And they portray d'Aubuisson as the real power in El Salvador, even after Cristiani was elected president.
An October 1983 intelligence briefing paper describing death squads said Arena's paramilitary activities "are undertaken with the knowledge and approval of Arena leader Roberto d'Aubuisson." A 1985 CIA study of right-wing terrorism said "ultranationalist standard-bearer Roberto d'Aubuisson and members of his Arena party cooperate with and direct some terrorist groups."