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El Salvador


Relations with the United States


President José Napoleón Duarte Fuentes confers with President Ronald Reagan, October 1987

As the civil conflict intensified after 1981 and its effects rippled through the economic and political life of the nation, El Salvador turned toward the United States in an effort to stave off a potential guerrilla victory. The administrations of presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan responded to the Salvadorans' appeals, and by the mid-1980s government forces appeared to have the upper hand in the field (see The United States Takes a Hand , ch. 1).

Total United States aid to El Salvador rose from US$264.2 million in fiscal year (FY--see Glossary) 1982 to an estimated US$557.8 million in FY 1987. On average over this period, economic aid exceeded military aid by more than a two-to-one ratio. Economic aid was provided in the form of Economic Support Funds (ESF), food aid under Public Law 480 (P.L. 480), and development aid administered by the United States Agency for International Development (AID). ESF was intended to provide balance of payments support to finance essential non food imports. Assistance with food imports as well as the direct donation of foodstuffs was accomplished through the P.L. 480 program. Development aid covered a broad spectrum of projects in such fields as agriculture, population planning, health, education, and training. For FY 1987, regular non supplemental ESF appropriations totaled US$181.7 million, and combined food and development aid amounted to US$122.7 million. The regular FY 1987 appropriation for military aid was US$116.5 million.

This aid was crucial to the survival of the Salvadoran government and the ability of the armed forces to contain the insurgency. The situation amplified the personal importance of Duarte after his 1984 election to the presidency. Well known and respected in Washington, Duarte was able to foster a consensus within the United States Congress for high levels of aid as a show of support for the incipient democratic process in his country. These large aid allocations, in turn, promoted stability by deterring possible coup attempts by conservative factions of the military and other opponents of PDC rule. At the same time, the lifeline of aid also rendered El Salvador dependent to a large degree on the United States. A certain amount of popular resentment over this dependence was reflected in adverse reaction from some Salvadoran politicians, journalists, and other opinion makers to Duarte's October 1987 gesture of kissing the United States flag while on a visit to Washington. Some analysts also identified an element of anti-United States sentiment in Arena's March 1988 electoral victory.

El Salvador's dependence on United States support sometimes led to policy moves or public pronouncements that were perceived as responses to pressure from Washington. The 1986 economic austerity measures were one example. Another was Duarte's repeated call for the Nicaraguan government to negotiate with its armed opposition--the so-called contras--in spite of the president's public refusal to endorse the United States policy of aid to the contras. El Salvador also was quick to condemn Panamanian strongman General Manuel Antonio Noriega Moreno for his February 1988 ouster of President Eric Arturo Delvalle; most Latin American countries were somewhat circumspect with regard to the Panamanian situation, not wishing to be seen as favoring United States intervention in that country. Some actions by the Salvadoran government were clearly and unequivocally influenced by direct United States pressure, such as Duarte's April 1987 decision to deny political amnesty to the convicted killers of six United States citizens and others in a June 1985 terrorist attack in San Salvador. By taking this action, Duarte averted the loss of US$18.5 million in economic aid.

Although the United States exerted significant influence over government policy in El Salvador, it did not enjoy the absolute control ascribed to it by leftist propaganda. In some areas, Washington's policy goals were frustrated by the intransigence of certain political actors. The obstruction of full implementation of agrarian reform by conservative legislators was one example; another was resistance among the officer corps to the introduction of counterinsurgency tactics. Perhaps the most vexing issue for United States policymakers was human rights. Despite an impressive statistical decline in the mid-1980s, political killings continued. These acts, perpetrated by both right-wing and left-wing groups, helped to feed the climate of violence that inhibited the institutionalization of the democratic process.

United States influence in El Salvador was also diminished temporarily by the 1986-87 revelations surrounding the so-called Iran-Contra Affair. The Reagan administration's preoccupation with these revelations, its loss of international prestige in connection with them, and the embarrassing disclosure of covert Salvadoran military involvement in the contra supply network all combined to lessen United States involvement in and influence over Salvadoran affairs. Many observers have seen evidence of waning United States influence in Central America in the Duarte administration's decision to sign the Central American Peace Agreement in August 1987 at Esquipulas, Guatemala, despite the last-minute announcement of an alternative peace plan by Reagan and United States speaker of the House of Representatives, James Wright.

Another point of contention between the two governments was United States immigration reform. By most estimates, there were some 500,000 Salvadorans residing illegally in the United States in the late 1980s. Modifications of the United States immigration law enacted in 1987 technically mandated the expulsion of illegals who had entered the country after 1982. Since the bulk of Salvadoran illegal immigration took place after that date, the new law threatened the majority of this population with repatriation. This prospect was worrisome to the Duarte government for two major reasons: such a large influx was certain to place added strain on employment and public services, already areas of serious concern for the government; and the return of Salvadorans resident in the United States meant the loss of dollar-denominated remittances regularly transmitted to family members who had remained behind in El Salvador. Estimates of the total amount of remittance income--a valuable source of foreign exchange for the economy--ranged as high as US$1.4 billion a year. Duarte's pleas for a Salvadoran exemption from the immigration reform were denied by the White House. Action to deport Salvadoran illegals, however, was held up pending consideration in the United States Congress of bills granting exemptions to Salvadoran and Nicaraguan immigrants.

Relations between the United States and El Salvador appeared to be entering a period of transition after the March 1988 elections. Under both the Carter and the Reagan administrations, United States policy had supported the centrist PDC as the surest path to the development of a functional democratic system. The decline of the PDC and the ascendancy of Arena called for some adjustment in that policy. Despite some marked anti-United States sentiment among the areneros, there were no early indications of potential friction between the United States and an Arena government. The nomination of Cristiani as the party's 1989 presidential candidate instead of the more controversial D'Aubuisson was seen by some observers as a conciliatory gesture toward Washington.

Data as of November 1988

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