Even as more than 60,000 of its people have been killed and one-fifth of its population displaced, the suffering of war-ravaged El Salvador has been eclipsed in public consciousness and popular organizing for the past several years by the U.S.-funded contra war in Nicaragua. But when Ronald Reagan leaves office with his contra war in shambles, the Bush administration will be forced to reconsider the blood-soaked country whose name, ironically, means "The Savior."
Nicaragua was Reagan's personal ideological obsession, but El Salvador has been our government's bipartisan, largely non-controversial, pet "democratic" project. And when contra-weary government officials and peace activists take inventory in Central America, they will find a U.S. policy toward El Salvador that is even more disastrous than the Reagan administration's proxy war in Nicaragua.
Determined to defeat a ragtag, unorganized, leftist insurgency of some 8,000 guerrillas in El Salvador and, thereby, to demonstrate the U.S. resolve to "stop communism," the Reagan administration created what has become the largest U.S. counterinsurgency program since the Vietnam War. The United States has poured more than $3.3 billion into El Salvador since 1980, which translates into more than $1 million a day. This makes El Salvador, a nation the size of Massachusetts, with some five million people, the fifth-largest recipient of U.S. aid in the world.
But eight years, $3 billion, and 60,000 lives later, the United States is no closer to achieving its policy goals in that country, and the situation in El Salvador has gotten only worse. The U.S.-trained, -financed, and -equipped Salvadoran army, which has grown from 12,000 to 57,000 soldiers, cannot defeat the guerrillas of the FMLN (Farabundo Marti Liberation Front). In fact, the rebels appear to be gaining strength, and recent attacks by both sides indicate that the war is escalating.