Ballots And Bullets
new internationalist 130 December 1983
Both Ronald Reagan and the American press praised the democratic process at work when elections were held in El Salvador in March, 1982.
‘The suffering people of El Salvador were offered a chance to vote - to choose the government they wanted,’ President Reagan exclaimed. ‘An unprecedented 80 per cent of the electorate braved ambush and gunfire and trudged for miles to vote for freedom’.
Agreeing with his boss, American Secretary of State for Human Rights Elliott Abrams says, ‘There are too many people with guns in El Salvador, but the guns of one side protect voting booths while the guns of the other side shoot at them. Can we really hesitate about which side we must be on?’
The rhetoric is persuasive but the situation in El Salvador is far more complex. In fact, those government troops supposedly protecting the citizens’ right to vote are the same soldiers terrorizing the countryside and murdering civilians the rest of the year.
President Reagan speaks of democracy and totalitarianism, of elections and terrorists. But his language obscures a lot more than it clarifies. First, it ignores the origins of Central America’s crisis in decades of poverty, injustice and repression. And second, it classifies forces in the region into two groups, conveniently mirroring the thrust of US policy.
Elections become the litmus test of democracy. El Salvador passed the test in March 1982; Honduras in November 1981; and Guatemala in March 1982 (followed by two subsequent military coups). In contrast, Nicaragua does not intend to hold elections until 1985. So El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala become ‘nascent democracies’, while Nicaragua is labelled ‘totalitarian’.
This analysis might appear faulty but it poses real questions for those who reject it: under what conditions can elections have substantive meaning in Central America?
In the final analysis any form of democracy must rest on the sovereignty of the people and on a social order where the political process is responsive to the needs of the majority. Democracy should be a mechanism for ensuring the freedom to live, work and eat as well as the freedom to organize, the freedom to read and write - and not least the freedom to vote, The vote without these other freedoms is nonsensical. It is a bizarre kind of democracy that allows people to vote and then sends them home to starve. The process of voting becomes a convenient smokescreen for continued repression.
Fran LaRue, a labour lawyer working for the Justice and Peace Commission of the Guatemala Catholic Church says, ‘We had elections in 1970. ‘74, ‘78 and even in ‘82 before the coup of last year. Each time a new army general was put in power. This is why the Guatemalan people son of smile when the Americans say, "the solution for your country is elections"; they say, "well, we have had a lot of those".’
In El Salvador, the situation has been much the same. When an opposition coalition campaigning on a social reform ticket won the presidential elections of 1972 and 1977, the military connived with the oligarchy to make sure they ‘lost the count’. The Army’s candidate was declared the winner and the ‘victory’ backed up with tanks. It was clear that elections were not to be mechanisms for ending repression or implementing even the most modest land reform. The violence and fraud which slammed shut the gates to social reform in th,ese elections were major causes of the civil war that has raged since 1980.
Fraud is the simplest way elections do not coincide with democracy. But there are other ways. Notably, the March 1982 elections in El Salvador and the November 1981 elections in Honduras. The essence of both was the use of elections as palliatives rather than solutions.
The much-ballyhooed 1982 Salvadoran election was not a test of popular support for different strategies to resolve the country’s crisis. Rather it was to see which party from centre-right to far-right on the political spectrum was going to be in charge of running the war.
In fact the election process itself became an extension of the counter-insurgency war, rather than an expression of popular will. The choice excluded half the political spectrum forced into exile or into the hills where the guerrillas are based. The legally-registered opposition parties, Social Democrats and Christian Democrats, were unable to participate because all their leaders had been named on an army death list. Other parties were unable to register at all, because this required presentation to the authorities of a list of 2,000 supporters - in the circumstances, an instant ‘hit list’.
President Reagan’s excitement at the unprecedented 80 per cent turn out in the 1982 Salvador contest may have faded if he had known that voting is compulsory in the country. In addition, identity cards are stamped on election day and authorities can demand proof of having voted. These ID. cards are essential as a safe-conduct through army check-points. And God help those whose ID. cards weren’t stamped. A list of voters was also compiled at each polling place. And of course this was obviously one list everyone wanted to be on: since not voting was seen as an open admission of guerrilla support.
In the opinion of Lord Chitnis, an observer for the elections on behalf of the British Parliament, the election was ‘so fundamentally flawed as to be invalid.’
The US’s electoral litmus test has the convenience of identifying regional dictatorships as ‘democratic’ and other forces as ‘anti-democratic’. Hence the revolution in Nicaragua and the guerrillas in El Salvador are identified not as responses to domestic injustice, but as the manifestations of Soviet-backed totalitarianism.
Again social realities are obscured. The empty gesture of voting becomes more important than actual social change and popular participation. So the Sandinista’s development programme in Nicaragua can be totally ignored. Yet within the first year of coming to power the government launched a major ‘literacy crusade’, cutting illiteracy from 50 per cent to 12 per cent. For the first time, people can now organise in trade unions and in mass organisations of peasants, youth and women. This too is democracy. The near- monopoly on power the Sandinistas have is based not on repression but on popular support for a development programme aiming to improve the lot of the poor. Most observers agree the Sandinistas would have swept the board in any election and are likely to in the planned 1985 contest.
If elections are really a cause for concern in Washington and other Western countries why does the US not impose a naval blockade around Haiti or cut off all aid and investment in Pinochet’s Chile? The point seems to be that Washington is prone to see any popular government with a programme of social reform in cold-war terms. At the same time meaningless elections in right-wing client states are promoted as positive examples of democracy in action.
Let the final word rest with Henry Kissinger, recently charged by President Reagan with heading a commission to evaluate US policy in Central America. His now-famous statement about Chile made before Congressional hearings in 1973 is instructive. ‘I don’t see why we have to just stand by and watch a country go communist simply through the irresponsibility of its own people,’ Dr. Kissinger commented. Who is Washington calling undemocratic?
This article is from
the December 1983 issue
of New Internationalist.
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