The Military

El Salvador Table of Contents

The constitutional role of the Salvadoran armed forces is spelled out in Title Six, Chapter Eight of the Constitution. The military is charged with maintaining a representative democratic form of government, enforcing the no-reelection provision for the country's president, guaranteeing freedom of suffrage, and respecting human rights. The armed forces as an institution is defined as "essentially apolitical" and obedient to established civilian authority.

It should be borne in mind that such documents tend to reflect ideals and goals for conduct, not the prevailing state of affairs at the time of their drafting. In the late 1980s, the Salvadoran armed forces was an evolving institution attempting to deal simultaneously with a left-wing insurgency and the institutionalization of a democratic form of government while also seeking to deflect what it perceived as threats to its internal cohesion. One such threat was the potential investigation and possible prosecution of officers on human rights charges, many of them connected with the prosecution of the war against the guerrillas, although such action was rendered less likely by the amnesty approved by the Legislative Assembly in 1987 as well as by the political ascendancy of Arena. Given its history, the heightened importance of its role in dealing with the insurgents, and its interest in preserving its institutional integrity, the Salvadoran military certainly exerted political influence, particularly in areas of policy directly related to national security. Indeed, the armed forces was expected by all political actors in the country to play a role in the country's affairs, and its power and influence were accepted by all those participating in the democratic system.

Since the political influence of the armed forces, usually exerted through the High Command, was exercised largely behind the scenes, it was in many ways difficult to measure. There were indications, however, that the military was attempting to cooperate with civilian democratic leaders. The minister of defense and public security, General Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, accompanied President Jose Napoleon Duarte Fuentes to the October 1984 meeting with representatives of the FMLN-FDR in La Palma. General Vides also appeared before the Legislative Assembly a number of times at the request of that body to testify on military issues. Both the air force, by restricting aerial bombing, and the security forces, by showing restraint in dealing with radical demonstrators in San Salvador, followed directives laid down by the president. Perhaps the best evidence of military restraint under the emerging democratic system was the fact that, as of late 1988, the High Command had made no move to overthrow the existing government by force, despite several reported appeals from Salvadoran political factions to do so.

Another important development with regard to the military's political role concerned its relationship with other actors, particularly the elite and the political parties. By supporting a government headed by a Christian democratic president and assisting in the implementation of agrarian reform measures, the armed forces demonstrated in the 1980s that their previous ties with the elite, particularly the agrarian elite, no longer compelled them to resist almost every form of social and political change. The dissociation by the military from direct institutional support of any political party--in contrast to its virtual control of the PCN during the 1960s and 1970s--also enhanced the armed forces' political independence.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress