El Salvador Not a Model for Iraq, Say Experts

By Monisha Bansal | July 7, 2008 | 8:31 PM EDT

(CNSNews.com) - Saying the United States should have learned from its experiences in Central America during the 1980s, experts in Washington said the Bush administration should not consider El Salvador the model for dealing with the insurgency in Iraq.

During the 2004 vice presidential debate, Vice President Dick Cheney compared U.S. involvement in the two countries, saying, "Twenty years ago, we had a similar situation in El Salvador," noting that a "guerrilla insurgency controlled roughly a third of the country, 75,000 people dead, and we held free elections."

Cheney went on to observe that "the determination of these people to vote was unbelievable," and "Today, El Salvador is a whale of a lot better because we held free elections. The power of that concept is enormous. And it will apply in Afghanistan, and it will apply as well in Iraq."

Though conflicts in El Salvador were the last time the United States had to combat a highly nationalistic insurgency, the panel assembled at the New America Foundation Monday stressed that the two places are very different, and the same counter-insurgency methods should not be employed.

"The lessons taken from Central America were incorrect," said George Vickers, regional director for Latin America at the Open Society Institute.

Vickers noted that those involved in policy decisions regarding Iraq are the same individuals who were involved in El Salvador and Nicaragua during the 1980s.

In both countries, United States government officials supported groups they believed would prevent their governments from allying with the Soviet bloc. In El Salvador, that was the Christian Democratic Party led by Jose Napoleon Duarte, which opposed military rule but was not part of the leftist guerrilla FMLN (Farabundo Marti Nationalist Liberation Front).

During the 12-year civil war in El Salvador from 1980 to 1992, the military government as well as the Christian Democratic Party used clandestine death squads to eliminate their opposition.

In 1982, El Salvador held elections, but with reports of the death squads killing up to 1,000 people a month for ties to the FMLN, Bill Barnes, an expert on democracy and security in Central America, said, "An awful lot of this voting is not what we would call free, voluntary, good-faith voting."

Bill LeoGrande, dean of the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, D.C., noted, "Elections did not end the war (in El Salvador). Elections by themselves are not enough."

LeoGrande said that in order for the insurgency to end in Iraq, as it did in El Salvador, there must be a political resolution; one that he does not believe will come soon as Iraq has yet to form a government, even though elections were held four months ago.

Barnes said elections are not a measure of success, especially if the United States promotes a "Salvadoran Option."

Newsweek reported in January 2005 that the U.S. sought to train Iraqis who could then form death squads capable of combating the insurgents. Bush administration officials have adamantly denied that such a program exists.

"To think that you can come into a society like that and that by holding some elections, and that by killing the violent revolutionaries, or the worst people in the country by however you measure that-that you can produce democratic development out of that is something that only people who pay no attention to reality on the ground, and to history, could come up with," Barnes concluded.

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