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The Guerillas' "Final" Offensive, January 1981
July 23, 2007

As I noted last week, the bloody repression of 1980 built to a decisive climax, with the murders not just of four American Catholic churchwomen, but two American labor representatives with impeccable anticommunist credentials. As Ambassador White remarked of the Salvadoran military and the oligarchy it served: "They'll kill anybody."

The election of Ronald Reagan in November 1980 convinced the leftists opponents of the Salvadoran regime that not only could they expect an increasingly murderous opposition from the Salvadoran right, but mounting hostility from Washington as well—regardless of how they acted. The various guerilla factions gave up their internal divisions (with the intercession of Fidel Castro) and formed a unified military front: the Frente Faribundo Martí de Liberación Nacional (FMLN), and reached out to Cuba, the Soviet Union and Nicaragua for weapons. The Soviets had for some time advocated a nonviolent election-oriented resistance strategy for the region (this was long the position of the Salvadoran Communist Party, but not some of its guerilla rivals), and thus were unresponsive. The Sandinistas in Nicaragua had previously tried to minimize their involvement in supplying arms to the Salvadoran rebels for fear of jeopardizing aid from the Carter administration. With Reagan's election, this luxury no longer seemed sustainable, so with Cuban assistance—Castro too saw the election of Reagan as a clear indication that U.S. military policy in the region would become far more aggressive—the Nicaraguans began secretly flying arms into El Salvadoran.

This was all in preparation for a "final offensive" by which the guerillas hoped to bring down the Salvadoran government and present the Reagan administration with a fait accompli.

The offensive didn't go as planned, however. First, the military command did not split. Though a handful of progressive officers did defect to the guerillas, most remained loyal to the institution of the armed forces. Second, one of the ugliest truths of the Salvadoran right's murderous counterinsurgency campaign was this: It worked. By decimating the mass organizations that helped build the civilian opposition to the government, the death squads succeeded in preventing a mass uprising of the sort that helped topple the Somoza regime in Nicaragua. A mass strike in San Salvador failed to paralyze the city, leaving the military the ability to strike against the guerilla forces attacking outlying military posts. Though the scale of the offensive severely strained the Salvadoran military, it came nowhere near to toppling the regime.

Meanwhile, American intelligence was able to provide hard evidence that Nicaraguan airfields had been used to transfer arms to the FMLN, which forced Carter's hand. Mere days before he left office, he used emergency executive powers to remove barriers to lethal military aid to the Salvadoran military, and stopped economic aid to the Sandinistas, something he was obliged to do by law given restrictions placed on that aid by conservative and centrist lawmakers (see my Weekly commentary for 5-14-07). In the coming years, the Reagan administration, when facing staunch opposition from Democratic lawmakers over its Central American policy, would remind its opponents that it was Carter who broke off economic aid to Nicaragua, and resumed lethal military aid to El Salvador. The Reagan regime would also, in an ongoing effort to evade Congressional oversight and restrictions, lustily embrace the same emergency executive powers Carter had used.

What would follow would be the greatest sea change in American foreign policy ever seen in the course of a presidential transition—at least up to that point. (Republicans would insist on a similar one-eighty when the second Bush administration took over from the Clinton White House in 2001.)

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