Opponents of Reagan’s Central American policy frequently call the Salvadoran elections of 1982 and 1984 a farce. That’s not quite accurate. A farce, says Webster’s, is “something absurd or ridiculous.” These elections were in dead earnest, though their real purpose was very different from the stated one. The correct term is “masquerade”—a disguise or false show; a living or acting under false pretenses.”
The real purpose of the elections can be inferred from a “New York Times” headline that followed the 1984 performance: “Congressional Aid Approval Seen More Likely Alter Salvador Election.” Sure enough, on all three television networks House Majority Leader James Wright beamed admiration for the Salvadoran electorate and vowed to help preserve their cherished but endangered democracy. Congress has responded on cue, notwithstanding sporadic throat-clearing over particularly egregious American violations of international law. As usual in recent decades, the executive branch’s lack of credibility is remedied by the legislative branch’s excess of credulity.
We have seen this show before. In the Dominican Republic in 1966 and Vietnam in 1967, the United States, having subverted democratic processes, thwarted popular regimes or movements, organized a brutally repressive army and police force, and sponsored bogus “reforms” then staged “free” elections to mobilize domestic American support for continued intervention. Edward Herman and Frank Brodhead, in their important new study, draw the parallel with El Salvador and offer an ingenious and disturbing thesis: “demonstration elections” are the domestic component of counterinsurgency. The indigenous population is pacified with real bullets, and the imperial population is pacified with fake ballots. Napalm for the rebels and PR for the folks back home.
Herman and Brodhead approvingly cite at noted democratic theorist, George Shultz: “The important thing is that if there is to be an electoral process, it be observed not only at the moment people vote, but in all the preliminary aspects that make an election really mean something.” (The Secretary was talking about Nicaragua.) They go on to list six commonsense criteria for determining whether an electoral process “really means something”: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom for popular and private organizations, freedom for political parties, absence of terrorism (especially state-sponsored terrorism), and absence of widespread fear and intimidation among the general population. They then show exhaustively that not one of these conditions came anywhere near being fulfilled during the recent Salvadoran elections.
That’s the easy part. Still more original and valuable is their dissection of the demonstration election as a public relations strategy. They explain the significance of the ballyhooed “large voter turnout” (not only was the Salvadoran vote count inflated, but voting was legally compulsory and people risked violence from the security forces if they could not prove they had voted) and of the frequently cited long lines of voters (the number of voting stations was absurdly low: in San Salvador, there was one station per 38,000 eligible voters, with comparable ratios elsewhere). They point out that the balloting was not in fact secret: voting boxes were transparent, the right- wing parties often had members posted nearby, and ballots were individually numbered and therefore identifiable. They show how little the testimony of international observers was worth under these conditions. They dispel the myth that the left seriously tried to disrupt the election. And they review the coverage of these events in American media, which by and large cooperated splendidly with the government’s PR campaign, raising none of the obvious questions and refusing to exercise minimal skepticism about official claims. For good measure, they compare coverage of the Salvadoran election with coverage of a Soviet-bloc demonstration election (Poland, 1947): the U.S. media (accurately) condemned the Polish election as a “foregone conclusion,” “rigged,” “a farce,” and “wholly fraudulent,” terms which responsible American editorialists shied away from applying to the even more flagrantly fraudulent Salvadoran election.
“Demonstration Elections” is soberly documented, yet its effect is hallucinatory, surreal. Joan Didion’s “Salvador” is flat by comparison. The authors note, soberly, that the Salvadoran government, unable (or unwilling) to insure the safety of opposition candidates, proposed that the guerrillas participate in the elections through foreign radio and television broadcasts. Herman and Brodhead mention in passing that “the military cost of the Vietnam war would have allowed the United States to buy up and redistribute to peasants all the cultivable land in South Vietnam, leaving a large tax payer saving. The same is already true for El Salvador.” Most strikingly, they calculate the American numerical equivalents of Salvadoran political violence. Imagine a U.S. election preceded by the murder of 1000 Democratic Party officials, 5000 labor leaders, 1200 journalists, and a million ordinary citizens, with 30 million refugees. The mind reels.
Which isn’t to say that American political culture is not also fearfully debased, in its own, more comfortable way. The PR campaign has largely succeeded in pacifying Congress and the media. “Demonstration Elections” appropriately concludes with a “Glossary of Current Orwellian Usage,” which is part of Herman’s next project, a study of contemporary American political language, to be published later and deeper into 1984.