José Napoleón Duarte (1926-1990), a civilian reformer who was elected president of El Salvador in 1984, enjoyed the support of the United States and had a substantial popular following. But the government was badly divided between reformist and reactionary forces, leading to a continuous struggle for survival.
Duarte was born in San Salvador on November 23, 1926, to a family of comfortable means. He received an excellent education in El Salvador and the United States, graduating in civil engineering from Notre Dame University in 1948. Upon his return to El Salvador, Duarte joined his father-in-law's construction firm and devoted his time to his profession, to part-time university teaching, and to work with service organizations. By his own account he took little interest in politics until 1960.
In 1960 a leftist-supported coup d'état overthrew the government of Col. José María Lemus (1956-1960), raising fears that El Salvador might succumb to radical contagion from Cuba where Fidel Castro had seized power the previous year. Responding to these concerns, Duarte joined other middle-class Salvadorans in founding the Christian Democratic party and was elected its first secretary general. Because of its claim to represent a "third way," one that was neither capitalist nor Communist, Christian Democracy enjoyed a brief vogue in Latin America in the 1960s. The Christian Democratic party of El Salvador grew rapidly during the decade, gaining a following especially in urban areas among professionals, teachers, organized labor, and women. Duarte, the best known and most charismatic Christian Democrat politician, won election three times (1964, 1966, and 1968) as mayor of San Salvador, the nation's capital and largest city. In 1970 he retired from the mayoralty to begin a campaign for the presidency in 1972.
El Salvador had not had a civilian president nor a truly free presidential election since 1931, but many progressive politicians saw 1972 as the year in which that might change. The right was alienated by what it perceived as the leftward drift of military men who controlled the government. The army had permitted greater political activity on the part of civilian opposition parties and had even promoted reforms which made opposition electoral victories more likely. The Christian Democrats joined together with two other parties to their left to form a progressive coalition called the Unión Nacional Opositora (UNO). The UNO nominated Duarte for president and Guillermo Manuel Ungo of the democratic socialist Movimiento Nacional Revolucionario (MNR) for vice-president.
Duarte's chief rival in 1972 was Col. Arturo Armando Molina, the candidate of the army-backed Partido de Conciliación Nacional (PCN), which had dominated the government since 1961. In early returns Duarte appeared to be leading. Later, however, the government ordered a halt to broadcast coverage of the counting. The following morning the authorities announced a victory of Molina. Duarte's subsequent support of an attempted coup d'état by a group of disgruntled officers led to his arrest, torture, and expulsion from the country. He spent the balance of the 1970s in exile in Venezuela.
Following another coup d'état, on October 15, 1979, in which a group of reformist officers overthrew the corrupt and unpopular regime of Col. Carlos Humberto Romero (1977-1979), Duarte returned to El Salvador. When other progressive civilians—some of them, including Guillermo Manuel Ungo, his former political allies—resigned their positions in the new government in frustration over their inability to influence the behavior of the country's repressive armed forces and police, Duarte himself consented in March 1980 to join the ruling civilian-military junta. This action split the Christian Democratic party and led a number of its younger members to join the armed opposition on the left, but Duarte persisted in his own belief, asserted several times after his defeat and exile in 1972, that no successful program of change could come about in El Salvador without the cooperation of moderate elements in the military.
Duarte remained in the junta until its dissolution in December 1980, at which time he became provisional president. Once in power he pushed through a number of important measures, including an agrarian reform and the nationalization of the banking industry. These changes met violent opposition from El Salvador's right, which manifested itself in a number of assassinations, including that of San Salvador Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, widely respected as a champion of social justice for the country's exploited poor, on March 24, 1980. During succeeding months the Duarte government survived several attempts to overthrow it, thanks to the continued support of key elements in the armed forces and of the United States, which considered Duarte's "moderate" reforms the best approach to neutralizing the appeal of the leftist guerrillas and arresting the spread of radical revolution from nearby Nicaragua.
The new president's principal critic on the right was Roberto d'Aubuisson, a charismatic ex-army major whom official sources implicated in the coup attempts against Duarte. In Constituent Assembly elections held March 28, 1982, and boycotted by the left, Duarte's centrist Christian Democrats won a plurality but lost control of the Assembly to a coalition of right-wing parties led by d'Aubuisson's Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA). The rightists ousted Duarte as provisional president and replaced him with conservative businessman Alvaro Magaña (1982-1984). The Constitutent Assembly governed the country while drafting a new constitution. Attempts by rightists within the body to dismantle the reforms initiated by Duarte led to the further polarization of Salvadoran politics.
On May 6, 1984, following a bitter and violent campaign, Duarte defeated d'Aubuisson in a runoff election to become El Salvador's first elected civilian president in 53 years. Once again the left had boycotted the vote, charging that there could be no true democracy without peace and social change. Duarte made good a campaign pledge to open a dialogue with the armed opposition, which had been waging a guerrilla war against the government for more than five years. Little came of the first talks, held at La Palma in October 1984. The ARENA-dominated Assembly's resistance to negotiations with the left as well as to further reforms compromised Duarte's effectiveness as president, although legislative elections held on March 31, 1985, strengthened his hand by giving an unexpected majority to the Christian Democrats.
Although outspokenly pro-Western and anti-Communist, Duarte occasionally criticized the United States for its support of dictatorial regimes in Latin America. For its part, Washington was sometimes reluctant to give Duarte its unqualified support. The Nixon administration failed to intervene on his behalf in 1972, perhaps because he had run that year with Communist endorsement. Following Duarte's provisional presidency (1980-1982), the United States apparently questioned his leadership ability and hoped for a victory by some other candidate in 1984. When the field narrowed to Duarte and the intransigent d'Aubuisson in the runoff, however, the Reagan administration threw its support to Duarte as the only hope for a "centrist" solution. By mid-1985 Duarte enjoyed the support of both the Assembly and the United States. Many knowledgeable observers cautioned, however, that his chances of success in the dangerous Salvadoran political climate would continue to depend upon his ability to retain the confidence of the armed forces and establish a dialogue with rebel leaders.
Throughout Duarte's administration (1984-1989), extremists from both the left and right interrupted his efforts at political, social, and economic reform. During that time, middle class Salvadorans came to associate the Christian Democratic Party with corruption, injustice, and oppression rather than its reform platform, and rebel groups became more organized and increasingly violent. The Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), a coalition of rebel groups, became a highly disruptive guerrilla force that craved recognition and legitimacy. Prior to the free presidential elections scheduled to take place in March 1989, the FMLN tried to pressure the government into allowing its full participation with a number of proposals that included demands for restructuring the military, as well as a six-month postponement of voting. In exchange, they offered to halt guerrilla warfare that had killed an estimated 70,000 Salvadorans in nine years, but would not promise to end their armed struggle after the election.
Various offers were rejected by the armed forces, the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), and the ruling Christian Democrats. Yet even as late as February 26 President Duarte continued to offer options to negotiate a peace, including the postponement of elections for six weeks and the call for a cease fire until his term ended on June 1 if the rebels would do the same. Even though no single proposal satisfied every group's criteria and the election was not postponed, formal talks did begin among the Democratic Convergence (the political arm of the FMLN), the Christian Democrats, and ARENA. The government and military were not represented. Meanwhile, leftist rebels continued to attack military posts and utilities, as well as civilians.
Elections took place as planned on March 19, and Alfredo Cristiani representing the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance became El Salvador's new president with 54 percent of the popular vote. Ultimately, Salvadorans had become disgusted with government corruption, and voted to defeat the Christian Democrat candidate, Fidel Chavez Mena. Duarte had become increasingly frail due to his struggle against cancer. The outgoing president was proud of the peaceful transfer of power, and was quoted as saying his government had "laid the foundation for democracy in this country. I have created here a new concept of politics." He died in San Salvador on February 23, 1990, less than a year after leaving office.
In the United States, both the Reagan and Bush administrations praised Duarte for promoting democracy, while pushing to end the long civil war through a negotiated settlement. The U.S. government supported El Salvador with millions of dollars in economic and military aid, in spite of reported human rights abuse on all sides.
Duarte's early career is the subject of Stephen Webre, José Napoleón Duarte and the Christian Democratic Party in Salvadoran Politics, 1960-1972 (1979). Duarte figures prominently in several general works dealing with the Salvadoran political crisis of the 1980s. Among the most important are Tommie Sue Montgomery Revolution in El Salvador: Origins and Evolution, 2d edition (1984); Enrique A. Baloyra, El Salvador in Transition (1982); and Raymond Bonner, Weakness and Deceit: U.S. Policy and El Salvador (1984). His autobiography, Duarte: My Story, was published in 1986. Additional articles can be found in the New York Times, March 16, 1989 and February 24, 1990; Rolling Stone, March 23, 1989; Business Week, September 12, 1988; Newsweek, June 13, 1988; and National Review, February 3, 1992.