Alfredo Cristiani (born 1947) tried to moderate the right-wing extremist image of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) and led the party to victory when he was elected president of El Salvador in 1989.
moving on to more expensive chases, like motorcycling and aviation. Employed mainly in family businesses before becoming active in politics in the 1980s, Cristiani was known in his country as a spokesman for commercial interests. Passionate about the free market, he believed that economic development and social welfare were best left to the private sector.
The greatest political challenge faced by the Salvadoran elites of the Christian generation was the bloody civil war that began in the 1970s. The Marxist insurgents, representing five different movements that united in 1980 under the banner of the Frente Farabundo Martí de Liberación Nacional (FMLN), undertook a determined guerrilla struggle against a succession of militarily dominated regimes. On 15 October 1979, progressive military officers, believing that El Salvador’s centuries-old legacy of abuse and injustice was at the root of the war, overthrew the despotic government of General Carlos Humberto Romero (1977-1979) and installed a reformist junta that included left-wing civilians. The new government, which was dominated by the Christian Democrats, launched a program of agrarian reform and nationalized the banking and export industries, actions that threatened the interests of the rich class to which Christians belonged.
These reforms enjoyed the approval of the United States and led to a substantial increase in military and economic assistance, but had little effect on the conflict. The FMLN and its left-wing allies rejected the measures as superficial and condemned the regime for failing to contain the human rights violations by the armed forces and the so-called
“Death squads.” In the meantime, right-wing elements have denounced the reforms as communist inspired and called for a more ruthless continuation of the war against the guerrillas.
In 1984, Alfredo Cristiani joined the right-wing ARENA as organizer. He soon became leader of the party after the defeat in the presidential elections that year of its founder, Roberto d’Aubuisson, a charismatic former secret service agent who was believed to be involved in “death squads” activities. Christians owed his rapid rise within the party to the fact that d’Aubuisson’s violent reputation was a public relations responsibility, especially in the United States, on which the continued financial support of El Salvador depended. As leader of ARENA, Cristiani sought to moderate the party’s extremist image and broaden its appeal to the middle class and poor voters. It represented a dramatic contrast with d’Aubuisson’s background, style and rhetoric, although d’Aubuisson’s influence within the movement remained strong.
The task of CHRISTIANS to expand ARENA’s support base was facilitated by the failures of the ruling party, the Christian Democracy. José Napoleón Duarte, who had defeated d’Aubuisson in 1984 with the secret assistance of the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States, was a popular politician, but as president he proved incapable of achieving peace, restoring the economy, or curbing the abuses of the armed forces. Corruption in his administration produced much resentment, and his ability to lead, always in doubt, was greatly reduced when he was found terminally ill with cancer. Under the leadership of Christians, ARENA effectively appealed to the frustrations of the voters and in 1988 obtained control of the Legislative Assembly and many municipalities. The following year Alfredo Cristiani, running as a candidate for ARENA, was easily elected president, winning 54% of the votes at 36% for the Christian Democrat Fidel Chávez Mena in what was generally recognized as a relatively free and fair election under the circumstances.
During the campaign, although almost always accompanied by d’Aubuisson, Cristiani had moved away from the positions previously occupied in ARENA promising not to dismantle the popular land reform promoted by the Christian Democrats and expressing his willingness to negotiate with the representatives of the FMLN. As president, he tried to keep these commitments and, unusual even for a Salvadoran conservative, he stressed the importance of addressing the problems of malnutrition and illiteracy, which he acknowledged to be among the causes of the prolonged Salvadoran civil conflict. Christians, however, rejected the statist solutions favoured by the Christian Democrats in favour of the free market and privatization. Admirer of General Augusto Pinochet’s economic policies in Chile and the development models followed by Taiwan and South Korea, Christians hoped to bring prosperity to El Salvador by lowering tariffs and creating incentives for foreign investment.
Christians’ chances of success depend largely on their ability to end the war, build a new political consensus and maintain US confidence. However, these would not be easy tasks. Following unproductive first negotiations, the rebels launched a major offensive against El Salvador in November 1989. Although Christians
showed personal courage in the crisis and the armed forces successfully repelled the attack, human rights remained absent in El Salvador. The government’s response was brutal, especially in the slums, and six prominent critics of the regime, all Jesuit priests, were assassinated execution-style.
A border dispute between El Salvador and Honduras was resolved peacefully by Christians in 1992. Market reforms by the Christian government began to bear economic fruit, with a five percent increase in gross domestic product in 1993. The financial system in El Salvador has largely been transferred from the government to private control. Import tariffs have been reduced, price controls have ceased and monetary policy has been kept tight. Its mandate expired in 1994. Although it is no longer in the political spotlight, it continues to have a certain importance in current events in El Salvador. He managed to survive an apparent attempt on his life when a revolutionary group known as the “Popular Revolutionary Voice” put a bomb outside the new activity of Cristiani, Compana Seguros e Inversiones S.A., a brokerage firm, in 1996.
Other readings on Alfredo Cristiani
An important biography of Alfredo Cristiani has not yet appeared in English. Sketches of his life and career have appeared in various magazines and newspapers. Particularly informative are Michael Massing, “Sad New El Salvador”, New York Review of Books (May 18, 1989) and José Z. García, “Tragedy in El Salvador”, Current History (January 1990). The best introduction to the Salvadoran crisis remains Tommie Sue Montgomery, Revolution in El Salvador: Origins and Evolution (2nd ed., 1984).