Demonstration Elections

The concept of “demonstration election” is a useful one for describing the elections staged by the U.S. occupation regimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, with a much longer history of practice in Latin America and the Caribbean. The concept came into usage with the publication in 1984 of Demonstration Elections: U.S.-Staged Elections in the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, and El Salvador, by Professor Edward S. Herman and Frank Brodhead (more book details to follow below, plus chapter 1, and the Glossary of Current Orwellian Usage). The concept has been applied specifically to Afghanistan’s 2004 national elections by Sonali Kolhatkar, who wrote back then:

Despite U.S. propaganda, the Afghan elections were not an opportunity for real democratic choice, they were an act of extortion. Bush took advantage of the Afghan people’s hope for a better future by offering them a cruel choice between two possibilities: a U.S.-controlled Hamid Karzai government with fascist fundamentalist warlords in subordinate positions; or a government completely controlled by the warlords. Of the 15 candidates challenging incumbent President Karzai on October 9, most were either warlords (the second-most likely winner was Northern Alliance commander Yunus Qanooni) or had serious connections to warlords.

Read her article also for details of how the U.S. supported government institutionalized and implemented misogyny, in ways that have continued to the present.

The concept, demonstration election, has also been amplified and elabroated in an article titled “Demonstration Elections and the Subversion of Democracy,” by Kenneth E. Bauzon, who argues that elections in liberal democracies are always demonstration elections, necessitating new terms, such as “show elections” and “illegitimate elections,” in his deconstruction of “democracy” as “neoliberalism’s pet word,” reduced to a public relations strategy, and in the case of Afghanistan it has arguably become a partner of counterinsurgency.

This blog is the first site to produce a digitized, open access copy of sections from the book, Demonstration Elections.


Demonstration Elections

U.S.-Staged Elections in the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, and El Salvador

Edward S. Herman and Frank Brodhead

Boston: South End Press, 1984

(original page numbering reproduced below)

The Rise of the Demonstration Election

Elections have been used by the United States as an instrument of management in Third World client states since the turn of the century. The functions which they have served, however, have changed in accordance with the shifting demands placed upon the managers. The aim in holding such elections has always been to ensure “stability.” * In the first half of this century the threat to stability came almost exclusively from within the client states, which were subject to internal turmoil and thus threatened with a loss of “independence.”* In recent decades, serious challenges have arisen from within the United States itself. It is this shift in functional need that has led to the emergence of elections oriented to influencing the home ( U.S.) population, which we designate “demonstration elections.”*

The occupation of Cuba in 1898 marked the beginning of a wave of U.S. interventions in the Caribbean and Central America, including, in addition to Cuba, invasions and occupations of Panama, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Mexico.(1) These interventions were often terminated only after constitutions were written, party organizations encouraged, and
*     Words designated by an asterisk are defined in the Glossary of Orwellian Usage that follows the text.


electoral machinery established by the imperial authorities to provide for the orderly resolution of conflict in these client states. Elections allowed the local populations to work out their differences through electoral rules and processes rather than by resort to force. With appropriate restrictions on suffrage, and with splintered parties and poor communications, shared local elite rule and the maintenance of order were the hoped-for political outcome of the institutionalization of elections.

This internal political settlement was not an end in itself, however, but a prerequisite to the efficient control and management of a system of dependencies. While the acquisition of Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and Hawaii indicates that the United States shared the concerns that drove Europeans to scramble for colonies in the late nineteenth century, it was readily apparent that the administrative and political costs of a colonial system were high. Far preferable was an “informal empire,”(2) like that enjoyed by Britain in the midnineteenth century before it was challenged by Germany and other imperial rivals. While its colonial competitors forced Britain to formalize much of its world trading empire — to define its territories within the rules of international law and force other nations to recognize its claims — no similar rival emerged in the Western Hemisphere to press the United States toward a similar formalization of its domain. As long as the Monroe Doctrine, asserting a United States monopoly on hemispheric pickings, was recognized by the European powers, Washington policy makers found indirect rule far preferable to the burdens of formal empire.

“Free elections”* played an important part in providing the basis for indirect rule by the United States. They helped defuse the substantial anti-imperialist sentiment within the United States, thus playing an early “demonstration election” role. The United States could use the electoral machinery during an occupation to build up, legitimate, and ratify its own preferred electoral choice. Following the official U.S. departure, it was usually easy to influence election outcomes by a judicious use of money, sugar quotas, advice, credit, military missions, and other direct or sub rosa interventions. The continuing goal was a loosely knit system of dependents, open to U.S. investment, with support given by the colonial elites to the special needs of U.S. business — cheap labor, improved roads and communications, and laws protecting foreign capital and favoring the production of crops for export rather than for subsistence. “Open” means economically open. The regimes of Somoza, Batista, Pinochet, Stroessner, Ubico, and Rios Montt are or were “open.” Cuba is


“closed.” The United States believes in open systems. With such a system in place the economic strength of the United States allows a strong U.S. economic presence and creates a structure of economic dependency, from which political dependency necessarily follows. The entire set of imperial inputs — economic, political, and military -strongly constrains the scope of policy by democratic processes within client states. As Jules Benjamin noted in reference to U.S. arrangements for Cuba from 1898 onward: “In effect, the Cubans were not to have politics; only elections.”(3)

The Rise of the Demonstration Election

In recent decades U.S. concern over and sponsorship of elections in Third World countries has shifted markedly toward their use as propagandistic and public relations (PR) instruments. Most notably, “free elections” have been used to reassure the U.S. home population, defuse domestic opposition, and, in effect, ratify ongoing U.S. interventionary strategies.

The interventionary plans supported by a “free election” strategy have been consistently designed to oppose and defeat popular movements and to preserve and fortify elite structures often inherited from a colonial past. While the goals of U.S. intervention have remained constant, however, the world context in which the intervention strategy must work has greatly changed. The decolonisation of Asia and Africa in the post-World War II years created a powerful body of world opinion which would be aggravated by the cruder methods of gunboat diplomacy. The crumbling of the bloc system -the division of the world into U.S. and Soviet spheres — and the tentative emergence of a neutralist camp, increased the need to present U.S. intervention as something desirable, as a means of promoting “democracy” and “freedom.”* Similarly, the growing domestic importance of black and Third World constituencies in the United States made it politically inexpedient for politicians and governments to openly advocate domination by force of Third World, nonwhite countries. Finally, the costly failure of the U.S. intervention in Vietnam created a still-powerful sentiment against foreign adventures, or at least those that would commit substantial numbers of U.S. troops.

Thus the ability to continue their intervention strategies in the post-World War II period has increasingly required Washington policy makers to persuade foreign and domestic opinion that such intervention is not merely to be tolerated, but is a good thing in itself. Where earlier interventions were carried out under the guise of


spreading Christianity and Civilization, and shouldering the White Man’s Burden, intervention is now justified by the obligation to protect freedom by stopping Communism. Communism is used loosely,(4) and is said to raise its ugly head whenever we are threatened with possible loss of control (e.g., if Juan Bosch returned to the Dominican Republic in 1965, contrary to our preference).(5) In a context of rationalizing imperial intervention, Orwellian usages quickly take over. The village is saved by destroying it; freedom is preserved by keeping nonelected regimes in power; “free elections” become the PR instrument serving to consolidate the rule of an army that has institutionalized SS-type violence.

The “free election” PR strategy operates at three levels.

First, popular and insurgent movements against existing governments are opposed by the United States on the ground of our devotion to “peaceful democratic change” (Secretary of State Shultz). The official rhetoric is that U.S. opposition to popular movements is not based on hostility to the goals of the revolutionaries, but rests entirely on our burning commitment to peaceful, democratic means of social change. It is true that the United States supported violent means in backing the overthrow of democratic regimes in Brazil, Chile, and Guatemala, but this was because “Communism” threatened, at which point anything goes. (We reserve the right to decide when Communism threatens.) We may also give unconditional support to regimes that will not allow peaceful democratic change, so that the approved means of change that we demand of revolutionaries is entirely foreclosed. At this point, we fall back on faith in the “quiet diplomacy”* of George Shultz and Jeane Kirkpatrick and their devotion to the long run welfare of Third World peasants. Or shall we introduce a modicum of honesty? Peasants, know thy place! God rewards toilers, perhaps in the hereafter.

The second level of the PR election strategy is to attack revolutionary regimes for their electoral failings. Castro’s refusal to hold free elections in 1959 and 1960 was considered a very serious matter in Washington, even though this was the very time of escalating U.S. sponsorship of counterinsurgency and the proliferation of client military regimes that held no elections as a matter of course, generally without the slightest negative reaction by the Godfather.(6) In the same pattern, the failure of the Sandinistas to hold elections in Nicaragua in the early 1980s was put forward as a justification for open U.S. arming of external dissidents and mercenaries, and the attempted subversion of that country. According


to Ambassador Kirkpatrick, the U.S. goal in organizing and arming the remnants of Somoza’s National Guard was to pressure Nicaragua into holding elections. The hypocrisy of this gambit is apparent not only in the active and warm support given numerous rightwing “authoritarian”* regimes, but also in the nostalgia the Reagan team has expressed for the Somoza government,(7) which held no meaningful elections over a 40-year span and was undemocratic in the most basic senses of the word. But the Somoza regime, though not open to popular participation, was open to U.S. investment. The absence of “free elections” is pressed only upon insurgent regimes which fail the really substantive test of “openness.” If they were open in the Somoza-Pinochet-Batista sense described earlier, the pressure for free elections would immediately cease. “Free elections” are the Washington moral and PR cover for its real agenda and interventionary strategies.

The third level on which “free elections” serves as an instrument of propaganda is in countries currently or recently occupied or under siege by U.S. forces or proxies. The present book is about this kind of election. Among the most prominent instances were the June 1, 1966 election held in the Dominican Republic, the September 3, 1967 election in Vietnam, and the March 28, 1982 election in El Salvador. Each was characterized by the presence of numerous foreign “observers,” extraordinary press interest, and thus exceptional publicity. These elections were also distinguished by the fact that they were sponsored by the U.S. government to “prove something” to the world, and especially to its home population.

The central theme of this book is that these were “demonstration elections,” which may be defined as elections organized and staged by a foreign power primarily to pacify a restive home population, reassuring it that ongoing interventionary processes are legitimate and appreciated by their foreign objects. The demonstration election emerged in full flower in the second half of the 1960s, paralleling the growing opposition to the Vietnam war and to U.S. interventions elsewhere during the post-“Castro-shock” years. It was (and is) designed to neutralize this opposition by means of a symbolic act.

Demonstration Elections as Patriotic Dramaturgy

In his Symbolic Uses of Politics, Murray Edelman notes that the public responds “to currently conspicuous political symbols . . . gestures and speeches that make up the drama of the state.”(8) Elections are a positive and heartening symbol; communism and terrorism* are threatening. A skilled manipulation of such symbols allows the


public to be reassured and rendered quiescent, especially where its understanding is vague and information sparse. The success of a demonstration election therefore depends on how the mass media treat the government’s attempt to “manage” the public. The second major theme of this book is that the national media of the United States have been highly cooperative, accepting the government’s manipulation of symbols, its agenda of relevant information and questions, and its formulation of the election as a drama between the forces of good and evil.

In the positive demonstration election dramaturgy, the staged election is meritorious, the good guys are those favoring the election and trying to make it work. This makes the “security forces”* of El Salvador good guys. The bad guys are those who criticize and refuse to participate in these elections staged by the United States. This makes those who refuse to participate because they would surely be murdered by the “security forces,” and those who see its objective as clearing the ground for further warfare, bad guys. The drama is structured as follows: will the good guys be able to hold this marvelous illustration of democracy in action and get a good turnout,* or will the baddies successfully boycott or disrupt it? Following the government’s lead, the media accept the election at face value, focusing on the personalities of candidates, the surface mechanics of election day procedure, and other secondary matters and propaganda gambits, the most important being the alleged efforts to disrupt the election by the bad guys. They carefully avoid or downgrade issues such as the prior decimation of a political opposition, death squads as an institutionalized phenomenon, and the exclusion of major political opposition groups from participation.

When the enemy stages a demonstration election, as in the election managed by the Soviet Union in Poland in January 1947, the dramaturgical cast is reversed and the set of relevant facts is turned upside down. The good guys are the dissidents and the opposition party, who are harassed and encumbered by the power staging the election. (It should be noted that in the Polish election of January 1947, the mass opposition party was at least allowed to run; whereas in Vietnam and El Salvador they were completely excluded from the ballot by law and/or very real threats of murder.) The prior and ongoing terror against the dissident parties and the unequal access to the media move front and center. Given the unsatisfactory electoral conditions, the baddies are both those who stage an election in the first place and the candidates supported by the staging authority. In this case the election can be condemned beforehand as a staged fraud,


the electoral idea corrupted. The drama is structured as follows: given the coercion and harassment of the opposition, a Greek tragedy is unfolding as the forces of decency must inevitably lose in the face of superior power. A large turnout in this case is a demonstration of the cynical tactic of using state power to get out the vote. The dichotomy is complete, and it is not based on different levels of fraud and terror.(9) It is a compelling testimonial to the propagandistic service rendered by the mass media in making our demonstration elections credible.

Demonstration Election Staging Props: The “Observers”

As demonstration elections are pseudoevents designed to manipulate a distant (home) population, they need proper staging. “Observers” are now an institutionalized part of demonstration election props, just as prompters and scene designers are part of a theatrical production. The functions of the observers are to attract media attention and to assure the home population that the election was both “fair” and a valid reflection of the will of the population under siege. The attention follows from the fact that the observers are more or less famous people from abroad, and the U.S. government and its military junta try hard to publicize the efforts of the observers.

The observers invariably find demonstration elections good, whether held in Rhodesia under conditions of intense civil warfare, in Vietnam under the rule of generals openly admitting to no popular base whatsoever, or in El Salvador under a state of siege with the murder of unarmed civilians proceeding at the rate of over 100 per week during the immediate pre-election period. The observers’ conclusions result, first, from their composition and bias. They are usually carefully chosen from members of the establishment, and they recognize that their own government is sponsoring the election and supports the military junta directly staging the event. Third country observers are almost always supplied by client states or are invited because they are supporters of the ongoing pacification effort, to which the election is the PR complement. As the point of the election is to show popular support for the junta, and to display its newly discovered dedication to democratic processes, for observers to find the election unfair would be a slap in the face of their host, and unpatriotic to boot.

There has even emerged a body of professional observers, associated mainly with establishment and rightwing propaganda agencies like Freedom House* and the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), who travel from one demonstration election to the next to give their approval. Bayard Rustin and Leonard Sussman of Freedom


House and Howard Penniman of the AEI even traveled to Rhodesia to give their imprimatur to the 1979 demonstration election held there under extreme conditions of civil war violence. The Patriotic Front of rebel groups refused to participate in that election, which strove for “turnout” to prove black acceptance of a new constitution which had been voted upon by the white minority but had not even been submitted to the black majority. The voters were never told that the regime was publicizing the election abroad as proof of black support of the constitution. The substance of the constitution was never addressed by any candidate in the election. Voting was urged on grounds of citizen responsibility and as an important step toward “peace.” Coercion, both subtle and direct, was enormous.(10) The black candidate put forward by the Smith regime, Bishop Muzorewa, got 67% of the sizable vote. In an election held one year later, with an international supervisory presence, and the Patriotic Front now included, Robert Mugabe got 63% of the vote, the Patriotic Front altogether got 87%, and Bishop Muzorewa got 8%. The Freedom House observers found the 1979 election fair, the 1980 election questionable. We feel that the Freedom House reports on the Rhodesian elections of 1979 and 1980 are such model illustrations of observer bias and corruption, by individuals regularly serving as observers in U. S.-sponsored demonstration elections, that we examine them in detail in Appendix 1.

A second reason why observers find elections fair is that they are in no position to evaluate them at all. Some observers come to realize this and end up with qualified negative propositions — that they saw no solid evidence of unfairness but couldn’t really see very much.(11) Even this conclusion serves an apologetic function, because the media always fail to note that the negative proves not fairness but incapacity to observe. The most important limit is that the observers cannot observe at all the larger parameters of fairness: pre-election day freedom of institutional organization and activities, the overall climate of coercion and fear, freedom of speech, media freedom and access, and the right to form parties, put up candidates, and campaign. But even on election day, observers are guided by government forces, with armed guards to “protect” them. They suffer from language barriers, can almost never speak confidentially with even a token number of voters, and observe only a tiny fraction of polling places. What they can reasonably testify to is that nobody was beaten and ballot boxes were not stuffed in their presence. This is entirely compatible with massive coercion and ballot box stuffing. Some professional observers like Richard Scammon claim that while


they can’t observe a large part of the relevant universe, they can see that the “mechanics” of the election are sound. This is fraudulent. Honest mechanics includes honest watching at each polling place, which Scammon can’t assess, and total privacy in casting the vote. It is notable that Scammon and company failed to observe even those elements of the voting mechanics in El Salvador that had a potential for aiding coercion — among others, the use of transparent plastic ballot boxes which allowed the observation of voting by interested officials. Furthermore, Scammon and the other observers also have no way of evaluating the integrity of the final disposition and counting of votes, done by machine but with human assistance. As we describe in Chapter 4, the El Salvador vote was inflated by the election officials after the observers had completed their work.

The efforts of election observers, in fact, have a negative relationship to election validity. Their approval, based on a combination of bias and inability to observe, serves to validate a PR spectacle. The role of the observers is addressed in each of the chapters that follow, but we explore their bias more systematically in Appendices 1 and 2.

Demonstration Elections as Ratification of Minority Rule and State Terrorism

Although elections can be useful means of allowing public participation in the political arena, they often provide form without substance. Especially when countries are under military control, voting numbers and choices may reflect fear, coercion, and manipulated information and symbols. Elections in such cases are put on and managed to ratify power. The U.S. government has resorted to such elections in Third World countries only when it wishes to provide a PR gloss to obscure an ugly reality. A third major theme of this book is that the demonstration election has been antidemocratic in intent and effect, both in the United States and within the client state itself.

As regards the home population, in a demonstration election the government uses the symbolic value of an “election” to mobilize home support for its preferred policies. In the case studies which follow, we will see that each election was intended to mislead the home populace about both the situation in the occupied country and the intentions of the U.S. government. The demonstration election was thus designed to win approval of external policy by deception.

Abroad, the United States has used the election to ratify its support of a rapacious and violent minority that would never have survived elections in an “unpacified” state. In the cases of El Salvador


and South Vietnam, the real election victors were the security forces, who had opposed or subverted all prior elections. In the Dominican Republic, the United States supported a former puppet of Trujillo, after rebuilding the same police-military establishment which had overturned the first freely elected government in Dominican history only three years previously. In Vietnam the generals supported by the United States never tired of explaining that “we are very weak politically and without the strong political support of the population which the NLF have. Thus, now even if we defeat them militarily, they can come into power because of their greater political strength.”(12) The United States had to convince the Saigon generals that even though they were “very weak politically” it was easy to win an election which we stage and manage! The generals were finally convinced, the election was held, and the United States was able to demonstrate that the South Vietnamese wanted what the generals and the United States had in store for them.

The El Salvador election of March 1982 was intended to consolidate the power of the ruling unelected military junta, which had been murdering unarmed civilians at the rate of over 150 per week for the three prior years. The administration likes to focus on the rebels as an “armed minority”* unwilling to submit to the test of the ballot box. This is an Orwellian inversion. The military junta is an armed minority that has so abused an unarmed majority that important elements of the majority have been driven to armed struggle in self-defense. The rebel armed resistance was an effect, not a cause of violence. The cause was the long, consistent, and total refusal of the oligarchy and its military arm to allow democratic elections or reform.(13) The administration thus distorts the causal sequence, while glossing over the fact that its preferred faction is not only a minority, but (in the words of former U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Robert White) “one of the most out-of-control bloodthirsty groups of men in the world.” The administration pretends that this same group that precipitated the insurgency, and which has never shown a proclivity to do anything but kill and steal, is deserving of support as a vehicle of progressive change. This is as plausible as the view that meaningful elections can be held under the auspices of the El Salvador security forces, or that these elections are intended to bring about democracy or reform.

We stress throughout this book that it has been standard procedure for U.S. authorities to occupy a country militarily (Dominican Republic, Vietnam) and/or arm a military junta to the teeth (El Salvador), pursue or encourage an extended pacification


program, and then, after army and police control has been established and an adequate climate of “understanding realities” has been created, to call for “free elections.” This process, which transforms elections into dramatic farce, was carried to an extreme in El Salvador in March 1982.

Six Criteria of Election Integrity and their Application to El Salvador 1982

Another way of looking at the validity of elections is to examine the conditions making for a free election and see how the actual electoral case conforms to these criteria. The U.S. mass media never do this in reference to U.S.-sponsored elections, consistent with their dramatic and propaganda role. It is our view that the distance between the realities of U.S.-sponsored demonstration elections and the requirements for meaningful elections has widened, even since 1966, and that in El Salvador in March 1982 the gap attained truly Orwellian levels. To show this discrepancy more graphically, we list here six widely acknowledged core requirements for a real election, and consider in summary form their application to El Salvador in 1982.(14)

1.     Freedom of speech.
An obvious requirement for a free election is that individuals be able to speak their minds. They should be able to criticize their leaders, their police and army, national economic and foreign policies, and even raise questions about the role of the Godfather. This condition was clearly not met in El Salvador in the years 1980-83, either in law or in the realities of daily life. Basic issues were not debatable, and there were no real choices capable of being verbalized or offered for vote. Neither the case for nonmilitary options, nor serious or radical reform, nor information or views objectionable to the security forces, could be safely expressed in public. Only the representatives of the extreme rightwing parties could move around with relative freedom in the countryside.

By law a state of siege was in effect, in which questioning authority in any way was treated as subversion and could lead to arrest, immediate assault, rape, and murder, all without legal recourse. While this law was officially suspended for the participating political parties in the months immediately preceding the March 1982 election, there was no slackening of official murder. Over 1,500 unarmed civilians were murdered by the security forces in the three months of January-March 1982, and perhaps 30,000 from the time of the coup of 1979. This is impressive testimony to the high risk of speaking out. There is no recorded case of the criminal prosecution of


any member of the security forces or death squads for murder, even in the instances of the rape-murder of four U.S. women or the killing of two U.S. citizens involved in the land reform program. Although the U.S. government put pressure on the Salvadoran authorities because of the publicity given these killings and the negative image which they conveyed about the system of justice in El Salvador, that pressure was not effective. The threat of extreme violence carried out by the state against individuals expressing dissident opinions was far greater in El Salvador in 1982 than in the Soviet Union during that year or in Poland at the time of the January 1947 election.

2.     Freedom of the media.
A free election requires a free press — a variety of media organs under noncentralized control, open to a wide range of opinion, and uncensored either directly or by threats. In El Salvador in 1982 the press, radio, and TV were under government control. Independent papers had been gradually closed down; those still in existence carefully toed a progovernment line either by choice, direct censorship, or fear of retribution. There were only three substantial newspapers in San Salvador in the mid-1970s that were not controlled by the oligarchy. One, the Church paper, was bombed in 1977 and has been repeatedly closed down by attacks and threats ever since. The second, La Cronica, terminated its existence in 1980 when its editor-in-chief and two employees were kidnapped, killed, and mutilated. The third, El Independiente, was closed down in 1981 after the army arrested its personnel and destroyed its physical plant. Its editor fled the country. The only independent radio station, owned by the Church, suffered five bombings after the 1979 coup and was shut down for an extended period in 1981 after its transmitter was destroyed. At least 26 journalists, domestic and foreign, have been murdered. A death list of 35 journalists was circulated by the security forces in the spring of 1982, just prior to the murder of four Dutch journalists. These efforts put the final touches on a media environment incompatible with a free election.

3.     Freedom of organization of intermediate groups.
Perhaps the most important political fact about El Salvador in March 1982 was the prior decimation of popular and private organizations. Political sociologists from Durkheim onward have stressed the importance of independent intermediate organizations and groups as essential to democracy. Such intermediate bodies interest and protect individuals in political activity, allow organized pressure on the state, and restrain state power. The decimation of these groups, leaving the individual isolated, powerless, and manipulable, is one of the main characteristics of totalitarian states, which “search out all


independent forms of organizations in order to transform them or destroy them.”(15) As we describe in detail in Chapters 4 and 5, the undermining of intermediate groups in El Salvador by state-sponsored terrorism occurred on a massive scale. Several thousand leaders were murdered, and numerous organizations were destroyed, driven underground, or brought under government control. For example, from the 1979 coup to the 1982 election more than 100 officials and organizers of the peasant union sponsored by an arm of the AFL-CIO were murdered. A report of July 1982 by a Salvadoran teachers union indicated that 292 teachers had been murdered, 16 disappeared, 52 were arrested, and 1,200 schools had been closed by government repression following the 1979 coup. An earlier Amnesty International report on teacher murders showed that most of those killed had been active as organizers or union officials. The toll of officials and organizers of other trade unions and professional organizations was also very high. The demonstration election of March 1982 followed several years of assault on such mediating groups. The people were then mobilized to vote under conditions of atomization, government control of the media, and a state of siege.

4.     The absence of highly developed and pervasive instruments of state-sponsored terror.
In evolving totalitarian societies there is a steady enlargement of the secret police, the army, and other elements of state-organized terror. In El Salvador, the official instruments of state coercion — the army, the National Guard, the Treasury Police, and the National Police — have increased in size, resources, and training. Equally important, from 1966-67 onward there emerged a large terrorist organization, ORDEN, sponsored by the army and security establishment, and with scores of thousands of members. ORDEN was officially outlawed in 1980, but this act was nominal only. From ORDEN the security forces obtain information about dissidents and organizers of potentially threatening groups like peasant unions; and together the official forces and ORDEN man “death squads” that have murdered thousands. In turn, ORDEN members receive favorable treatment from land reform officials and protection from the death squads. Particularly in isolated rural areas, the mere existence (or rumored existence) of ORDEN members would have a chilling effect on the voicing of dissenting opinions, let alone organizing and campaigning for opponents of the government.

Under U.S. sponsorship, ORDEN is being integrated into a new and more sophisticated counterinsurgency program. In a plan for the “Well-Being for San Vicente,” being put in place with 17 U.S.


advisers, thousands of U.S.-trained Salvadoran troops, and $1 million a month in AID funds, a Boston Globe news report of July 17, 1983 states that the army “plans to train and arm up to 1000 villagebased civil defense forces to stop the guerillas from slipping back into their old positions.” Who are the “civil defense” personnel who will “defend” the populace against the terrorists? The report indicates that many villagers were worried that the army was simply revitalizing ORDEN, and “in one nearby town, Raul Alvarenga, 55, a civil defense leader, said that all the new unit’s members had once been in Orden.” This program closely resembles the Phoenix program in Vietnam, under which thousands of Vietnamese civilians were assassinated to root out a radical “infrastructure.”

5.     Freedom of party organization and ability to field candidates.
For a real free election various interest groups must be able to organize and maintain political parties. This has not been possible in El Salvador. Even Duarte’s Christian Democratic Party (PDC), strongly supported by the United States, has suffered numerous casualties from the army and death squads. An April 1981 report recorded the death by assassination of 40 Christian Democratic mayors and scores of other PDC party functionaries.(16) In a three week period in May 1982, six more PDC mayors and a number of other party activists were killed. The Democratic Revolutionary Front (FDR) was subjected to a wholesale slaughter — combined with torture and mutilation — of its six top leaders in San Salvador on November 27, 1980. In 1982, 12 more FDR leaders were seized and disappeared; only six have been released, and the whereabouts of the others, if still alive, is unknown. In April 1981 the army published in a prominent newspaper a death list of 138 names that covered the leadership “establishment” of the left and center. In short, not only radical but even pro-U.S., only mildly reformist parties cannot escape decimation by political murder in El Salvador. This defines a system of terror of such ferocity and magnitude that if it existed within an enemy state it would immediately be seen as ruling out the possibility of a meaningful election.

6.     Absence of coercion and fear on the part of the general population.
A free election requires a population free of coercion, fear, and threats of violence. In an environment of no legal rights for the individual, and 150 security force murders of civilians per week, fear and coercion were an important part of everyday life in the El Salvador of 1980-83. There is abundant and uncontested evidence that this fear has been produced overwhelmingly by government and


government-sponsored forces.

In El Salvador in March 1982 voting was required by law, and the effective head of state, General José Guillermo Garcia, warned Salvadorans just prior to the election that nonvoting was treasonable. Those failing to vote would be identifiable by the absence of a mark placed on their hand at the voting stations, and by the absence of the appropriate stamp on their identity card. The specific vote itself was also potentially identifiable under the procedures employed in El Salvador in March 1982.(17) The announced aim of the United States and the Salvadoran army and other security forces was to get out the vote, to produce a large turnout. If, being given a day off to meet their legal voting obligation, Salvadorans trek long distances, stand patiently in long lines to vote and to have their identity card marked, what do we infer from this? The plausible inference in this environment of daily murder and endemic fear is that the security forces can “get out the vote.”

Not one of the six basic conditions just described was addressed by the U.S. mass media in depth and with prominence during El Salvador’s election. The administration and media focused on the election-day details, not on the framework that makes elections meaningful. But even conservative theorists stress that the significance of voting “depends upon the degree to which the other parts of the process have operated beforePolish election of 1947, where they provided the basis for the (accurate) conclusion that the election was a fraud. But the Polish election was no more fraudulent than the El Salvador election of 1982. The difference in media treatment can only be explained in terms of the patriotic service of the U.S. mass media in aiding the policies of their own government. voting takes place.”(18) A secret of the success of demonstration elections is that the media disregard the fundamental processes that operate before voting takes place in U.S.-sponsored elections. We will show in Chapter 5 that such processes and the specific conditions enumerated earlier were featured by the media during the

In the chapters that follow we present case studies of the background, organization, and media treatment of three major demonstration elections — those of the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, and El Salvador. We also describe briefly the sequels to these elections. This allows us to see that in each case the results deviated radically from the claims of the sponsors — instead of peace and reconciliation, the elections provided a cover for escalated warfare and/or internal repression. We can also see that the mass media, which had swallowed the government’s forecasts of good things to


come, failed to follow up and analyse the real denouement. In chapter 5 we also examine more systematically the media’s treatment of the El Salvador election of 1982 and the full gamut of mechanisms of selective focus and suppression that make the mass media a vehicle of national propaganda. In the final chapter, we present some thoughts on the future of the demonstration election, and, more specifically, on the electoral and other PR ploys that the Reagan administration is already putting into place as it attempts to gain support for its strategies of intervention.



1.     See Walter LaFeber, Inevitable Revolution: The United States in Central America, Norton, 1983, chapters 1 and 2; see also Charles Wright, American Support of Free Elections Abroad, Public Affairs Press, 1962.

2.     See John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson, “The Imperialism of Free Trade”, Economic History Review, vol. 6, no. 1, 1953, pp. 1-15.

3.     Jules Benjamin, The United States and the Cuban Revolution of 1933: The Role of United States Hegemony in the Cuban Political Economy 1880-1934, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1974, vol. I, p. 50.

4.     See Edward S. Herman, The Real Terror Network, South End Press, 1982, pp. 33-36. A classic discussion of the use of Communism (an international movement) as an instrument to justify attacks on threatening social change (Kommunism) is in Juan José Arévalo, AntiKommunism in Latin American, Lyle Stuart, 1963. Arévalo was a liberal-left President of Guatemala in the late 1940s. John F. Kennedy approved a military coup in Guatemala in 1963 because of the “Kommunist” threat posed by an imminent return of Arévalo to run in a free election. See Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer, Bitter Fruit, Doubleday, 1982, pp. 243-44.

5.     See the next chapter.

6.     An editorial in the Dominican Republic newspaper Listin Diario, dated August 9, 1915, entitled “The Godfather”, called attention to the recent U.S. invasion and occupation of Haiti in July 1915, and expressed concern that “the fire is getting close, and any spark may set off our powder.” The Dominican Republic was subject to a U.S. occupation beginning in May 1916 and lasting until 1924. (Quoted in M. M. Knight, The Americans in Santo Domingo, Vanguard, 1928, p. 68.)

7.     See Jean Kirkpatrick, “Dictatorships and Double Standards”, Commentary, November 1979, p. 35.

8.     University of Illinois Press, 1964, p. 172.

9.     See Table 5-1 and associated text.

10.     See especially, Free and Fair? The 1979 Rhodesian Election, A Report by Observers on Behaff of the British Parliamentary Human Rights Group, May 1979.

11.     See the discussion of the observers in the Dominican Republic in Chapter 2.

12.     One of the leading Saigon generals, speaking to George Kahin, in George Kahin and John Lewis, The United States in Vietnam, rev. ed., Delta, 1969, p. 346.

13.     See below, Chapter 4, under “The Election of 1972.”

14.     These procedures are discussed in greater detail in Chapters 4 and 5.

15.     William Kornhauser, The Politics of Mass Society. The Free Press, 1959, p. 82.

16.     Washington Post, April 9, 1981.

17.     These are discussed in Chapter 4 below.

18.     Austin Ranney and Willmoore Kendall, “Democracy and the American Party System”, quoted in M. Rejai, ed., Democracy: The Contemporary Theories, Atherton Press, 1967, p. 86.


Glossary of Current Orwellian Usage *

Armed Minority. The origin of a civil upheaval which we oppose. Military juntas are invariably armed and a minority, but they are never an Armed Minority.

Authentic Democracy. A client state that is almost democratic, which we are in process of making less so by mobilization for counterrevolutionary warfare.

Authoritarian. Totalitarian but Free (q.v.).

Demonstration Election. A circus held in a client state to assure the population of the home country that their intrusion is well received. The results are guaranteed by an adequate supply of bullets provided in advance. (See Free Election.)

Fair Election. One in which, having stacked the deck conclusively in advance, we do not cheat in counting up our exact winnings. As in, “Within the limitations created by the exclusion from the ballot of certain popular candidates and the abuses that marked the earlier stages of the campaign [South Vietnam, 1967], most observers believe that on the whole the voting was fairly conducted.” ( NYT editorial, Sept. 4, 1967.) Also, one in which our carefully selected observers see no one beaten up as they are escorted in limousines past carefully selected voting booths.

Force. The principal language of the stronger. By a process of transference said to be “the only language they understand.”

Free. Non-Communist.

Free Election. A post-pacification election, in which the “hearts and minds” of the survivors are shown to have been won over by the force of pure reason.

Free World. The group of countries that maintain a door open to private foreign investment.

Freedom. See Free.

Freedom House. A small fabricator of credibilitp; a wholly-owned subsidiary of the White House.

Independence. See Independent.

Independent. Aligned with us. (See Satellite.)

Leverage. That which we seek in aiding amenable tyrants, but which we find unaccountably without effect on their actual behavior.

Loyalist. Siding with the oligarchy, police, and us.
*     These definitions are taken, sometimes in truncated form and without citations, from a book to be published by South End Press in the latter part of 1984: Edward S. Herman, Beyond Hypocrisy: U.S. Political Language from the New Frontier to the Last Roundup.


Military Solution. That which we eschew in favor of Negotiations (q.v.) and a Search for Peace (q.v.).

Negotiations. The process of accepting the surrender of the ill-gotten gains of the enemy. Syn. Victory.

Pacification. Returning a restive population to its traditional state of apathy by killing on the requisite scale; subjugation.

Peaceful Change. Repression punctuated by Free Elections (q.v.); as in “It is true, El Salvador’s path has been a hard one. Peaceful change has not always been easy or quick.” ( Reagan, speech to the Longshoremen, NYT, July 19, 1983).

Quiet Diplomacy. Unconditional support. Syn. Constructive Engagement.

Revolution Without Frontiers. The threat of the mouse to home and tradition, as seen by the cat.

Satellite. Aligned with them. (See Independent.)

Search For Peace. Public relations ploys that will allow us to continue to pursue war.

Security. Control by force or the threat of force; as in “political identification of the people with the Government [Saigon] has not proceeded as fast as the security situation has . . .” ( William Colby, head of the Phoenix Program.) Syn. Insecurity.

Security Forces. Armed agents of the government whose function is to provide the people with security (q.v.).

Stability. A political arrangement free of open warfare and satisfactory to our interests.

Step Toward Democracy. In a friendly client state, any verbal assurance no matter how vague and remote and any formal act no matter how empty of substance.

Terrorism. Killing people retail. (See Pacification.)

Turnout. The statistical proof of the public’s devotion to the military junta and security forces in U.S.-sponsored elections; the index of successful coercion and intimidation in those sponsored by the enemy.

Vietcong. A Vietnamese peasant, especially one that we have killed.


Add to FacebookAdd to NewsvineAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Furl

3 thoughts on “Demonstration Elections

  1. Pingback: Afghanistan Elections 2009 « OPEN ANTHROPOLOGY

  2. Pingback: Twitted by NoFairDoctrine

  3. Pingback: Additional Resources on Afghanistan « THE NEW IMPERIALISM

Comments are closed