Alfredo Cristiani (born 1947) sought to moderate the right-wing extremist image of the Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA) and led the party to victory when he was elected president of El Salvador in 1989.
Alfredo Cristiani, nicknamed "Fredy," was a member of one of El Salvador's wealthiest families, whose interests included extensive holdings in coffee, cotton, sugar, and pharmaceuticals. Born in San Salvador on November 22, 1947, he enjoyed a privileged childhood. After attending the American School in the Salvadoran capital, Cristiani studied in the United States and graduated in business administration from Georgetown University. As a youth, he distinguished himself primarily as an athlete, excelling at squash and basketball, and eventually moving on to more expensive pursuits, such as motorcycling and aviation. Employed mostly in family enterprises before he became active in politics in the 1980's, Cristiani was known in his own country as a spokesperson for business interests. A free market enthusiast, he believed that economic development and social welfare were best left to the private sector.
The greatest political challenge facing Salvadoran elites of Cristiani's generation was the bloody civil war which began in the 1970's. Marxist insurgents, representing five different movements which united in 1980 under the banner of the Frente Farabundo Martí de Liberación Nacional (FMLN), waged a determined guerrilla struggle against a succession of military-dominated regimes. On October 15, 1979, progressive military officers, believing that El Salvador's centuries-old legacy of abuse and injustice lay at the root of the war, overthrew the despotic government of General Carlos Humberto Romero (1977-1979) and installed a reformist junta which included leftist civilians. The new government, which came to be dominated by Christian Democrats, initiated a land reform program and nationalized the banking and export industries, actions which threatened the interests of the wealthy class to which Cristiani belonged.
These reforms enjoyed the approval of the United States and resulted in a substantial increase in military and economic assistance, but they had little effect on the conflict. The FMLN and its allies on the left rejected the measures as superficial and condemned the regime for its failure to curb human rights abuses by the armed forces and the so-called "death squads." Meanwhile, rightist elements denounced the reforms as Communist-inspired and called for a more ruthless prosecution of the war against the guerrillas.
In 1984 Alfredo Cristiani joined the right-wing ARENA as an organizer. He soon became leader of the party following the defeat in the presidential election that year of its founder, Roberto d'Aubuisson, a charismatic former intelligence officer widely believed to be involved in "death squad" activity. Cristiani owed his rapid elevation within the party to the fact that d'Aubuisson's violent reputation was a public relations liability—especially in the United States, upon whose continued financial support El Salvador depended. As leader of ARENA, Cristiani sought to moderate the party's extremist image and to expand its appeal to middle-class and poor voters. He represented a dramatic contrast with d'Aubuisson in background, style, and rhetoric, although d'Aubuisson's influence within the movement remained strong.
Cristiani's task of broadening ARENA's support base was made easier by the failures of the party in power, the Christian Democrats. José Napoleón Duarte, who had defeated d'Aubuisson in 1984 with covert assistance from the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, was a popular politician, but as president he proved unable to achieve peace, to restore the economy, or to restrain the abuses of the armed forces. Corruption in his administration produced much resentment, and his own capacity to lead, always in doubt, was greatly reduced when he was found to be terminally ill with cancer. Under Cristiani's leadership, ARENA appealed effectively to voters' frustrations and won control of the Legislative Assembly and of many municipalities in 1988. The following year Alfredo Cristiani, running as ARENA's candidate, was easily elected president, winning 54 percent of the vote to 36 percent for Christian Democrat Fidel Chávez Mena in what was generally acknowledged to be, under the circumstances, a relatively free and fair election.
During the campaign, although almost always accompanied by d'Aubuisson, Cristiani had departed from previously held ARENA positions by promising not to dismantle the popular land reform enacted by the Christian Democrats and by expressing his willingness to negotiate with representatives of the FMLN. As president, he sought to keep these commitments and, also unusual for a Salvadoran conservative, emphasized the importance of addressing the problems of malnutrition and illiteracy, which he acknowledged to be among the causes of El Salvador's protracted civil conflict. Cristiani, however, rejected the statist solutions favored by the Christian Democrats in favor of free markets and privatization. An admirer of the economic policies of General Augusto Pinochet in Chile and of the development models followed by Taiwan and South Korea, Cristiani hoped to bring prosperity to El Salvador by lowering tariffs and creating incentives for foreign investment.
Cristiani's chances for success depended largely upon his ability to end the war, build a new political consensus, and maintain the confidence of the United States. However, these would not be easy tasks. Following unproductive early negotiations, the rebels, in November 1989, launched a major offensive against El Salvador. Although Cristiani 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 poor neighborhoods, and six prominent critics of the regime, all Jesuit priests, were murdered execution-style.
A border dispute between El Salvador and Honduras was peacefully resolved by Cristiani in 1992. Market reforms by the Cristiani government began to bear economic fruit with gross domestic product rising five percent in 1993. To a great degree, El Salvador's financial system was transferred from government to private control. Import tariffs were cut, price controls ended, while monetary policy was kept tight. His term in office expired in 1994. While no longer in the political spotlight, he continues to have signifigance in Salvadoran current events. He managed to survive an apparent attempt on his life, when a revolutionary group known as the "Popular Revolutionary Voice" planted a bomb outside Cristiani's new business, Compana Seguros e Inversiones S.A., a brokerage firm, in 1996.
No major biography of Alfredo Cristiani has yet appeared in English. Sketches of his life and career have appeared in several 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). □