Duarte Fuentes, José Napoleón (1925–1990)

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Duarte Fuentes, José Napoleón (1925–1990)

José Napoleón Duarte Fuentes (November 23, 1925–February 23, 1990) was president of El Salvador from 1984 to 1989. Duarte received a degree in engineering from the University of Notre Dame in 1948 and worked as a civil engineer in El Salvador before entering politics. A founding member of the Partido Demócrata Cristiano (PDC; Christian Democratic Party), he was elected to the party's organizing committee in 1960 and became the party's first general secretary in 1961. The PDC expanded significantly under his stewardship and developed relationships with Christian Democratic parties abroad. Duarte served as mayor of San Salvador from 1964 to 1970, winning three consecutive elections. As mayor, Duarte emphasized community development and infrastructure projects. One of his most successful programs was the community self-help program, Acción Communitaria, which organized neighborhoods throughout the capital. This program not only responded to the needs of the population, but also mobilized popular support for the PDC.

In 1972 Duarte ran for president on the Unión Nacional Opositora (UNO; National Opposition Union) coalition ticket, which included the PDC and two other parties. Duarte's campaign focused on the promotion of social justice and democracy. Although Duarte was leading the vote when the government halted the broadcast of election results, the Partido de Conciliación Nacional (PCN; National Conciliation Party) candidate, Colonel Arturo Armando Molina, was pronounced the winner. Amid protests and Duarte's call for a new election, a surprise session of the legislature ratified Molina as president. Weeks later, fraud in municipal and legislative elections prompted a military rebellion. Duarte was arrested in March 1972 following a radio address in support of the rebellion. Although initially exiled to Guatemala City, Duarte ultimately settled in Caracas, Venezuela, where he remained even after being acquitted of charges in the coup attempt.

Duarte returned from Venezuela following the 15 October 1979 reformist coup by junior military officers. He joined the more conservative second provisional junta in March 1980 as foreign minister and was appointed to the junta's presidency in December after other civilian members resigned in protest of continued military repression. His controversial role as the junta's figurehead resulted in the defection of numerous party officials and supporters. Duarte was critical of those who, in his opinion, abandoned the democratic process to support the Frente Democrático Salvadoreño (FDR; Revolutionary Democratic Front) and the guerrillas of the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN; Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front). He believed that working with the military was vital to ensuring the transition to democracy and implementing redistributive programs, such as agrarian reform, whereas his critics argued that gross human rights abuses made such an alliance unacceptable.

Duarte's presidential campaign in 1984 received considerable support from the United States, which sought to promote elections in El Salvador while fighting the FMLN guerrillas and curbing the military's human rights abuses. Duarte was elected president following a second round of voting, defeating the right-wing Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA; National Republican Alliance) of Roberto D'Aubuisson. Duarte thereby became the first civilian president since 1931. Although voting was marred by violence and irregularities, he viewed the victory as a triumph of the democratic process, whereas skeptics argued that he never truly held power, but that the military was the real power. Duarte's presidency was characterized by continued violence, a deteriorating economy, and widespread corruption within the PDC, including the misappropriation of aid following an October 1986 earthquake. Perhaps his greatest struggle, however, was his unfulfilled campaign promise to end the war. Early talks with the FDR-FMLN in October 1984 at La Palma and in November 1984 at Ayagualo were unsuccessful. He met again with the FDR-FMLN in October 1987, shortly after signing the Esquipulas II agreements with other Central American presidents. Again, the talks were without success. Duarte continued to oppose political reforms demanded by the FDR-FMLN, insisting that the guerrillas disarm and join the democratic process. His position was, in part, fueled by his strong anticommunist sentiments and conviction that sufficient conditions existed for the left to participate in politics. He was also constrained by his alliance with the military, opposition by elites, and U.S. foreign policy.

Embattled by war and corruption, the PDC experienced losses in both the 1988 legislative and municipal elections and the 1989 presidential balloting. Although diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer in 1988, Duarte was able to complete his term. He transferred power to ARENA's Alfredo Cristiani in June 1989, representing the first transfer of power from one civilian president to another in El Salvador's history.

See alsoCristiani, Alfredo; d'Aubuisson, Roberto; El Salvador; El Salvador, Political Parties: Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN); El Salvador, Political Parties: National Republican Alliance (ARENA).


Baloyra, Enrique A. El Salvador in Transition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1982.

Byrne, Hugh. El Salvador's Civil War: A Study of Revolution. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 1996.

Duarte, José Napoleón, with Diana Page. Duarte: My Story. New York: Putnam, 1986.

Montgomery, Tommie Sue. Revolution in El Salvador: From Civil Strife to Civil Peace, 2nd edition. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1995.

Webre, Stephen. José Napoleón Duarte and the Christian Democratic Party in Salvadoran Politics, 1960–1972. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1979.

                                    Christine J. Wade