Armando Calderon Sol, who served as president of El Salvador in the 1990s and led his country out of the mayhem of its 12-year civil war, died Oct. 9 at a hospital in Houston. He was 69.
Milena Calderon de Escalon, the former president’s sister and a legislative assembly member who belongs to his right-wing party, the Nationalist Republican Alliance, confirmed his death to the Associated Press. Mr. Calderon Sol was reported to have had cancer.
Mr. Calderon Sol was trained as a lawyer and served as mayor of the capital city, San Salvador, before winning a five-year term as president in 1994. The long civil war, pitting Marxist rebels against a rightist government and repressive military, took 70,000 lives and had ended only two years earlier.
The United States spent $5 billion to buttress the Salvadoran government in the conflict, which, like the one in Nicaragua, brought the ideological battles of the Cold War to Central America.
When Mr. Calderon Sol took office, many opponents and some observers doubted whether he would enforce the terms of a U.N.-brokered peace treaty for El Salvador, which called for the removal of military officers who had participated in human-rights abuses, the transfer of land to former rebels, the formation of a civilian police force and a reformed judiciary.
Suspicions about Mr. Calderon Sol stemmed from his long-standing leadership roles in the Nationalist Republican Alliance. More widely known as Arena, the party had been founded in 1981 by Roberto d’Aubuisson, a cashiered army officer who was widely regarded as the father of El Salvador’s right-wing death squads. Mr. Calderon Sol had served, among other roles, as secretary to d’Aubuisson, who reportedly called him “Armandito.”
William LeoGrande, a professor of government at American University in Washington, described Arena as “the political expression of the death-squad apparatus” that had been formed to eliminate leftists and other political adversaries.
Forces led by d’Aubuisson were linked to thousands of murders, among them the assassination of Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980. Mr. Calderon Sol strenuously disputed allegations that he had participated in any violence, although U.S. intelligence reports said he had opened his home to death squad organizers planning their activities.
As president, however, Mr. Calderon Sol appeared to push his party away from radicalism.
“We have left behind the language of confrontation, of clashes,” Mr. Calderon Sol told The Washington Post in 1994. “We are faithful to our past in the defense of free enterprise, a market economy, private property and individual liberties. But we use a different rhetoric, softer, more profound, easier for other groups to understand. . . . We have to reach people who did not like our rhetoric, with a position of tolerance.”
LeoGrande, the author of the book “Our Own Backyard: The United States in Central America, 1977-1992,” credited Mr. Calderon Sol with following the peace agreement “as it was written.”
“Some people worried that . . . as president he might give a green light to increasing the political violence and might back away from the agreement,” LeoGrande said. “But he didn’t. And that was an important step in moving El Salvador from a brutal civil conflict to a functioning democracy. Not that they don’t still have problems, but their democratic institutions do work.”
LeoGrande said Mr. Calderon Sol failed to implement economic policies that might have resolved underlying causes of the civil war. But he credited him with freeing Salvadoran politics from the military and establishing the framework for free elections — major milestones in a country where the military had long had an overriding influence on government.
Mr. Calderon Sol was “somebody who started out believing that the solution to El Salvador’s conflict was to kill all the leftists,” LeoGrande remarked, “and ended up as a president who implemented a peace agreement with them.”
Armando Calderon Sol was born to a landowning family in San Salvador on June 24, 1948. After a Jesuit education, he received a law degree from the University of El Salvador.
The Post reported that in his early career, Mr. Calderon Sol belonged to the Salvadoran Nationalist Movement, a group of young men who promised their lives to the cause of defeating communism.
He was married to the former Elizabeth Aguirre, with whom he had several sons. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.
Term limits restricted Mr. Calderon Sol to one term in office. Since 2009, El Salvador has been governed by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, the leftist party that he defeated to become president.