The unfinished struggle in El Salvador

Monument to Memory and Truth in San Salvador (Flickr/Archbishop Romero Trust)

In 1980, skirmishes between El Salvador’s government and the Farabundi Martí Liberation Front (FMLN) descended into full-scale civil war. During the ensuing 12 years of fighting, 75,000 people were killed and over a million were forced to flee. The war left deep scars in Salvadorian society. Despite the signing of a peace agreement in 1992, the chasm between the tiny wealthy elite and the poor majority continues to grow.

Producer: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: October 14, 1998


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch international service, presents “The Unfinished Struggle”. The programme is produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin.

We don’t have a tradition of democracy here in El Salvador. Everything has been imposed. The money was in a few hands. It’s still in a few hands. The war was because of that.

We have, from the very beginning, the vision of stopping communism, not only for El Salvador but for Central American countries.

The war naturally caused a lot of suffering and a lot of loss, but if suffering and loss has a meaningful context, then it is not necessarily traumatic. What is traumatic is losing the meaning.

Certainly right now, we are facing a very difficult situation. The big challenge for the future is el combate a la pobreza, the struggle against poverty. That is the country’s main problem.

The pressure is building up. The fact is that there is a lot of frustration, desperation among people.

Chapel where Archbishop Oscar Romero was murdered-3
Chapel where Archbishop Oscar Romero was murdered (© Eric Beauchemin)

In the spring of 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero was murdered as he said mass in a church in the capital San Salvador. The archbishop had been the most outspoken critic of the human rights violations by the government and right-wing death squads. El Salvador had been ruled for over 50 years by military dictators. They had regularly resorted to violence to crush any demands by the poor majority for greater equality and more democracy. Archbishop Romero’s murder convinced many Salvadorians that the only way to bring about change in their country was to take up arms. In early 1981, the left-wing opposition, the FMLN, launched an offensive to take over power.

I started fighting when I was 14. I joined the FMLN, the Farabundo Martí Liberation Front, because I believed the armed struggle was necessary. There were death squads and other security forces like the National Guard and the Treasury Police whose only purpose was to repress the people. During the war, I lost four fingers and my eyesight, but it doesn’t matter. It was worth it. Our struggle was just and continues to be just.

Malantoñio Maya’s (sp?) injuries cut short his guerrilla life. Now he spends his days at the Salvadorian Association for War Disabled, where he prepares Braille books for the country’s nearly 100,000 blind people. Like other war injured veterans, Malantoñio Maya is entitled to disability benefits, but the government has been reluctant to pay these to former FMLN rebels. He also experiences discrimination from society because of his disability and his political beliefs. The other former FMLN rebels I met at the Association for War Disabled, like Neri Escobar, also believe that despite the changes that the war brought about, the struggle must continue.

During the war, we were told that the poor would no longer be poor, that the rich would leave the country. But that’s not what we wanted. If the rich left the country, they’d take their money and the country would be even poorer. That didn’t happen, but we didn’t win the war either. There have been positive changes. We enjoy freedom of expression now, and groups are being created to defend people’s rights. Before, you couldn’t go to the courts. You’d always lose. Now a judicial system is being established to ensure that justice takes its course, that there aren’t abuses of power. In that sense, things have changed.

But the changes have been much slower than we’d like. I realise that we are trying to change the behaviour of people who have been the masters of this country for decades. They simply will not relinquish power. That’s why I say it’s taken a long time, but when we got involved in the war, we didn’t set deadlines. We didn’t say that we wanted changes in the next 10 years. During the war, we had a struggle: the war continues. We still believe that. Some of the reasons that led us to take up arms are still valid. We can’t abandon the struggle because it would be betraying our ideals, and that would be frustrating not only for us, but also for future generations.

What you were hearing in those interviews was an expression of the satisfaction with certain macro-political changes, but none of them individually have experienced that in their homes.

Dori Magassus (sp?) is an American psychologist who works with the Association for War Disabled.

I’m not sure if it’s to justify or feel OK about what they lost in the war, but rather to keep up hope that the little changes will become more permanent and profound changes. It has been very difficult for everyone to maintain that hope and maintain momentum. After the peace accords were signed, there was a massive exuberance, and we all felt that we had had a victory. And indeed there was. But then when that all died down and we also saw how difficult the transition was going to be, then spirits really sunk.

The long, bitter civil war left 75,000 people dead, and over a million were forced to flee. It left deep scars in Salvadorian society. But the transition from the war to national reconciliation also had to go hand in hand with a huge rebuilding project.

Due to all of the bridges, electrical towers that the FMLN destroyed back in the 12-year war we had, it has cost us more than 3,000 million dollars to reconstruct and rebuild the country.

Roberto Larios Rodríguez is a congressman for ARENA, the right-wing Republican National Alliance party, which has ruled El Salvador since 1989. On the patio of his luxurious home in a well-to-do district of San Salvador, he explained to me that since the end of the war in 1992, the government’s main priority has been stabilising the economy and trying to attract foreign investors.

We blend so well with the World Trade Organisation as well as free trade, private property, and we believe also to strengthen all the economic structures of the country within private enterprise. Inflation is down – the lowest in Central America. Our international reserves are also the strongest ones in Central America in US dollars. Also our exchange is also stable. With all of these improvements that we have made in the macro-economic structure, now these multinational companies are willing to invest in El Salvador.

The Salvadorian economy has been growing by 4% a year for the past three years, and multinationals, mainly from the United States and Asia, have been taking advantage of the investment opportunities provided by the Salvadorian government. But trade unions and human rights groups say the multinationals have also been taking advantage of Salvadorian workers, particularly in what are known as maquilas, the sweatshops which manufacture clothes for the world market. The most infamous of them is Mandarín, which supplies the American retail chain Gap. In the mid-1990s, it became the focus of an international campaign against the maquilas, which employ around 40,000 women in El Salvador. Malena Ábrego is one of them. She described to me what conditions were like when she began working at Mandarín in 1993.

If we wanted to drink, we had to get water from the toilets. It was so dirty that people were constantly sick. Many of us had respiratory problems because of the air. And we were constantly subjected to physical, verbal and psychological abuse. We could only take two bathroom breaks a day, and they were monitored. We were forced to work overtime, but even then, we didn’t make enough to survive. And women who became pregnant were routinely fired. Finally because of all the abuse we received, we decided to organise ourselves.

Mandarín then fired all the employees, and it was only after months of negotiations and mediation that they were taken back on staff. The company also improved working conditions and allowed a trade union to be established. But conditions in the other maquilas in the free trade zone on the outskirts of San Salvador are like those that used to exist at Mandarín. The government charges trade union leader Felix Blanco is more interested in the revenues generated by the maquilas than in defending the basic rights of its own citizens.

We know that in the United States, to manufacture a shirt, for example, a worker gets paid $6 per hour. A worker who makes exactly the same shirt here in El Salvador earns 50 US cents per hour. Consumers should be aware of this. Our government and all the other governments in the region are allowing multinationals to do as they please. They tell the foreigners that if they invest, they won’t have any problems with trade unions or employees demanding better working conditions, even though this is in violation of Salvadorian law. These multinationals are exploiting workers and making huge profits with the complicity of governments in Central America.

Most Salvadorians, including trade union officials, recognise that maquilas are an important source of jobs and income for the country. The problem, says Rodolfo Cardenal, the vice president of the University of Central America, is that so few Salvadorians are feeling the benefits of the government’s neoliberal policies.

The main goal achieved by neo-liberalism is the macro-economic stability, which is a good thing, but if you took that in isolation, it doesn’t mean anything or it doesn’t mean too much for a poor country. The wealth of the country is more concentrated in less people. Unemployment is high, really high. This is the amazing thing. The economy of the country is growing every year, but at the same time the poor people is still there and the middle class is disappearing.

Street vendors in San Salvador
Street vendors in San Salvador (© Eric Beauchemin)

Mounting poverty has led to a major increase in crime. El Salvador today is the most violent country in the Americas, and it has one of the highest murder rates. Much of the violence is concentrated in the capital San Salvador. Armed robberies, murders and petty crime regularly feature on the front pages of the capital’s newspapers. The mayor, Hector Silva, is only too well aware of the enormous economic problems facing his city. He argues that many of these problems could be dealt with if the national government were to change its economic policies.

Actual policies is everything that is for globalisation, for opening doors. Liberalisation is good. Of course, you cannot insulate the country from the world, but how much do you do on each side of the balance. It’s a problem of globalisation versus protecting rural agriculture, for example. Whatever is needed to develop small-scale agriculture in rural villages is not important. That has produced over the past 10 years a migration from rural areas to urban areas of uncontrolled dimensions, creating violence in urban areas. So you can’t continue living that way.

Dr. Silva is a leading figure in the FMLN, El Salvador’s main opposition party. After the war, the FMLN transformed itself from a guerrilla movement into a left-wing political party. Many voters were initially suspicious. They believed the FMLN was still intent on establishing a communist government. But the party has managed to overcome many of these fears, and in the last municipal elections, the FMLN won control of city councils throughout the country, including in the capital. The mayor told me in his offices in city hall that the country’s economic problems and growing poverty can best be addressed at the local level.

Very few things improve the quality of life of poor people more than strengthening  local government because they are closer to people. They respond to their demands and their needs more rapidly. They are subject to their observations, their criticism, and every three years, they can be changed if they don’t have a good response. There are more open avenues for people to have access to mayors than to ministers. So it’s a more effective system.

Nejapa poster

The first municipality where the FMLN came to power was in Nejapa, about 30 kilometres north of San Salvador. The FMLN was elected two years after the war in 1994. Its main priority, says William Hernández, an FMLN activist, was to build trust. After all, he says, this was a country with no democratic tradition. So the new local authorities had to start by teaching people about democracy.

We have to remember that we have been in a war here in El Salvador for more than 60 years. We had military dictatorships where the people weren’t able to participate, to criticise or make any comments against the government. So for us it is very difficult to make the changes and to ask people to change. We have to remember that people here in El Salvador have a very low self-esteem, and we have to help them gain that self-esteem, to be able to believe in themselves and to believe in the authorities. The political parties here have no credibility whatsoever. The governments, either the central or the local governments, have no credibility whatsoever. Something that we have been able to help them gain is that, that people has recovered the trust in the local government.

When they came to power, the FMLN mayor and city council knew that the citizens had no confidence in them. So they created an independent body, which would control the municipality’s finances, and they invited people to tell this new development council how they wanted to see their money spent. People in the town and the 44 adjoining communities can air their views and grievances at the council’s monthly public meeting. The development council’s members ensure that these messages are passed on to the city council. Democracy, even if it is only at the grassroots level, is a welcome novelty in El Salvador, explains the development council’s president Antonio Riano Trejo.

People here say they never thought their views would be taken into account. For years, they couldn’t even communicate with the authorities. So they say they are happy now. We don’t just listen to people. We also try to involve them in their own development. For example, in 1996, a community of 18 families in the far north of Nejapa complained that they didn’t have drinking water. We talked it over and decided to help them. Each family contributed $200. We got additional funding from Sweden for the materials. The community itself laid the pipes and did the rest of the work. We’ve noticed that the development council has reduced people’s fears and mistrust. People used to be afraid to go to city hall and especially speak to the mayor. They’d never talk to the people. Even when they had an appointment, they’d say the mayor isn’t in.

Church in Nejapa
Church in Nejapa (© Eric Beauchemin)

In the tiny, colourful square in front of the town hall and elsewhere in Nejapa, I asked people what they thought of their local government. Some said they were too busy to speak. Others shared the views of this elderly peasant.

Things are going well here. The mayor is popular. Before nothing was done for us, but the mayor is consulting the people. Things are a lot better here than in other towns. All the roads are paved now, and they’re building a market over there. That market is nice. The mayor we had before built nothing for us.

Nejapa’s attempts to increase citizen involvement are attracting a lot of attention throughout El Salvador, even from mayors belonging to the right-wing ARENA party and from further afield in Costa Rica and Honduras. Citizen participation in decision-making would have been inconceivable only six or seven years ago. People didn’t even have the right to express an opinion in public. But the mayor of Nejapa, René Canjura, believe that his administration’s greatest achievement so far has been getting people  to accept an FMLN-dominated government.

One of the most important changes is that people have come to accept us. They’ve seen what we’ve done. We, the FMLN, and the people have done this together. We got people involved by creating a development council. We feel that citizen involvement in this country is essential, not only to rebuild the country but also to bring about reconciliation. Everyone needs to take part. Some people say we are reds or communists. Our beliefs haven’t changed. There shouldn’t be poor people in our country. There shouldn’t be children in the streets picking up trash when they should be at school. If that’s communism, then I am a communist. I believe we must eliminate the injustices which exist in El Salvador. We have to make up for lost time and prepare this country for a new reality.

For congressman Roberto Larias of the ruling ARENA party, views like these are nothing short of treason.

They have the tendency to play with people’s heads in order to take advantage. The Frente is completely anti-democratic. They still think and work with the conception of the strategic of war from the mountains that they have brought it to San Salvador within the political field. For instance, a few of their leaders, they’ve just been for five or six days in Havana with Castro in order to see what his advice would be. You can see the direct influence of Fidel Castro in the way of doing politics within the FMLN in El Salvador. They’re playing against democracy.

ARENA, which controls the presidency and congress, and the FMLN which controls a majority of municipal administrations are locked in a bitter conflict. Every issue is part of the country’s unfinished struggle, says the mayor of San Salvador, Dr. Hector Silva.  

In a broader sense, it’s part of a battle between the very radical neo-liberal vision of development and perhaps a more socially-oriented vision of development. What is happening luckily is that all the municipal governments have had the courage to unite themselves and struggle for transferences of money from central government to local levels. Just so you have an idea of what we are talking about: in Holland, 45%, I think, of the overall expenses of the government are done through municipal governments, local governments. In Sweden, I think, it is 55%. In the United States, it’s 35%. The average for Latin America is 17%. In our country two years ago, it was .8% percent. And we have struggled to change that, and we have won the legislative battle in the Assembly to have 6% of the budget transferred to the municipalities. But central government and the president have used its veto power to veto that law.

And the FMLN doesn’t have the two-thirds majority needed to override that veto. Polls indicate that the FMLN could well win the next presidential elections in 1999. The mere thought of that possibility outrages Congressman Robert Larios of the ruling ARENA party, not least of all because the FMLN would be reaping the benefits of the stability ARENA has created in El Salvador.

We as a party were able to stop communism in El Salvador and Central America. We as a party have always fought in order to reach peace. Another big goal was to build democracy in the country. We’re working on that. We have achieved peace. We are working on democracy. We are working on giving a better life and better jobs to our people.

The fact is that the country is living in the middle of a polarisation between the two main parties. Everything that you say or you do is taken from this perspective of polarisation of the country. I don’t see at this moment any ways to get out of this polarisation. But, at the same time, most of the people are against it. If you see the polls about the next election, most of the people, the Salvadorian people say that they don’t have any political preference, any political party or candidate. People are rejecting this polarisation, and they say I have enough problems with my life, getting a job, manage to get a salary, income for my family, I don’t care about that.

Institute of Human Rights of the University of Central America
Institute of Human Rights of the University of Central America 

Attitudes like these in a country with no democratic tradition are dangerous. But they mask something far more disturbing, says Benjamin Cuéllar, the director of the Institute of Human Rights of the University of Central America.

The ghosts of the past continue to haunt us. People believe tha t if others don’t share the same political opinions, they aren’t adversaries but rather the enemy who must be destroyed. Many of the ideas and opinions expressed in this country continue to be marked by this confrontational polarisation. We need to find ways to resolve conflicts in a peaceful, rational and civilised manner to avoid the temptation of violence and social explosions.

Conflict resolution and reconciliation are unlikely in the current political and social atmosphere. The chasm between the tiny elite and the poor majority continues to grow. Unemployment is over 50%, and even people with jobs are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. The ongoing political paralysis isn’t helping matters, believes Rodolfo Cardenal, the vice president of the University of Central America.

The pressure is building, but this generation will not take up the arms again. And the next generation, we have to wait and see. But the fact is that there is a lot of frustration and desperation among people. There is no way to get out of this polarisation. If there is no way to get out of unemployment and poverty, I presume it could be possible again that new generations decide that the main instrument to get justice and equality is to fight another war, which will be a disaster.

The struggle for justice and equality and the other ideals of the revolution remain very much alive in the minds of the former guerrillas, says psychologist Dory Magassus.

I find that people have a lot of psychological problems as a result of the post-war period because the war naturally caused a lot of suffering and loss, but if suffering and loss has a meaningful context, then it is not necessarily traumatic. What’s traumatic is losing the meaning, and losing the significance and context for those losses. And that’s why the post-war period has been so dangerous.

The peace accords signed in January 1992 brought an end to 12 years of bloodshed. But they didn’t resolve the differences that sparked off the civil war. Neither side emerged victorious, and that unfinished struggle continues to cast a long shadow over El Salvador, says Rodolfo Cardenal.

The facts are showing that the country as a whole is tied to its past. It’s proving very hard to work on the past, the ways of thinking, mentalities and doings. It’s quite hard. The war ended, that’s true. The peace accords were signed and the military went back to their barracks, but reconciliation or a transition to a democracy when, before the war, there wasn’t any democracy in the country, is a harder task than we thought.

“The Unfinished Struggle” was produced and presented by Eric Beauchemin. Technical production: Robert Gieselbach. This has been a Radio Netherlands’ presentation.