Remembering El Salvador’s Struggle for Justice

The process for re-normalizing relations between the United States and Cuba began this week. The American press has extensively covered the story, but listening to it’s coverage, I can’t help but feel something is missing. There has been no attempt to re-educate Americans about Cuba, it’s history, or just how inspiring its revolution was to not only the Cuban people but all over the hemisphere and the world. Many commentators made the Sunday News shows this morning, expressing the wish that Cuba will “open up” and “learn from America”. But if we’re lucky, perhaps the opposite will occur, and the American people will learn something from Cuba. Remembering Cuba this week has inspired me to learn the history of popular movements for national liberation in the western hemisphere. This post is by no means an attempt to exhaustively cover those histories which stretch back to the early modern era, but simply remember and recognize the courage of ordinary people when they choose to organize themselves for social justice, and what they come up against when they do so.

The conflict in El Salvador, though it did not begin in 1980, had it’s watershed moment, when guerrilla activists and pacifists united in defense against a military junta that overthrew Carol Humberto Romero, the winner of a fraudulent 1977 election. After the sham elections of 72′ and 77′, activists gave up hope an electoral solution was possible, and turned instead towards the revolutionary path.  

The Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (FMLN) was established. Workers, peasants, and students united across the left-political spectrum picked up arms in a guerrilla war that would last 12 years and take the lives of over 80,000 Salvadorans. Most of the war’s casualties were civilians,the pueblo, targeted for aiding, logistically and ideologically the guerrillas. the army cracked down on civilians as an easier target than the FBLN guerillas, widely considered to be the best revolutionary fighters in the hemisphere at the time.

The FMLN was composed of the students’ and workers’ Fuerzas Populares de Liberación Martí (Farabundo Martí Popular Liberation Forces [FPL]) and the peasants’Ejército Revolucionario del Pueblo (the Revolutionary Army of the People, or ERP); the Resistencia Nacional (the National Resistance, or RN); the Communist Party’s Armed Forces of Liberation (FAL); and the Revolutionary Party of Central American workers (PRTC).

Many of the guerrillas were youth, who grow up listening to the stories of their parents and grandparents, that had been targeted by a dictatorship that tended to support the interests of large landowners at the expense of subsistence farmers and workers. Many lost access to land and turned to sharecropping and day labor at the end of the 19th century. The Communist Party identified with the struggle of agriculture workers, and attempted in the 20’s and 30’s to organize them, particularly after December 1931, when a military junta overthrew recently elected reformist president Arturo Araujo. The resulting conflict, the 1932 massacre, is remembered as la matanza. 5,000 mostly indigenous people, organized by the Communist Party, launched an uprising. Ten thousand people died at the hands of the government, including people who had not participated. The death count included Communist Party founder, Farabundo Marti.

The uprising of 1980 combined memories of martyrdom with specific grievances against an illegitimate government. This activated new agents for the struggle. One early marty of the conflict was Oscar Romero, a Catholic Bishop who was killed early on in the conflict. He had said shortly before his death, that “If they kill me, I will rise again in the Salvadoran people…May my blood be the seed of freedom and the signal that hope will soon be a reality” (Romero, 1987:461). Open repression of Catholic activists spurred more people to join the movement. Including the death of six Jesuit priests in 1989, resulting in international outrage, and pressured the Salvadoran Government to negotiate a peace agreement that would end the conflict.

The Salvadoran government began to negotiate with the FMLN, under United Nations sponsorship, in April 1990:

An agreement was announced on December 31, 1991. Representatives of the guerrillas and the government signed the peace accords on January 16, 1992, and the cease-fire began on February 1. The war formally came to an end in December 1992, when the last guerrillas and targeted government soldiers entered civilian life. (Anna L, Brant G. Peterson, pg 528).

What kind of “peace” was agreed to in those fitful months? The FMLN turned in their weapons, and integrated into the electoral system as a political party and social movement. Even before the end of the war, a neoliberal agenda had been launched in El Salvador by the reigning governing to mend the broken image of the country in the eyes of the international community and more importantly International Monetary Fund (IMF), which had offered a stabilization package in exchange for a neoliberal economic agenda. The FMLN’s loss in the first elections after peace did not help the situation.

Many are more poor now than during the war, forced off the land as these neoliberal policies were enacted, working as maids, construction workers, or security guards. Disillusionment with the peace that was “won” is high. The FMLN was legitimized, but the loftier goals of overthrowing institutionalized power and beginning a socialist project failed. El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the western hemisphere, with street crime rampant. Yet unlike in 1980, there is no centralized institution to call out as the cause of El Salvador’s problem. in 2009, the FMLN won the presidential election, and represent much of the local and national congressional bodies. And so insecurity persists, without a clear target or cause to reignite the spirit of 1932 or 1980 in El Salvador.

Peterson, A. L., & Peterson, B. G. (2008). Martyrdom, Sacrifice, and Political Memory in El Salvador. Social Research, 75(2), 511-542.

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