The New Republic

March 22, 1999

Peace of Mind: El Salvador Diarist

It’s a bright morning outside San Salvador’s teeming Central Market, and Nidia Díaz, a former urban guerrilla commander who is now the vice presidential candidate for the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) is making a campaign speech to a hundred or so cheering supporters. Her very name evokes her guerrilla past — Nidia Díaz is her old nom de guerre. Hardly anyone knows that her real name is Marta Valladares. But when Díaz speaks, she sounds like a Central American version of Hillary Clinton, rather than a former member of what was once of the most radical faction of the erstwhile guerrilla front. “We don’t talk only about rights,” she tells the crowd. “The women of El Salvador also have responsibilities: resposibilities to our families, to our communities.” It takes a pueblo to raise a child.

Díaz and FMLN presidential candidate Facundo Guardado are running a distant second in the polls before El Salvador’s March 7 elections, but they could still force a runoff. Listening to the FMLN’s former guerrilla chiefs on the stump, it’s striking how far one of Latin America’s most powerful Marxist movements has gone in ditching its old dogmas — and how far El Salvador as a whole has come in ending homicide as its main method of political expression. Seven years after the historic peace accord that ended a twelve-year civil war, a political culture of violence has given way to a campaign culture that is almost reassuringly humdrum. “I’ve had people, foreign people, tell me that, if I want to win this election, we must go around saying, ‘The country’s problems have to be solved our way, or the country will see a social convulsion. War will return.’ I refuse to talk that way,” Guardado told me. Indeed, the guerrilla-army-turned-party now supports the selling off of state enterprises and a free trade agreement with the United States. It accepts, with some reservations, the almost wholesale privatization of El Salvador’s social security system. Guardado wants to spend more on education and social programs but also says crime must be defeated “if we are ever to win more foreign investment.”

The front-running party, the Republican Nationalist Alliance, known by its Spanish initials ARENA, began life as the anti-Communist creation of death-squad founder and cashiered army major Roberto D’Aubuisson. Seemingly less burdered by its past than the ex-guerrillas, the party has won the last two presidential elections, and it is probably headed for a third victory behind its current candidate, Francisco Flores, a 39-year-old Harvard-educated academic [and politician]. Still, like the FMLN, ARENA has been obliged to distance itself from its unsavory past. You seldom hear the ARENA Party anthem, which says El Salvador “will be the tomb of the reds.” Flores has moved his campaign offices away from the ARENA headquarters, site of a huge bronze statue of D’Aubuisson. Confident of victory, Flores has run a substance-free campaign and has declined to attack the opposition. “My adversary isn’t the FMLN anymore. It’s the poverty and insecurity that Salvadorans face,” he told me. The candidates are being so civil to each other that one newspaper caricature showed them arguing over a restaurant check: “No, let me pay,” says Flores. “No please, I insist,” says Guardado.

For all the new politesse in the political realm, however, El Salvador remains a very rough place. There were 23 murders a day during 1997 (compared with two a day in New York City, which has a somewhat larger population). This was, perhaps, to be expected in a country with so many out-of-work paramilitaries and guerrillas, but the problem has been aggravated by the spread of a Los Angeles-style gang culture, complete with high-powered guns and spray-painted shrines for fallen gang members in San Salvador’s eastern barrios. Thirty percent of rural Salvadorans live in what the government calls “extreme poverty,” which means practically no income and no running water or electricity. And politics-as-usual brings the usual voter apathy. Voter participation has sunk to levels close to our own.

But something real has changed. “The rules of the game are clear now. The lesson of war was that, if you resort to force, it turns out badly,” a former Central Bank president told me. If the left ever were elected, “the elite would have to accept it. There’s no question about that,” he says. Much of the credit goes to the 1992 peace agreement, a flexible deal that gives all parties equal access to the political system with no taboos or proscriptions. The most unexpected consequence of the peace was to create a tacit entente between the FMLN and the downsized Salvadoran army—an understanding that makes any kind of military backsliding on the agreement even more remote. Local media reported that, after the 1997 elections, in which the FMLN won the mayoralty of San Salvador and almost as many National Assembly seats as ARENA, a group of rightists approached the army to float the idea of a coup. The army refused. Over New Year’s, when the army chafed at some of President Armando Calderón Sol’s year-end officer promotions, sparking a brief disciplinary crisis, the FMLN publicly sided with the army. “There are some figures we are not so sure about,” an FMLN official told me. “But the army as an institution would accept a government by us. We know that. There is trust between us.”

When President Clinton arrives in Central America the day after the Salvadoran elections, he will find a region that has been devastated by Hurricane Mitch but that is enjoying an unprecedented degree of political pluralism and that is at least going through the motions of healing its Cold War wounds. In Guatemala, President Álvaro Arzú has apologized for the government’s role in the 36 years of civil war in which 140,000 died. “In the name of the state, I ask forgiveness,” he said. In El Salvador, political convulsions have twice in this century resulted in the death of more than one percent of the country’s population—first in 1932, with the repression of a Communist-led rural revolt, and then in the 1980-1992 civil war, in which 75,000 people died. This is the kind of history no one wants to repeat. During the war, the mountain town of Suchitoto was desolate and bombed-out. Today is has been reborn as a Bohemian retreat of sorts, a pleasant village where rich Salvadorans and diplomats come to relax. On my visit, a local man told me: “War brought out the animal is us.” He could well have added: Peace brought out the politician.


Roger Atwood is a reporter for Reuters.