El Salvador's long walk to democracy

Victor Valle
25 May 2006

The armed conflict in El Salvador in the 1980s made this small central American country the focus of international political and media attention. Today, Salvadorans are grappling with new social and political problems, but the legacy of this painful past is far from overcome.

This is evident in the results of the legislative and municipal elections on 12 March 2006. The results were both clear and instructive: the ruling rightist Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (Nationalist Republic Alliance / Arena) received 39.4% of the votes, the leftist political party the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front / FMLN) won 39.1%, while three smaller parties or alliances shared the remaining 20%.

The divide between the two main blocs is rooted in El Salvador's modern history. The country's internal armed conflict was fuelled by late cold-war geopolitical concerns, but it also had indigenous roots: poverty, political repression, and social exclusion. Alfredo Cristiani, the rightist president (1989-94) who persuaded his government to seek a political settlement of the armed conflict, was one who recognised – in speaking in January 1992 at Chapultepec, Mexic0 ceremony where the United Nations-mediated peace accords were signed – the deep problems within Salvadorean society that had nurtured the violence.

The origin of these developments long predates the establishment of the Soviet Union, and lies more in the period when Lenin was a student in Russia. The key period was the leadership of Rafael Zaldivar (president 1876-85), who enforced radical changes in land tenure which had the effect of expropriating the lands of indigenous communities and peasants and transferring them to the new coffee-planters. The effect was to insert El Salvador into the global economy.

The land reform was accompanied by laws and institutions that inaugurated the new patterns of control over communities needed to ensure order and organise economic production. An authoritarian regime emerged, and in response so did the early struggles for democracy.

In 1932, a rebellion of peasants and workers exploded in El Salvador. The rebellion's immediate causes included the influence of the international communist movement and the world economic crisis following the great crash of 1929; but its deeper sources lay in the establishment of the late-19th century authoritarian regime. The 1932 revolt, crushed by government forces amid the massacre of around 30,000 Salvadorans, was in turn the trigger of a new form of rule: a repressive military dictatorship. This lasted until 1979, when a tumultuous period of political mobilisation and violence (including the murder of Archbishop Romero in San Salvador in March 1980) issued into the long civil war of the 1980s.

A military order

The military regime in El Salvador of 1932-79 was of a very peculiar type. Apart from its first thirteen years under General Hernandez Martínez (president 1931-44), it did not rest upon a single strongman like Nicaragua's Anastasio Somoza or the Dominican Republic's Rafael Trujillo. During most of the period, the president was a military figure who ruled for five or six year-terms; meanwhile, the nature of the regime itself remained intact – a hardline, rightist military government that performed as a loyal warden of the local economic elite and a staunch ally of the United States government in its global contest with international communism.

In this system, regular elections provided a democratic veneer that could never conceal the true power-relationships beneath. Sometimes indeed, as in 1962, the farce was evident. The presidential election of that year saw (as usual) a military officer being proposed as candidate by a military assembly. The problem was that no one could be found to stand against him; so for the purpose of El Salvador's external image, constitutional procedures were observed that quietly allowed the serving leader, Lieutenant-Colonel Julio Rivera (president 1962-67), to continue in the job. In this case, the charade had its positive aspects: Rivera opened El Salvador's political space by pioneering an amendment of the electoral law that allowed proportional representation in congress and opposition parties to govern in some local municipalities.

In the 1970s, several fraudulent elections were held. In both 1972 and 1977 a broad coalition of Christian Democrats, social democrats and communists won the presidential elections, but the regime's manoeuvres deprived it of electoral victory. These frauds caused many young people to become pessimistic about any possibility of peaceful, democratic change in El Salvador; some of them chose to join the leftist guerrilla movement.

Amid the civil war of the 1980s, elections actually became cleaner and more democratic; however, the FMLN – a major player in the armed conflict – did not participate, as they regarded the elections as part of a US-inspired and US-funded counter-insurgency strategy to defeat the revolutionary forces.

Ten years of bloody civil war, during which the world's geopolitical circumstances were transformed by the end of the cold war, gradually reshaped the outlooks of El Salvador's political foes. As both parties realised that a military victory was unfeasible, the United Nations secretary-general was empowered by a security-council mandate to facilitate a process of negotiations (starting in April 1990) to find a political settlement to the conflict.

Among the issues the FMLN put on the negotiation agenda was electoral reform that, it hoped, could guarantee free and democratic elections. By that stage, such elections were badly needed: to improve El Salvador's political culture, to eliminate the factors that generated conflict, and to avoid the recurrence of violence in the future.

A political stalemate

A generation after the beginning of El Salvador's civil war, the 12 March 2006 elections – free, democratic, and mostly untainted – were waged between basically the same forces that have shaped political affairs in El Salvador for a century. On one side are the inheritors of the elites benefited from the land seizures of the late 19th century, and the ideological descendants of the regime that destroyed the 1932 revolt; on the other, the political inheritors of the revolutionary fighters led by Farabundo Martí and his university and trade-union comrades whose late-1920s and early-1930s campaign ended in that historic defeat.

Those same currents were, more or less, the major protagonists in the conflicts of the 1980s. More than two decades later, they still confront each other across a great Salvadorean divide. Arena (though itself founded only in 1980) is the continuation of the political regime founded at the end of the 19th century, and the FMLN is the direct descendant of the leftist fighters who seek a revolutionary change in Salvadorean society from the standpoint of the poor, the indigenous, and the landless.

The negotiations in the early 1990s were possible because of a military stalemate between these blocs; the result of the 12 March elections reveals that El Salvador's situation today is a political stalemate.

Salvadorean society faces huge social problems. The long-term consequences of the civil war include widespread social violence still causes many casualties. El Salvador, despite some excellent macro-economic indicators and pockets of development in its territory, still has poor social and economic indicators. The human-development index prescribed by the UN system that combines education records, life expectancy and per-capita income is among the lowest in Latin America; the quality of the environment is near the bottom of the scale while the murder rate is near the top.

Moreover, the issue of the youth gangs or maras – which, in the connection to movement of young people to and from the United States epitomises the complexity of El Salvador's modern history – is becoming a question of national security, even one that threatens the integrity of the Salvadorean state. Perhaps, as the new government addresses this issue in the election aftermath, conditions are ripe to instil in the political leadership of both the government and the FMLN the guiding idea of negotiating new rules of the game.

Such a "historic compromise" is all the more needed in a political environment where the opposition remains a significant entity. After all, El Salvador is the only Latin American country where the political left – ideologically orthodox, admirers of Cuba, nostalgic for Che Guevara and the Soviet Union – has a reliable bloc of around 40% of votes.

The March 2006 results can be seen as the latest stage in El Salvador's long, unfinished walk to democracy. They also reveal the hard challenge for the country's politicians: can they avoid simple recipes for very complex problems?

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