Thoughts and El Salvador

March 19, 2009


Voters looks for their names in the voters register in Panchimalco, 18 kms south from San Salvador. Mauro Arias

Voters looks for their names in the voters register in Panchimalco, 18 kms south from San Salvador. Mauro Arias

Most of the week’s news centered around the charlatans at insurance giant AIG, but what many may have missed is El Salvador’s presidential election and Marico Funes’ victory last Sunday. Funes’ party, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, has successfully put an end to over two decades of right-wing rule.

While some are wary of Funes’ election, thinking he may take after Hugo Chavez, Funes has gone to great lengths to assure his critics that’s not the case. Throughout the campaign, he modeled himself as a new leftist, taking the conciliatory path of Barack Obama, suggesting he was willing to work with the opposition.

El Salvador’s 12-year long civil war ended in 1992, after 75,000 people had been killed. It was once a country that compelled Joan Didion to write “Terror is the given of the place.”

Roughly a decade ago, nobel laureate Wole Soyinka wrote The Burden of Memory, the Muse of Forgiveness. It’s a superb meditation on how countries come to terms with authoritarian regimes and the legacies of violence, paranoia, and rage they leave behind. Soyinka explores at length what governments attempt at the threshold of reconciliation. What he finds isn’t startling, but nevertheless sublime. There’s no uniform approach. Each country adapts to the peculiarities of the defunct regime.

Two countries he surveys are post-aparthied South Africa and Germany after reunification. South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission is well-known. In what was once East Germany, the government opened the Stasi files to the public, allowing citizens to see who had informed on them, whether it was an endearing neighbor, the postman or one’s spouse.

It appears that El Salvador’s attempt at candor and national repair came only in half measures. In 1992, as part of the peace agreements between the FMNL and the ruling regime, the parties established a truth commission.  A year after the civil war, the commission—composed solely of foreigners—released its report. Amnesty provisions weren’t addressed at its inception, and the effort was hampered by obstruction from the United States and President Alfredo Cristiana. Cristiana subsequently recommended amnesty for military officials named as human rights violators; an amnesty, as these things go, that wasn’t his to give.

I know little of what has transpired in El Salvador since then, nor how far the national conversation has progressed. So it’s difficult to judge where on this journey the nation finds itself. And half measures—inadequate as they may be—are better than none at all.

Soyinka believes a wounded nation must confront its past, and neglecting this indelibly cripples the body politic. Reestablishing trust is essential for the prospect of real progress. Considering last week’s events, one hopes El Salvador is on such a path.


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