First Take: Twenty-Four Years Later

The 1992 Peace Accords and El Salvador’s Reality Today

By Héctor Dada Hirezi

Labor Day protest for decent pay. Photo by Luis Galdamez,

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It was midnight in Mexico, New Year’s Eve, 1991. Friends gathered in our home together with my family, marking the beginning of another year of exile from El Salvador. Shortly after midnight, the phone rang. A top Mexican government official was on the line, calling to tell me that the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the Salvadoran government had reached an agreement to end the conflict. The agreement would be signed in mid-January in Mexico. We celebrated: the end of the war was an achievement. And it might mean the possibility of returning home. 

The new peace negotiation had worked when others had failed. The basic idea was not to repeat the attitudes and policies that had made so many attempts at dialogue—since 1984—useless and fruitless. The Cold War was in its final days, and both sides’ inability to win the war had led to this agreement.

Despite our joy, we had some lingering doubts about whether the terms of the agreement responded to what the country needed. The reason for this uncertainty was that since 1989, the right-wing ARENA government of President Alfredo Cristiani had followed the policies of the so-called Washington Consensus, which meant that the ability of the state to deal with post-war demands was going to be limited.  

 On January 16, the peace accords were signed in Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City. Salvadoran government representatives and guerrilla commanders spoke about the importance of the agreement and the necessity to confront the causes of war. My colleagues and I listened with surprise as President Cristiani acknowledged that one of these causes was that El Salvador’s citizens had been deprived of full democratic participation and economic development. It was the first time that a member of the economic elite—and in this case, the President of the Republic—had acknowledged these facts. The speeches of the guerrillas also sounded hopeful as they agreed to participate in the process of democratic political competition; that is, they would give up the political power of the gun to seek the political power—always limited—of the ballot box, and try to foster social change through electoral means. 

This January 16, 2016, Salvadorans celebrated the 24th anniversary of the signing of the Peace Accords that ended the 12-year-old civil war. The devastating conflict had left at least 70,000 dead. While this is a very serious toll on a country with fewer than six million inhabitants, it was not the only drain on the nation: its citizens suffered internal displacement, emigration, families broken apart and profound transformation of social relationships. 

The conflict arose amidst domestic problems—with additional external influences— that had been brewing for a long time. Traditionally, El Salvador has had a high level of inequity. Since the 19th century, the concentration of land in the hands of large landowners dedicated to agro-exports had generated a strong division of classes in the heavily rural country. Efforts to industrialize in the 1950s to promote the substitution of imports did not manage to alleviate the situation.  Tensions grew sharper.  Since 1931, the country had been dominated by a military regime beholden to the interests of the agrarian oligarchy, which in turn put itself at the service of U.S. policy in the context of the Cold War. 

Democratic participation was very limited; however, military authoritarianism managed to coexist with elections. Rampant electoral fraud became the instrument to prevent the opposition from gaining more power than what the system would tolerate in order to maintain its stability. This system came to be known as “limited democracy.” A poignant example occurred in 1972, when Napoleón Duarte, the Christian Democratic candidate, lost the presidency through electoral fraud. A U.S. diplomat congratulated me on the electoral success of the party and said that he was sure we party members were intelligent enough to understand why we could not take over the government we had earned at the ballot boxes. Thus social and political conflicts continued to escalate, sadly leading many youth to take up arms to make the changes they considered impossible to achieve through fair elections. 

On October 15, 1979, a coup took place in the midst of great social convulsion. Reflecting on the triumph of the revolutionary Sandinista Front in Nicaragua, a group of young Salvadoran military men decided that the Armed Forces needed to abandon their role as guarantor of the status quo and instead become the representatives of change in favor of democracy and equity. They invited several civilians, including myself, who were bent on avoiding a civil war, to collaborate in this transformational effort. The Archbishop of El Salvador, Monseñor Óscar Romero, was hopeful about the attempt (several of us who made up the new government were members of Catholic organizations). However, very quickly the possibilities of achieving these transformative goals became remote, despite efforts to promote them (subject for another article!). The original vision of reformism working to construct democracy yielded to pressure from the United States, which framed the proposals in the 1979 coup declaration—agrarian reform and nationalization of the banks and foreign trade—in terms of a counterinsurgency war. The military solution was assumed to be a governmental goal, and talk of reform merely became an instrument to that end. A bit later, the assassination of Monseñor Romero on March 24, 1980, ended all prospects of action for those of us who wished to avoid such a bloody war. Looking back, we can say today that we did not fathom how much power was behind those who stood in the way of reform with social participation. On the frontlines were the most veteran Army officials, largely dependent on the dictates of the U.S. government, which acted in the context of the difficult circumstances of the Cold War. The confrontation between guerrilla groups and the armed forces—in tandem with a compliant section of the Christian Democratic Party as the administrative head of the government—was the dominant reality for almost an entire decade. 

Now twenty-four years have gone by. What kind of assessment can we make? In the first place, one important step is that all legal barriers formerly set for ideological reasons have been eliminated in the electoral process (this was precisely one of the causes of the armed conflict).  This has required changes on the part of both principal actors: the FMLN had to give up the idea of establishing a “dictatorship of the proletariat” and to make the transition from an armed political organization to a legal political party. ARENA (established in 1981 with an armed component of the so-called death squads) had to agree to stop its policy of excluding and eliminating the “reds,” and also to cast aside its paramilitary components. The electoral practice of democracy has made much progress since the peace accords, and election results have been respected. The greatest test came in 2009 when ARENA had to turn over the government to the FMLN, marking an unprecedented alternation of political parties. In spite of continued polarization between the two major parties, we have entered a period of peaceful political, party-based competition, without making any judgment about how much of this has happened because of democratic conviction or because of the simple acceptance of reality. 

Since 1989, the property and business-owning right and the political party-based right—it is difficult to distinguish the two—had controlled the executive, legislative and judicial branches, managing the state as their own patrimony. In 2009, the FMLN won the presidential election with candidate Mauricio Funes, a journalist with no prior political militance. Although the FMLN won the largest bloc in the Congress, it did not have a clear majority nor did it control the judicial branch. The loss of the top position of the executive branch represented an important change for the right  because it lost its capacity to control, and its party (ARENA) had to take up the role of main opposition party (a role it had played once before during the government of President Napoleón Duarte between 1984 and 1989). It was also an important change for the left; its challenge was to transform its electoral victory into the realization of its aim of generating greater social equity and—above all—to get used to governing within the rules of a system that it had always conceptually rejected. Moreover, it had to build on the foundations left by twenty years of government by a party with ideas very different from its own.   

Electoral alternation made people feel freer to express their opinion; subjects came up in public opinion that had previously been hidden or discussed by only a very small number of people. Awareness about the need for the independence of different government bodies, as well as the demand that state officials act with honesty and transparency, began to have daily media and conversational presence among an increasing number of citizens. Indeed, people who enjoyed almost unrestricted control of government bodies have discovered—at least in their discourse—the need for the separation of powers and transparency in the operation of government institutions. The issue of corruption—which is not new and which at some moments of the recent past might have been been much worse than now—was introduced into the public discussion without the repressive responses of the former regimes. Democracy is advancing, although some people consider that open discussion is a synonym for instability or that a difference of opinion between state bodies is a sign of lack of democracy. Certainly, I do not claim that everything has been achieved; I’m merely pointing out that progress has been made; that it needs to be defended; and that we can build upon it to deepen the democratic experience in El Salvador.  

What the left-wing FLMN, now in government, has found most difficult to confront is the inheritance of ARENA in the social and economic areas. Last year, El Salvador had the highest homicide rate in the world (104 per 100,000 inhabitants); inequality continues to be very high despite six years of governments on the left (official statistics don’t exist to measure this because of the lack of reliability in household surveys); only three out of every ten people have a job in the formal sector; the economy is growing at two percent (as it has for the last twenty years); the inherited model has not been substantially modified. Since 1989, a model based on neoliberalism (or the Washington Consensus, thus named because it grew out of a consensus of international financial institutions) has reigned, based on the hypothesis that open markets guarantee an improvement in productivity in the economy and the rise in exports becomes the basis of accelerated economic growth; the withdrawal of state intervention in economic affairs is necessary for the success of this type of neoliberalism—as Ronald Reagan said, the state cannot be part of the solution because it is the problem; the concentration of income is thus a prerequisite to stimulate investment; and the positive evolution of the economy will result in the reduction of inequality. Nevertheless, implementing this model did not work because, as I’ve said on several occasions, the hypothesis does not work in practice. Yet the policies and legislation established to support this hypothesis are still on the books (see Las apuestas perdidas, 

The FMLN government has tried to alleviate this situation by increasing subsidies to the poorest. These do reduce the needs of this sector, but they do not resolve the problem of income disparities. Moreover, these subsidies have not been accompanied by effective policies for economic growth that would generate dignified employment. Even if the government did come up with coherent proposal for such a necessary change in the economic model, it lacks the legislative majority to get it approved. Moreover, even if such a measure were somehow approved,  public finances—with their chronic deficit—would hamper implementation because of lack of adequate resources. And then there’s the fierce opposition from the business class; in addition, given the lack of clarity about its direction, the government cannot count on the backing of citizens to counteract the power of those who benefit from the existing situation, thus further increasing its weakness. 

Public security is the area Salvadorans consider the most deficient.  The roots of the violence lie in the past. The decision to reduce the capacity of the state to intervene in social and economic problems has had serious consequences in our national life. The armed conflict destroyed many of our social structures and the counterinsurgency carried out its own type of profound property redistribution. These two forms of destruction meant that in the post-war period, the state needed to do a restructuring for which it did not have the capacity; the reliance on a purely market economy created an extremely individualistic vision that conceived the market as a force capable not only of guaranteeing economic growth, but also of fomenting new harmonious relations among social groups.   

Massive migration has turned into the main solution for those who have not found opportunities for a dignified life in the country. The emigration of citizens, mostly poor and lower middle-class people, has alleviated social costs for the state. Family remittances have become the largest income source for thousands of households, and also the primary source of foreign exchange (remittances are equal to about 80% of exports of goods and services).  However, massive migration generates a rupture of social relationships, from the family to the society as a whole—a society which has already experienced breakdown because of the effects of the armed conflict and the transformations of property during the war and post-war period. Moreover, the easy flow of remittances stimulates negative attitudes toward work and makes people see the solution to their problems outside the country. 

The violence of the gangs—originally only juveniles—arose as a result of the extension of the Californian-Salvadoran maras a little after the end of the civil war. In a situation of social breakdown and lack of opportunities, the gangs became a spurious form of integration. Paradoxically, they kept growing while El Salvador was experiencing an unprecedented construction of democracy. Today, they are an omnipresent actor in national life, affecting economic activity and citizen coexistence, with undeniable control over several territories in the country. 

Twenty-four years after the signing of the peace accords, the outlook is not bright for us Salvadorans. The reality is quite complex. On the one hand, there has been undeniable democratic progress; at the same time, however, the main political parties are still in the process of democratizing themselves internally and do not appear prepared to discuss how to resolve national problems. And they do not give the population at large a sense of where they are headed. Meanwhile, gang violence seems to be turning into generalized social conflict, with increasingly violent confrontations with public security forces. Faced with this situation, citizens are eager to participate in the search for solutions. The peace accords ended the civil war. We were not capable of adequately confronting the post-war period. Now we need to resolve deep problems with serious determination, channeling our energies into finally creating a democratic, equitable and peaceful El Salvador. 

Héctor Dada Hirezi is an economist and has worked for the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL, its Spanish acronym). He has taught at universities in El Salvador and Mexico. A Catholic lay activist, he has been involved in party politics and has held several public posts.