The passing of a leader

El Salvador is mourning today the sudden death of Schafik Handal, the long time leader on the left in El Salvador.

Handal was born in 1930 in El Salvador, the son of Palestinian parents, two years before La Matanza, the massacre of more than 30,000 campesino and indigenous peasants by the Salvadoran military after an uprising led by Farabundo Marti. Handal was involved in political activities from an early age. From 1959 to 1994 he was the Secretary General of the Salvadoran Communist Party. He was forced into exile during much of this time.

Handal participated in the unification of four leftist opposition groups to form the FMLN in 1980. He led military operations of FMLN guerilla forces throughout the civil war and was one of the council of FMLN leaders throughout that time. He was one of the negotiators and signers of the peace accords in 1992.

In 2004 Handal was the FMLN's candidate for president of El Salvador. He was defeated by Tony Saca by a wide margin, in an election marked by appeals to fear -- fear of Handal's guerilla past, fear of the US expelling Salvadoran immigrants if Handal won, fear of violence. The smiling media-savvy populism of Tony Saca carried the day for ARENA.

Publius Pundit asked for some commentary, so I'll set out some thoughts.

Handal was man of tremendous courage. You had to be if you were going to lead political and guerilla forces against repressive military governments in El Salvador during the 60's, 70's and 80's. He also had the courage to participate at the bargaining table and to be one of th signers of the peace accords. Handal's career saw El Salvador transformed from a country where hundreds of activists, unionists, students and others were killed by death squads every year, to a country where political struggle is at the ballot box, the FMLN garnered the greatest number of deputies in the National Assembly, and currently controls the mayor's office in San Salvador. (These last two items may change in the March elections).

But it is not clear that Handal would ever have been able to take the party to the next level of obtaining a ruling majority. The orthodox wing of the FMLN which controls the party hierarchy has not been susceptible to change. It has rightfully been criticized for not being democratic in its internal processes. The FMLN allows very little room for dissent or variation from the strict party line within its ranks.

Handal's passing may mean a transition from the old guard in the FMLN. It may mean an opening for the reformers and a chance to adapt to become a more effective political force in the country. But I doubt it. The memory of the war is too fresh, and the FMLN true-believers in its leadership are still too radicalized to make those changes.

Joe DeRaymond had the following thoughts quoted by David Holiday in April 2004 and very appropriate today:
Also, while there has been extensive criticism in the comments of this blog about the poor conduct of the election by Schafik and the FMLN "ortodoxos", and about the nightmare of Schafik as a candidate, I would like to honor the commitment of Schafik in the struggle for social justice. The FMLN has come a long way in a short time, has converted itself from a guerrilla army to a political force for a new El Salvador. They have made mistakes, but I look at my nation with Presidents Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, and compare them to Schafik - an anti-war candidate, a socialist, a human being presented to the people without the PR makeup applied to the fresh faces of actors and sports announcers. He and the FMLN deserved a fair shake, and, in my opinion, did not get it....

For more reading about Handal, try:


Fascinating analysis, thanks, Tim!
Curt Hopkins said…
I met a former guerilla in San Sal who said he left the FMLN because he believed Handal's authoritarian streak and his ideological militancy got worse after the war ended. I don't know the man and I don't wish to cast aspersions on him, but from what I can ascertain he is largely responsible for the FMLN's steady retreat from the average Salvadoran's political self-location. I think the current generation, groomed by him, "purified" of heterodoxy, will be even less capable of serving up a challenge to Arena, at least nationally. Would El Sal have been better without him? Hardly. But I wish the inclusion of the war years had endured during peace.