El Salvador's 1992 Peace Accords -- To Forget Is Forbidden

Headline on signing of 1992 Peace Accords

Twenty-nine years ago yesterday, on January 16, 1992, Peace Accords brokered by the United Nations were signed to end El Salvador's bloody civil war and put in place a series of structural and constitutional reforms.  Today in El Salvador, Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele is openly questioning the value of those accords.

At the Peace Accords signing ceremony, UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali stated:
 The long night of El Salvador is drawing to an end...It is no exaggeration to say that, taken together, and given their breadth and scope, these [peace] agreements constitute a prescription for a revolution achieved by negotiation
In his introduction to The UN and El Salvador: 1990-1995, Boutros-Ghali wrote:
El Salvador in 1995 could confidently be called a nation transformed. Where once human rights were violated with impunity, a new framework to ensure the rights of citizens was being put into place, bolstered by new democratic institutions. Where for years social injustice, civil strife and politically motivated violence oppressed millions of people, Salvadorians were instead devoting their labours to reconciliation, reconstruction and long-term human development. 
Contrast that with remarks now made by Nayib Bukele on a visit to the village of El Mozote on December 17, site of the largest single massacre event in Latin America:
The war was a farce.  They killed 75,000 people between the two sides , including the 1,000 from El Mozote, and it was a farce just like the Peace Accords....

They were a farce [the Peace Accords]. A farce, a negotiation between two leaders, but what benefit did the Peace Accords bring to the Salvadoran people? they were signed on January 16, 1992, and what did they gain? what did the Salvadoran people gain? ... Do we have security, no. Do we have social development, justice, investment in education, health, or something? no.... They negotiated it for themselves.  Why, if they were so good, didn't it bring any benefits to the Salvadoran people?

One has to wonder at this politician who would choose to go to the site of a massacre where the Salvadoran armed forces killed around 1000 children, elderly women and others, including more than 400 children under age 12, and say the war was a a farce, a joke.   And he made these remarks just after the testimony of Sofía Romero, a woman who had been raped by those same soldiers and then lost most of her family in the massacre.

Bukele's trip to El Mozote was a campaign stop before the February 28 national elections.   While speaking at the opening of an academic center, Bukele slammed his political opponents, attacked the country's current human rights ombudsman and attacked the former ombudsman David Morales.   (Morales is currently the lead lawyer for the victims of the El Mozote massacre in the trial which seeks to hold former military leaders responsible for the atrocity).   

After Morales tweeted that the war and accords were no farce, Bukele doubled down on his position tweeting "tell that to the hundreds of thousands of persons killed and left disabled, by those who abandoned them and profited from the business of war and another business called the "peace accords."  

While Bukele was extolling his government's delivery of material goods to the residents of El Mozote, he has been an obstacle to bringing them justice for the massacre.   Bukele has refused to comply with a judicial order requiring the president and the military open military archives for inspection of records related to the massacre.   That stance drew condemnation from James McGovern, a US Congressman from Massachusetts:

For second straight year, Bukele's government did not hold any events to commemorate the signing of the peace accords.  Ironically, however, his decision to denigrate the accords probably had the impact of increasing the number of events and people talking about their importance.

With the government not acknowledging the 1992 Peace Accords, yesterday civil society organized events to honor historic memory and the 29th anniversary.  Crowds gathered in the civic plaza in front of the San Salvador cathedral where multitudes had joyously celebrated 29 years earlier.   An event took place at the wall of memory at Cuscatlán Park where the names of some 25,000 of the more than 75,000 victims of the war are inscribed.  And historic memory was also celebrated in El Mozote in an event rejecting the words of the president from the month before.

A broad coalition of a hundred academics and prominent Salvadoran and world figures signed an open letter to Bukele, rejecting his description of the Peace Accords. (English translation here).  Their letter ticked off a list of the achievements of the Peace Accords:

Without the Peace Accords, the conflict would have continued to destroy lives and sabotage the economy.

The Accords were not useless nor were they a sham. Among their most important achievements we can mention:

  • Armed Forces removed from politics and subordinate to civil power.
  • A reliable electoral system that enables alternate power without political violence.
  • An environment of freedom in which civil society can debate, without fear, the country's problems.
  • A free press that has contributed to unmasking corruption cases and sheds light on problems that need to be corrected.
  • Guarantees of free access to information.
  • Reforms to the judicial system that have contributed to the Supreme Court of Justice and judges trained in the Judicial Training School acting with the independence expected in a healthy political system.
  • The creation of the Office of the Attorney for the Defense of Human Rights.
  • The effective separation of the powers of the state.

Perhaps the broadest rejection of the president's words came on social media.   Using the hashtag #ProhibidoOlvidarSV -- To forget is forbidden -- a flood of tweets shared images and stories of those who had suffered and been the victims of El Salvador's internal conflict.  

My mother Carmen Sermeño Zelidón, my father Jorge Alberto Ramírez Vega, disappeared since August 1981. Without a grave, no mausoleum, no altar, or anything to place a flower on, only the memory to honor their lives and sacrifices; may it last forever
For the suffering of my grandmother, my Mom, my uncles and cousins.

An online site has been set up to collect and share these memories in one place:  Espacio de Memorias y Derechos Humanos.

There is a difference between saying that the Peace Accords were a farce and saying that El Salvador has failed to achieve the fruits of the end of the war.  Salvadoran society continues to be plagued by high levels of violence.  Today the violence is frequently the product of gangs, an export from the US after the Peace Accords, and after the US stopped funding the violence of the war. El Salvador continues to suffer from gross levels of inequality and economic stagnation which governments on the right and the left failed to address while lining their own pockets.  By many measures, the promise of the Peace Accords still remains unfulfilled.

Yet Bukele scarcely acknowledges that the Peace Accords made his ascent to the presidency possible.  He rose as an FMLN politician in a party which could only exist as a result of the Accords.  He won democratic elections which were not stolen by the military.  He could create a political movement challenging those in power without having his followers locked up or disappeared.       

So why is Bukele attacking the Peace Accords?   To celebrate the Peace Accords and the reforms they instituted would be to celebrate many of the norms which Bukele has begun to trample.   He cares little for the institutions of constitutional democracy.   The separation of powers checks him from acting freely.   He attacks those who would champion human rights.   While the Peace Accords intended to remove the military from domestic affairs, Bukele sends the military out into the country with ever more frequency to perform all sorts of internal tasks from policing to delivering food packets, to capturing grasshoppers, to enforcing sanitary quarantines of entire towns.  

Moreover, one of Bukele's constant themes is to denounce his opposition as a corrupt pact between ARENA and the FMLN.  Because the Peace Accords are signed by the FMLN and the government then controlled by ARENA, he attacks the peace agreement as part of their supposed corrupt bargain.

These are the efforts of a president to deny and revise history so that the lessons of history cannot be learned by the current generations.    Yet there are still many committed to never forget and to seek justice and to implement the aspirations of the 1992 Peace Accords.    #ProhibidoOlvidarSV -- To Forget is Forbidden.      


David said…
The last five paragraphs are an excellent summary and commentary! Well said.
Rip said…
As noted, the Accords brought an end to formal combat, but didn't bring peace to El Salvador. Like treating a symptom and ignoring the disease, it failed to address the root causes of the war, and the disease continues to fester in Salvadoran society. Boutros-Ghali basically said, "OK, war's over, you can all go home and start over now." That's not how peacemaking should work (see Galtung) if it's to be held up as a model for the world to admire. The Accords weren't an end unto themselves. They were a means to an end, and their efficacy must be measured by what came next.

The Salvadoran Truth Commission (STC) could have made a difference, but was neutered early on and concluded prematurely. More specifically, it was required to ignore "common" forms of abuse. It found the Right committed 85% of urgent abuses (e.g., assassination of Romero). Can we also conclude they committed 85% of more "common" forms of abuse (e.g., civilian rapes)? No, but it's impossible to say we can't. That's the problem with restricting an investigation to just the things "certain powers" want investigated.

War criminals were granted amnesty and many left El Salvador before the amnesty law was suspended...23 years later. The amnesty law was replaced in 2019 with the so-called "reconciliation law," which can't bring justice to victims of war crimes given its restrictions on what can be investigated and for how long. It's worth noting that, regardless of Boutros-Ghali's self-congratulatory comments, the U.N. denounced El Salvador's amnesty law from early on. Is indicting Bukele's rhetoric via a comparison to Boutros-Ghali's apples and apples?

Meanwhile, post-Accords politics pushed El Salvador to a neoliberal and eventually dollarized economy. When the wheels were set in motion, the colon was trading 8.75:1 against USD. But Salvadorans I know say it was little more than an overnight change in currency symbols, a dozen eggs for 1 colon (12 cents) became a dozen for a dollar.

Did the Accords alleviate the underlying social conflict? No. Did it make a dent in economic injustice? No. Did it force the biggest perpetrator of war crimes, ARENA, to show remorse? No (not to endorse FMLN). Did it curtail U.S. ongoing overt and covert involvement in Latin America? No. Did it require the U.S. to admit to or make reparations for their culpability in the El Mozote massacre, use of agent orange, etc.? No. Salvadorans I know don't believe the Peace Accords did them or the country much good, and by most measures I'm aware of, they're right. "Farce" is ugly language, but by focusing on the soundbite, do we drown out the message?

I can't say I see how Bukele has a disregard for the "institutions of constitutional democracy." How many U.S. presidents issued no executive orders? Only Harrison, but he died 31 days into his term. The average is over 200 per presidential term over the last several decades. Time will tell whether Bukele turns Trump-style wanna-be dictator and fabricator of alternative facts. I hope, and still believe, he's above that. He's acknowledged he only has 5 years to get everything done. Trump talks of being president for life, and the fat lady may not sing January 20th.

I also can't say I see Bukele as bashing both major political parties in an effort to destabilize El Salvador's democracy. He bashes an ideology, as did the people who elected him. The FMLN political party is not the FMLN of the Civil War. They have become as corrupt and economically neoliberal as ARENA, waving a red flag to mask the ideology they practice. ARENA has at least remained true to their oligarchical ideals. The chasm between them that existed in 1992 is no more. They're peas in a pod, ideologically more similar than distinct. Criticize the shared ideology and the Venn diagram shows it impacts both parties.

Love your blog, Tim!