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Judith Chubb, Political Science


      As is reflected in the questions that follow, I am deep in an "intellectual discomfort zone," trying to work through how what we saw and heard in El Salvador relates to my broader understanding of injustice, violence and peace-building. Visiting El Salvador twenty years after the peace accords brought an end to the brutal civil war, I struggle with what "peace" means in a situation like this. I keep replaying in my mind Oscar Romero's statement that "a just peace isn't the peace of the cemetery." What is the function of memory in El Salvador? Of course, it is essential to preserve the memory of what happened for future generations, and it may have therapeutic value for the victims to have their pain acknowledged and validated, but I wonder whether public recognition of martyrs (in symbolic actions like the Monument to Truth or the naming of Monseñor Romero Boulevard) has become a substitute for justice to the victims and the survivors. In the absence of perceived justice on the part of the victims, is meaningful reconciliation possible? Can the society come to terms with its past and move forward if there is no acceptance of responsibility and no accountability for the perpetrators (not just physical but political and moral) of the atrocities? The Truth Commission documented the victims, but memory and history remain highly contested. Without accountability, does memory keep open the wounds of the past, preventing the society from coming together to move forward? And what do history and memory mean for the new generations that never directly experienced the pain of the war? Thirty years after the end of the war, would trials or other forms of accountability serve any purpose or would they repolarize society? Is it better to close the book on the past and move forward, as the general amnesty attempted to do?

Recordatorio de Monseñor Romero, Arzobispo de San Salvador,
asesinado el 24 de marzo de 1980

© Justin Poché, History

     What are the prospects for building a more just society in El Salvador? The war was caused by a highly polarized society and the refusal of established elites to consider any type of political or economic reforms to provide a meaningful voice and some measure of social justice to the poor peasants who constituted the majority of the population. After 12 years of war and at least 79,000 civilian victims, the two parties signed a peace accord, which put in place the framework for the development of the country up to the present. The war ended, the troops on both sides were demobilized, opposition parties were allowed to organize and run for office, basic human rights were guaranteed, the Left even came to power in 2009. However, the peace accords deliberately sidestepped all issues of economic redistribution to focus solely on political inclusion, and the guerrilla forces agreed to a neo-liberal economic structure as a condition for the end to armed conflict. While democracy and respect for human rights are certainly fundamental steps forward, does this agreement forestall deeper social and economic changes in El Salvador? With regard to political power, how much difference does ideology make if policy options are constrained within the confines of existing economic structures? How much difference has political participation made in the lives of those social groups who supported the guerrillas? The "leftist" government has focused on populist policies like providing milk, shoes and uniforms for schoolchildren rather than structural change; it is increasingly trapped between the necessity for political and economic compromise on the one hand and the frustrated expectations of its supporters on the other.

     Can El Salvador today be considered a country "at peace" when gang violence has now reaped more victims than 12 years of civil war? I was struck by the fact that the upsurge in criminal violence apparently coincides with the signing of the peace accords. What are the deeper causal factors at work here? Is it just a question of U.S. deportation of criminals back to El Salvador? Why have criminal gangs and organized crime found such a fertile terrain among marginalized youth? To what extent is this a legacy of the failure to settle the social and economic issues that gave rise to the civil war? Looking at the bigger picture, the problem is not just the physical violence of the gangs, but the underlying problems of structural violence (poverty, poor education, poor health care) which the extreme levels of criminal violence at least in part reflect.

     What then are the prospects for meaningful change? In the absence of a shared public commitment to change, have the underlying issues of poverty and inequality that drove the civil war been "resolved" through mass emigration? Given the rather grim picture of El Salvador's economic, social and human resources with which we were presented, I find myself wondering if encouraging emigration may be the most effective anti-poverty tool available to the government. The country needs massive investment in human resources (especially education), infrastructure and environmental protection. But where would the money come from? The current "left-wing" government does not have a solid parliamentary majority, and it is not even clear if it will remain in power after the next elections. Might remittances be the most effective anti-poverty tool, because they don't require sacrifice from existing elites?

vol. 10 (2013)
vol. 10 (2013)
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