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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 174 | Enero 1996


El Salvador

Democracy in El Salvador: A Difficult Birth

The Salvadoran exprience is basic to a reflection about the possibilities of building democracy and of proposing “another” socialism. Will the democracy that never was and the revolution that never came carry El Salvador towards the democracy and the socialism that will be?

Jaime Barba

Until the March 1994 elections, El Salvador's political scene was monopolized by two of the fundamental political forces that made the Peace Accords possible, as the results of those elections largely reflected.

The FMLN emerged in legal political life as a grouping that had questioned the archaic institutional order head on for over a decade, but knew how to shift gears at the appropriate moment. It is the only political force in Latin America in the 20th century that managed to convert itself from a social "redemption" option into a real option for power. That distinguishes it from other groups that also supported armed struggle but ended up as just one more force on the political scene Columbia's M 19, for example. Beyond any other qualitative consideration, the over 300,000 votes obtained by the coalition that the FMLN headed in the 1994 elections confirms the existence of an expectation whose development and growth in certain social sectors was neither artificial nor merely "ideological."

On the other hand, the business sector grouped around Alfredo Cristiani that facilitated the peace negotiations expressed ARENA's "moderate" sector to a degree. This sector emerged from the turbulent 1980s catalyzing the political initiative that won majority electoral support. The elections did not prove it wrong. ARENA is the only radical rightwing force in Central America that, emerging from its own ashes in 1979, legitimately increased its quotas of political power and social influence in only some ten years.

Democracy: Forbidden Fruit

Although one notable result of the Peace Accord refers to the possibility of an unfolding of democracy, both of these fundamental political forces had a diffuse, ambiguous and even mistaken understanding of it. Those who fed confrontation during the war did not propose democracy as a focal point that could articulate the country's overall stability. Any hint of democratic practices within El Salvador's contemporary political process was always seen as a threat to the dominant state of things. Even when less orthodox political dynamics emerged from side favoring social change, democracy was seen as "limiting" the historic project of change. It was always a forbidden fruit.

Hence the left, in both its armed version (guerrilla forces) and its expression as electoral opposition (the Communist Party until 1979 and some Social Christians and radicalized Social Democrats), inscribed the issue of democracy in the framework of transforming the overall system. The left's apple of discord wasmethods violence v. non violence. Social revolution would make socialism possible, and though it was called a "Latin American socialism," it was contradictory and indiscriminantly anchored to the virtues and defects of the Soviet matrix, so called "real socialism." Democracy thus appeared incarnate in other political forces called "democratic sectors" to mark the distance. When armed struggle began in El Salvador in 1970, these perceptions were codified in the political conceptions of the time.

A Case Study: The Sandinista Revolution

In the 1970s, armed struggle in El Salvador and Central America in general attempted to open space for structural transformations that it was believed would adopt a socialist perspective. In those first years many even spoke of "the worker peasant alliance with proletariat hegemony," and of installing "a popular revolutionary dictatorship." Any government before that would be a "step to socialism." Expropriation of the basic means of production and national development through the state apparatus were essential components of the revolutionary program.

Nicaragua's example is relevant in this sense. The FSLN, which "embedded" its initiative of social change in the nation between 1978 79 thanks to the effective ideological flexibility of its leaders, was not immune to the temptation of state socialism. We can now characterize the Sandinista revolution as the last classic social revolution, with cooptation by the state, revolutionary armed forces and nationalization of the economic system, even though its public discourse and some of its policies were notoriously far from real socialism. Its economic designs succumbed to the rigid examples of revolutionary orthodoxy: the state as the fundamental axis of the new accumulation process and mega development projects as vectors of economic transformation. The exercise of democracy during the ten years of Sandinista hegemony in Nicaragua could not be sustained; the economic logic sabotaged the political commitments to build a less rigid scheme of social coexistence.

It was hoped that a more developed stage would follow in which the revolution would no longer need so much from those criticizing the Sandinista perspective. The "adversaries" would succumb and pluralism would be stable. But pluralism differs from consensus. In democracy, attempting to always reach consensus resembles totalitarianism. And "administering" pluralism should not mean exercising permanent and all embracing vetoes from state power. "Social" vetoes, if they emerge, could enjoy consensus and be used in areas of national interest. Constitutions, it is assumed, are the result of consensus.

One of the bitter lessons of the Sandinista experience is precisely that it tried to parcel out pluralism. While this guaranteed political stability at certain times, in the long run it drained the revolutionary project of credibility among those who, though adverse to it, did not try to destroy it. Legitimacy, pluralism, public liberties, tolerance and the rule of law are components of a formula that has still not gelled in the contemporary processes of change.

Despite all this, it should not be forgotten that US policy toward Nicaragua was based on the principle of discrediting the novel Sandinista proposal as "communist" even though it not depend on a single party, did not exclude private property, and was not aligned with the Soviets. Without ignoring FSLN errors, intimidation by the successive US administrations undeniably played an important role in the "abandonment" of the original project that triumphed with the Sandinista victory in 1979.

Democracy Is Not a Waiting Room

There are essential conclusions. Democracy cannot be a dimension in which quotas of responsibility are "distributed" relative to the amount of force that a political project has; nor is it the exclusive patrimony of those who deliberate about politics and express themselves through parties or organizations. Democracy is also not a program to be "carried out." It is a way of daily life that permeates the practices and institutions of a social structure. This life style is not immune to contradictions, but is also not confrontational. Although democracy is more than a method, it should not be confused with a specific level of development in societies.

Those in Central America who were inspired by the socialist vision 25 years ago in its most practical but no less dogmatic version have still not understood that the fall of the USSR and crumbling of Eastern Europe, the current crossroads in Cuba, the new Chinese turns and the Vietnamese search, are clear indicators that time for another political change has arrived.

The post electoral struggle in the FMLN clearly demonstrates the difficulties of accommodating to this new situation. Although it is a generally positive situation, it was unexpected and did not form part of the primary design that inspired social rebellion or any of its variants. Those who do not accommodate to it are waiting for the new popular waves to become disenchanted and, in the meantime, view the current "democratic moment" as a good political time to win space, gain influence and develop social political dynamics that will somehow set off a political catharsis that brings the strategic objective closer. The stale, statist image of socialism still glimmers only in the eyes of those who think that democracy is just a waiting room.

Though the rigidity of that view merits criticism, it is also understandable. What can nurture a political perspective open to democracy if the democratic dimension was never seriously considered except as an instrumental political form? Armed struggle in El Salvador aligned with socialism in the 1970s and 1980s, and state socialism at that, in which the democratic task was an adjective, not a social consciousness. Democracy did not go beyond being an ethereal idea unable to mobilize social energy. The revolution was to move toward socialism, maybe passing rapidly through democracy. It was an orphaned socialism with democracy as a lesser evil.

Those who have now pragmatically abandoned the socialist option, eager to accept the new realities, cannot "invent" democracy by magic. Democracy is not a political banner. Exercising democracy is an open, historic, ongoing and complex process, requiring political time to sift out perceptions and practices. There are no anointment rites. It is hard work with no past tradition.

"Democracy" of the 1960s

Since its foundation in the early 1960s, the Christian Democratic Party in El Salvador formally put itself at the "center" of the political spectrum, albeit in the midst of an absence of democracy. When this party had to choose in 1979 80 between taking on state responsibilities at the greatest point of ungovernability in contemporary national history, or contributing to a national pact to revamp the structural crisis and avoid the consequences of war, it chose the crown of thorns. Not even the Christian Democrats, despite considering themselves the upholders of democracy, could keep from being engulfed by political authoritarianism. Although effective freedom of expression began in 1984, it had far more to do with the counterinsurgent platform than with the consolidation of progressive positions in the state structures.

After 1932 democracy was invoked to exorcise "communism" and became part of the political regime's caricature. With the constitutional tone of the 1960s, the caricature became "representative democracy." This is paradoxical, since it was precisely in those years that the military system began to consolidate and institutionalize itself.

The National Conservative Party was the chrysalis that brought the military, hardline businessmen and technocrats to the forefront in the 1960s, in perpetual cycles of political power. The national security doctrine, ORDEN and "developmentism" are the genuine expressions of this political regime void of democracy, which made a word game of representativity since even electoral processes, the formal mechanisms for concretizing the representation of interests, were delegitimized and ceased to function. The military system paid homage to the western democratic tradition, but its political projection denied it in practice.

Making Democracy Possible

The lack of a democratic image is a common denominator of both the left and right in El Salvador. What we have experienced in El Salvador since 1992 is not the refounding of democracy, but the initiation of an historic period in which democracy will be possible and tangible. Savage capitalism is the form that material development has historically assumed in our country. It has been a predator of people and the environment and did not allow democracy to prosper. Its dynamic and its poor results in terms of social wellbeing only favored some segments of the national conglomerate. This cold data should not be hidden; it should inspire the peaceful relations we all want today.

Although the social explosion of the 1980s has a clearly identifiable organizing source, it would not have been possible without the existence of lamentable living standards. Some of the structural factors that made a national war inevitable are without doubt the expropriation of communal lands in the 19th century, the advance of coffee production with no benefits for the direct producers of this luxury item, an industrialization conceived of solely in accumulation terms without ecological considerations of any type, an attempt at agricultural modernization through cotton production that ignored the living conditions in involved areas, and urban growth where irrational economic vectors have been imposed. The absence of a visionary perspective among the most important business leaders made this capitalism ever more savage.

The obstacles that keep democracy from "breathing" are also present in the clichés now dominating national politics, with incorrect concepts, decontextualized and learned in daily confrontations. An attempt is being made to hegemonize democracy according to what hegemony is understood as in El Salvador social political dominance.

The war ended, but without having resolved the structural imbalances. The Peace Accord only reflected an accommodation by the political system. For the political actors who made the break with authoritarianism possible, the new stage opens a waiting period that, if not used well, could unleash new social turbulence. Politics could possibly orient how the social situation evolves in the near postwar future, but only if the structural economic factors do not enter a new cycle of tension.

Today's challenge is how to construct a national coexistence inspired in democracy, without trauma and with low profile social conflict, without appealing to the orthodox focus that suggests that all responsibility for social welfare should fall on the state, and without succumbing to the proposals of those who put all social regulation on the market. If this happens, "governability" a concept currently used indiscriminantly by all will depend on concretizing a socioeconomic formulation whose starting point is the need to reverse the structural tendencies that promote social upheaval. Neither reformist gradualism nor technical solutions without social content will suffice for change. Heterodox propositions are needed.

And the Popular Organizations?

Formulas that postulate that political parties are the only genuine political expression also obstruct democracy. This argument is not very attractive in a country such as El Salvador, where in modern history the logic of traditional political parties excluded those who rejected the creed of the established order. Does this mean that all organizations that have emerged since the 1970s were only a temporary substitute for parties, and become useless now that political peace has been declared? It is one thing that some unions and other forms of grassroots organization have lost credibility among the population in recent years, and quite another that all forms of popular organization are senseless.

Although not stated explicitly, the daily practice of the political and social forces demonstrates that these organizations are seen as senseless. The post war institutionalization to which the left subjected itself in an attempt to embrace "modern politics" has "shrunk" its organizational capacity. In the short run this is undoing its recent political image and, most critically, dematerializing its proposal. To continue calling groups like the UNOC and the UNTS "grassroots organizations" is inaccurate. Although they emerged from a torrent of social action, their current bureaucracy and practices show them to be ghost like caricatures of grassroots organizations. Social solidarity networks are one of the unique aspects of grassroots organizations, and these are being left by the wayside.

The "division of labor" currently existing among political parties, grassroots organizations and nongovernmental organizations has largely abandoned a critical posture toward the current situation, which could lead to a fragmentation of the political sphere: parties for elections, grassroots organizations for responding to state policies generally with protests and not proposals and NGOs for promoting "local development."

The Electoral and the Political

The idea that the electoral sphere is the only proper space for political practice plays a fundamental role in this. This "truth" is promoted today not only by those who previously advocated adhesion to Western democratic traditions, but also by those who, out in the cold without their old certainties, run quickly to whatever appears "normal and common."

The vision prevailing to date on the left regarding the high electoral abstentionism in recent Salvadoran elections reinforces the idea that elections are the exercise of politics. When the Christian Democrats were defeated at the polls by ARENA in 1989, the left argued that it was a "punishment vote" for their failure to keep their promises. ARENA's sustained electoral rise since 1984 has been attributed more to its financial superiority and control of the media than to factors that explain the national sociopolitical process.

But if other elements are not considered, no analysis of abstention will move beyond the "electoral circuit." The following four pieces of data also need to be taken into account, at the very least: 1) the 1980s marked the most important emigration out of El Salvador in the nation's history; 2) the emergence of diverse non Catholic religious practices has changed attitudes toward political participation; 3) the rapid expansion of the urban informal sector in the 1980s has translated into a lowering of political expectations; and 4) the war has decisively marked the national political scene.

We must recognize that if the majority of the population votes "to the right," this is not determined by manipulation or subliminal messages. Regular people, who still have hope in the political system and its expression at the voting booth, only want to live better. There is no complicated confusion of interpretations and disquisitions when they go vote; their ideological tendencies are completely secondary. It is not that they support the advance of neoliberalism or reject a vision of social change. It is that ideology is a privilege of the leadership elites.

Even though the 1980s saw the greatest mobilization of conscience in Salvadoran history, some today refuse to accept that the configuration of political action goes through multiple social interrelations that are hard to understand conceptually. Peasants are not revolutionary per se, and cooptation by the state or insertion into it do not guarantee lasting structural transformations.

The social rebellion of the 1980s and the apathy that was its counterweight in various social sectors during the same period are two sides of the same coin. Political involvement or withdrawal result from a complicated and not always distinguishable process of assimilating to the dominating order of things. Limiting politics to the electoral sphere means putting a "straitjacket" on citizens' multiple expressions.

Elections are not a synonym for democracy. When democracy is experienced, the electoral process emits signals, modifies its dynamics and facilitates peaceful and lasting solutions to national problems. But elections are only one part albeit perhaps an indispensable part of the complex fabric of the political process. Ignoring them leads to dictatorships. Absolutizing them restricts the broad exercise of democracy. The existing electoral system not only encapsules citizens' will, but also boxes all of society's complex political interactions into a dia summum.

Healthy electoral reform should go beyond procedures. It is important for efforts be made to get rid of fraudulent practices once and for all, for suffrage to be promoted and for the fan of representativity to be opened more.

Political parties should not be the only vehicles for people to express their perception of reality. Voter apathy, approximately 50% of the voting age population in El Salvador, is not the result of the left's marginalization from the legal political scenario or the traditional political parties' lack of legitimacy. The form and dynamic of both old and new political parties and their divorce from and constant manhandling of grassroots interests have contributed to the reality that citizens do not identify with them.

The fall of state socialism and other changes worldwide do not necessarily have a negative connotation. Today more than ever, the goal of a dignified life for all human beings has more possibilities of advancing. As long as the state socialism model dominated, almost all social revolutions after the 1917 Bolshevik one were based on its concepts and ideas, which petrified later in revolutionary programs.

In Latin America, building socialism was the order of the day after the Cuban guerrilla victory headed by the July 26th Movement, a group whose social base and understanding of concrete reality differed from the small and slower Communist parties on the continent. Even so, in less than a decade, all original ideas and distancing from Soviet socialism gave in to the overwhelming existing reality.

Parties or Movements?

Although much of Latin America's guerrilla vein of the 1960s and 1970s was not under Soviet tutelage, the inspiration it assumed criticized the exclusively peaceful methods that the Communist parties proposed for the revolution without questioning their paradigm of building socialism by coopting the state. Latin American Marxism Leninism was not very different in essence from Soviet Marxism Leninism.

However, insofar as Latin American guerrilla movements became political forces as a result of taking root in the popular sectors, they were penetrated by other perceptions of social change that were not inspired by Marxism: liberation theology and all the practical consequences that Vatican II had within the Catholic Church; the radicalization of some Social Christian groups, generally expressed through the rupture with their respective Christian Democrat parties; and other nationalist organizations.

This logically modified the social bases of the political forces that promoted armed struggle. And although the discourse of most of the leaders of those forces still insisted on Marxist Leninist postulates, the bases were accepting different visions of the world without trauma and adjusting them to the realities of each country. The intellectual atheism inherent in the Marxist conception still strong within the Communist parties could not be sustained in an overwhelmingly peasant Christian world. There was no alliance between Christians and revolutionaries there was rather a fusion of wills.

Some guerrilla organizations proposed since their foundation to create "a new type of party," yet promoted organizing structures very similar to "classic" cells. Nonetheless, a vast social network without preestablished formulas was being constructed in practice. These organizations were parties by their leadership dynamism, but were movements by their social articulation.

In El Salvador, the array of organizations that made up the FMLN had many of these characteristics. When the war ended, however, the current leaders did not reflect on these aspects since they considered them part of the past to be overcome.

If the intricate reality existing during wartime demanded heterodox practices and concepts, what makes the current moment different? If maximalism always noted by Ignacio Ellacuría in the concepts of Salvadoran revolutionary leaders could not stay on its feet during a prolonged war, why now, with the limits of armed confrontation eclipsed, should new maximalist responses appear? Bitter lessons should not be buried in the casket of memories; they would be more useful as amulets.

The Revolution that Wasn't

Once again the ghost of "reform or revolution" has begun to walk the streets. The fact that the Peace Accord did not modify structural injustice does not make it either useless or insufficient. It was what was possible. Today, a realistic perspective of social change in El Salvador should not try to resuscitate social confrontation plans that, although very effective in the past, are not predicted to succeed in the new situation for the simple reason that the army of democracy does not use violent methods.

The forms of struggle that were so decisive during the war have now grown old. To not understand this could be problematic for the country's future. The political reform expressed in the Peace Accord is not a version of that criticized reformism that we have known. The revolution that wasn't is not waiting in the dugout to come in as relief pitcher when the time of political reform is over. Those who think that "consolidating" democracy through social conflict even when they lack viable proposals to resolve the critical problems they are confronting will bring the strategic objective of socialism closer are the same ones who view democracy as an almost magic resource that can be dismissed with little difficulty.

Socialism has been faultily drawn. Its historic possibilities lie in criticizing and reformulating past realities. Without democracy no social economic perspective can project itself into the future. State socialism is proof, as is the development of capitalism in Latin America.

The highly versatile and diverse democracy that is slowly gaining ground in El Salvador should not be considered a replica of the dominating Western democratic ideal. A varied group of actors and concepts is interacting in the building of democracy in El Salvador, molding an open dynamic policy that brings us nearer to living without great chasms than those reflected by strident party claims. Democracy is not the exclusive patrimony of one political project. Designs, platforms, experiences, intuitions and contrasts make it real.

The Socialism that Will Be

Those who still believe that state socialism is part of the program are up against a huge challenge. If they continue to think of the Peace Accord as reform and believe that "surpassing" or "consolidating" it will evolve into revolution, El Salvador's still fragile democracy is headed for danger.

Reform or revolution is now a false dilemma. The existing socioeconomic order is capitalism. Its successor was to be socialism, but in emulating both systems, socialism plunged down the ravine of the always alive and surprising social dynamic. Reforming capitalism is the road to surmounting it, it was said. Socialism can bring democracy into its carriage, it was also said.

But capitalism's reforms, at least in Latin America, were reproduced another way. And state socialism, by its centralization, its social imposition and its economic predetermination, excluded democracy.

In the future, socialism may possibly recover the important humanist tradition of the social struggles inspired by socialist concepts of transformation, but it will not be "that" socialism that was definitively rejected in 1989. Today's democracy will no longer be a waiting room to a "higher order," but nor will it be where politics are caged. Democracy will be a way of life.

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