In Memory of Schafik Handal: A Leftist Leader Faithful to the Poor
FMLN leader Schafik Handal died of a heart attack on January 24, returning from Evo Morales’ inauguration as Bolivia’s new President. Multitudes in El Salvador, the rest of Latin America
and even the Palestinian town of Bethlehem, his immigrant family’s original home, mourned his death and celebrated his life, his struggle and his legacy.
José María Tojeira
In their desire to live the moment and even reveal the future before it appens, many Salvadoran journalists asked what future there was for the Left following Schafik Handal’s death. While it’s not the time to answer that question and the future can’t be foretold with the clarity some would like, this historical leader, swathed in death by the affection of so many people, offers us certain norms that the Left, particularly its leaders, should preserve if they want to remain relevant in El Salvador. Although I don’t intend to analyze the deceased FMLN leader’s figure or legacy exhaustively in such limited space, I believe that at least three of his qualities are fundamental for the future of the Left.
Passion for justiceFirst, no Salvadoran Left would even be conceivable without a real passion for justice. Schafik had it, as demonstrated by the enormous number of humble and good-willed people who turned out to see him off. In a country where the differences between rich and poor are systematically increasing, the wealth we all create is very unequally distributed and institutions still favor the strongest rather than be egalitarian and impartial, one can’t talk of the Left without proposing structural changes in the fields that, once reformed, would guarantee greater social justice.
Coherent and austereSecond, it is essential to the Left’s credibility to maintain coherence among its actions, its thinking and its experience. Some of Schafik’s decisions and appreciations may have been wrong, but his discourse was always in line with a desire for justice and the elimination of suffering to which the poorest are systematically and often unnecessarily subjected. But it wasn’t only his discourse that was coherent. He had an austere lifestyle and even after many years in high leadership positions he never sought to use politics for his own personal enrichment.
Austerity should form part of any political way of life, especially when we live in a country with so much poverty. Any possibility of the Left playing a representative role in our history is wiped out by self-serving deals, the search for privileges and corruption.
A man of dialogueThird, Schafik was a man of dialogue. While he was alive the Salvadoran Right went out of its way to deny this quality of his, when in fact it is the traditional Salvadoran Right that has habitually followed authoritarian lines and always opposed dialogue. But according to some of those who participated in the peace accord negotiations, this “historical leader” displayed a great ability to listen and seek solutions to the problems that logically emerged during the discussions.
Dialogue as a capacity to understand other people’s positions and use them to make constructive proposals is essential in politics. But it is even more necessary to the desire to reform society and make headway in reconstructing a social fabric battered by lack of solidarity. Perhaps because the Right doesn’t want change or transformations, it has a firm tendency to oppose any sincere dialogue on national problems.
Recognized by the peopleSome of these qualities should be common to all politicians. The Right’s tradition has been different: defending freedom with a pernicious tendency to deregulate society on behalf of the economic freedom of the strongest. The Left’s tradition has been to defend solidarity and equality, with a pernicious tendency towards strong domination by the state as the entity responsible for regulating equality. But in the midst of these differences, and from an ethical point of view, nobody can ignore Schafik Handal’s desire for greater social justice in the country, the coherence between his thought, words and life and his openness to a frank dialogue to resolve the serious problems afflicting El Salvador.
Political moments all too frequently lead to propagandistic manipulation of the different parties’ personalities. The Right tended to paint Schafik as an ogre. Death—which is not as bad as they say, because it often reveals and weighs up people’s values—has shown us a different Schafik from the one his political adversaries wanted to portray, particularly during elections.
He was a leftwing leader, with all the possible problems of the political Left. But he was also faithful to and coherent with a set of values. And he was above all faithful to a poor people stripped of opportunities. Multitudes of Salvadorans have recognized Schafik’s human and political qualities beyond any propaganda. It is quite a wake-up call for those who believe that grassroots opinion can be manipulated by controlling the mass media.
José María Tojeira, sj, is rector of El Salvador’s “José Simeón Cañas” Central American University. This article was first published in the news daily Co-Latino on January 31, 2006.