Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 294 | Enero 2006


El Salvador

The Death of Schafik Handal: Challenges Facing the FMLN

“Handal wanted to be remembered as someone who fought for democracy to give the Salvadoran people the chance to decide for themselves,” said Bishop Rosa Chávez at the revolutionary’s funeral Mass. Before the funeral, Handal’s wife Tania Bichkova reflected, “How happy it would make you to see this sea of red across San Salvador,” and hundreds of thousands of people chanted “Stay, stay, my comandante, stay.”

William Grigsby

Beyond the pain it has brought so many poor Salvadorans, Schafik Handal’s death could represent an extraordinary opportunity for the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). From my distant but affectionate viewpoint, I would like to take the liberty of mentioning certain aspects of the new political moment following his physical disappearance that seem relevant to me.

A demonstration of
affection and conviction

The FMLN, its organization, its proposals for the country and its leaders have taken root in what some call “the profound El Salvador”; in other words among the Salvadoran people. This explains the massive, emotional grassroots tributes full of affection and above all conviction. The people who came to say goodbye to Schafik over five consecutive days didn’t do so in response to some party protocol, morbid curiosity or media hype; in fact the media’s blackout of the coverage was even more morbid. Most had their own motives, which in turn had profoundly ideological roots. This powerful political demonstration thus has a qualitative meaning that is substantially different than any other demonstration in FMLN history.

The seeds of conscience

The FMLN will have to learn to live without Schafik after El Salvador’s March 12 legislative and municipal elections. By then they will have not only greater wisdom, repose and equanimity, but also reason to celebrate, because the results will surely be far better than those predicted by the polls up to January 24, the day of Schafik’s unexpected death They may even be as good as three years ago.

Jesuit priest José María Tojeira says that Schafik’s death is increasing consciousness in that poor country with a terrible distribution of wealth, and such growing awareness favors the country’s leftist thinking and political Left. In fact, while any increased vote for FMLN candidates would contain an element of tribute, it would also represent greater awareness. And that’s not simply the result of a tragic event, but of a seed sown some time ago.

No caudillismo

Schafik’s leadership did not derive from improvisation, publicity or even the war. Nor has it donned the caudillo style of neighboring forces such as the FSLN. It was forged over many years and its main foundations have been ideological firmness, political flexibility, personal coherence and revolutionary consistency, which are unfortunately increasingly rare qualities among revolutionary movements, particularly in this part of the world.

Following the 1992 peace accords, Schafik’s leadership grew out of natural recognition, first by FMLN militants and then by broad Salvadoran social sectors, and was finally crowned on the national level during the 2004 presidential campaign.

The FMLN’s broad
collective leadership

That difference between a leader and a caudillo, or political boss, is more than just a question of nuances. It has been possible because at the end of the day Handal is the result of a collective leadership born of war and developed during peace that transcended the guerrilla commanders and the party’s Political Commission and was passed down to a set of intermediary cadres. This broad collective style was vitally important in enabling the FMLN not only to survive—despite the apocalyptic prophecies of the deserters and similar types—but also to grow and conquer unprecedented political spaces.

Some disguised their political cowardice, personal shame and ideological blasphemies, alleging that the others were orthodox, behind the times, troglodytes, dogmatic… Curiously, having abandoned ship, hurling themselves into the sea of democracy and the market, they have run aground as individuals and politicians of the “modern Left” precisely by getting stuck in the past. People don’t believe them, no matter how deservedly they came to be guerrilla commanders or political leaders. By contrast, people still believe the FMLN. Schafik is one of the most important though not the only one to “blame” for this.

“Now what?” is a question that implies an erroneous conception of Schafik’s role; it assumes that with his death the FMLN has lost almost everything or has no future after him. This is a serious error of judgment. Schafik’s leadership was not that of a caudillo, among many other reasons because the FMLN’s cadres, militants and voters didn’t let that happen, and I believe they won’t allow it to happen with anyone else either.

The challenge of collective leadership

One of the things that will be most missed now is Schafik’s political experience—and let’s face it his skill—at conciliating sometimes acrimonious and barbed differences among party members that were the sole result of short-sightedness. Contrary to the image of a divisive figure that the Right sowed in Salvadoran public opinion with such treachery, Schafik was in fact a unifying figure; and there’s no reason he won’t continue to be even in death.

Now it’s up to the FMLN’s other comrades to respond to the challenges ahead. Enormous responsibility now lies with Salvador Sánchez Cerén (alias Leonel), who has assumed leadership of the FMLN. He’s the only remaining member of the FMLN’s historic leadership still in the party, and his experience will be crucial in conserving, stimulating and consolidating collective political leadership at all levels as a strategic component in ensuring the organization’s future. That very collective nature of leadership is the essence of the democratic life of a revolutionary organization whose objective is not to take power to become a good administrator, but rather to transform the system. New leaders will emerge naturally.

Dreamers with a conscience

With new leaders in a collective leadership, the FMLN will have to revolutionize its party structures on all levels and in all sectors so they can absorb and channel all of the energy Salvadorans displayed during Schafik’s funeral events. Until now, these structures have stagnated, often entrenched in their own power disputes and with disproportionate ideological zeal. The FMLN will have to find the Salvadoran formula for reconstructing an organization that can bring together ideological militants, social fighters, electoral activists and, above all, dreamers who not only want to do things, but have enough conscience to exploit the opportunities to transform the reality in which El Salvador is still trapped.

William Grigsby Vado is a Nicaraguan journalist.

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