Dolores Hernandez
Robert Leleux

Witnessing Democracy in El Salvador


Robert Leleux

A version of this story ran in the April 2014 issue.

Above: Dolores Hernandez, a member of the Committee of the Mothers, or Comadres, at the Monument to Truth and Memory in San Salvador.


Earlier this year, I traveled to El Salvador with my friend, activist Sissy Farenthold—a trip arranged by the human rights organization SHARE El Salvador—to serve as an international observer of the Feb. 2 presidential election. It was the fifth such election since the 1992 Chapultepec Peace Accords ended the nation’s 12-year civil war. El Salvador’s history reads like Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s The Autumn of the Patriarch, filled with slaughter, tyranny and horror, so any free election is cause for celebration. But this one held special significance, as it was the left’s first real opportunity to capture the presidency.

It’s possible that you’ve followed the op-ed kerfuffle that the ascendancy of the Salvadoran left has caused among U.S. diplomats. On Jan. 3 The Washington Post published a jeremiad by Elliott Abrams, assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs during the Reagan administration, provocatively titled “Drug traffickers threaten Central America’s democratic gains,” in which Abrams railed about the probable victory of the leftist FMLN. A few weeks later, William G. Walker, George H.W. Bush’s ambassador to El Salvador, countered with a palliative piece in The New York Times called “Don’t Fear El Salvador’s Leftists.” As it turned out, the FMLN was forced into a runoff against the right-wing ARENA party in the general election, and a rematch was scheduled for March 9. (On March 16, El Salvador’s electoral court confirmed FMLN candidate Sanchez Ceren the winner.)

In many ways, the FMLN and ARENA are El Salvador’s warring factions of the 1980s translated into contemporary party politics. At times this translation is jarringly literal, allowing scant distance to develop between El Salvador’s bloody past and its present. This is particularly true as regards ARENA, which was founded by Roberto D’Aubuisson, the death-squad architect who personally ordered the murder of, among thousands of others, Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was shot dead while saying Mass on March 24, 1980. Though I witnessed no violence at any of the three San Salvador polling places where I served on election day, and while all the election officials I met appeared professional and polite, it was eerie to hear crowds intoning ARENA’s party song, with lyrics calling for the country’s transformation into “a tomb where the Reds die.” Not exactly “Happy Days Are Here Again.”

I made this, my first trip to El Salvador, because I’ve long been moved by the pluck this tiny nation exhibited in facing down a U.S.-backed reign of terror throughout the 1980s. Today, our country’s influence over Salvadoran politics is kinder, but undiminished. In fact, El Salvador seems a hub of U.S. imperialism in Central America, subject to a kind of surveillance that would make Edward Snowden gasp. In yet another recent op-ed, this one published by the San Francisco Chronicle on Jan. 30, professor Hector Perla Jr. writes that the U.S. establishment has always taken a proprietary attitude toward Central America, treating it as “our backyard.” El Salvador’s latest presidential election, Perla argues, “has huge symbolic implications in the United States, where U.S. ideological sponsors seek to keep allies in power to score political points for their preferred economic models.” Perla notes that the Obama administration declared official neutrality in the Salvadoran elections—“an improvement over Bush administration officials and Republican members of Congress threatening Salvadorans with deportation of their loved ones in the United States if they elected an FMLN president”—but few Salvadorans are oblivious to the limits of U.S. neutrality. ARENA supporters eagerly tout the party’s ties to the U.S. Congress, while FMLNers emphasize the importance of baby-stepping their way toward social justice. “If we move too fast,” one man told me, “we risk a backlash from the States.”

While touring the capital, our bus convoy passed the U.S. embassy, said to be the second-largest in the world. It is a tremendous, Kafka-esque pile, part of a compound the size of several city blocks. This impressive site is a natural subject for photography, but our guide informed us that photos of the embassy are prohibited. Everyone on our bus complied, but several high school students on the bus following ours attempted to sneak a few pics on their iPhones. Their vehicle was promptly halted and boarded by embassy guards, who demanded to see the students’ photos, and to erase them—which, I was assured by our guide, was well within the officers’ authority. I was later told that the guards had been perfectly friendly and apologized to the teenagers, saying the scenario seemed ridiculous even to them. “But we’re being watched, too,” they said, gesturing to the cameras lining the compound walls. “If we didn’t do this, they would see, and we would get into trouble.”

“If we move too fast,” one man told me, “we risk a backlash from the States.”

Foremost among the remarkable people I met in El Salvador were the Comadres, the mothers of the disappeared. During the war, many mothers lost entire families to the death squads, including Dolores Hernandez, who spoke and sang to us about the deaths or disappearances of her husband, two brothers, a brother-in-law and four children. To survive that kind of loss is astonishing, but to convert it into a quest for justice boggles the mind.

Sissy had met these brave ladies before, having traveled to El Salvador many times during the ’80s and ’90s. (When I was churlish enough to cavil about our comfortless hotel, she assured me that it trumped the rebel safe house where she’d stayed on her last trip.) Along with her cousin, Genevieve Vaughan, Sissy paid for the rental of the Comadres’ first proper offices. Before that, they’d gathered under a mango tree in the archbishop’s courtyard. Sissy’s reunion with them was one of old compañeras.

For the Comadres, the present is infused with possibility and challenge. El Salvador’s Supreme Court appears poised to overturn the amnesty law that for 20 years has protected perpetrators of wartime atrocities from prosecution. Days after the court agreed to hear arguments in that case, however, San Salvador’s conservative Archbishop Alas shuttered the nation’s most prominent human rights archive, Tutela Legal. Since then, he has effectively confiscated the evidence by which countless crimes might be tried. In response the Comadres are touring the U.S., raising money to establish a new organization, Tutela Legal Doctor Maria Julia Hernandez, named after a renowned worker for Salvadoran justice.

I found cynicism impossible in El Salvador. During my time there, a song far catchier than ARENA’s played on a loop in my head. I don’t know if you recall Frank Sinatra’s “High Hopes,” the jingle of John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign? There’s a lyric that goes, “Just what makes that little old ant think he’ll move a rubber tree plant?” It seemed an appropriate metaphor for the Salvadorans, those of the right and the left, who are pursuing democracy as a fresh endeavor with a palpable spirit of revelry and adventure. Returning to the U.S., with the Sturm und Drang of CNN blaring in the Houston airport, the contrast couldn’t have been plainer.