Finding the Future in El Salvador

Thirty years after Mississippi Freedom Summer, 3,000 international observers return from El Salvador’s postwar "democratic elections." Thirty years after voter registration workers Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney were killed in our country, we are again called to stand with people long insulted by a history of "democratic" mirages as they dare to build free and fair processes. North Americans in solidarity with these struggles must look beyond a "sitcom" approach to history and reject the temptation to see them as separate episodes without past or future.

Two days after the Salvadoran elections, The New York Times declared "victory" for ARENA, the well-established party tied to death squads. "The left," they stated, "is given scant hope." Most of us who were observers, who watched 10 hours of voter lines creep along more slowly than our sweat, were resigned to accept their verdict. Mourning the popular movement’s loss, we trudged into the Center for International Solidarity.

"Whatever we win is victory, no matter what it is," declared Mercedes Peña, an FMLN representative. "Before we had no FMLN mayors or deputies. Now we have 20 in the legislative assembly."

Other speakers emphasized that to move in 16 years from being a persecuted social movement running from gunfire in the hills to participation in elections is a great success. Pro-claimed one, "The task ahead is to celebrate what we’ve won."

Celebration does not mean rest. Salvadorans are careful to distinguish between trusting their power together and trusting the electoral process. The United Nations estimates that 25,000 registered voters were not allowed to vote at sites and 300,000 eligible voters were denied voting cards. Like our history of poll taxes and literacy tests, the Salvadoran voting process continues disproportionately to exclude the poor.

Our friends were immediately laboring to correct the irregularities for the run-off elections. Peña spoke of the continuing importance of North Americans’ solidarity, citing the sanctuary movement, civil disobedience in response to human rights abuses, delegations, sister-city relationships, and pressure on the U.S. Congress to block military aid.

"Future struggles may not take the same form," Peña said. "We need to see how the politics of brotherhood can be adjusted to support us now. When we talk of building a new El Salvador and ‘the people united will never be defeated,’ " she concluded, "we are talking about this in this room."

WITHIN A FEW hours, our Salvadoran hosts had recommitted us. Long ago, they’d learned of our short-term memory. For SNCC members in ’64 and Salvadorans now, inviting solidarity from those of us privileged enough to forget the past entails patience with our failure to keep our eyes on the prize.

The sweat and suffering of 1964 Mississippi are shamefully similar to that of El Salvador: widespread poverty, hunger, and illiteracy. Like Mississippi, El Salvador’s agricultural-based economy, where 2 percent of the population owns 60 percent of the land, is choking in an increasingly industrialized world.

Just as integrated fountains don’t resolve grueling poverty for African Americans, peace accords and elections won’t guarantee land, water, education, and safety for Salvadoran children—unless viewed in light of the history from which they emerged, the deep-rooted vision they proclaim. This is the history Salvadorans evoke when they celebrate Romero’s spirit 14 years after his assassination. This is the persistent vision propelled by refusal to forget 75,000 dead loved ones. (All of our election observer trainings began with Salvadoran history from at least 1932.)

Occasionally we who have privilege enough to forget the past, will, under legal constraints, dig up voices of our past—such as at the Medgar Evers murder trial this year, when we heard the testimony of dead witnesses, long buried along with Evers’ memory. But if we choose to, we can also remember Fannie Lou Hamer, jailed for sitting at a "white" lunch counter. A beating (by two policemen who were found not guilty) left her with kidney damage and permanently damaged vision. But Hamer continued her voter registration work, and formed the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the Freedom Farm Cooperative where 5,000 people grew their food.

In El Salvador, at least 15 candidates or election organizers have been killed since last fall. Three weeks before the elections, machine-gun fire from a suspected death-squad car was intended for Nidia Diaz (now FMLN deputy in the Legislative Assembly), leaving 18 bullet holes in her car. Mirtala Lopez, a FMLN youth group leader, was left a sign with death squad initials in her vandalized home. The government has written off these recent murders, attacks, and threats as "common crime" and not prosecuted them.

Like the Mississippi freedom fighters, the Salvadorans can’t let the memory of their people die. They can’t accept the principalities’ declaration of defeat or let The New York Times dole out their hope.

But like the disciples, many of the rest of us are weak. We forget Jesus’ promise of resurrection. Even when he is standing before us, we agree with the world that he is dead.

The civil rights and Salvadoran struggles have illustrated for all the world the radical power of faith and the daily incarnation of Jesus’ resurrection. A "sitcom" approach to history will surely kill our vision. Two thousand years of telling the story may be our only hope.

Jennifer Johnson was a Sojourners editorial staff assistant when this article appeared.

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