Twenty years of peace in El Salvador

Manuel Montobbio
Diplomat and doctor in political science specialising in the Central American peace processes
Manuel Montobbio

Manuel Montobbio

This year began with the twentieth anniversary of the photo of the embrace between President Cristiani and the members of the General Command of the FMLN, following the signing of the El Salvador Peace Agreements, and it will end this 15th December, with the anniversary of the photo of the final handover and destruction of arms, which concluded the demobilisation of the FMLN. Twenty years from that crucial moment in Tom Thumb1's metamorphosis, which lead us to consider the legacy of the peace process which made all this possible and its lessons for peace building, or for peace under construction. Since peace is always under construction: it includes peace processes, but peace is in itself a process. A process of the eradication of violence in its three dimensions, as indicated by Galtung: direct, structural —understood as the absence of democracy and of development — and cultural.

And perhaps that distinction leads us to one of the main paradoxes and at the same time lessons of this El Salvador which has democracy and development, yet is plagued by the violence of organized crime. Only the overcoming of structural violence, with democracy and the possibility of development, made it possible to overcome direct violence as a means of political action; in order to achieve negative peace it was necessary to build positive peace. But it is cultural violence, the idea which normalises the use of violence in social action, that which it is most difficult to eradicate, and that which takes most time, education, and the overcoming of traumas and habits; this largely explains the persistence of violence, not as a means of political action — on the contrary, this violence is opposed by the political actors — but as a means of collective action for unlawful purposes. Thus El Salvador faces today the challenge of overcoming this, which largely means overcoming cultural violence, building peace in the hearts, minds and souls of the people. Arguably this was partly the inevitable result of the normalisation of violence which led to the war and nourished it; far from seeing this as a failure, it would be more correct to see it as the final challenge in the construction of peace, something difficult to achieve without the overcoming of structural violence brought by the peace agreement, a peace which has been consolidated over the years, with no going back being possible.

Legacy or conceptual lesson on peace; but also operational and paradigmatic, as ONUSAL — the United Nations Observer Group in El Salvador, responsible for verifying and carrying forward the peace agreements — is Peacekeeping Operation which was to inaugurate and then become the reference model for the second generation of peace missions — those not only verifying the ceasefire and demobilisation, but also overseeing the political and socioeconomic transformations that constitute the real substance of peace -; and the experience of El Salvador's peace process would become the basic inspiration for the formulation of An Agenda for Peace, presented by Boutros-Ghali in 1992, reflecting the paradigms and key concepts through which peace processes have been seen since then.

Legacy in the collective imaginary, because of its intangible importance in the face of the prior History of fratricidal confrontation, the symbolic, referential, fundamental value of the possibility of agreement between Salvadorans. And that is why, apart from their content in itself, the Peace Agreements became the essential reference point for nation-building, the founding pact for contemporary El Salvador, of all and for all.

Legacy, in substance, of the instauration of democracy. Since although, as I noted in my book La metamorfosis del Pulgarcito. Transición política y proceso de paz en El Salvador. (The metamorphosis of Tom Thumb. Political transition and peace process in El Salvador), there may be many ways of seeing the Salvadoran process — at the international level, as a peace process, and at the national level, depending on the perspective, as a process of democratic transition, as a revolutionary process or as a process of transformation from the state of nature to the social contract —, visions concerning these processes which converge in the process, different ways in the way, there is one single point of arrival: a political regime substantially different from that which existed before the "coup of the captains" of 15th October 1979, which set off the conflict to which the Agreements put an end. A democratic regime from a polyarchic perspective. Since such is the substance of the "afterwards", the today in which the Agreements have moved from paper to reality. Democracy, however, in consolidation, what poses, when looking towards the future, to the actors both the challenge of consolidation -of the actors themselves and of the party system - and that of efficacy. Because citizens not only want their political system to be democratic, they also want it to actually respond to their needs. They want democracy to effectively mean development and governance.

Consolidation in which the fact that these twenty years of peace are being celebrated with the FMLN in power as a result of an election stands for a milestone and meanwhile a lesson of the peace process. A milestone of the process of the consolidation of democracy, since, as noted by Morlino, this can be seen to be definitive when the party that made the transition while in Government hands power over democratically in elections, and both citizens and parties can experience the reality of political pluralism, and the political system has at least one alternative party of government. Legacy and lesson for future peace processes, as the Salvadoran process is presented to us not only as one of the peace processes whose agreements have been considered by the United Nations to be completely fulfilled, but also as the only one in which a former rebel movement that exchanged the bullet for the votes has come to power thanks to them in application of the rules of the political game which they helped to create with the negotiation of peace. By showing us the possibility of such alchemy, this metamorphosis of bullets into votes, as one of the fruits and also characteristics of Tom Thumb's metamorphosis.

The metamorphosis of the Tom Thumb of twenty years ago into the Tom Thumb of today, a vantage point from which to look forwards, to the road ahead, the challenges which the future poses us. Feeling that if we could, we can. That the path is made by walking, and we are walking the path. That the future is possible, and it is yet to be written.

1. El Salvador is known as "Pulgarcito", or Tom Thumb, due to its small geographical size. (Back)