Filmmaker Don North Examines El Salvador’s Past and Hopes for Its Future

Nearly two decades removed from a bloody and divisive civil war, El Salvador finds itself at a critical junction in the young history of its republic. Don North’s recently released film, Guazapa: Yesterday’s Enemies, revisits the origins of the war in order to historically contextualize the country’s contemporary challenges in achieving social justice and sustainable democratization. Through combining past footage with testimonies from survivors, North shows that any policy-based remedy to El Salvador’s current crime- and drug-related problems must be rooted in a comprehensive understanding of the country’s oppressive past.

What follows is a brief review of Don North’s documentary, as well as Mr. North’s assessment of the first year of Mauricio Funes’ presidency.

For more information on Guazapa: Yesterday’s Enemies visit: http://elsalvadorancivilwar.com/

Revisiting Guazapa

By COHA Research Associates Whitney Cole & Alexander Brockwehl

Guazapa: Yesterday’s Enemies begins with the monumental event in the country’s modern history – the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero. It was he, more than any other contemporary Salvadoran, who possessed abiding empathy for the poor and instilled hope in the hopeless. His tragic death, as well as the massacre of innocent civilians that took place at his funeral, constituted the last straw for those modest heroes who, like Romero, were apostles of nonviolent change. The bloody civil war that followed is illustrated through scenes from Don North’s and Dr. Charlie Clements’ first Salvadoran venture to Guazapa in 1983, when they lived with the guerrillas who were locked in a life-and-death struggle with the established U.S.-backed government.

Twenty-six years later, North and Clements revisit Guazapa in order to illuminate the conditions of a country nearly two decades removed from civil war. They return to find many survivors whose testimonies assert that while ostensible stability has arrived to the country, the shadow of the conflict – in which 85,000 innocent civilians lost their lives – still lingers and continues to shape the modern Salvadoran experience.

As shown by the survivors’ stories, life for many Salvadorans has only marginally improved since the war. Organized gang violence has replaced the political violence of the 1980s and ‘90s, with vulnerable, marginalized youth entering the drug industry for lack of viable financial options. El Salvador’s economy has reached rock bottom, increasing unemployment and further dividing the impoverished masses from the privileged elites. Amid increasing corruption and a highly polarized electorate, Mauricio Funes was elected in 2009, just before the film’s release. Funes is presented in the film as a potential source of change and hope for El Salvador, but it is still too early in his term to determine whether or not this speculation will be substantiated.

North and Clements’ documentary also highlights a number of themes that are relevant to a study of not only El Salvador, but also of twentieth- and twenty-first-century hemispheric relations. While not belaboring the point, the film makes frequent reference to U.S. intervention in the 1980s. At the time, the U.S. government rationalized supporting a series of Salvadoran military regimes on the grounds that they were democratically elected, but as Doctor Clements points out in a debate on “Crossfire,” free and fair elections mean little when human, legal, and civil rights are not being protected by the elected government. Clements’ assertion that clean elections do not guarantee good governance challenges the virtues of strictly procedural definitions of democracy, and calls into question the oft-relied upon American perception that legitimate elections constitute the lone prerequisite to acquiring the designation of being a democracy.

In combining past footage with a glimpse of present-day El Salvador, the film exposes the psychological ramifications of the civil war that extend far beyond the quantifiable. A 1992 Amnesty Law, issued when the Arena party had total control of the federal government, ensured that the military regime would be exempted from any form of legal punishment for its role in countless deaths and disappearances. This law left the loved ones of those who died during the epoch of military rule with a desire for justice that will never be satiated. As North and Clements’ film suggests, in order for El Salvador to progress it will have to assume the daunting task of reconciling the oppression and violence of its past with the realities, needs and goals of the future.

El Salvador: A President without a Party and a Party without a President?

By Don North, Independent Filmmaker

A year ago, I attended the inauguration of Mauricio Funes as President of El Salvador, after covering the election campaign. My recent documentary Yesterday’s Enemies concludes with the dramatic narrow victory of Funes that enabled him to become president of his nation, which inspired the Salvadoran nation to believe change may at last be possible and that a new era in El Salvador’s history could be starting. I had reported on the bloody civil war in 1983 when El Salvador was a battlefield for the U.S. and the Soviet Union in the Cold War. At that time the FMLN was considered the most powerful leftist guerilla group in the America’s. Funes won the presidency skillfully, taking on the concept of change in a traditionally conservative society, but one that was tired of right wing governments incapable of transforming poverty, inequality, injustice and insecurity into something better.

Now that the June 1st anniversary of President Funes inauguration recently passed, the FMLN and Funes are changing. But many Salvadorans now feel they have a President without a party and a party in power without a President. Funes continues to face challenges from the left and right. Business and conservative sectors do not trust him. In attempting to win their confidence, Funes has reached out to conservative leaders and the financial sector. He is following policy recommendations of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. He has made many concessions and thus, the sizeable leftist wing of his FLMN feels that he has drifted the party too far to the right. Nevertheless, faced with a right-wing bloc in the National Assembly that threatens to prevent initiatives he supports from passing, Funes anticipated the inevitable split within the ARENA party. Bills that were thwarted years ago are now likely to become law. The price is to be challenged by officials within his own FMLN, but Funes has shown remarkable skills of being capable of achieving FMLN goals and he has still retained a good deal of support within his party.

In September 2009 in a speech to the United Nations, Funes asserted he is leading a government of national unity. The same month he was named the most popular president in Latin America.

Certainly Funes has moved toward the center in order to achieve his campaign promises of hope and change. His situation is similar to that of President Barack Obama, as the pluses and minuses involved here are very similar. Both took over the presidency from conservative administrations. Both presidents have constituencies in their parties, which are farther to the left on the political spectrum than their leader.

Funes’ centrist stance has enhanced his popularity and made it more likely that his government can legislate improvements in the economy and implement harsh military measures to stem the lawlessness that claims an average of 12 murder victims each day.

Funes also has distanced himself from the traditional hard line FMLN policies embraced by Vice President Sanchez Ceren. This maneuver has proved successful in the polls. Recently Ceren was in Venezuela and strongly supported Hugo Chávez and lashed out against the United States. Funes publicly rebuked him and Ceren was forced to acknowledge that only President Funes could set the course of El Salvador’s foreign policy. The FMLN hard liners have seemingly accepted the fact they cannot appeal to a majority of Salvadorans and have settled into an uneasy alliance with the popular President.

Funes’ tough stance on reversing his country’s environmental crisis has won him support on both the left and right, although is not likely to immediately help the economy. The President refused to grant mining rights for the Canadian-owned El Dorado gold mines, citing severe cyanide contamination and the use of scarce water supplies to extract the ore. Pacific Rim mining company is now suing the El Salvador government for hundreds of millions of dollars, claiming their rights under the US-Central American Free Trade agreement.

Another popular move on Funes’ part was to send 5,000 troops into the streets to combat the rising crime and murder rate. So far, however, the bold martial initiative has had little effect.

The main challenge for Funes is dealing with the nation’s serious economic crisis. The standard of living has dangerously sagged in recent years to the extent 40% of Salvadorans live in poverty. Unemployment is also in the range of that 40% at the same time fewer dollars are flowing back into the country resulting from shrinking remittances from the US. With the worldwide downturn in the economy it is unlikely El Salvador can dramatically forge ahead anytime soon.

After only one year it may be too early to assess the results of initiatives launched by Funes, but so far they have been popular and have sustained his high approval rating. Last September, his approval rating was at 84%, the highest in the 15 Latin countries surveyed.

Funes ultimately found many substantial successes throughout his first year. Some of the most important are the fact that he strengthened the country’s agricultural sector and its ability to produce its own food needs by increasing agriculture production and legalizing land possession. He also initiated an expansion of the school lunch program. In a move to bolster local economies as well as help school children, he contracted to produce 2.8 million school uniforms to be freely distributed. As a part of this same program, he also improved Public Health programs and eliminated charges in public hospitals.

In a major step to healing war wounds and promoting reconciliation, Funes made a formal apology and announced an investigation of the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. However, he was criticized by the right for failing to also apologize for the abuses committed by FMLN rebels during the war. The UN estimated that the FMLN was responsible for 15% of abuses while ARENA was responsible for 85%.

On the foreign relations front, Funes improved relations with the US during a state visit to Washington. Funes made a positive impression in his address to the United Nations General Assembly and has taken an active initiative to resolve South American relations, including a leadership position in resolving the post-coup problems of Honduras.

In one year it is unrealistic to expect that a new President can change a situation that El Salvador has experienced since its birth as a republic. In spite of some progress in the face of worldwide economic malaise, Funes has proved incapable of fighting crime and violence, which is presently the country’s main crisis. He has failed to effectively fight the corruption of previous regimes and has made little progress in reversing the inequalities of this society, which due to its construction of wealth and power, is more in keeping with a feudal monarchy than a democracy. For Funes, the honeymoon is over. He promised hope and change during the election campaign, and these are now very much overdue.