Some places are capable of immersing you totally and immediately in their reality; this has been one for me and many others. And I´m not an easy person to be so drawn.
Probably it´s due to the people I know here, like my friend Sandra, who grew up in upstate New York but who has lived here for over half her life now, has a son whose father is Salvadoran, and is one of those whose adopted country is now and for always her real home.
“The process,” the political movement that perhaps began with the formation of guerrilla movements in the 70s (and yet has an older history: the guerrilla forces took their name Farabundo Marti, from the leader of an indigenous revolt in the 1930s, when there was already a strong Marxist movement in the country as well) has continued to consume the lives and passions of thousands of Salvadorans and expatriates like Sandra too, has never faded, nor, obviously, has it reached any kind of overarching victory in all these years since the civil war ended.
So staying with Sandra, in her little cement row house on a shady cul de sac in one of San Salvador´s sprawling barrios is like being plunged immediately and deeply into the political realities of the country, for example in conversation over morning coffee the day I arrive, with a middle-aged woman named Lila who stops by to talk about what´s happening with the campaña sucia, the smear campaign being waged in the press against the left. She mentions the accusations that the left is brainwashing children, which like all these accusations is meant to call up the FMLN party´s history as a guerrilla force, and in this case, probably their use of child soldiers during the insurgency. But this is not an abstract reference to her. As we sip our coffee she shares that her son joined the guerrilla army at 14 and died in combat. Her face, so animated a moment before, becomes stoic as she copes with the obvious pain of that memory. She tells how, for a child whose parents were in the struggle and for whom the war and the movement were a daily reality, adult understanding comes early. “I never urged him to do it, but it was his decision.” “We can´t hide from the history of that time, from the realities of the war,” she says, knowing that others will construct that history as it suits them, and they have the power and money to turn the complex horrors of war into a simple story of “terrorism,” “communists” and “brainwashing.”
There´s concern on a number of fronts by FMLN activists like Lila who went through the war — concern that the young presidential candidate Mauricio Funes, a TV personality and Obama-like reformer, with no real agenda for structural change, will not be able to convince many people that there is enough real difference between the parties now to make it worth voting. And that meanwhile the right-wing ARENA party, even though its 20 year rule has brought no noticeable improvement to most people´s lives, will still succeed in scaring many others with the bogey man of the FMLN´s guerrilla past.
But for many FMLN supporters, there is also the real concern of fraud –massive or not, enough to make a difference in the now statistically tight race.
That same day, Thursday, in the afternoon, Sandra and I board one of the careening buses on the trunk road north out of San Salvador toward the Honduran border. We are going to the town of Guarjila, a rural community where there is strong support for the FMLN. A group of activists has set up an impromptu roadblock for traffic coming in from nearby Honduras.
The reason is strong evidence that ARENA has been paying Hondurans to cross the border, providing them with false ID numbers, and preparing them to vote in the election on Sunday. It´s believed that this was done during the legislative and municipal elections in January, possibly on a massive scale, and that in some of the contested areas it may have made the difference between victory and defeat.
The right-wing newspaper El Diario de Hoy (most of the papers are right-wing, but this one froths at the mouth a good deal more than some) has a small story accusing the FMLN suporters in Guarjila of harrassing Hondurans who have simply come into the country to buy medicines. Vigilantism is the obvious implication, the papers are full of stories of pre-electoral violence and threats between groups of supporters.
Sandra, whose work as a grassroots educator, one of those whose job has been to help keep the movement going all these years by providing information and training to communities like Guarjila, is supposed to give a talk and show a video there about the evidence of fraud in the last Mexican elections, when the reformist candidate Lopez Obrador lost by a hair to US-backed Calderon.
She arranges for a friend to come and stay with her ten year-old son Camilo when he gets home from school, a situation her work makes somewhat common, I understand. I´m still ragged from the overnight flight, but don´t want to miss this chance to see what´s happening in an area where the realities of what´s at stake here are very clear. Guarjila is one of a number of small places in this mountainous border region where the guerrilla war was principally fought, and from which thousands of people were displaced by US supported army terror in the 1980s.
The brightly painted bus blasts pop tunes from a deafeningly good set of speakers as it tears up the highway, taking the curves with a speed that torques you flat against the side of the bus or the person sitting next to you at every turn. Sandra and I spend the time catching up on mutual acquaintances and napping during the two hour trip of about 40 miles through the parched brown Salvadoran countryside (this is the bottom of the six-month dry season), pocked with the occasional green stand of fruit trees — mangos, bananas, cocoanut palms — or slashes of growth along the muddy river banks.
We have to wait an hour and a half in the regional capital of Chalatenango for another smaller bus to take us to Guarjila, over a road that seems like a dry river bed in places, full of rocks that slow us to a crawl. I´m seeing all around me a country that looks frozen in time, almost 20 years since the war ended and the businessmen declared that now development and modernization could really begin…
We arrive in the town as evening falls, and I am immediately transported into a scene I became familiar with during the war, when I took groups of well-intentioned gringos to regions like this to learn about the realities of the war. Seemingly everywhere there are carefully hand painted banners and murals honoring guerrilla heroes of the war, and staunch defenders of the community like the Jesuit priest Jon Cortina, six of whose brother priests were murdered by the army in 1989 along with two women who kept house for them. A red FMLN flag hangs over the community center. An open air sound system plays old revolutionary songs, and there´s a small movie screen with red and white plastic chairs set out in front, right there at the crossroads, where the video Sandra has brought will be shown. Last night, she tells me they apparently screened the entire four-hour version of Steven Soderbergh´s CHE, which I haven´t even seen yet.
And there at the road block are wiry men wearing not the red and white baseball caps and tee shirts of the FMLN´s civilian supporters, but the unmistakable black and olive fatigues and cloth caps of the old insurgency. Frozen in time: the war has never ended here in some way.
They tell us that yes, Hondurans have been confronted on the buses coming it and the tactic has been to tell them in no uncertain terms: it´s all very well if you are coming to shop or see a doctor, but your ID papers stay with us, and we´ll give them back to you as soon as you leave later today…
There´s more to the story — it´s going to turn into a long night in Guarjila, but the computer I´m working on is slowing to a crawl with today´s internet traffic, so I´ll have to take this up later. In the meantime I wanted to say that there´s a story about what it was like for me in the war years in the guerilla zones here that tells just one tale of that time, but one that might shed some light on why those of us who were in El Salvador in those years still care about what happens here.