I don´t think I´ve ever been in El Salvador at a time when the past weighed so heavily on present events. At every gathering of FMLN supporters and activists I´ve attended in the past week, festive or serious, the first thing people do is congratulate each other: “Felicidades!” as if the election were a new baby or a college graduation. It is touching, as if everyone who has worked for or with the FMLN all these years is given collective credit for having created this victory somehow, no matter how small their contribution.
But then, almost immediately, brows furrow, anxiety enters expressions, there´s a sense of people squaring their shoulders and steeling themselves. “We have to take some time to celebrate this,” they say, “because now the real work begins.”
After, or rather during one of these events, an all-night vigil at the cathedral in downtown San Salvador for the martyred archbishop Oscar Romero, the “saint of the Americas,” assassinated by death squads 29 years ago, two friends of mine, both former guerrilla fighters, and a younger FMLN activist, one of the young men active in Guarjila in the attempt to defend the election against massive ARENA fraud (by importing foreigners en masse as I wrote earlier) decide to take a break from listening to the sounds of revolutionary Latin American folk music by various bands who have come to play outside the cathedral, and dash off towards a nearby dive bar one of them appears to know quite well. It´s probably one of the worst looking holes I´ve ever been in, anywhere, from Istanbul to Tegucigalpa to Cape Town. The entrance is almost invisible from the street; it looks like no more than a dark gap between the rickety market stalls that crowd in on all sides. Inside it´s basically a warren of corrugated tin walls, blackened by the smoke from portable fryers and grills, where shapely but tired looking girls wearing stretch pants and mini-skirts tend the various small watering holes that inhabit the warren. In ours there´s a battered television playing music videos silently and a monstrous electronic jukebox that screams absurd pop music at full volume two tables away. The red formica-top tables are sticky with spilled beer. At least one patron has collapsed in a stupor, a few others sit in various stages of inebriation with an array of brown Pilsner bottles in front of them.
We drink, and make the obligatory toasts to the electoral victory, and the conversation begins with dreams and hopes, plans, advice for the new government (which won´t actually take power until June 1st), for the party (which doesn´t have a clear majority of seats in the National Assembly) of desires to see even the beginnings of a cleansing of the structures that have permitted and promoted nothing less than grand theft and organized murder on a countrywide scale for two decades now, and basically before that, forever. The task is enormous, and who is going to do it? Everybody knows the opportunists have begun getting their portfolios ready to maneuver themselves into the free money of a patronage job, whether they belong to the FMLN or other parties.
And what about the rest of the activists, the people who have worked tirelessly and with little recognition and considerable risk for the cause all these years? As the empty beer bottles pile up on our table, the conversation moves from present and future to the past. The war stories begin: the bloody battles, prison, betrayals, miraculous rescues, mere survival. One of two men says suddenly, and with a huge weight of guilt that seems to hover over his sunken shoulders: “So many times I ask myself: why am I not among the dead? Why did this one die and not me?”
Everybody´s traumatized, everybody´s crazy. Everybody has PTSD, if you want to put it that way, but there isn´t any treatment, except booze, and there isn´t any relief except the hope that things will change someday if those who still can just keep working hard enough. This is the real cost of the system we have so blithely or torpidly or hopelessly accepted all these years, and allowed our government to promote throughout the world, because it promised all sorts of shiny gifts, and delivered them to a happy (or unhappy) few: Not just the dead, but the living too. Exhausted girls serving medicine to traumatized men in a place full of darkness and noise.