El Salvador’s Democracy Was Hard-Won. Now President Nayib Bukele Threatens It.

Nidia Díaz

Today marks 30 years since the end of El Salvador's civil war, which claimed over 75,000 lives. Nidia Díaz, a leftist guerrilla tortured by state forces during the conflict, discusses the war and how the democratic gains of that struggle are being undermined.

Guerrilla fighters in El Salvador during the country's civil war, 1983. (Scott Wallace / Getty Images)

Interview by
Hilary Goodfriend

January 16, 2022, marks the thirtieth anniversary of the signing of the peace accords that brought El Salvador’s civil war to a negotiated close. The twelve-year conflict between the US-backed right-wing military dictatorship and the leftist guerrilla insurgency left seventy-five thousand dead and eight thousand disappeared, with hundreds of thousands more displaced. In 1993, the United Nations Truth Commission report attributed at least 85 percent of that violence to state security forces and their associated paramilitaries.

The peace accords did not modify the unequal and dependent structures of accumulation in El Salvador, but they did open a new arena of peaceful political struggle. The agreement demilitarized the Salvadoran state, establishing the constitutional bases for liberal democratic institutions. It enabled the demobilization of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), the leftist front the guerrillas were operating under, and its conversion into a legal political party, which, nearly twenty years later, came to govern the country for two terms (2009–2019).

Today those democratic gains are being rolled back. Authoritarian populist Nayib Bukele became the first postwar president to not commemorate the signing of the peace accords, which he dismissed as a “farce.” Instead, he frames both the war and the peace agreements as a conspiracy between two equally corrupt and elite factions. Over the course of his two and a half years in power, Bukele has dedicated his government to the remilitarization of the state, the dissolution of the separation of powers, and the criminalization of his opposition, resurrecting the specters of dictatorship.

On January 16, 1992, Nidia Díaz was among the ten FMLN representatives who negotiated and signed the peace accords at the Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City. Díaz, the nom de guerre permanently adopted by María Marta Valladares, represented the Revolutionary Party of Central American Workers, one of the five political-military organizations that constituted the FMLN. By that point, she was well known for I Was Never Alone, the published account of her capture, detention, and torture by the state.

Díaz would go on to become the FMLN’s vice presidential candidate in 1999. She has served as a representative of the FMLN in the Central American Parliament and the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly, where she led the FMLN legislative group from 2018 to 2021.

In this interview with Jacobin contributing editor Hilary Goodfriend, Díaz reflects on the war and the negotiation process, the achievements and limitations of the accords, and their current reversals.

Hilary Goodfriend

To address the peace process, we should probably begin with the war. Why, in that historical moment, did people take up arms in El Salvador?

Nidia Díaz

Why did we Salvadorans confront each other, as children of the same nation? The causes have a structural origin, accumulated over two centuries — to give a starting point, particularly since the year 1932, a historic milestone that culminated in a popular insurrection that was quashed by the dictatorship that ruled for sixty years. That insurrection failed, but because it was crushed militarily in a massacre of over thirty-two thousand indigenous peasants.

It was a period of vagrancy; there was no work. There was a global depression that had a national impact. There was exclusion and marginalization. Wealth was concentrated in the land, in a few hands. The oligarchy sought to maintain its power.

Ten years passed. A 1944 strike, the brazos caídos strike, brought down the dictator, but the dictatorial forms of domination remained. There were efforts to legalize the Left in the 1960s, but they failed.

The international context also had an influence: the Cuban Revolution, the processes of armed struggle in Colombia, and more. The Left began to rethink its path to power. It was no longer just legal participation in elections. Instead, it could also be the path of armed struggle. There was a big debate within the Communist Party, which had waged enormous struggles, both legal battles and from underground. The whole debate was over the construction of a party, the revolution, and the strategy and tactics of struggle.

By 1975, all five of the organizations that would form the FMLN five years later had been formed. This whole struggle was underground — it was guerrilla warfare. But it was more focused on empowering the development of social struggle and popular organization because we really didn’t want a war — we wanted a social and political struggle. We combined forms of struggle.

The exhaustion of the political struggle was demonstrated by the electoral frauds of 1972 and 1977. The massacres began. People rallied around the National Opposition Union, which was an alliance between the Social Democrats, Christian Democrats, and the legal face of the Communist Party — this was the form the Left took. The sectors in power moved to halt this popular advance; by this point, they formed death squads.

In 1977, they carried out a large massacre to impose another dictator who had massively lost the elections, General Humberto Romero. Afterwards, they established a curfew, martial law. Everyone condemned that massacre, even Monseñor Óscar Romero, who had just been named archbishop of San Salvador and who everyone thought was conservative. Days later, they killed Father Rutilio Grande — who is about to be beatified.

At that time, President Jimmy Carter governed in the United States. Carter suspended aid to El Salvador in 1979 over human rights violations. On October 15, the last military coup in El Salvador took place, to depose the dictator. A revolutionary civilian-military junta was proposed, and many leftists entered the government. But by the end of December, the Left began to resign from the junta. The traditional military members start coming back.

The second junta then committed itself to genocide. That year [1980], the Revolutionary Mass Coordinating Committee (CRM) was founded, and, on January 22, it’s repressed, there’s a massacre. Days later, the leader of the Christian Democratic Youth is assassinated. On March 24, they kill Saint Óscar Romero, who had become not only the “voice for the voiceless” but also a facilitator of peace, because he had the capacity to dialogue with diverse sectors and was seeking a political resolution to the large confrontation that was coming.

On April 18, the Revolutionary Democratic Front (FDR) was founded, an alliance between the Social Democrats, Christian Democrats, the political face of the Communist Party, the CRM — a big alliance, a broad front against dictatorship. At the same time, the FMLN unification process was underway. By now there is more dialogue between the five organizations, which had been vying to be the vanguard of the process. They were convinced that no single group was going to have traction. There had to be unity between the revolutionary forces.

On October 10, the Farabundo Martí Front was founded. Immediately, it formed an alliance with the FDR, which proposed a program for revolutionary government and created a diplomatic commission to seek a political solution to the conflict.

Unfortunately, Ronald Reagan won the election in the United States, and he restored military aid [to the right-wing Salvadoran government] immediately. The oligarchy then assassinated the leadership of the FDR. The climate of confrontation grew.

This brought us to undertake a vast insurrectional effort on January 10, 1981. Although there was debate over whether it would be a protracted people’s war, we were social warriors above all, convinced that all this would be over soon. But we were wrong, because the empire got involved directly so as not to repeat what happened in Vietnam. Since they saw the Central American region as their backyard, they went all in.

The first counterinsurgency project was to totally crush the insurrection. But that didn’t happen: we retreated, we organized, we resisted, and we began to advance. So when many people believed that the FMLN no longer had the capacity for anything, it reemerged with certain actions.

It was the international community that, in August 1981, with the Franco-Mexican Declaration, recognized the FMLN as a representative force of the people’s struggle and legitimized the causes that provoked the civil war: political exclusion, socioeconomic marginalization, inequality, and North American intervention. Four different US counterinsurgency projects failed, though they were providing $2 million a day in aid by the end of the war.

Hilary Goodfriend

How was is that, after planning to take power militarily, the conflict ended with a negotiated solution?

Nidia Díaz

Everything depended on the balance of power. In defeating four counterinsurgency strategies, we had a revolutionary program to achieve: the democratic revolutionary government. In 1984, we changed to a “provisional government with broad participation.” In 1989, we no longer waited to be in power to hold free elections; we made a proposal to participate in elections in the midst of the war. But the war continued, and the factor that prolonged it was the North American intervention. If they had cut off aid and hadn’t salvaged that army, we would have defeated them militarily, because, in 1983, we wiped out the positions of the civil defenses, the paramilitary groups. So yes, we had our hopes, but reality was different.

Many people say, “Why did you negotiate instead of taking power?” Well, the more prolonged the war became, the less people wanted it. War is a state of exception that destroys human life. There is a high social cost. We ended up with eighty thousand dead, eight thousand disappeared, many exiled. Families were torn apart; we had many political prisoners. So we took advantage of the balance of forces in which we were situated as two equal parties to negotiate a political solution.

But I want to say this: if we hadn’t continued the armed struggle until the very last day, we wouldn’t have forced the oligarchy and the army to reform themselves, to cede. Because even a comma was decided with bullets. And for that reason, that national liberation struggle had a high price in blood. It was never a farce, not for anyone. It was between the Salvadoran state and the representative forces of a people.

Nidia Díaz as a young guerrilla. (Courtesy of the author)

After the Franco-Mexican Declaration, we sent a letter to the UN General Assembly that was read by Daniel Ortega, president of Nicaragua, in which we offered to open talks [on October 4, 1981]. But the first dialogue wasn’t until 1984. The counterinsurgent project was in crisis; the US was reassessing its aid, which at that point was a little over $1 million a day. It had trained all the battalions, and they had immorally legalized the presence of fifty-five permanent military advisors in the country, although in reality it was more like three hundred — one of them was the American who participated in my capture: Félix Rodríguez, Cuban American. In this context, [President José Napoleón] Duarte offered to talk.

On October 15, 1984, the first dialogue took place in La Palma, mediated by the Catholic Church and the whole diplomatic corps. Duarte proposed we lay down our arms and adhere to the new 1983 constitution. We said no — because I was at this first dialogue, too — we hadn’t gone to discuss our weapons, we had gone to discuss the causes of the war, and we could not adhere to that constitution because it gave supreme power to the military and did not recognize basic rights and freedoms. The meeting ended there. The following month, there was another dialogue in Ayagualo; the FMLN proposed a constitutional reform to demilitarize the country, and Duarte rejected it in ten minutes. The talks broke off.

Three years later, another dialogue occurs: Esquipulas II. They wanted us to lay down our arms in order to talk. We didn’t accept. Finally, they relented, and Duarte agreed to talk while we remained armed. In the midst of those meetings, they killed the president of El Salvador’s Human Rights Commission. The FMLN broke off the talks, saying we can’t engage in dialogue while they’re killing people. The three talks with Duarte ended there.

Dialogue was reopened in 1989, now with [President Alfredo] Cristiani. The first talks were without mediation — just the two delegations, face-to-face. We agreed to meet again in October in Costa Rica. There the Catholic Church was back, with observers from the UN and the Organization of American States, but the army wouldn’t sit at the table. From the first Cristiani delegation in September 1989 to the signing of the peace accords, General [Mauricio] Vargas would show up, but he’d sit in the back. He couldn’t be at the same table as the insurgents.

At the global level, we were under a lot of pressure from social democrats to sign the agreements for nothing, because the Berlin Wall had fallen, all was lost in the socialist world, etc. They believed that our problem was an East-West conflict, but we had different structural problems, and we said no, but that we would go to another meeting. The oligarchy and the Right said that there had to be a ceasefire in order to open talks. We said no, but that we’d go to another meeting.

We scheduled one for November, but, on October 30, they put a bomb in the National Union Federation of Salvadoran Workers [killing nine labor organizers, including union leader Febe Elizabeth Velásquez]. We broke off talks and prepared an offensive to change the balance of forces. At that moment, we were looking to concentrate all our efforts in order to change the course of history. So, on November 11, 1989, we launched a vast offensive called, “Febe Elizabeth Lives. Hasta el tope y punto.” They responded with repression, choosing to bomb the city’s periphery; they killed the Jesuits, they killed a lot of people.

Four months later, the balance was realigned, and the possibility for real negotiations opened, now with the intervention of the United Nations as a third party. We negotiated from April 4, 1990, to January 1992, practically two years.

Hilary Goodfriend

Can you comment on the contents of the accords, their scope and their limits?

Nidia Díaz

To begin with, a negotiating format was established of equal conditions of the parties, with four objectives: finalize the armed conflict through political agreements that addressed the causes that started the civil war; that those agreements propel the democratization of the country; that they include full respect for human rights; and, with that basis, achieve democratic coexistence and the reunification of society.

With that, a ten-point agenda was established: the demilitarization of the country; human rights; the judicial system; the electoral system; constitutional reforms; the socioeconomic problem — all of that covered the entire society, those six agreements. The others were the ceasefire, the process of FMLN demobilization; the process of reducing the army; and the FMLN’s conversion into a political party. Also, electoral verification and observation, and the calendar, the schedule.

The FMLN agreed that for every 20 percent of the political agreements fulfilled, there would be a demobilization of 20 percent of the guerrilla forces, who were integrated into economic or political activities, or the National Civilian Police. Our negotiations took place in war, not in peacetime. We sought for each of the agreements to have constitutional backing, at least when it came to the political elements. We did not achieve the balance of power necessary to make economic constitutional reforms.

We were reforming a counterinsurgent constitution for a bourgeois state. We weren’t making a new constitution. But all those agreements went in the direction of a social, constitutional, democratic state. The constitution already included important rights from the 1950s. In fact, in the socioeconomic order, it was established that private property would be respected insofar as it had a social function. Four different forms of property were recognized.

The economic points that we had wanted to include were the reduction of private property from 254 hectares to 100 hectares; the human right to food and the human right to water, as public goods; the right to strike for public sector workers; the freedom to unionize for peasants. But we lost those. We did make an agreement to begin democratizing the economy just a little, related to the creation of a socioeconomic forum to discuss issues like salaries, pensions, the legalization of urban land titles; public land was to be given to the peasants, and all combatants and people who lived in areas of conflict would get land and credit.

Two unidentified guerrillas pose with a banner in Santa Anita, El Salvador, on February 23, 1981. (Robert Nickelsberg / Getty Images)

The oligarchy and the military resisted the reforms. After the agreements were signed, there were two transitions: the democratic transition of the peace accords, including respect for participation, for liberties, clean electoral contests — whichever project or program achieved greater hegemony among the people would win, but no more fraud, and never again the militarization of voting centers — strengthening institutions, separation of powers, the system of checks and balances, etc. And the other part: the neoliberal economic transition, which made the poor poorer and the rich richer.

When the FMLN won the elections eighteen years later, we found the economy contracting at 3.6 percent. It was a tremendously unequal country, living off remittances; we no longer grew basic grains, we imported everything. It was a violent country, because one deficit of the peace accords was not having practiced a culture of peace. What came was a culture of violence. By not fulfilling the Truth Commission’s recommendations, impunity continued, the judicial branch wasn’t adequately cleaned up, and the drug trade entered, as well as arms sales. The gangs came from the United States.

We encountered all that when we entered the executive office — which is not the same as taking power.

Hilary Goodfriend

Nayib Bukele’s government rejects the peace accords. He is known for his authoritarian consolidation of power, but also for his high approval ratings. In your view, how does the current moment compare to the authoritarian period prior to the conflict? What are the similarities and what are the differences that you would highlight?

Nidia Díaz

To begin with, the main difference is the socioeconomic system, in the sense that the oligarchy no longer bases its wealth in land, but rather in financial speculation and some commerce. But it remains an oligarchy. Also, the high level of remittances now sustain the consumer economy. But in the form of the regime of domination, it’s true that the military is no longer in office, but power has an authoritarian form when an economic group controls the political power — one group that’s established, and another that is emerging.

How do we compare this to the past? What were the causes of political exclusion? The centralization of power. They controlled the legislature, the executive, the judiciary, etc., and their interests prevailed, without concern for respecting rights, freedoms, institutionality. There was no separation of powers, no checks and balances, no system of freedoms and civil and political rights. Before, for example, whoever criticized would be disappeared, killed. Even having a stamp of Saint Romero was a crime. All forms of peaceful social struggle were criminalized. The climate of persecution was real.

Now, comparing it with today, the regime has attempted to control people’s thinking. Whoever opposes or criticizes is now seen as an enemy — not as a political adversary, but someone to be destroyed. In the peace accords, holding political prisoners is prohibited. So he uses lawfare, judicial warfare; he uses the judicial branch to trump up charges against politicians, even if they are unjustified or not defined in the penal code. He has usurped the judicial branch, when the peace accords guaranteed its independence.

What happened on May 1, 2021, [when Bukele seized control of the Supreme Court and other top judicial officials] was a flagrant violation of the peace accords, a rupture. Now, they removed a judge for not agreeing to hear a frivolous lawsuit, or they removed the judge who oversaw the El Mozote trial. Then there’s what happened on February 9, 2020, when the president wanted to force the legislators to vote. To use the army like he did and like he does, when it no longer should have those functions, is serious. He also breaks with the peace accords when he wants to double the size of the army, when it was agreed that an army in peacetime should be decreasing, not increasing, and should not engage in public security functions.

He doesn’t care about violating the constitution and those reforms. Later, he justifies himself, saying he doesn’t believe in them, that it was a corrupt pact, that it only served to enrich them. He tries to justify his own theft. For example, he changed the functions of the Institute for Access to Public Information; he cleaned out the Government Ethics Tribunal. In the end, he’s trying to obtain resources to facilitate accumulation for his group in power.

All those laws that oversee the new institutions that are the product of the peace accords were made in COPAZ, the National Peace Commission. They weren’t a whim. In COPAZ, you had the FMLN and the government as parties, and, as observers, the Catholic Church and the UN and the parties that were in the legislature at that moment. All the laws — the law for the National Civil Police, the army, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, the Human Rights Ombudsman, etc. — were made in COPAZ and sent to Congress. There was a debate process. Now Bukele comes along and says, “I don’t agree with these responsibilities and powers,” and he tries to annul the laws and the constitution. He’s dismantling the democratic process that permitted his very election.

We see the persecution of the church today, of journalists. He wants to outlaw the real opposition parties, the FMLN as the Left in this country, and also the party that the oligarchy has used until now. Today, the new right is reconfiguring itself in [Bukele’s] New Ideas party. His [proposed] reelection is a trampling of the constitution that one way or another has allowed the system to work. “Which system?” you might ask. The capitalist system, it’s true. But it’s what allows you to struggle for now.

The fundamental problem is, what do you want power for? And what does Bukele want power for? We’re facing a situation of the flagrant violation of institutionality and the law, not with the goal of a more revolutionary, more transparent, more participative, more just democracy, but to make themselves richer, to have more power over the population.

The FMLN has always fought for a more transparent, more participative democracy. We’re in favor of implementing the referendum, for example, but not to centralize power but really democratize the country. What [Bukele’s government] presented in its proposal for constitutional reform is more centralization of power in the service of economic interests.

Hilary Goodfriend

Some observers try to classify Bukele as a counter-hegemonic actor, especially since he’s adopted an apparently anti-imperialist discourse in his disputes with the Biden administration. How would you characterize this?

Nidia Díaz

He has a secondary contradiction with the hegemonic power. Trump tolerated that Bukele did not comply with two of the requisites of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle. Of the plan’s five points — prosperity, security, migration, transparency, and institutionality — he did not fulfill two, but Trump didn’t care. Now, facing demands that he be accountable, that he not permanently violate his institutions, he says, “They want to tell me what to do.”

There’s the contradiction, but it has a limit. The United States is never going to place a blockade on El Salvador like they have in Cuba, but they are paying attention because of the pressure that the administration is under from more progressive sectors. Biden has an electorate to please, just like Trump. But I have never seen a central or principal contradiction between the United States and Bukele.

At first, Bukele presented himself as a man of the Left. But what have we seen in his foreign policy? He broke off relations with the Saharawi Republic, and he didn’t allow the opening of a Palestinian embassy; he broke off relations with Venezuela, he removed the Cuban social programs. He saw that ambassador that Trump sent to El Salvador as a buddy. He’s conservative. Before taking office, when he went to Israel, to the wall, he — the son of Palestinians — stood on the Jerusalem side and not the Bethlehem side.

All the delegitimization and rejection of the people’s struggle, saying that it’s a farce, and the rejection of the constitutional reforms and institutions created by the peace accords and the laws that back them, is to justify his robbery of the state, and his authoritarian, messianic regime. He says he is sent by God, he says he’s the coolest man in the world, etc., but in the end he isn’t working toward more democracy, social justice, or rights. He doesn’t want to be questioned, and the institutions designed to question or investigate, like the human rights ombudsman, the Auditing Court, or the general ombudsman, have been neutralized, because if they say something, they’re out.

He wants to sow fear, so that people do not resist. It’s a form of neutralizing the Left, neutralizing a struggle. But we live in a moment when people have also begun to question. People will go out into the streets to defend the peace accords. They will go out and express themselves, like they did on September 7, when the Bitcoin law went into effect, on September 15, October 17, December 12, and now January 16. More democratic sectors are joining in. Bukele has an incredible ability to manipulate, to communicate with the people. But many people are starting to understand. People are tired.

We need to defend history, historical memory. Today he is destroying monuments. He doesn’t recognize the liberation struggle, nor the agreements between the state and the FMLN as a representative force that was recognized by the international community. He doesn’t respect the memory of our heroes and heroines. He sees them as criminals, living and dead. If the people don’t have historical memory, because of the absence of a real historical memory program and because the FMLN could not create a hegemonic culture among the people, then we have this situation today.