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Coping with the Legacy of the Civil War in El Salvador

20. Oktober 2015

The article has been published on e-International Relations and analyses and assesses the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in El Salvador, implemented after a Civil War in the early 1990s. The whole article can be accessed under http://www.e-ir.info/2014/06/18/coping-with-the-legacy-of-the-civil-war-in-el-salvador/.


Introduction and Background Information

The history of Central American and South American countries is characterized by recurring conflicts, coups, rebellions and military dictatorships, particularly during the second half of the 20th century. To a major extent, these occurrences were developments of the Cold War and its clashing theoretical doctrines. El Salvador is one country to which these characteristics apply.

Between 1980 and 1991, El Salvador went through a violent civil war which erupted when the introduction of new agricultural and social reforms failed in the late 1970s. The reforms aimed at changing the unequal ownerships on the countryside and at the restriction of the small but mighty “coffee oligarchy”[1] so that the civil war was primarily a social class war fueled by economic inequality and a corrupt political elite. The Salvadorian military suppressed all (preceding) attempts to limit the power of this small elite group. In the late 1980s, it became increasingly clear that the latest striving for a reform had failed. As a consequence, five communist and revolutionary groups joined together in a coalition named “Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional” (FMLN; National Liberation Front Farabundo Martí) which tended to a new Salvadorian society marked by Marxism. In 1981, the FMLN called up the people of El Salvador for an armed rebellion against the Salvadorian regime. The following civil war which lasted 12 years long cost approximately 75.000 lives and led to the displacement and emigration of 1.2 million people out of a population of six million (Paris 2007: 214).

Under the patronage of the United Nations and in cooperation with the Colombian, Spanish, Mexican and Venezuelan Governments, peace negotiations already started between 1988 and 1989. In the following three years of tough negotiations between the FMLN and the Salvado­rian Government, several agreements were signed in order to reach peace. The parties agreed on a reformation of the military and the police, the improvement of the legal and elec­toral system, and the official acknowledgement of Human Rights. By mediation of the United Nation Secretary-General at that time, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, an extensive peace agreement called “Acuerdos de Chapultepec” (Agreement of Chapultepec) was signed on January 16, 1992. The first post civil war election in March 1994 was won by the Nationalist Republican Alliance with 68% of the votes and Afredo Cristiani, who was president since 1989, kept his position (Paris 2007: 214 – 16).

Between 1979 and 1993, eleven Latin American countries passed through a transition from authoritarian to democratic governance. But every society that goes through a period of crimes against humanity will sooner or later face the difficult challenge of how to best deal with the past if it enters a phase of transition. Seven of these countries have used a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to work through the committed crimes[2].

Based on a proposal of the UN, also in El Salvador the peace agreement included the establishment of a TRC in order to examine the “serious acts of violence that have occurred since 1980 […] committed by the Government and the FMLN […] and whose impact on society urgently demands that the public should know the truth” (Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador 1993: 12). The TRC was called the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador (Comisión de la Verdad Para El Salvador, CVES) and operated between July 1992 and March 1993.

This paper examines the main objectives of the CVES and tries to analyze whether it failed in its tasks or whether its work resulted in measurable sustainable and positive effects for El Salvador. Subsequent to the provision of some elementary background information about TRCs, this assignment critically reviews the procedures of implementing the recommendations listed in the CVES’s final report[3], and discusses especially the reformation of the legislative, executive and judicative branches, the official acknowledgement of the crimes and the victims by the Government and by armed forces, the amnesty law and the implementation of reparations. Based on the assessment of the mode how recommendations of the CVES were implemented, this analysis will elucidate that the CVES indeed partly failed but has also reached significant successes.

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