El Salvador: Illusions


I was told this summer by both Alvaro Magaña and Guillermo Ungo that although each of course knew the other they were of “different generations.” Magaña, the president of El Salvador, was fifty-six. Ungo, the leader of the opposition coalition, was fifty-one. Five years is a generation in El Salvador, it being a place in which not only the rest of the world but time itself tends to contract to the here and now. History is la matanza, the 1932 “killing,” and then current events, which recede even as they happen: the minister of defense, General José Guillermo García, is widely perceived as a fixture of long standing, an immovable object through several governments and shifts in the national temperament, a survivor. In context he is a survivor, but the context is just three years, since Colonel Majano’s coup of October 15, 1979, which displaced the government of General Romero.

All events earlier than the Majano coup have by now vanished into uncertain memory, and the Majano coup itself is seen as so distant that there is common talk of the next juventud militar, of the cyclical readiness for rebellion of what is always referred to as “the new generation” of young officers. “We think in five-year horizons,” the economic officer at the American embassy told me one day. “Anything beyond that is evolution.” He was talking about not having what he called “the luxury of the long view,” but there is a real sense in which the five-year horizons of the American embassy constitute the longest view taken in El Salvador, either forward or back.

One reason no one looks back is that the view could only dispirit: this is a national history peculiarly resistant to heroic interpretation. There is no libertador to particularly remember. Public statues in San Salvador tend toward representations of abstracts, the Winged Liberty downtown, the Salvador del Mundo at the junction of Avenida Roosevelt and Paseo Escalón and the Santa Tecla highway; the expressionist spirit straining upward, outsized hands thrust toward the sky, at the Monument of the Revolution up by the Hotel Presidente.

If the country’s history as a republic seems devoid of shared purpose or unifying event, a record of insensate ambitions and their accidental consequences, its three centuries as a colony seem blanker still: Spanish colonial life was centered in Colombia and Panama to the south and Guatemala to the north, and Salvador lay between, a neglected frontier of the Captaincy General of Guatemala from 1525 until 1821, the year Guatemala declared its independence from Spain. So attenuated was El Salvador’s sense of itself in its moment of independence that it petitioned the United States for admission to the union as a state. The United States declined.

In fact El Salvador had always been a frontier, even before the Spaniards arrived. The great Mesoamerican cultures penetrated this far south only shallowly. The great South American cultures thrust this far north only sporadically. There is a sense in which the place…

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