Below is my translation of a feature that appeared in yesterday’s print edition of Mexican newspaper El Universal.  The original in Spanish can be found online here.

When pieces of the Berlin Wall began to fall on November 9 1989 symbolising the start of the end of the Cold War, the old struggle between communism and capitalism continued to bathe Central America in blood.  At dawn on the 12th of November, the communist Salvadoran guerrilla group launched the fiercest urban and rural offensive against the armed forces and traditional oligarchy of El Salvador in 12 years of war.

On another morning with a bloody outcome- that of November 16 1989 –  5 Jesuit Spanish priests – Ignacio Ellacuría, Ignacio Martín Barón, Segundo Montes, Amando López and Juan Ramón Moreno – and 1 Salvadoran one – Joaquín López y López – were assassinated by a battalion of the El Salvadoran armed forces in a deadly reprisal against what the old power structures of the country considered to be the brains or intellectual bosses of subversion.

One month later, the then presidents of Central America, gathered in a summit in Costa Rica, approved the final demobilisation of the “contras“, the military force created, organised, financed and directed by the White House to combat the , at that time, governing, Sandinista National Liberation Front and the people’s revolution proclaimed in 1979 in Nicaragua, which turned into a “beachfront” for Cuba’s and (to a lesser extent) the Soviet Union’s support for the leftist insurgency to expand into El Salvador and Guatemala.

Although the governments of Costa RIca, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala signed up  to the peace pact designed by the then Costa Rican president Óscar Arias in 1987, military hostilities continued beyond the events in Eastern Europe.  The Salvadoran civil war ended in 1992 and the Nicaraguan one in 1990, while the Guatemalan one, which broke out in 1960, finished in 1996 when the armies of the region gave up on any political interference and retreated to their barracks.

The Peace Process

“1989 was the key year in the Central American peace process”, remembers the Costa Rican diplomat Melvin Sáenz, the current ambassador of the Costa Rican embassy in Peru and who from 1986 to 1990 formed part of Arias’ team as one of the architects who negotiated the regional peace agreement.

In an interview with El Universal, Sáenz relates that from the time of a leaders summit which took place in January of 1989 in the  Salvadoran seaside resort of Tesoro Beach “the demobilisation of the contras, the launch of the Nicaraguan electoral political process, the start of the agreement between Honduras and Nicaragua and the relaunching of political dialogue in El Salvador began to make parallel advances”.  He insisted that “1989 was the key year for Central American peace”.  As one of the indirect confrontational stages between Washington and Moscow, in the east-west or capitalism vs communism battle, Central America boiled over with military tension – three wars in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua – of which the effects, complicities and struggles overflowed into their neighbours – Honduras and Costa Rica – and also to another key player Cuba, whose had a close alliance with Nicaragua and was a source of aid for Salvadoran and Guatemalan guerrillas.

Washington, a direct or indirect supplier of weapons to the armed forces of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras and to the contras, and Moscow, direct and indirect supplier of armaments to the army in Nicaragua and via Cuba of war supplies to leftist guerrillas, persisted as crucial external factors affecting the Central American crisis.

According to Sáenz, the Soviet Union, which was dismantled in 1990 due to the progressive effect of the events surrounding the Berlin Wall,  and the United States “realised that times were changing and supported the peace process, above all the Americans because the Soviets had already become discouraged with the region”.

Bloody Toll

The struggle between communism and anti-communism which inflamed the isthmus in the 1980s but had first emerged with intensity following the 1959 Cuban revolution left a toll between 1960 and 1996 of more than 325,000 Central American deaths or disappearances in the almost 15 years of war in Nicaragua (1975-90), 12 in El Salvador (1980-92) and 36 in Guatemala (1960-96).

After 1989, the use of arms to gain power was a failure for both leftist and rightist Central American guerrillas and instead they turned to electoral means.

But what was a danger for the United States at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall is today a reality:  two political forces, that which drove the Salvadoran guerrilla and that which directed the revolutionary Nicaraguan regime, are today the parties that govern in El Salvador and Nicaragua respectively.

In 1989 , the United States added to years of giving financial resources and weapons to the army and to the old Salvadoran political and economic structures by granting political and diplomatic support to impede  the then leftist guerrilla group Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) from gaining power.  The FMLN, in a conversion from a guerrilla group to a legal political party, went to the polls and since 2009 has been the governing party of El Salvador.

With the end of the Cold War, Central American countries destroyed the armaments of irregular troops, pacifying – without eliminating – political confrontations between nations and tried to move towards a new regional harmony in order to consolidate institutions, but a new form of violence emerged to dominate the region: organised crime maintains Central America as one of the most violent regions of the world with a bloody toll of more than 165,000 Central Americans murdered between 2003 and 2014.

Peter W Davies


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