The new documentary film Guazapa: Yesterday’s Enemies begins with the monumental event in the country’s modern history – the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero. It was he, more than any other contemporary Salvadoran, who possessed abiding empathy for the poor and instilled hope in the hopeless. His tragic death, as well as the massacre of innocent civilians that took place at his funeral, constituted the last straw for those modest heroes who, like Romero, were apostles of nonviolent change.
The bloody civil war that followed is illustrated through scenes from Don North’s and Dr. Charlie Clements’ first Salvadoran venture to Guazapa in 1983, when they lived with the guerrillas who were locked in a life-and-death struggle with the established U.S.-backed government.
Twenty-six years later, North and Clements revisit Guazapa in order to illuminate the conditions of a country nearly two decades removed from civil war. They return to find many survivors whose testimonies assert that while ostensible stability has arrived to the country, the shadow of the conflict – in which 85,000 innocent civilians lost their lives – still lingers and continues to shape the modern Salvadoran experience.
As shown by the survivors’ stories, life for many Salvadorans has only marginally improved since the war. Organized gang violence has replaced the political violence of the 1980s and ‘90s, with vulnerable, marginalized youth entering the drug industry for lack of viable financial options. El Salvador’s economy has reached rock bottom, increasing unemployment and further dividing the impoverished masses from the privileged elites. Amid increasing corruption and a highly polarized electorate, Mauricio Funes was elected in 2009, just before the film’s release. Funes is presented in the film as a potential source of change and hope for El Salvador, but it is still too early in his term to determine whether or not this speculation will be substantiated.
North and Clements’ documentary also highlights a number of themes that are relevant to a study of not only El Salvador, but also of twentieth- and twenty-first-century hemispheric relations. While not belaboring the point, the film makes frequent reference to U.S. intervention in the 1980s. At the time, the U.S. government rationalized supporting a series of Salvadoran military regimes on the grounds that they were democratically elected, but as Doctor Clements points out in a debate on “Crossfire,” free and fair elections mean little when human, legal, and civil rights are not being protected by the elected government. Clements’ assertion that clean elections do not guarantee good governance challenges the virtues of strictly procedural definitions of democracy, and calls into question the oft-relied upon American perception that legitimate elections constitute the lone prerequisite to acquiring the designation of being a democracy.
In combining past footage with a glimpse of present-day El Salvador, the film exposes the psychological ramifications of the civil war that extend far beyond the quantifiable. A 1992 Amnesty Law, issued when the Arena party had total control of the federal government, ensured that the military regime would be exempted from any form of legal punishment for its role in countless deaths and disappearances. This law left the loved ones of those who died during the epoch of military rule with a desire for justice that will never be satiated. As North and Clements’ film suggests, in order for El Salvador to progress it will have to assume the daunting task of reconciling the oppression and violence of its past with the realities, needs and goals of the future.
Whitney Cole and Alexander Brockwehl are research associates at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
This article was original published by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.