Good News From El Salvador

Good News From El Salvador

Something fine took place recently: El Salvador’s National Center for Agricultural and Forest Technology, known by its Spanish initials as CENTA, was officially renamed “CENTA – Enrique Alvarez Córdova.” The dedication ceremony took place on November 27, the 29th anniversary of Alvarez’s death in 1980.

Why is that good, and why this name in particular? The current Minister of Agriculture, Dr. Manuel Sevilla, explained in his address that Alvarez had himself been El Salvador’s agriculture minister during three different governments, and that he “was a man of vision, marked by his genuine interest in improving the living conditions of the small and medium farmers … In spite of having belonged to one of the 14 wealthiest families in El Salvador, his thinking was always on the side of the workers, shown in sayings such as, “We who have the most also have the greatest responsibility to help others.” After leaving the government in 1973, the minister continued, Alvarez went to live on his hacienda “El Jobo” near Sonsonate, which he developed into a profitable cattle ranch. The workers there shared the responsibilities and benefits from the finca, and El Jobo is very much a going concern today.

This is all admirable and true, but there was a great deal the minister did not say. Alvarez was more than a reform-minded agricultural expert and politician; he was a genuine revolutionary. El Salvador’s Vice President Salvador Sanchez Cerén, also present at the ceremony, could have added much himself since he and Alvarez shared life in a clandestine “safe-house” for some weeks during the terror-ridden autumn of 1980. Sanchez Cerén might have explained that Alvarez made his third attempt to implement a comprehensive agrarian reform while taking part in the reformist junta in late 1979. That effort lasted less than three months, and collapsed when the Salvadoran military refused to cede power to the government. Alvarez was by then convinced that real change would be possible only with a complete overturn of El Salvador’s governing system, and, in April 1980, he became the first president of the Frente Democrático Revolucionário (FDR), a broad center-left coalition of nearly all the nation’s democratic organizations. The FDR sought radical change through political, nonviolent tactics, but soon it was also developing common strategy with the emerging FMLN armed revolutionary movement. On November 27, Alvarez and five colleagues were kidnapped by government “security” forces from an FDR meeting at San Salvador’s Jesuit high school. Their mutilated bodies were found the next day.

An associate of Alvarez’s in the struggle of that year, Mauricio Silva, filled in the story with a December 7 article in the web magazine El Faro. “Enrique (Quique) Alvarez is one of our national heroes,” Silva wrote. “He was also my friend and colleague in the struggle for a more just nation … Quique, and those who died with him, are our martyrs because they died for their beliefs and for our cause, to form a nation with greater justice and solidarity.” Early in 1980, Silva had joined Alvarez in forming MIPTES, an association of “professionals and technicians,” whose purpose was to provide intellectual leadership and concrete planning for the reform movement. It was as president of this group that Alvarez joined, and was chosen to head, the FDR. In the summer of that year, he came to the United States to explain El Salvador’s reality and plead with the US government not to intervene. That appeal was rejected. Alvarez returned to El Salvador clandestinely, to share the risks of the struggle, and, ultimately, the fate, of the many Salvadorans murdered by the regime.

The assassinations of Alvarez and the other FDR leaders ended what small hope remained to avoid civil war. “Who can I talk to now?” US Ambassador Robert White asked rhetorically when he learned of the massacre. “The crime has never been investigated or explained,” wrote Silva. “Quique was very conscious of the risk he was running, and so he is a martyr, for his cause and for our country.”

During the two decades and more of right-wing ARENA government, the name Enrique Alvarez was scarcely mentioned in official circles or in public; only at the cooperative El Jobo was his memory revered. It is excellent news that the new Salvadoran administration headed by President Mauricio Funes has chosen to honor Alvarez, along with other heroes and martyrs, starting with Archbishop Oscar Romero. Silva concluded that the country has finally begun to change, “thanks, in part, to the sacrifice of many such as Quique. This shows the justice of changing the name of the CENTA. Hopefully those of us who inherit the responsibility to work for a country without poverty and with greater justice and solidarity can learn from the example of Quique Alvarez.”

Unfortunately, there is a great deal of bad news from El Salvador. High levels of violence and great poverty are still endemic. Although President Funes is highly respected (approval levels around 80 percent), his government faces huge problems. But fresh thinking at the top is an excellent sign. A truer understanding of the nation’s past, and appreciation of heroes like Alvarez, can help show the way toward a better future.