Letter from Academia Scolds Bukele for Depicting Peace Accords as a ‘Farce’
In his last public appearance of 2020, President Nayib Bukele spoke in front of a crowd of survivors of the 1981 El Mozote massacre. In his remarks, he called the 12-year-long conflict and the Chapultepec Peace Accords that put an end to it “a farce”. Seated nearby on the scaffold was Sofía Romero, a woman raped by five soldiers in the months prior the massacre in which only three of her relatives survived. As a response, 107 Salvadoran and international academics wrote a letter calling on the administration to “honor the memory of the victims of the armed conflict, strengthening the positive legacy of the Peace Accords.”
Their letter outlines eight of the Accords’ most significant accomplishments, including a reliable electoral system, free press, access to information, and the effective separation of powers. The ongoing impunity benefiting those who committed crimes during the war, they remind him, “conveys an extremely harmful message to a society that should aspire to the consolidation of the rule of law.”
In their call to reflection, the academics also warned the president, administration officials, and his supporters of the implications of denying historical memory. “Certainly El Salvador still has formidable economic and social challenges. It was these deeply-rooted historical problems which led to a bloody armed conflict that claimed more than 75,000 victims, leaving orphaned children and helpless and heartbroken families. They deserve respect.”
The severity of the president’s message goes beyond the fact that he gave the speech at the very site of the largest massacre of civilians during the Salvadoran war. His words represent an effort to delegitimize this historic event, which he undertook even before assuming office.
The first time Bukele made an ironic remark about the Accords was during his presidential campaign in 2019. While accusing Arena and FMLN of playing dirty against him, he tweeted: “One of our first accomplishments: the signing of the real “Peace Accords'' between Arena and FMLN. They’re best friends now; too bad they never did it for the people's good.”
On June 1 during his inaugural address, he said that his victory was fulfilling the promise of “turning the page of the postwar period”. The line, which seemed to reference what many observers called “the end of bipartisan rule,” was an early indicator of the administration’s concerted effort to undermine historical memory.
The first official act of disdain for the Accords occured in January of 2020. Every January 16 since the signing of the treaty, the Office of the President has organized a public commemoration. That day, however, Bukele and his surrogates said that the best way to celebrate was to acknowledge that day’s police’s report of zero nationwide murders. The administration had decided not to spend money on “frivolous activities,” said Mario Durán, former Ministry of Governance and Nuevas Ideas candidate for San Salvador mayor, of the non-celebration.
For Bukele, the Accords only seem to exist when he uses them as a frame of reference to advertise his accomplishments in the drop in homicides, and to thereby praise the effectiveness of his Territorial Control Plan. Otherwise, whenever he refers to them he does it ironically, condemning or ignoring its protagonists.
In September 2020, for example, he mocked the FMLN’s accompaniment of a group of veterans in demanding a pension increase from the Legislative Assembly. “They fooled and used them during the 12 years of conflict. They sold them out in the “Peace Accords,” and tricked them for 27 years after the war,” he tweeted. Four days later, during a nationally-broadcasted press conference, he defended his administration’s refusal to release army records relating to the massacre at El Mozote, saying that he wouldn’t allow FMLN’s non-governmental façades to gain access to the documents. During his campaign, though, he had committed himself to releasing the military’s El Mozote archives “from A to Z.”
For historian Héctor Lindo, Bukele’s allegations in December were more than a breach of decorum; they were a disgrace. Indignant, he drafted the letter and shared it with his colleagues Carlos Gregorio López Bernal and Carlos Lara Martínez. Once the final version was ready, they invited other academics, international leaders of non-governmental organizations, former diplomats, and the signatories of the Accords. The signatures include: Gino Costa, member of the United Nations Observer Mission in El Salvador from1990 to 1994; Geoff Thale, president of the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA); María Isabel Rodríguez, former rector of the University of El Salvador (1999-2007) and former Minister of Health (2009-2014); Anders Kompass, Swedish ambassador to El Salvador from 2017 to 2020; Elisabeth Hayek Weinmann, United Kingdom ambassador from 2016 to 2019; Elisabeth Jean Wood, professor of political science at Yale University; and Matthew James Hone, who received his doctorate in Latin American Studies from the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM).
The letter also includes the signature of people the president has marked as his opponents: Salvadoran academic Óscar Picardo; Andréu Oliva, Jesuit priest and rector of the Central American University (UCA); and left-wing party leaders Salvador Sánchez Cerén and Nidia Díaz.
For most of the signatories, the chance that Bukele changes his stance is minimal. The president showed in the closing months of 2020 that open letters like this one, even coming from international organizations and members of the United State Congress, do not deserve his attention. “Getting the signature of members of the Congress is the easiest thing in the world,” he said after a group of Democrats and Republicans sent him two different letters airing their concerns regarding the government’s direct attacks on the Salvadoran press and the deterioration of democracy. “They don’t even represent three or five percent [of Congress],” he added.
“I have no doubt that the President will dismiss the letter and that we’ll be disqualified by him and his followers on social media,” said Sonja Wolf, signatory of the recent letter and professor of the National Council for Science and Technology (Conacyt) in Mexico. Her motivation to sign, however, is based on the conviction that it is essential to build counter-narratives. “The open letter to Bukele should remind Salvadorans that their country hasn’t been forgotten and that there are still people that firmly believe in the importance — and the possibility — to make the spirit of the Peace Accords come to life.”
Salvadoran sociologist Leisy Abrego, professor and chair of the Chicana and Central American Studies Department at the University of California, Los Angeles, decided to sign because she believes that the letter will have a historic value in the future. “It’s important for people who will want to study what happened in this period of Salvadoran history, especially between the diaspora, to know that there was resistance, even with a president who pretends that he doesn’t care about such opposition.”
Roberto Cañas, who openly supported Bukele 's presidential campaign, signed on as representative of the original Peace Accords signatories. The economist was part of the FMLN delegation in Chapultepec. “I salute this initiative because I believe that silence and stillness in this context are suicidal.” He clarifies that signing this letter should not be taken as a sign of disenchantment with the Bukele administration, and that he decided to participate because of his belief in the importance of negotiated political solutions. There’s some recklessness, he adds, in the president’s followers’ take on historic memory, and he expects the letter will help “cultivate a deeper sense of the weight of history to develop a feeling of belonging and national identity.”
Óscar Picardo, who the president called “crazy” on Twitter after he proposed contact tracing measures that ran contrary to the administration’s strategy, is optimistic about the response this letter might have. “We didn’t sign because we want to look good or as snobs. There’s a maxim in social sciences that says that ignoring the past dooms us to committing the same mistakes in the future. That’s why I think this is a relevant discussion, especially in a weak education system that doesn’t generate enough critical thinking.” He emphasizes that the labeling of the 12-year conflict and the Peace Accords as a farce is a fatal mistake, but that, “whether we like it or not,'' he's an educational point of reference in society.
The history, and the accompanying lesson invoked in this letter, became poignantly relevant on January 6 in Washington, D.C, when a mob stormed the Capitol. Salvadoran sociologist Cecilia Menjívar, president-elect of the American Sociological Association, noted, “We must warn people of the grave danger in heeding populists’ polarizing rhetoric.”
FI name: January 2021