Atlas 5 Adam Kufeld : El Salvador

back & forth
Over the course of the twelve-year war in El Salvador the U.S. Government spent over six billion dollars in the name of "protecting democracy." As in Vietnam it was the simplistic domino theory that guided and rationalized U.S. policy. A policy that cared not what the people of either country wanted. The thing that really mattered was that El Salvador (and the rest of the Third World) stay safe for the investments of U.S.-based multi-corporations. In the case of El Salvador over 75,000 people, primarily civilians, were killed; thousands disappeared; hundreds of thousands were forced into exile. Others suffered unimaginable torture. Scars that will never heal.

In 1992 a peace treaty was signed between the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the U.S.-backed Salvadoran government. The treaty cut the influence of the Salvadoran military, put the police under civilian control, and established other judicial and electoral reforms. In return the FMLN guerrillas laid down their arms and formed a political party. In their first electoral contest -- the presidential and general elections in 1994 -- these former guerrillas established themselves as the country's second political force behind the rightist ARENA party, which continues to represent the wealthy elite. Few had thought, given ARENA'S seemingly unlimited economic resources and access to the media, that the FMLN would get much further than limited representation in the country's legislative assembly and a few mayoral districts.

This March 16 the FMLN stunned those few that were watching the 1996 elections. In the Legislative Assembly, the FMLN won 27 seats (up from 14 in 1994) to ARENA's 28 (down from 39). The FMLN also won half of the 14 departmental capitals, including the two major cities, San Salvador and Santa Anna. In the municipal elections the FMLN won 54 seats (compared to 14 for the last election, most of which were in small rural municipalities) out of a total of 262. The FMLN also won re-election in all eleven towns it has governed since 1994. Significantly, while the FMLN only won 20% of the municipalities, those municipalities include approximately 45% of the country's population. Effectively this means that the FMLN governs almost half of the country.

Why does any of this matter? It calls into question the entire policy of the U.S. government as it relates to El Salvador. Ostensibly we were making El Salvador safe for democracy, yet the very people who were targeted are the same people now being democratically elected. Maybe, if the U.S. had stayed out from the beginning, the Salvadoran people would have been able to choose their own leaders years ago. And who knows how many thousands of lives would have been saved? Sadly, we, each one of us, was called on to finance this tragedy.

There is much that the photographs don't show; the depth of loss and suffering, the perseverance and personal sacrifice of those who attempted to create a more just world. I often wondered how people saved themselves from total bitterness. It seemed that in the tragedy of war, its opposites, love and compassion, were born.

In the near future Atlas will be presenting new images of El Salvador; a different El Salvador. A country no longer at war. A country trying to find its own way, in its own way. Check back. Today El Salvador seems to be of little interest to the mainstream press or to our government. We might ask why.

These photographs are a sampling from Adam Kufeld's book El Salvador, published in 1990 by W.W. Norton. They are a product of five years of work. Cuba, also by Adam Kufeld, was published in 1994 by W.W. Norton. It is a collection of over 100 color images.

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