The Salvadoran Civil War, fought from 1979-1992, was one of the most devastating conflicts in the recent history of the Americas. The war, which killed between 70-80,000 people, was fought
There were a number of attempts to negotiate peace in El Salvador throughout the course of the war. However peace efforts had to contend with an often hostile international climate. This hostility stemmed primarily from the United States and its focus on preventing the loss of El Salvador to communism. The Contadora peace process is emblematic of the importance of an amenable international context. Just as it was nearing completion the deal was torpedoed by the United States.
A favorable international climate was, however, only one aspect necessary for successful negotiations. In 1987, whilst the US was somewhat cowed in the wake of Iran-Contra ,the Esquipulas Peace Accords were signed by the Central American leaders. These accords, like Contadora, were aimed at establishing broad principles for settling conflicts across the region. While Esquipulas did eventually serve as the framework for peace in El Salvador, serious negotiations would not get underway for another three years. The reason for this delay was that the conflict had not achieved what Zartman termed ripeness. For much of the war both sides felt they could win militarily. Thus a mutually hurting stalemate was not present. Second, both sides saw the others demands as unacceptable and thus felt negotiation was not a viable way out.
In 1889 the FMLN launched its largest offensive of the war. It was eventually repelled but the offensive demonstrated to both sides that neither could achieve outright victory. In addition, the Cold War began to wind down and congressional opponents in the US grew stronger and moved to limit aid to El Salvador. It was in the wake of these events that a ripe moment as well as a favorable international scene converged and serious negotiations and eventually peace became possible.
In many ways the peace treaty actually left many of the underlying issues at stake during the war unresolved. Instead it sought to create a working democracy in which future disputes could be settled peacefully. Today El Salvador is a functioning democracy and the peace has held. What factors allowed the peace deal to sustain such longevity?
El Salvador’s political system was actually well designed for post war reconstruction. Its legislature is elected by proportional representation and its presidents are prohibited from serving more than one five year term consecutively. However, El Salvador had a long history of military intervention in the political process. Thus, to build a sustainable democracy, politics had to be demilitarized. This was accomplished through several steps. For example, the size of the military was reduced, a new civilian police force, that included former FMLN combatants, was established to replace the military as keeper of internal security, and human rights abusers were removed from their posts.
The transition to democracy was overseen by ONUSAL which was one of the most comprehensive peacekeeping forces up to that point. ONUSAL went well beyond a traditional observer mission and undertook what the Secretary General termed peacebuilding. In doing so, ONUSAL took on a wide variety of responsibilities relating to the peace process. At times it was effectively a co-governing body. ONUSAL oversaw the demobilization of belligerents, helped establish new institutions, promoted human rights, and oversaw elections. Alongside ONUSAL other UN bodies like UNESCO or the Salvadoran Truth Commission helped promote values of tolerance and reconciliation. The efforts of ONUSAL and other UN agencies helped to overcome many of the growing pains of a re-emerging democracy and begin the process of national healing.
We can take a number of key lessons from El Salvador. First, timing matters to peace negotiations. It was only when a ripe moment and favorable international conditions converged that a successful negotiation was possible. Second, third party support can inhibit efforts aimed at negotiation by direct interference or the prevention of the development of ripeness. Breaking support links may be necessary before a peace can be reached. Finally, broad efforts aimed at enhancing democratic institutions, as well as promoting tolerance, reconciliation, and human rights can help heal old wounds and enhance the legitimacy of the new democratic system.
Dianna Villiers Negroponte Seeking Peace in El Salvador : The Struggle to Reconstruct a Nation at the end of the Cold War (New York: Palgrave McMillian 2011)
Tommie Sue Montgomery Revolution in El Salvador: From Civil Strife to Civil Peace (Boulder: Westview Press 1995)
Hugh Byrne El Salvador’s Civil War: A Study of Revolution (Boulder Lynne Reiner Publishers. 1996)
Alvaro De Soto “Ending Violent Conflcit in El Salvador“ in Herding Cats: Multiparty negotiations in a complex world Washington: US Institute of Peace press, 1999)