El Salvador’s 2009 presidential elections marked a historical feat: Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) became the first former Latin American guerrilla movement to win the ballot after failing to take power by means of armed struggle. In 2014, former comandante Salvador Sánchez Cerén became the country’s second FMLN president. After Insurgency focuses on the development of El Salvador’s FMLN from armed insurgency to a competitive political party. At the end of the war in 1992, the historical ties between insurgent veterans enabled the FMLN to reconvert into a relatively effective electoral machine. However, these same ties also fueled factional dispute and clientelism. Drawing on in-depth ethnographic fieldwork, Ralph Sprenkels examines El Salvador’s revolutionary movement as a social field, developing an innovative theoretical and methodological approach to the study of insurgent movements in general and their aftermath in particular, while weaving in the personal stories of former revolutionaries with a larger historical study of the civil war and of the transformation process of wartime forces into postwar political contenders. This allows Sprenkels to shed new light on insurgency’s persistent legacies, both for those involved as well as for Salvadoran politics at large. In documenting the shift from armed struggle to electoral politics, the book adds to ongoing debates about contemporary Latin America politics, the “pink tide,” and post-neoliberal electoralism. It also charts new avenues in the study of insurgency and its aftermath.
1. Introduction: echoes of revolution
Part 1. Drawing out insurgent relations
2. El Salvador’s insurgency: a relational account
3. Interlude: with the FPL in Chalatenango, 1992-1995
4. Post-insurgent reconversion
Part 2. Ethnographies of post-insurgency
5. Inside Chalatenango’s former ‘People’s Republic’
7. FMLN veterans’ politics
6. Postwar life trajectories of former guerrilla fighters
8. Salvadoran politics and the enduring legacies of insurgency
Ralph Sprenkels is lecturer in conflict studies at Utrecht University. He is the author and editor of a number of books, including Stories Never to Be Forgotten: Eyewitness Accounts from the Salvadoran Civil War.
“Uniquely placed to investigate and analyze the social and political developments that followed the Salvadoran civil war, Ralph Sprenkels offers multiple perspectives in After Insurgency. He provides fascinating in-depth case studies, including the post-war development of a repopulated village, a longitudinal ethnography highlighting the lives of individual former guerrillas, and an analysis of the role of their veterans’ organizations, which result in a richly detailed tapestry of a complex legacy. This remarkable study will be a rewarding read, not only for scholars of Latin America, but also for those concerned more generally with revolutionary movements, identity politics, and postwar political transitions.” —Margaret E. Ward, author of Missing Mila, Finding Family: An International Adoption in the Shadow of the Salvadoran Civil War
"After Insurgency offers a brilliant analysis of the postwar trajectory of El Salvador’s guerrilla force, one of the strongest such movements in Latin American history. Ralph Sprenkels, himself a participant in Central American struggles, balances attention to on-the-ground, lived experience of peasant rebels after peace accords with an examination of the rise of electoral clientelism and institutional genealogies among the former revolutionaries. In a major contribution to the study of post–Cold War political imaginaries, he goes beyond the trope of disillusionment to probe how relations among leaders and grassroots activists transformed over time, eventually rising to political power—at a price." —Ellen Moodie, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
“Sprenkels, who aided the guerrilla forces during the war, used his grass-roots contacts to conduct revealing interviews with wartime combatants. The book gives a nuanced, humane assessment of the lives of former revolutionaries in peacetime.” —Foreign Affairs
"Ralph Sprenkels's book is a foundational contribution to understanding the postwar period in El Salvador. It combines innovative and insightful political ethnographic methods with deep and precise knowledge of the dynamics among the five groups that made up the now-ruling FMLN. The author offers us the story of what happened to the rank and file that participated in the revolutionary forces, of the forgotten ones who did not rise to power, and of their struggles to survive in a postwar environment for which they were ill-prepared. The research by Sprenkels is key to understanding the dramatic situation of violence and poverty that this Central American country continues to experience." —Horacio Castellanos Moya, author of Senselessness and The Dream of My Return
“El Salvador is a source of immense learning about violence, war, and post war politics. This book captures some of the most important themes for scholars as well as peace and development practitioners. It does so through outstanding attention to methodology and sources, and a capacity for critical reflection alongside a deep personal engagement with the post war realities of the country. This is a very significant contribution to our understanding of insurgent and postinsurgent politics.” —Jenny Pearce, London School of Economics
“Ralph Sprenkels has produced a seminal book on the ‘afterlife’ of revolutions. Based on his outstanding research and long commitment with the FMLN, this study is an honest and impartial account about personal fortunes and misfortunes of combatants and loyalists, and the transformation of revolutionary devotion in political routine.” —Dirk Kruijt, author of Guerrillas: War and Peace in Central America
"After Insurgency: Revolution and Electoral Politics in El Salvador reflects a deep and unprecedented access to sources, largely interviews and observations of organizations, but also documentary materials, made available because of Ralph Sprenkels's long personal history of involvement with the organizations and people under examination. No studies of comparable richness exist for El Salvador, and I have yet to read anything on any of the other insurgencies or postinsurgencies in Latin America that equals it." —Erik Ching, Furman University
"By highlighting the often overlooked aspects concerning former guerilla transformation, the book not only contributes to research on El Salvador’s postwar developments and democratic transition but also to research on insurgency, especially the understudied field of post-insurgency." —Democratization
The cease fire of February 1, 1992, ended a hard-fought civil war in El Salvador that had lasted 12 years. The Peace Accords signed two weeks earlier by the insurgents of the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) and government representatives received strong international acclaim as “a new beginning for El Salvador” (Wade 2016, 2). “This is the closest that any process has ever come to a negotiated revolution,” the United Nations’ principal mediator, Alvaro de Soto, declared in the New York Times. De Soto’s appraisal became iconic. Many international observers viewed El Salvador’s peace process as a role model for ending armed conflict through negotiation of political reforms under the tutelage of the international community. Scores of articles and books extracted lessons learned from El Salvador to be applied in other post-conflict transition processes. Government officials as well as former comandantes traveled around the world, sometimes together, to share their experiences as a source of inspiration for other countries crippled by conflict.
The success of El Salvador’s 1992 Peace Accords hinged primarily on the fact that the elites from the former warring parties, though still politically divided, embraced electoral democracy (Wood 2000). In retrospect, Salvador Samayoa, FMLN negotiator and a leading Salvadoran intellectual, referred to the final round of peace negotiations and its aftermath as “the explosion of consensus” (2003, 585). Indeed, the Accords constituted the blueprint for an extensive institutional reform process, which included, besides relatively free and fair elections, a new civilian police force, a significant reduction of the armed forces, and an overhaul of the judicial apparatus. The insurgents laid down their arms, demobilized their troops and entered the electoral arena as a political party. Although scholars also endeavored, to a greater or lesser extent, to point out shortcomings, El Salvador’s peace process emerged as a textbook case of democratic transition, at the time that democratic transition was “the hottest theme of the moment” (Domínguez and Lindenberg 1997, 217), certainly in the study of Latin American politics, but arguably also in the study of international politics at large.
Paradoxically, as I myself witnessed up-close, for most former Salvadoran insurgents the transition was very difficult and often painful to process. What democratic transition theory generally tends to interpret as highly positive steps in the process, the demobilization of the guerrilla troops for example, raised for many of those directly involved complex and uncomfortable questions about the future of their movement. The insurgents’ desire for peace mixed with their growing anxieties about the value and worth of previous collective efforts and with concerns about their personal future (Peterson 2006). Many wondered whether the outcome had been worth the sacrifice.
This sentiment was particularly strong amongst the rank-and-file and mid-level cadres. In contrast, those holding important political positions within the FMLN generally defended the process. Some comandantes labeled the transition as the ‘democratic revolution’ they had fought for all along, while others framed it as the highest attainable result at the time given the national and international political circumstances.
In 2009 a new outburst of international enthusiasm over Salvadoran politics occurred. 17 years after the demobilization of its fighters, the FMLN became the first former Latin American guerrilla front that, having failed to take power through armed struggle, was nevertheless able win power through the ballot. It was also the first time the Left had won the presidency in El Salvador’s history. The pacific transfer of power to the FMLN, seen as as the Litmus Test of El Salvador’s postwar democracy, occurred in a context of left-wing parties rising to power across Latin America, catapulted in part by neo-liberalisms’ waning popularity. For international observers, FMLN president Mauricio Funes became the latest milestone in Latin America’s ‘pink tide.’ For the FMLN and its supporters, the historical symbolism was compelling, obtaining by popular vote the mandate they had been unable to garner through military means (L.A. González 2011). Some scholars interpreted the FMLN’s triumph as the proof that El Salvador’s transition process had finalized, others as a new, crucial step in “the maturation of El Salvador’s democracy” (Greene and Keogh 2009, 668). The first scholarly reviews of FMLN performance in government confirmed the idea of a democratic break-through, with the FMLN able to “increase inclusion” (Cannon and Hume 2012, 1050) and “making significant improvements in the daily lives of citizens” (Perla and Cruz-Feliciano 2013, 101).
Thus, after first developing into what Russell Crandall (2016,69) qualifies as “Latin America’s largest and most formidable Marxist insurgency,” the FMLN subsequently also transformed into a highly effective peacetime political party. For many of those previously dedicated to revolutionary armed struggle, the Funes election smacked of redemption. In subsequent months, the FMLN party offices throughout the country were flooded by guerrilla veterans and other former FMLN collaborators looking for work and offering their services. As the ‘Funes transition’ unfolded, however, a good part of the former rank-and-file and mid-level insurgents did not see their initial expectations fulfilled, and increasingly expressed criticism, doubts and anxieties about the FMLN’s performance in office. They did so not only on personal title, but also through organizations such as associations of FMLN veterans, NGOs and a range of social movement organizations.
This book is about how those that participated in the insurgency experienced and helped shape El Salvador’s democratic transition. In it, I examine how their historical collective project, what participants refer to as ‘the Revolution,’ became remolded in the context of neoliberal peace. I focus particularly on the multiple postwar accommodations in the internal relations of El Salvador’s revolutionary movement, and how these accommodations helped produce what I call ‘the lived experience of post-insurgency.’ I also document and analyze how the postwar remaking of the movement’s internal relations interlinks with the FMLN’s contemporary political performance. By this approach, I demonstrate that the reconversion of the FMLN from insurgent movement to an election-oriented party unfolded as a tense and contentious process, which led to the proliferation of internal conflicts. Its relative success notwithstanding, widespread disillusionment surfaced among participants.
The main argument of this book is that the revolutionary movement advanced its engagement in electoral politics mainly by building on insurgent networks, identities and imaginaries. I contend that the FMLN’s electoral success hinged to a large extent on this organization’s ability to reconvert a substantial part of its insurgent networks into predominantly clientelist factions. At the same time, factors like the intense political competition between the FMLN and the dominant right-wing party Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA), pervasive sectarian struggles in the realm of the FMLN, and the scarcity of state resources available for distribution, all rendered these postwar clientelist relations relatively unstable and precarious. Considering these political developments in the mirror of the aspirations and sacrifices of revolutionary armed struggle, many former Salvadoran insurgents lamented what they saw as the postwar scramble for public resources, but few could afford not to participate in it. Hence, the experience of post-insurgent politics developed as a peculiar mix of political ascendency and disenchantment.