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El Salvador and the Cold War

Associate Professor of History Virginia Burnett speaks with exhibitions intern Joey Kolker about memory and human rights in El Salvador, 15 years after the signing of peace accords that ended the country's civil war. Burnett is a co-organizer of the April 2008 conference Image, Memory, and the Paradox of Peace, jointly sponsored by the University's Bernard and Audre Rapoport Center for Human Rights and Justice, the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies, the School of Journalism, and the Harry Ransom Center. As part of this collaboration, the Ransom Center presented the photography exhibition Inside El Salvador.

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JOEY KOLKER: So, how does El Salvador's civil war fit into the broader history of Central America in the last years of the Cold War?

VIRGINIA BURNETT: Well, it is the million-dollar question, because the Salvadoran civil war is part and parcel of the last phase of the Cold War. But I see it as kind of a proxy war, actually. The Reagan administration, when it took over in 1980, was very interested in some sort of a final showdown with the Soviet Union, but not a nuclear showdown with the Soviet Union. The Salvadoran civil war had actually already started at that point and of course, there were Marxist guerrillas who wanted to take over the country. So in that sense it really is a Cold War scenario, but the objective of the Reagan administration was to find a way to have actually a head-to-head, as I said, with the Soviet Union. This was not a very dangerous venue. We were not going to go to nuclear war—anybody—over El Salvador. And so, during the Reagan years, the confrontation in El Salvador, the civil war in El Salvador—which really was a civil war between two sides within El Salvador—became a global confrontation, between the East and the West. It took on a much larger status than it had had in the popular imagination of the United States, and we became very directly involved in it.

I'm sure you're familiar already with Jeane Kirkpatrick's symmetry theory. She eventually, of course, became a cabinet member of the Reagan administration, but she had written a very influential academic article—that rare breed of an influential academic article—where she talked about authoritarian governments and totalitarian governments. And authoritarian governments, she wrote, were undesirable, but they could be negotiated into democracy. That is that they would be willing—and there were historical precedents—for their being willing to have elections and to essentially negotiate themselves out of power. On the other hand, she argued that totalitarian governments, which may look like authoritarian governments in a lot of ways, were fundamentally different. That is, they would never negotiate themselves out of power. Of course, obviously this is before the fall of the Soviet Union; it's before the end of the Central America conflicts. You can think of a lot of examples now where it's not true, but at the time, it held a certain amount of credibility with many influential circles, because authoritarian governments were generally thought of as being say, governments of dictatorships, like Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. And totalitarian governments were Communist governments.

Simple enough, and so in the larger dynamic of Reagan-era thinking, El Salvador became the case for authoritarian government; Nicaragua became the case for a totalitarian government. So the symmetry was between those two, which I think is one reason why Guatemala never really was much on the radar of the United States, during those years, even though there was a catastrophic civil war going on there too that was actually in a lot of ways very much like El Salvador's. But you don't have symmetry anymore, if you include Guatemala. So that's the short answer to a big question.

JOEY KOLKER: Right, well you've talked a little about this already, but outside of Latin Americanist academic circles, could you describe the level and type of awareness in the United States during the 1980s about El Salvador's civil war?

VIRGINIA BURNETT: Well there was actually a fair amount of passion about that war, one way or the other, in the US during those years. I would say certainly, it was most acute on campuses, where people were really keeping up with what was going on, but El Salvador and Nicaragua both were often on the front page of the New York Times, in a way that no Latin American nation ever makes it any longer. It's certainly—because that's where people got their news—I think it's important to remember, when we're talking about El Salvador and we're talking about the exhibit at the Ransom Center, that even though we're just talking about twenty years ago, the way people got their information was much more limited than it is now. There were not a lot of venues for getting news. You got news off the radio, you got it out of the newspapers, you got it on TV. And when that was all conventional media, all three of them sort of said the same thing. And so certainly what the average American knew about El Salvador was what you were sort of supposed to know about, and you know very much in the paradigm of the administration's thinking.

But there was also a fairly large population of people who were I guess to some extent the products of the Vietnam era, who were very dubious of American intervention anywhere, particularly small countries that didn't have a lot of say, like Vietnam and like El Salvador. That sector was very quick to immediately label El Salvador as another Vietnam, and of course that set off alarms among people who opposed war for other ideological reasons, that it would be another stalemate, or another defeat, like Vietnam had been. But I think in general people knew El Salvador was there, they knew it was a problem, but I think they would hard-pressed to tell you beyond a very black and white scenario, of a Communist guerrilla force trying to take over a government, what was really at stake there.

JOEY KOLKER: The conference has a great focus on image and memory in El Salvador, and I'm wondering how well you think US citizens today remember the conflict and our government's role in it?

VIRGINIA BURNETT: That's a good question. I guess I'll tell you this anecdote. I teach a Central American history class, an undergraduate Central American history class, and obviously the people who are in that class were not even born during the conflict. But usually there are people in it whose parents were in El Salvador at the time. A lot of times I'll get somebody who was either born in El Salvador and came up here—we're moving beyond that in chronology now—came up here as a baby or came up here as a little kid, or was born here but their parents had recently come from El Salvador, and they don't even know. Even they don't know what really happened. They don't even know why their parents came; they don't even know what side their parents were on. One of the assignments I give in that class is, if you have a family history like that, to go back and just ask your parents why they came up. Many times the parents were very involved in the war on one side or the other and left for that reason. They were afraid they were going to be killed. They never mentioned it to their kids. When people who were directly involved in the war don't talk about it, you can be sure that people have largely forgotten about it.

The other thing is that I happened to be in Central America when Ronald Reagan died, and there was all this stuff on TV about it. It was fascinating to me to see that the way he was remembered was not for what had happened in Central America, but for what had happened with the Soviet Union. There was very little mention, even on Central American TV, about the role the United States had played in those wars. So if you want to talk about a piece of history that's hidden in plain sight, I would say this is a place to look.

JOEY KOLKER: Well, fifteen years after the signing of the peace accords in El Salvador, what is the status today of human rights in the country?

VIRGINIA BURNETT: I wish I could give a nicer answer than is really the case there. Let me preface it by saying that in a lot of ways El Salvador has done better than you might have expected. If you look at basic economic and social indicators in El Salvador, you see dramatic improvements [now] over the period of the war and the period before the war. But of course the war never did solve the basic problems that it started over. You know, the basic problems that led people to take up arms against the government were still there, and in some cases even worse than when they had taken up arms.

El Salvador has been successful in that they have had a free transition of power, they've had elections that are meaningful, they have a much higher voter participation than in the United States—not to say it's high, but it's higher than you find here—and so I think all those are hopeful signs. Crime in El Salvador is a disaster. I would say that that is a greater problem—the delincuencia común, just the common crime—than human rights violations in the sense that we commonly think of human rights violations, in the sense that they are violations by the government of the civil rights and the human rights of its citizens. In terms of the government or death squads killing people, that doesn't really happen very much anymore. There is an occasional incident when maybe labor leader dies in mysterious circumstances that raise questions in your mind, but by and large it's like night and day, from fifteen years ago. That said, the common crime is so pervasive in El Salvador and such a problem, that I would call it a crisis of democracy. That crime comes from a lot of places; it comes from gangs, which were a problem that didn't even exist in the 1980s, not the kind of gangs like Salvatruchas and others that now run in some ways run whole sectors of the country. They are truly transnational organizations that have close ties to their fellow gang members, elsewhere in Central America and in the United States. You also have what Robert Carmack has called a "culture of violence" in El Salvador, that is, where you have a country or a society where you have a long history of violence, that is, the resolution of problems through violence. It's very hard for people to lose that habit. So things that might have been resolved in a different kind of manner, tend to be resolved violently in El Salvador, so people can be killed over five dollars, which isn't a lot of money even in El Salvador. You could say in a way the gang problem also has its roots in the war, because the gang members of today, whether they're in Los Angeles or whether they're in San Salvador, are kids who are in some way a product of the war. That is, they were born in El Salvador or they were born in the United States, and grew up, instead of binational people, [as] non-national people, adrift in US society, and picked up the worst attributes of US culture, and find meaning and belonging within the gangs. If they were born in El Salvador and they commit a crime, then they're deported there. And the group they immediately find there is of course the gang. So you have this sort of lawless, border-free zone, that is outside of civil society altogether. It's very hard for any government to get a grip on the crime. It also is a place where the average citizen feels an enormous amount of dissatisfaction that the government can't provide basic services, like safety, like the idea that you can walk to the store and walk back safely to your home. Until they find a way to resolve that, that's going to be a challenge to democracy, I think.

JOEY KOLKER: OK. Virginia Burnett, thank you very much.