In different ways, these two books address the nature and extent of the institutional changes that accompanied El Salvadors protracted civil war (1979-92). Examining the period from 1977 to 1982, political scientist Yvon Grenier eschews socioeconomic causes and external intervention, seeking meaning instead in the behavior of political actors in the context of the historical development of the Salvadoran state. For Grenier, these troubled years represent a critical juncture in the secular shift away from exclusivist rule—whether by the oligarchy or the armed forces—and toward an increasingly autonomous state. As civil society emerged, the expansion of “public space” produced an environment more congenial to notions of pluralism, consent, and dissent.
It is unusual for such changes to take place during an internal war (the author rejects the terms revolution and civil war for the fighting in El Salvador), which typically results in a weakening of the state. Grenier hypothesizes, however, that the prodigious violence of the 1980s may have been only a symptom of the forces unleashed by the reordering of the political system. A self-confessed liberal democrat, Grenier argues that the period’s most important developments were political rather than military and that, in seeking a solution on the battlefield, both the armed forces and the FMLN clung to an outmoded praetorian model that made them increasingly irrelevant.
One may not always agree, but Grenier’s analyses are provocative, and his lively, often ironic prose style makes for enjoyable reading. Also refreshing is his independence of mind, as when he defends the much-maligned Christian Democratic Party and its leader, José Napoleón Duarte, who, “despite his weaknesses and ‘dirty hands,’ represented in a period of even greater monstrosities perhaps the only dam . . . impeding the country’s total immersion beneath a torrent of murderous extremism” (pp. 284-85).
Homicidal fanaticism and the question of state autonomy both figure also in Martha Doggett’s circumstantial account of the widely publicized case of six politically active Jesuit university professors who, along with two female domestic employees, were shot to death at their campus residence in San Salvador in the early morning hours of November 15, 1989. One of a series of reports by the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, which has acted as counsel in the case to Jesuit authorities in the United States and Central America, the book provides a valuable guide to the official investigation, as well as the efforts to implement the recommendations of the Truth Commission, created in 1991 under United Nations sponsorship to document responsibility for past abuses.
Optimists may find just cause in the Jesuit case. For the first time in Salvadoran history, two military officers were tried and convicted for their role in murdering civilians. As Doggett explains, however, a suspiciously convenient jury verdict acquitted the enlisted men who confessed to the actual shooting. Obstruction and duplicity by both Salvadoran and U.S. government officials plagued the proceedings; and in the end, the Salvadoran officer corps effectively shielded from accountability the high-ranking commanders who, according to the Truth Commission’s 1993 report, gave the orders that led to the Jesuit killings.