El “cipitío” en el Salvador Sheraton

El cipitío en el Salvador Sheraton

This short book describes itself as a “literary chronicle/collage about the FMLN Offensive in San Salvador, from November 11-21, 1989.” Of course, the offensive didn’t just take place in the country’s capital: as the book itself notes, the guerrilla’s tactics involved multiple strikes throughout the country, preventing the armed forces from concentrating in any particular zone. There was “bloody combat in San Miguel, Usulatán, and Morazán in the East; La Paz, San Vicente, and Cuscatlán, in the Centre; Cabañas and Chalatenango, in the North” (25). Nor was this the first time that the guerrilla had been active in the city: the war had never been simply a rural rebellion, and the FMLN had never adopted the Maoist strategy of (say) Peru’s Sendero Luminoso, which involved encircling the cities from the countryside. And yet, in November 1989, the war came to San Salvador in new ways, for instance in that the guerrilla moved (more or less) in the open in working class suburbs such as Mejicanos and Soyapango, while for its part the state for the first time bombed these parts of its own capital city from the air.

Briefly, this long-running “low-intensity” war became resolutely high-intensity for everyone, not just for the peasants of far-flung departments such as Chalatenango or Morazán. San Salvador was briefly the scene of urban warfare reminiscent of Beirut or Sarajevo. Nobody was entirely safe, as was demonstrated by the two notable events that are this book’s focus: the extrajudicial killing of the country’s most prominent group of intellectuals, six Jesuit scholar-priests at the Universidad Centroamericana; and the guerrilla incursion into the capital city’s wealthiest neighbourhood, Escalón, when for a couple of days they occupied one of its foremost luxury hotels, the Salvador Sheraton. The hotel’s guests at the time included the Secretary-General of the Organization of American States plus a number of US Green Berets. Anticipating a possible hostage rescue operation, (then) President George H W Bush sent down an elite group of Delta Force operators. So November 1989 was the moment when El Salvador almost became Vietnam, with a direct engagement between the guerrilla and the US armed forces.

But El “cipitío” is not particularly interested in framing the Salvadoran revolution in terms of a Cold War proxy conflict. Rather, it envisages the guerrilla to be accompanied by “thousands of spirits [who] watch approvingly and guarded the periphery: they are Indians who had died in 1524, 1832, 1932… There were the defenders of Cuscatlán, the “Land of Treasures. There was Tayte Anastasio Aquino, the Indians Feliciano Ama and Chico Sánchez, and with them, in every one of the guerrilla… the “Negro” Farabundo Martí” (16). So the portrait the book paints is of a hybrid postcolonial revolt, with Aztec and Mayan elements as well as the specifically Salvadoran sprites the “cipitío” of the title and his companion the “ciguanaba,” a ferocious woman warrior. The cipitío transforms a guerrilla detachment into spirit beasts–a jaguar, a quetzal, a deer, and so on–to whisk them invisibly past the sentries and roadblocks and into the heart of the territory claimed by the Salvadoran bourgeoisie and international capital. And once their point is made, he (literally) spirits them away again, to fight another day. For this is a struggle that won’t come to an end in any eleven-day “final offensive,” or even with the peace accords three years later. This is a “long war” indeed (to borrow James Dunkerley’s phrase), and it continues to this day.

No me agarran viva

No me agarran viva

As (almost) always with testimonio, Claribel Alegría and D J Flakoll’s No me agarran viva is caught in the tension between the typical and the exceptional, or the two meanings of the exemplary: example of or example for. Thus the book’s prologue begins with the declaration that Eugenia (the FMLN combatant who is the text’s main focus) is an “exemplary model of self-abnegation, heroism, and revolutionary sacrifice” (7).

Is she an example, then, in the sense that she provides for us–or others–to aspire to and follow? Or is she exemplary in that hers is just one among many such stories? The prologue continues by stressing the second of these two readings, asserting that she is “a typical case, rather than an exception, of so many Salvadoran women who have dedicated their efforts, and even their lives, to the struggle for the liberation of their people” (7). And yet the book that follows consistently suggests the opposite, that in almost every way her capacities and her commitment exceeded that of those around her. As her immediate superior, Comandante Ricardo, puts it: “Eugenia was one of those who contributed most, through her experience, the sureness of her political ideology, her party militancy as much as in her sense of mission and organizational ability” (147/144; translation modified). Or in the words of her partner, Javier, who gives the “definitive summary of the life and death of his wife and comrade”: “Eugenia’s life was exceptional” (147/145).

The way that the book deals with this tension is ultimately by vacating Eugenia’s life of almost any individuality beyond the superlatives. Perhaps this is another sense in which she is a “model”: she so fully plays the role of the exemplary guerrilla that she is otherwise empty inside. She has almost no interior life. Everything is devoted to the cause. Even her marriage is described in terms of consummation to the struggle: “The wedding was their initiation into a clandestine way of life. [. . .] Some of the guests left the church in protest because their vows included the promise to keep helping the people” (65/79). Indeed, wherever love is mentioned it is as likely to be love of the people or love of the party as it is to be any kind of romantic attachment to Javier. Throughout, with the one exception of some very brief comments by her sister almost at the end of the book (concerning her enthusiastic but out-of-tune singing and her careless driving), she is overwhelmingly a person devoid of personality.

All of which gives an ironic double meaning to the book’s title: “They Won’t Take Me Alive.” This testimonio surely doesn’t capture much if anything of Ana María Castillo Rivas (her real name), her life and her singular vivacity, offering us instead no more than a beautiful corpse, a revolutionary icon under an assumed name. She escapes us, as much as she escapes the Salvadoran security forces, if at the high cost of sacrifice and glorified death.

See also: War.


I’ve long been fascinated by the FMLN’s November 1989 “Final Offensive” (click here for a sequence of photos) and particularly by the incident in the Sheraton Hotel (for which see this image, by Jeremy Bigwood, which will be included in the book).

Here, a small band of guerrillas made their way into Escalón, San Salvador’s most exclusive neighborhood, took over what was then (with the Camino Real) one of the city’s two top luxury hotels, and so also effectively took hostage a group of US green berets, “dressed in pajamas and bulletproof vests”, who so happened to be staying there at the time. (The Secretary General of the OAS, João Baena Soares, was also caught up in the action.)

I remember following events in the British papers at the time, as it caught the eye of the international press much more than the guerrillas’ control of the working-class barrios where the insurrection had started. See Time‘s contemporaneous account, which focuses on the possibility that for the first time the US military would be directly involved in the civil war. And as Time also points out, there was something carnivalesque about the whole affair:

Despite the tension, the scene became like something from a TV situation comedy, with the rebels enjoying a feast of hotel food and the U.S. soldiers resolutely glowering from behind their barricades.

But it always seemed to me that there was more to the incident than its value as some kind of spectacular publicity stunt in the middle of an uprising that eventually ended in stalemate. It was a digression, but an important one.

I’ve discussed the Sheraton incident before, and also recounted something of a visit two years ago in which I stayed in a Sheraton, if not (it turned out) “the” Sheraton.

In Posthegemony, I deal with the Salvadoran civil war, and particularly the capture of the Sheraton, at some length. I try, among other things, to argue that this brief episode is in fact significant in broader world-historical terms. As I put it there:

The Salvadoran civil war was part of a broader, global transition. [. . .] As the guerrilla forces quietly slipped away from the scene, and as the fighting across the country began to subside, on the other side of the world the Cold War was ending. The FMLN offensive had taken place in the brief interlude between the fall of the Berlin wall on November 9, and the first Eastern European Communist regime to collapse (in Czechoslovakia) on November 24. The November offensive (“in all probability, the biggest guerrilla offensive ever mounted against a Latin American government”), and particularly the incident in the Sheraton with which it ended, was a hinge: both the last confrontation of the Cold War era, and the first post-Cold War conflict, a premonition of future actions against tall buildings. [. . .] Perhaps, then, San Salvador provided a better indication then Berlin or Prague of how the world would soon look. For all the euphoria of the border-breaching and deterritorialization in Eastern and Central Europe, Central America offered a clearer index of the low-intensity fear and control societies emerging from the shell of Cold War ideological tussles.

In the book’s overall argument, however, this is something of a digression. It is part of my general intuition that in some sense (almost) all of modern history starts in Latin America. This is my rejoinder to the self-confidence of someone like Henry Kissinger who, in 1969, declared to the Chilean foreign minister of the time:

Nothing important can come from the South. History has never been produced in the South. The axis of history starts in Moscow, goes to Bonn, crosses over to Washington, and then goes to Tokyo. What happens in the South is of no importance. You’re wasting your time.

By contrast, I like to say that everything of importance comes from the South: modernity, the industrial revolution, nationalism, neoliberalism… and so on and so forth. The only exception is liberal democracy, but then how important is that, anyway?

Of course, in many ways this argument is simply intended as a provocation. It’s a useful corrective to unthinking Eurocentrism, modeled on and extending some of the provocations initially put forward for instance by dependency theory, but the very idea of an “axis of history” is itself rather dubious. Rather, in almost every case phenomena such as modernity or neoliberalism arise in a complex series of interactions, complicities, encounters, and struggles that involve both North and South. And more dependency theory itself, while emphasizing the importance of (say) the mines of Potosí for the development of industrial capitalism, also shows that it is the interaction of (what it calls) “center” and “periphery” that counts. Indeed, in the end the very distinction between center and periphery, North and South, becomes ultimately tenuous.

Hence my suggestion that the Final Offensive is a “hinge” and a “premonition of future actions against tall buildings” is a digression: perhaps (again) an important one, but ultimately not crucial to the main argument. I want rather to establish resonances between the Central American guerrilla and contemporary terrorism, mostly through a phenomenology of terrorist affect, and the ways in which it undermines both liberal and conservative conceptions of the state. Any sense of historical causality or origin is by the by. After all, there were plenty of other things going on in Latin America in that fateful year, not least for instance the Venezuelan Caracazo.

And yet… I continue to have the sense that there is something particularly interesting about the Final Offensive. And now, reading Carl Schmitt’s Theory of the Partisan, I feel I have more of an idea as to why that might be. In short, November 1989 demonstrated the final crisis of the figure (or, in Schitt’s terms, the “theory”) of the partisan. It is here that we see definitively the arrival of “unexpected new forms of the new partisan” with all the implications that has for “the concept of the political, [. . .] the question of the real enemy and of a new nomos of the earth” (Schmitt, 95).

But enough for today. More on this, probably, tomorrow.

fmln ’09

Click here for all your Salvadoran election news. In short, the FMLN have won a plurality in the Legislative Assembly, but not an absolute majority, and indeed have not done as well as predicted. They also lost the mayoralty of San Salvador.

And see here for a helpful analysis of why the Salvadorans will be going to the polls again in a few weeks’ time. (Via.)


Half the places I tried to go in San Salvador were closed. It was Monday and the Museum of Popular Art didn’t open until Tuesday. A café I’d been recommended was shut until Wednesday. And when I arrived at the Museum of the Word and Image, there too I was faced with a locked door. I’d got there in the middle of a two-hour lunchbreak. So I stopped a the little cantina next door. Even to call it a cantina was to say too much. It had a concrete floor, corrugated iron roof, and chicken wire walls. The kitchen was an open wood fire and a couple of sinks. But the corn tortillas were excellent: soft, tasty. They took me back. There was a time when I’d eaten nothing but beans and tortillas, occasionally spiced up with a bit of chile pepper, for almost a month. That got old, soon. But for now I welcomed a proper hand-made tortilla, nothing like the thin and flavorless factory products found in Mexico and Mexican restaurants throughout the world.

But Salvador’s national food is the pupusa: a tortilla stuffed with cheese or beans. You can buy them hot off the grill at any market or street corner in provincial towns. A few days later, amid the bustle of a place called San Francisco Gotera in which the central plaza was over-run by market stalls, I sat down for some pupusas. Hot, greasy, overloaded with melted cheese, they were delicious. They came with assorted pickled vegetables that I scooped up with the tortilla and my fingers. I downed the sweet, tepid coffee that was also on offer. And asked to pay. I didn’t quite understand reply, but I knew it was three something. I proffered three dollars, only to receive a laugh and two dollars twenty-five in change. It turns out that the Salvadorans, who abandoned colones for their currency and now rely on US greenbacks and coins, talk in terms of “coras” or “quarters.” The meal had been three quarters. Seventy-five cents, and no thought of taking advantage of my confusion.

Back at the museum, I decided to try my luck and ring the bell to see if they’d let me in anyway. A woman answered and after a brief consultation welcomed me inside. But it wasn’t quite what I’d expected. I’d thought that this would be a monument to the war experience. I was somewhat chastened to discover instead an emphasis first on the indigenous culture of the West, and second an exhibition in preparation on the noted painter Salarrué. I was a fairly unabashed war tourist, but here I was brought up short. But in one room was a doorway covered by a rough mat curtain, on which was pinned a note saying “You can open this curtain at your own risk… Reconstruction of the ‘Cave of Passions,” in La Guacamaya, Morazán, 1982.”

Cave of the Passions curtain
I took the risk and moved the cloth aside, to find a darkened room with a couple of chairs and a bank of aged radio equipment. This was the small homage to Radio Venceremos, the guerrilla radio, in the museum run by its most famous representative, a man who still went by his nom de guerre of “Santiago.”.

Cave of Passions
But it was as though hiding the “cave of passions” were both a rebuke to the over-nostalgic seeking to relive some kind of war experience, and also a reminder to others of passions that still lay just a twitch of a curtain away. It was a gesture of showing and not showing, insisting either way that there was more to the country than you might have thought.


I arrived in El Salvador to be greeted by a tropical downpour. Even in the airport, in front of the customs and immigration agents, the rain was dripping through the roof into buckets arrayed on the floor. If the country wanted to give international visitors the sense of modernity and that it could cope with the elements, it hadn’t made a great start of things.

When I was traveling through Central America in the 1980s, Salvadoran border posts were always the site of a rather anxious lottery. How much would they look through your luggage and what exactly would they find suspicious? How many days would they allow you to stay in the country? I used to stuff anything vaguely incriminating way down at the bottom of my backpack, and try to make sure I was among the very first travelers of the day, in the belief that the guards would be too sleepy or perhaps still with some morning goodwill to bother with all the formalities. With luck, the would let me through without too much hassle, hopefully stamping my passport with at least fifteen days, ideally thirty.

So I still felt a residual sense of tension as I confronted the immigration official, hardly much helped by the sense of some disorder as the rain continued to come down beside me. He asked me if this was my first visit to the country. No, I truthfully said. I was last here a few years ago. When? He asked. Four, five years ago, I said vaguely. He looked for the stamps, but I explained I’d renewed my passport since then. And how long are you planning to stay? Five days, I replied, adding forty eight hours just in case, to give me some leeway. OK, he said. And he stamped, returned my passport, and told me with a smile he’d given me three months. I thanked him and said I if I enjoyed my stay I’d think perhaps of hanging around a little longer.

Central America has a distinctive smell. The Canadian singer Bruce Cockburn described it as “dust and diesel” that “rise like incense from the road.” There’s also the woodsmoke on the breeze, and the special sense of how tropical rain cleanses everything, making it that little bit less grubby. I left the airport terminal and took my time before looking for a trustworthy taxi-driver. I breathed in El Salvador.

I wanted to stay in the Sheraton. For the sake of it, and because of the incident during the 1989 Offensive in which the FMLN guerrilla, during what was perhaps the turning point of the decade-long civil war, took control of the hotel, in the heart of the capital’s exclusive Escalón district. No matter that a night there now would cost me about the same sum as I used to live on for a month way back when. I was a different kind of traveler now. I felt able to indulge myself, and petty sense of symbolism. And no matter really either that the Sheraton now was in a different building altogether, and that what used to be the Sheraton was now a Radisson. I decided that it was the name that counted anyway.