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.


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.


As I seem to have a sideline on Latin American elections (Bachelet, Morales), and with all the talk of Latin America’s “leftward drift”…

Salvador flagIt’s worth noting then that according to Tim’s El Salvador Blog the FMLN are leading the polls in advance of Salvador’s upcoming National Assembly and mayoral elections.

The country’s Presidential election took place two years ago, and was won by Tony Saca of ARENA, the party that was, notoriously, the party of the death squads during the 1980s civil war.

The FMLN’s candidate in 2004 was their veteran leader, Schafik Handal, who died in January at the airport, returning from Evo Morales’s inauguration. It seems likely that the party’s current standing in the polls owes not a little to the sentimental affection expressed for Handal after his death, whereas in life the Communist leader was much vilified.

(For another example of a Communist leader whose recent death has done much to boost her public acceptability, see Chile’s Gladys Marín.)

At the same time, Schafik’s departure may enable some renovation within the FMLN. See again Tim’s discussion of the party’s internal debates. Splits within the FMLN–always at best a loose coalition, but united in the 1980s in line with the necessities of insurgency–have long meant that the left have failed to capitalize in peacetime on their strength and definite popularity as a rebel force. The party has never really recovered from the defection of Joaquín Villalobos, wartime strategist, who decided to ally with ARENA in 1994. Michael Zielinski summarizes the situation in the mid-1990s here. And Margaret Swedish comments on further divisions here.

Still, the former guerrillas have more recently performed well in Assembly elections and in local politics alike. In 2003, with 34% of the vote, they won a qualified majority in the Assembly. But they remained the opposition, facing a right of centre coalition dominated by ARENA. And the current mayor of San Salvador was elected as a member of the FMLN, even though he quit the party last year. Perhaps this year will see an electoral breakthrough. Which will irritate the US, if nothing else. But let us hope it achieves more than that.

For more news on Salvador, in addition to Tim’s fine blog, see the UCA’s Proceso, extracts of which are available in both English and Spanish.