For nearly three decades, Nestor Bonilla was a loyal soldier in the Salvadoran army. Trained by U.S. military advisors, he rose to the rank of colonel. He fought in the civil war as a commander of El Salvador’s elite and feared special forces.
Today he is stomping the campaign trail in behalf of the guerrilla movement he once battled. “It is time for a change,” he says in what can only be called an understatement.
El Salvador elects a new president Sunday, and for the first time in the nation’s history, the left has a real chance of victory. The vote is a test of whether El Salvador has changed significantly in the 17 years since the war ended and can open up beyond the single-party system that has governed it since, or whether the stubborn, locked-in-the-past elements on both the right and left will once again prevail and seal the status quo.
The campaign has revived frightening wartime rhetoric but also offered startling, unheard-of political alliances -- such as Bonilla and his new best friend, Gerson Martinez, a former commander of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN. Bonilla and Martinez have become a fixture on the FMLN campaign circuit, rallying mostly rural crowds in behalf of Mauricio Funes, the politically moderate presidential candidate heading the FMLN ticket.
When the two compactly built men in their 50s take the stage before a sea of red FMLN flags, they like to tell a somewhat symbolic story.
“We used to be in these hills around here, shooting at each other, me on one side, him on the other,” the former military man will say.
“I’d duck, he’d duck. The important thing is we survived to be here today.”
“I tell my brothers in the FMLN that we both came from the pueblo,” Martinez adds.
The story isn’t literal; Bonilla and Martinez fought in different regions of the Salvadoran battlefield, though their comrades were certainly killing one another. But the political message is clear: If two staunch enemies can reconcile for what they believe to be the good of the country, then so can voters.
Does it work?
It’s a real crowd pleaser among the FMLN sympathizers, who are apparently surprised at the sight of the two men allied, and they eventually erupt into applause and laughter.
But not everyone.
Marina Morales de la Cruz, a shopkeeper, believes what she has heard about the FMLN -- that it’s made up of violence-prone atheists who wouldn’t know how to govern.
“They are not God-fearing and would harm the country,” she said at her tiny tin-roofed food store, with firewood stacked high on the floor and an enormous flag for the ruling Arena party fluttering overhead in the hot breeze.
Leaders of the right-wing Arena, some of whose founders were associated with the death squads that once stalked El Salvador, have been elected to the presidential palace every five years since 1989. This year the party is running a former police commander, Rodrigo Avila. He’s behind in the polls, but polls here are unreliable.
Funes, the FMLN candidate, is a former journalist who was never a combatant in the war. Still, Arena warns that he would not be able to rein in the hard-line militants who still populate upper echelons of the FMLN leadership.
“Our historic fear of the Front cannot change because of the existence of the Communist Party,” Armando Calderon Sol, a former president and Arena member, told The Times on Friday, referring to a faction of the FMLN.
But Bonilla, who retired from the army last year, believes the FMLN has changed and, more than that, that Arena must be dumped. He is one of about 110 former military officers who have joined the Funes campaign, along with other surprising bedfellows, such as the son of the late Jose Napoleon Duarte. The older Duarte was the U.S.-backed centrist president in the early years of the war.
“We want to leave the war behind,” the younger Duarte said at another FMLN rally. He shared the stage with Funes and the party’s vice presidential candidate, former guerrilla commander Salvador Sanchez Ceren, known by his nom de guerre, Leonel.
For Bonilla, the war is in the past but the country has only undergone superficial change. There is greater freedom of expression, but homicides have soared along with the cost of living. Government institutions are seen as corrupt shells acting on partisan interests and unable to mete out justice.
“We can sit here and talk about this and not get killed,” said Bonilla, 52, who has the close-cropped hair of the soldier he was and the salt-and-pepper beard and wire-rimmed glasses of the activist he has become. “But there is no social mobility, no opportunity. Graduate, and you have no job. Don’t graduate, and you have to go to work [illegally] in the U.S.”
The realigning of political affinities is part of a maturing process but also a matter of clear-eyed, practical realism, analysts here say.
“They have understood Arena is not the solution, and in Funes they see a hope,” said Ernesto Rivas Gallont, former ambassador to the U.S. and now a political analyst. “This might have been unthinkable a few years ago. Is it political maturation? Maybe. More than that, it is pragmatism. I’m not sure in the end it will be more than symbolic.”
The symbolism is nevertheless powerful. After his interview Friday with The Times, Bonilla was heading north to campaign in a village in Morazan province, a guerrilla stronghold during the war and site of some of the fiercest combat. He would be campaigning in a town called Segundo Montes, named in honor of one of the six Jesuit priests slain by the Salvadoran army in 1989.
In his campaign appear- ances, Bonilla realizes he is speaking to peasants whose families might have been killed by men under his command. Yet they still push their calloused palms toward his, wanting to shake his hand.
“I’m in a historic moment,” Bonilla said, “and I don’t want to think I missed it and didn’t participate.”