Post-Cold War Feminism in El Salvador

Post-Cold War Feminism in El Salvador

In Mexico there is an expression, “The dog is master of the cat, the cat is master of the mouse, and the mouse is master of its tail.” In El Salvador, Deysi Cheyne reports: “There is so much violence and such a pronounced hierarchy in the family. The father comes home drunk and beats his wife. She slaps her eldest son. He hits his younger brother. And the little boy kicks the dog.” Cheyne is a former member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of El Salvador (PSC). Now she is the director of the Institute for Research, Training, and Development of Women, a nongovernmental organization in El Salvador. She and her organization, known by its Spanish acronym, IMU, strive to improve the welfare of the women of El Salvador, a heroic undertaking but one that Cheyne finds more satisfying and productive than any other. This commitment stems in part from her identification with the plight of women, but also from her disillusionment with party politics and the workings of El Salvador’s incipient democracy.

Cheyne is doing good work, but her attitude toward politics illustrates how many “on the left” in Latin America have gone from an all-consuming passion for seizing the state to a virtual abandonment of interest in government. Party politics, electoral politics, and the slow labor of democratic governance and democratic opposition are too frequently dismissed—as if there is no middle ground between creating a Leninist state and retreating to the barrio.

Cheyne grew up in the provincial city of La Libertad. As a college student at the University of El Salvador she was, as she says, “recruited” by the PSC. A scholarship enabled her to study biology at the V.I. Lenin State University in what was then Moldavia, in the former Soviet Union. Her studies were complemented by training in “intelligence gathering and analysis.”

After four years in Moldavia, from 1976 to 1980, Cheyne returned to El Salvador, where she participated in clandestine activities of the PSC, one of the oldest Communist parties in Latin America. The triumph of the Sandinistas in neighboring Nicaragua gave the left in El Salvador hope for a similar revolution. But repression by the armed forces and the police was savage. It was a most dangerous period. In 1983, Cheyne was sent to Nicaragua, where she did intelligence work for the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), which the Communist Party had joined in 1980, though it maintained an independent party structure. Cheyne describes her work in Nicaragua, where she stayed for six years, as mundane, preparing intelligence reports for the “general staff” of the FMLN.

Ten days before the “final offensive” of 1989, Cheyne returned to El Salvador, traveling on a false passport. Crossing the border between Honduras and El Salvador was dangerous: discovery of her true identity would probably mean immediate death. The final offensive in San Salvador was ghastly, wi...