Written: By Lara Pullin, 2006..
First Published: As part of a longer article, "Comandante Schafik Handal, 1930-2006", in the February 8, 2006, issue of Green Left Weekly..
Digital Version: As part of a longer article, "Comandante Schafik Handal, 1930-2006", in Green Left Weekly Online Edition, February 2006.
Transcription/HTML for MIA: Juan R. Fajardo, July 2006.
Rights: Copyright 2006 by Lara Pullin. Republished here under permission granted for republication of articles appearing in the Green Left Weekly "by non-profit green, left, human rights or generally progressive publications."
Schafik Jorge Handal was born in Usulutan on October 13, 1930, to a Palestinian migrant family. Handal’s father Abdullah Handal Nasser took the name “Jorge” when he migrated to El Salvador in 1920, the time of the post-WWI colonial partitioning and the “Arab riots” in Palestine. Schafik Handal was only two years old when La Matanza, the famous insurgency led by the legendary Farabundo Marti, was brutally repressed by the Salvadoran military, resulting in the massacre of more than 30,000 campesinos and indigenous peasants.
In 1944, as a 14-year old, Schafik was already on the streets organising for a national strike against the dictatorship that ruled El Salvador with an iron fist. By 18 he was a leader of both the Democratic Students Association and the Revolutionary Students Committee at the University of El Salvador. His public revolutionary activity, at a time when most preferred clandestine activity, led to many periods of exile and detention. Following the success of the Cuban Revolution in 1959, and fearing that Handal would achieve a similar victory, the dictator Jose Maria Lemus had Handal captured and held for three months in Guatemala. Handal’s children and comrades recall many occasions when they were certain he had been killed. Yet somehow he always returned, ever stronger and bolder for the experiences.
From 1959 to 1994, Handal was on the leadership bodies of the Communist Party of El Salvador, including as general secretary from 1973-94. Handal was the public face and spokesperson of many left formations during this period. Perhaps a key achievement was his negotiation of an alliance between the Communist Party, the National Democratic Union and the Christian Democrats to form the United National Opposition for elections in 1972 and 1977.
Handal was key in founding the FMLN and in working out the strategy and operations of the guerrilla war from 1980-91, when he was also commander in chief of the Armed Forces of Liberation (FAL), one of the five armed groups within the FMLN. Handal served on the general command for the entire period of conflict, and was also a key negotiator of the peace accord. Handal was a founder of COPAZ (the National Commission for Consolidating Peace) and was subsequently elected general secretary of the FMLN. Handal was never isolated from the brutal realities of life in El Salvador, and one of his own brothers, Antonio, was disappeared on November 11, 1980. Another brother, Farid, was a guerrilla until his death in 1989, and Handal’s own son Jorge was also involved in combat with the FAL. Handal’s family lived in exile.
The FMLN was also an internationalist liberation army, and Handal fostered fraternal relations with other forces opposing oppression and imperialism, and organised personnel exchanges as a part of that internationalism.
Handal remained a passionate advocate of revolutionary socialism throughout the transition of the FMLN from an armed united front, to a multi-tendency socialist party. Through intense debates on the nature of the new, more democratic climate and how to relate and adapt, particularly in the electoral field, Handal renounced moves towards social democracy.
Handal was a key campaigner against the dollarisation of the Salvadoran economy, against the regional free trade agreement CAFTA and against US interventions and imperialist aggression. He was a staunch campaigner against the Iraq war, a defender of the poor, and proponent of workers’, women’s and environmental causes.
Since 1997 Handal was an FMLN deputy to the National Assembly. He was also elected leader of the FMLN legislative fraction and the party’s president. Handal stood as the FMLN’s candidate for mayor of San Salvador immediately after signing the Peace Accords, but he lost due to a scare campaign about electing a guerrilla as mayor so soon after the conflict. He also contested the presidential election in 2004, and gained an impressive 39% in a four-way contest. He lost to the right-wing media mogul and sports commentator Tony Saca.
Amidst all his political activism, Handal also married twice, once from 1949-80 to Blanca, with whom he had three children. His second marriage was while living in Russia during El Salvador’s war, to Tania Bichkova, with whom he had a daughter Xenia in 1982.