SAN SALVADOR – Thousands turned out last Sunday to pay their final respects to Schafik Jorge Handal, the emblematic leader of the Salvadoran left, in a massive funeral procession that made its way through the avenues of this capital.
More than 100,000 people poured into the streets – most of them wearing red shirts and caps bearing the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front’s initials (FMLN), in white – in an unprecedented demonstration of mourning since the burial of assassinated capital Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero in March 1980.
Handal, one of the FMLN’s long-time leaders, died on Jan. 24 in a San Salvador hospital after suffering a heart attack at the international airport in nearby Comalapa upon his return from Bolivia, where he and an FMLN delegation had attended the presidential inauguration of Evo Morales. He was 75.
Thousands of Salvadorans descended on the capital Jan. 29 in bus and truck caravans originating all over the country to take part, with capital residents, in paying their last respects to Handal, shouting “the commander stays, stays, stays” and “the united people will never be defeated.”
Handal’s casket was transported downtown from the Universidad de El Salvador, where it had rested since Wednesday. Looking out over the sea of posters with his photograph and FMLN flags, Church officials celebrated a mass for the departed leftist leader and former guerrilla in front of the Metropolitan Cathedral.
Upon the casket’s arrival at the cathedral, thousands of people on hand raised their left arms and clenched their fists to honor the man who for more than 50 years was the main leader of the Salvadoran Communist Party, an organization that was never legalized and which ultimately incorporated itself into the FMLN, now the country’s secondlargest political force.
San Salvador Auxiliary Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chavez officiated at the mass and called Handal one of the country’s most important politicians of the 20th century. Rosa Chávez compared his death to that of San Salvador Archbishop Arturo Rivera, the first successor to Romero and the mediator of the peace dialogue between the guerrilla forces of the FMLN and the government.
He said, “Both (men) died – without giving us any advance warning – of heart attacks. Both believed that another world is possible and both died fighting, each one from his own point of view, for the ideas that they firmly believed in.”
The FMLN signed the peace accords with the government on Jan. 16, 1992, ending the 12-year civil war. Handal headed the committee that negotiated for the rebels.
Attending the funeral and its associated proceedings were delegations from leftist groups, social organizations and the governments of Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Chile, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Panama, The Dominican Republic, Russia, Sweden and Venezuela.
During the mass, FMLN coordinator general Medardo González was accompanied by Nicaraguan Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, Venezuelan Ambassador to Cuba Adan Chávez – the brother of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez – and Jaime Alberto Crombet, the vice-president of Cuba’s national legislature, the Assembly of Popular Power.
Also on hand were Hugo Giraud, the president of Panama’s Democratic Revolutionary Party, and Miguel Rosseto, Brazil’s agrarian development minister, among others.
Descended from Catholic Palestinian immigrants who came to El Salvador in the early 20th century, Handal was born in the eastern city of Usulutan on Oct. 13, 1930, the same year that the Salvadoran Communist Party was founded.
He began his political activity at age 14 by taking part in a national strike that toppled the then-president, Gen. Maximiliano Hernandez, who had been dictator for 13 years.
From the cathedral, Handal’s remains were taken to the Cementerio de los Ilustres, the site of the tomb of Agustín Farabundo Marti, the Communist leader who, after a 1932 campesino uprising, was executed by government forces.