‘Tangled times’: Central American refugee perspectives on the long Cold War

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Taylor & Francis Online


Between the 1970s and 1990s, state-led violence drove one-quarter of El Salvador’s population—most of them peasants—into exile. Studies of this phenomenon often adopt a bureaucratic, top-down approach, treating it as an anomaly, a problem to be solved by international leaders. Adopting a transnational social historical approach allows us to see this Cold War-era ‘refugee crisis’ as the peasants saw it—as part of much longer historical patterns of dispossession and resistance. This article traces their displacement narratives over thirty years. Drawing from two decades of work with displaced Salvadorans, public and private archives, and oral histories, it first brings to light how Salvadorans threaded together Spanish colonialists, Salvadoran oligarchs, US imperialists, and international humanitarian organizations into a noose of destructive outside interests. It then explores how, rather than submit to conventional portrayals of refugees as pawns or passive victims, Salvadorans identified as citizen-activists who harnessed displacement as an opportunity to continue progressing toward long-standing goals of building a more just and equitable world. Finally, the article moves to the present, as former refugees purposefully excavate the 1980s crisis to expose the roots of current mass migrations. The street gang wars that trigger today’s flights are nothing new, peasants argue; they are a living legacy of the Cold War. By emphasizing the past/present and local/global nexuses, these narratives recast the Cold War in terms of actors, causes, consequences, and chronology, while also demonstrating the value of looking beyond violence to consider the dreams of—and movements toward—a better tomorrow.



refugees, El Salvador, Central America, Cold War


Molly Todd (2024) ‘Tangled times’: Central American refugee perspectives on the long Cold War*, Cold War History, DOI: 10.1080/14682745.2023.2282699
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