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Postscript : A Salvadoran Rebel's Odyssey From Outlaw to Politician : National Assembly candidate Nidia Diaz hopes to change society peacefully.

March 15, 1994|TRACY WILKINSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN SALVADOR — As she moves from town to town campaigning for a seat in the Salvadoran legislature, Nidia Diaz meets friendly crowds who remember her legendary toughness in the face of military torture.

But she also meets hecklers, people who sneer at her with disdain: " Guerrillera !"

"With pride, thank you," she responds.

Through 12 years of El Salvador's brutal civil war, Diaz was one of the best-known guerrilleras , women rebels. In 1985, it was Diaz's guerrilla faction that killed four U.S. Marines and nine civilians at a sidewalk cafe in San Salvador's Zona Rosa.

That same year, Comandante Diaz was shot five times in an ambush, captured and held by the Salvadoran military for more than six months. She was eventually released in exchange for the daughter of then-President Jose Napoleon Duarte, whom guerrillas had kidnaped.

And today she is a candidate for the National Assembly, one of hundreds of former guerrillas who are participating in historic elections taking place Sunday.

Under U.N.-brokered peace accords that formally ended the war in 1992, Marxist rebels of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, who for years fought a series of U.S.-backed governments, agreed to put down their weapons and form a political party.

The former rebels will be testing their political strength at the polls for the first time, after more than a decade of rejecting elections as a farce.

As much as any Salvadoran, Diaz embodies the difficult transition from warrior to politician.

"She is a case study of what it takes for a guerrilla commander--a tough one like she was--to be transformed into a successful, . . . practical, pragmatic political leader, concerned with the day-to-day problems of her constituency," said Michael Gucovsky, until recently deputy chief of the U.N. peacekeeping mission here.

"She has become much more willing to engage in give and take, and not see issues in black and white. . . . The future of El Salvador lies (with) leaders like her who have made this transition."

The faction once commanded by Diaz, the Revolutionary Party of Central American Workers, was one of five groups operating under the FMLN umbrella. All five factions are now legal political parties, each contributing to the FMLN's full slate of candidates for the national legislature and mayoral seats.

The FMLN has joined in coalition with the leftist Democratic Convergence political party to support legislator Ruben Zamora for president.

The ruling Nationist Republican Alliance candidate is Armando Calderon Sol.

Like the other guerrillas, Diaz, 41, has traded her combat fatigues in for civilian clothes. Although wartime scars on her arm are still visible, she now wears pumps and pearls. She registered for the election under her real name, Maria Marta Valladares, but is campaigning under her revolutionary nom de guerre , Nidia Diaz.

"On the personal level, this is my first experience being submitted to the will of the people," Diaz said in an interview at party headquarters. "The positions of responsibility that I have had before were always given to me, or I was elected to them, by a small segment of society--militants of our party. The decision of a small group.

"Today I am subject to a popular consultation. You could say I am in a display window, awaiting approval or rejection. And the test that is coming is a difficult one."

Much of the political right refuses to believe that Diaz and other former rebels are committed to democracy. They say their campaign is a charade. But the leftists press on, and as El Salvador struggles to rebuild after a war that cost about 75,000 lives, Diaz has come further than most.

Scorned for years by U.S. governments because of her comrades' role in the Zona Rosa murders, she more recently attended last year's July 4 party at the U.S. Embassy here.

But change comes slowly in El Salvador. Continuing political violence has hit especially close to Diaz and her faction.

Francisco Velis and Mario Lopez, two senior FMLN leaders, were killed late last year during a spate of unsolved murders. The Velis case is believed to be a political hit, while the Lopez killing took place during a foiled robbery. Both belonged to Diaz's Revolutionary Workers party.

And then, on Feb. 24, Diaz narrowly escaped an apparent assassination attempt. Gunmen sprayed her car with automatic gunfire, wounding her bodyguard, but Diaz had been dropped off shortly before the attack. Because of the car's darkened windows, no one on the outside could have known whether she was in the car.

To underscore her lingering concerns, Diaz has not yet brought her 12-year-old son, Jose Alejandro, to El Salvador from his exile home in Sweden.

Diaz says her background is sufficiently diverse to prepare her for democratic politics. She was a poll-watcher in elections in 1972 and 1977 and over the years worked--albeit clandestinely--with women's groups, in human rights and organizing peasants.

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