‘For good or for bad, the country needs a change’

As promised, my take on the elections for El Salvador. I am hoping to send this piece to other outlets, so do not be surprised to possibly see it elsewhere.

Also, due the comments below, I would to direct readers to my article “El Salvador’s Election Past” that explores more thoroughly than I do here the past presidential elections.

    ‘For good or for bad, the country needs a change’

“We are often asked, ‘Well, what type of left do you represent?’, and I have said: “We represent the left of hope. We are a sensible left, a reasonable left, a left that is betting on change, a stable change.” – Mauricio Funes


Some could say that it was two decades in the making – the FMLN, the former guerrilla army that challenged the US-backed Salvadoran government and right-wing death squads – while others would be more correct in asserting that this moment has been in the making since Pedro de Alvarado set foot in Central America in 1524. Disregarding Spanish colonial history, it would still be pertinent to say that modern El Salvador (the country that emerged from the United Provinces of Central America in 1838) has never elected or been run by a leftist leader.

That was until Mauricio Funes of the FMLN was elected by 51.3 percent of the vote to 48.7 percent for ARENA (based currently on 90 percent of the vote). Despite the apprehensions of the US ending remittances, tactics that worked in 2004, Salvadorans rejected the politics of fear on Sunday, elected Funes as it’s first truly leftist candidate ever. “The campaign of fear did not work…because the desire for change, even among conservatives, was so strong,” said Raymundo Calderon, dean of the social studies institute of the University of El Salvador. “We were in such a difficult situation but always supporting the same politics. There’s a limit. People decided they had put up with it 20 years and said, ‘Enough.’” Mauricio Funes takes the popular uprising that brought him into power and places himself above the rest of El Salvador’s ruling classes, past and present. The future of El Salvador has not looked as bleak as it does today since the height of the civil war (1979-1992) or following the massacres of 1932. It is important to see where Salvador has been, to recognize where it must go.

The Effects of 1932

El Salvador’s political history has been plagued with right-wing dictators, military juntas and arresting caudillos. El Salvador has hardly been a barometer for Central America, but it has followed faithfully the trajectory set forth by its neighbors in Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. Like those countries, Salvador was largely agricultural and mired in poverty until the 1870s. It had no access to the abundant Atlantic Ocean (it’s only access is to the Pacific) and it was a country in search of itself and thus had little international support, aid or trade options. Of course, coffee (and indigo, a colonial staple) changed Central American life forever as every country in the region became a playground to oligarchs and financiers.

In 1932, however, El Salvador set a trend that would be repeated across Latin America and solidify itself forever as a repressive entity. In 1931, Arturo Araujo followed the balanced government (balanced between reform and repression) of Pío Romero Bosque. Araujo, to some, can be seen as leftist candidate due to his insistence on land reform. But as the economy crashed, Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, Araujo’s Minster of Defense, staged a coup and ruled the country for a decade, until overthrown in 1944. The movement that rode Araujo into power, following the coup, staged an insurrection.

What was then called “communist” (the ARENA anthem still claims to provide “the tomb where the Reds meet their end.”, an inference of the “success” of 1932) is now seen, in recent scholarship by Jeffery Gould, Héctor Lindo-Funtes, and others, as a compilation of social forces that transcended basic “communist” principles. The insurrection was a result of falling coffee prices and lack of work, which throughly proletarianized the workforce and an overall frustration with the system, which for some in the late-1920s and 1930s found its outlet in Marxism – and the parties (PCS and the SRI).

One of only a handful of monuments to the 1932 massacres

One of only a handful of monuments to the 1932 massacres

The insurrection is also seen as an independently indigenous one. The communist organs of El Salvador were concentrated in San Salvador and lacked presence in the western half of the country, where the insurrection occurred. Martínez tried to equate the opposition of his rule to foreign communists and the USSR, although both have proven to be unfounded. The history of El Salvador, both left and right, has equated “class” and “race” without differentiating the two. Thus, the civil war in the 1980s was seen as by the left as a continuation of the communist oppression of 1932 while the right (and the United States) saw it as a internationally-funded communist conspiracy designed to overthrow the country. Neither was necessarily true. As the insurrection began, the PCS took credit for the uprising despite it’s calls against insurrection, which the party had debated in 1931. Jeffery Gould convincingly shows that the SRI (International Red Aid), which was led by Farabundo Martí (the FM in FMLN), did have some influence in the western departments of the country, contrary to conventional wisdom, but they were funded and run by Indians with no international backing (both the New York and Moscow offices of the Comitern refused to send money as they believed El Salvador unfit for revolution).

Hence, this moment for El Salvador is bitter sweet. The loss of life has been tremendous. Estimates range from ten to forty thousand dead in 1932 alone, including Farbundo Martí. The civil war in the 1980s provided another 75,000 lost. The interim proved no better as Martínez ushered in military regime and right-wing ideology that would grip power in El Salvador until March 15, 2009. Since 1944, as Martínez fell, there has been no one of legitimate popularity to lead the left against the juntas and death squads. Despite the popular power in 1944 as students paralyzed Salvadoran society, the movement fell apart as “more benevolent” dictators took control. Overt military rule would continue until 1979 with elections being held for the first time in 1982 with the election of Álvaro Magaña, who the US refused to honor as president due to his connections with the death squads – its view would change months later.

A Brief Overview of the Civil War

The civil war is a topic best suited to the books and papers written about it. Quickly, the FMLN (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional) was formed in the late 1970s in opposition to the military government. In 1981, they attacked the government with its “Final Offensive,” which was also their first. It failed to spark a popular uprising in San Salvador and Santa Ana. The fighting continued for almost twelve years. The government (including Avila, who ran against Funes in this year’s election) was linked to the paramilitary death-squads that hunted down the poor of El Salvador in the name of anticommunism. (One of the most notorious death squads, to cement the events of 1932 further, was named the Maximiliano Hernández Martínez Brigade.) In fact, much of this conflict seems so antiquated due to current conceptions of the Cold War and the false urgency that “communism” presented. Thus, it can be argued, the war was fought under false pretenses. The US openly aided an authoritarian government that benefited the few in the name of democracy to fend off a popular movement that, it viewed, would rule in the name of communism.

A man, dead, during the civil war

A man, dead, during the civil war

The FMLN, made up of five distinct factions (PCS, ERP, RN, PPTC, FPL), came together to overthrow the military government á la Nicaragua in 1979. The ideological differences were often insurmountable and the right was able to capitalize with massacre after massacre, repressive move after repressive move. Unlike 1932, the FMLN were heavily present in the Eastern half of the country, with the West left to itself. The war raged for a decade before, in 1989, the FMLN captured, in its second largest offensive after its “Final Offensive,” large sections of the country and made its way into San Salvador. They were only repelled when the government bombed residential areas to drive the guerrillas out of the capital. By then it was clear, neither side would win. That year the US tried to broker a peace deal (the peace accords would be signed in 1992) but its heavy support for the government hindered the fluidity of negotiations.

Mauricio Funes emerged from the civil war alive (he was a reporter) and throughly disengaged with the military revolutionary aspect of the insurrection. Avila, on the other hand, participated in the repression of Salvadorans and has admitted to killing insurgents in the heat of the war. The 1992 accords nullified blame and moved towards electoral peace, which included the FMLN becoming a political entity that would run for municipal and national offices.

In 1994, Armando Calderón Sol won the first post-war elections. (Yesterday he was quoted in the Los Angeles Times in regards to Funes’ victory: “It is irreversible. History is written.”) In 1995, the FMLN dissolved its factional inheritance and became one party. This proved shaky in 1999 as their was mistrust in the revolutionary principles of Facundo Guardado threatened the stability of the party, which lost to Francisco Flores, and in 2004 when the FMLN split partially into the FDR (Frente Democratico Revolucionario), although no FDR candidate won electoral votes in 2006 except Rene Canjura, mayor of Nejapa. ARENA, however, has been strongly unified since the 1980s, which served as an alternative (albeit a right alternative) to the military junta. The party was founded by Roberto D’Aubuisson, leader of civil war death squads and described by Robert White, former ambassador to El Salvador under Jimmy Carter, as a “pathological killer.” It controlled the presidency through coercion and US support until 2009. The parties decline has now come to fruition and it will have to be seen where it will go from here.

What Funes Inherits

With center-right regimes crumbling across Latin America in the past decade, El Salvador has a lot of ground to make up. It’s civil war, in a sense, slowed the jump towards neoliberalism that has disrupted many across the entire continent. Since the peace accords in 1992, the ARENA party has been committed to the Washington Consensus (institutionalized with its acceptance of CAFTA) and being staunch allies to the United States, which included sending troops to Iraq. Like the rest of Latin America, the disruptions caused by neoliberal models have produced gang activity, violence, as well as dissent and disenchantment among the population. Like Barack Obama in United States, Funes was able to tap into this anger at the past twenty years of ARENA rule and spin out commonsense declarations on how to fix what ails the country. Of course, like Obama, it is easier said than done.

The economy is where Funes will be tested immediately as it has been ARENA’s greatest failure. In 2004, El Salvador, along with the rest of Central America (and the Dominican Republic) accepted CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which eliminated tariffs within Central America, and, generally, opened the isthmus to foreign (American) capital and trade. The debates on CAFTA are rich and insightful. Nevertheless, the reality is apparent: CAFTA has failed. President Saca (who will leave office on June 1 as Funes is swore in) forced the bill through the machinations of government against the will of the people and the opposition of the FMLN. (This followed, and compounded, another controversial move: the canning of the colón in 2001 for the US dollar, which remains the currency today.) In 2007, one year after the implementation of CAFTA, the results looked bleak. Salvadoran imports outnumbered exports – a fact that flies in the face of one of the major tenants of neoliberalism. Agricultural exports fell 3.7 percent, US imports rose 17 percent. Much is the same today. In addition, about 20 percent of the Salvadoran economy comes from remittances ($2.5 billion in 2006) from family members in the United States. With the world in recession, money flowing into Salvador has slowed while imports continue to flood markets with goods no one can afford. Add to this the yearly protests across Central America and it not hard to see why social issues are another area of great concern.

The rise of street crimes and gang violence have proven troublesome to ARENA. But it is also common forms of dissent that stem from privatization of natural resources like water and the influence of multi-national corporations mining Salvador’s natural resources that have given ARENA problems. Much has been written about Saca’s “Iron Fist” policies when dealing with the youth, as a result, according to Jason Wallach, “thousands of innocent youth have been left with police records after being arrested” for “preventive” measures, such as “suspicious” activity. This leads to shoot-outs with the police – often as they are going to arrest teens for these behaviors. This is not to say that gangs do not exist, but the policies of fighting fist to fist have proven destructive. Not to mention, the deportations from the US of gang members back into El Salvador which also causes eruptions. To compound the problems, only 3.8 percent of murders in El Salvador are successfully prosecuted in court, according to the UNDP.

Free the Suchitoto 13

Free the Sochitoto 13

Often, however, “gangs” are a term applied across sections of the community. Take, for example, the events in Sochitoto in July 2007. Thirteen activists were arrested under the same guise of “protection” and charged with terrorism(!) for protesting the privatization of water. The outpouring of international support forced the government to free the “Sochitoto 13” in defiance of the US supported “Special Law Against Acts of Terrorism.” But the point remains. Much discontent exists in El Salvador, mostly revolving around economic issues, and Funes will have to address the degradation of the environment, the health of his people (AIDS and other diseases are increasing), and redefine who owns what in El Salvador and encourage or disavow the movements towards privatization.

To compound all the problems: honesty. Salvadorans, and Central American’s in general, are fed up with the corruption of their elected leaders. Funes said during the campaign: “I have no doubt that organized crime has infiltrated the police, the public ministry, the judicial system and the central government.” Corruption comes in all sizes. The largest forms of corruption come from the implementation of CAFTA and the honeymoon deals signed by ARENA officials for the benefit of themselves. Corruption is also small – such as officials using transportation means to shuttle goods and services across the country and across its borders. In 2008, El Salvador ranked 67 out of 180 countries with the highest perceived levels of corruption with a score of 3.9 out of 10, which, while much better than the rest of Central America (Guatemala ranked 96; Honduras, 126; Nicaragua, 134; Costa Rica, 47; and Panama: 85), is still quite corrupt when it begins to affect one’s day-to-day activities.

Corruption feeds into other issues. Take the ANDA, El Salvador’s national water management agency. In 2006, it’s budget was slashed by 15 percent and mired and corruption scandals just as it was needed the most (before the protests in Sochitoto). Or take the ILEA, the International Law Enforcement Academy, often referred to as “the new School of the America’s,” which trains military and police for action in and beyond Salvador. Since it’s first graduating class in 2005, the police (25 percent of its force are graduates of the school) have been involved in human rights violations – corruption of society – and as monetary thievery and and other misconducts. Corruption destroys growth and transparency. It hinders the cooperation of segments of a society that do not believe the playing fields are leveled. ARENA, if nothing else, has been perceived as corrupt and thus a danger to growth. As Eduardo Ramon Recino, a trash collector, said to the Los Angeles Times: “It’s our tradition to vote for Arena,” he said. “But you know, they haven’t really done a lot to solve our problems. For good or for bad, the country needs a change.”

A Legacy Funes Must Initiate

Funes, who is the embodiment of structural change in a way that even Barack Obama could not claim, has his work cut out for him. He is another peg in the leftward swing in Latin America over the past decade. He will prove integral not only to domestic politics and the future of the FMLN and El Salvador’s leftist movement but also to the wider movement of leftist countries and its success and failure. What is now termed as one of the most open periods of democratic investment in the history of Latin America can be taken away, as the horrors of the 1970s and ’80s proved. This renewed left in El Salvador must seize the moment handed to them and prevent not only the fall of their party into rightist hands, which economic downturns have tended to do, but also the collapse of its country.

For those unfamiliar with Funes, he will not be unleashing the dogs of communism onto the unwitting populace nor is he in bed, as ARENA attempted to make Salvadorans believe, with Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro. His stands are predictable and necessary for the vitality of El Salvador. He does not demand a retraction of CAFTA (although some urge him to); he only takes exception to how it was forced upon the populace and would seek amending the provisions that did not work, which the US has shown its willingness to cooperate in. He says he will also review the ILEA. According to Reuters, Funes will immediately try to cut down on corruption like tax evasion, use the funds to create jobs for Salvadorans that, given the results of the election, may return from the US and will invest in farming to reduce dependence on imported food. As he told Upside Down World, “We have to promote biofuel in those countries that have enough land and not put food security at risk.” This nuance is also displayed in his position on natural resources, in this case – water:

I agree with the fact that water is an essential public service that cannot be privatized or submitted to the laws of supply and demand; water cannot be commercialized just like electrical energy production in the country. They are both essential resources that must belong in the hands of the state.

He will propose a “General Water Law” that guarantees resource conservation. In terms of mining regulations, like much of the leftward swing in Latin America, Funes believes that changing the legislation to reflect the inequalities in profits for foreign corporations is important. He says he believes in hard work and companies making profits, but it must be done with a conscious.

Funes also views a partnership with the United States as important, although the terms will be different than under ARENA rule. Most importantly, Funes believes the US should be seen and see itself as a partner in Salvadoran security and cooperation. “We need support from the US to combat organized crime, to combat the scourge of drug trafficking and money laundering,” Funes said. “On these issues, we can reach regional accords to eradicate narco-trafficking, especially the forms that organized crime has bought and sacked our institutions.” The US also, according to Funes, has a role to play in terms of “poverty, marginalization and exclusion.” While acknowledging the supremacy of the US market, Funes also agrees with the rest of Latin America in that diversification and trade with the European Union and China are important to sustaining economic growth, despite the obvious limits to such goals. “We are looking for a type of society that builds functioning institutions,” Funes laments, “a democracy that functions, a viable nation.”



Funes has begun to make amends with the half of El Salvador that did not vote for him. He has applied humility to his win and pledged to advance the goals in which the people who voted for him demanded, while also wishing that the country remain unified in this historic moment. “I want to be the president of social change and reconstruction. It’s time to move forward to the future and leave behind the revenges of the past,” he said after declaring himself victor. “Today, the public who believed in hope and defeated fear have triumphed. This is a victory for all the Salvadoran people.”

Funes must come to the issues at hand with the vigor he displayed as a journalist, and with the compassion he showed during his victory speech. In an interview with Upside Down World in June of 2008, he outlined his reporting philosophy which he must bring to the presidency:

I have always said that I don’t believe in neutral reporting, in the journalist that takes a look at the reality and says that to be objective, you can’t have an opinion about that reality—especially in a country like El Salvador that has such high levels of poverty, inequality and social exclusion.

In the face of this structural injustice, as Father Ellacuría used to say, the only ethical posture to take is that of indignation. And indignation leads a journalist to take sides; to side with reality, and with changing that reality.

He must demand, legislatively, the end to corruption and enforce a new transparency to his administration. He must deal with the “remittance industry” and diversify the income his government is set to receive. He must reject the neoliberal past – first by spending money on education and social programs to help alleviate tensions, provide kids with places to go after school and provide aid to the majority poor in the country instead of slashing government spending and enforcing austerity measures to “balance the budget.” Therefore, he must hold to his goal of becoming “the most dynamic economy in Central America.” He must end the criminalization of drugs and focus on rehabilitation instead of jail. He must welcome dissent and accept Ávila’s promise that ARENA will become “a constructive opposition, an opposition that is vigilant so that liberties are not lost in our country.” He must uphold the constitution and use every ounce of power for the people of El Salvador.

Finally, he must use his office to set an example for the future, to let the memories of 1932 and the civil war fade, and place his name into the annals of Salvadoran history as the man who calmed both sides of the nation and brought peace and prosperity to a formerly bleak center of the world.


~ by Daniel on March 16, 2009.

3 Responses to “‘For good or for bad, the country needs a change’”

  1. funny how you write about el salvador’s politics without mentioning duarte. not once. duarte’s u.s.-backed bullshit and ineptitude is what handed the presidency on a silver platter to freddy cristiani. duarte’s main achievement was destroying the country’s agriculture. he first destroyed cotton and cattle ranches thru the ISTA, then coffee plantations thru the INCAFE. result: no jobs and real hunger in rural areas. duarte is the main reason why salvadorans fled by the thousands to the usa in the 1980s. before duarte (march 6th, 1980) few salvadorans migrated to the usa. they were free to “flee”, yet few chose to. so much for the “repression” of the army controlled PCN (and PRUD before the PCN) governments up to carlos humberto romero. ARMY REPRESSION = MORE MYTH THAN REALITY up to october 15th 1979. most army repression came after the 10/15/79 coup against c h romero… in other words, most repression came during duarte’s de facto rule (since march 6th 1980 as head of the THIRD junta revolucionaria de gobierno up to alvaro magaña’s interim presidency)… and duarte was ON THE POLITICAL LEFT.

    • I would direct alex to my previous post on El Salvador’s election history – which looks at Durate’s “u.s.-backed bullshit,” a phrase that I’m enjoying. I realize now I did kind of avoid Duarte, but honestly, I never thought about it.

      I really appreciate the comment. It does give a little more illumination on the civil war that I did not mention in my article. What you say is true – “durate was ON THE POLITICAL LEFT.” Yes he was, but I do not think anyone would mistake him for left today (or then, I hope). Even from here, he looks like a puppet (which he was). For that, I tried to look forward – post-civil war…

  2. […] EL SALVADOR: Crisis, Poverty Huge Challenges for Leftist President 18 03 2009 The latest from IPS on the elections in El Salvador. If one has not, please review my thoughts on the historical context of Mauricio Funes’ win on Sunday in my “Essays” section, or click here. […]

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