In less than two weeks, three to four million people will mobilize to vote for El Salvador’s next president. It is widely believed that the results of the March 15th election will open a new progressive chapter in the country’s long, violent history of military and civil dictatorships. A victory for leftist Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (FMLN) party candidates Mauricio Funes and Salvador Sanchez Cerén seems eminent. “An historical event is underway in El Salvador. For the first time, a government especially dedicated to the popular sectors is possible. The current government, subjected to the interests of small groups, has shown their inability to lead the country for the common good. A new government is born precisely of the hope of citizens to break the pattern and install a government that will be at the service of the entire Salvadoran population.” – Programa de Gobierno – Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front
In less than two weeks, three to four million people will mobilize to vote for El Salvador’s next president. It is widely believed that the results of the March 15th election will open a new progressive chapter in the country’s long, violent history of military and civil dictatorships. A victory for leftist Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (FMLN) party candidates Mauricio Funes and Salvador Sanchez Cerén seems eminent. Despite a dirty campaign against the left, rampant fraud from the right, and heavy police presence at the polls in legislative and municipal elections on January 18th, voters catapulted the FMLN party into position as the first political force in the country, setting the stage for another win in March.
The FMLN’s path to national influence has been cleared with machetes and defended with roadblocks, organized with political caravans and public forums, door-to-door discussions, thousands of marches, inspiring speeches, and political struggle within the government. Its transition from peasant uprising to major political party has been made possible by unions, students and campesinos, vendors and families, teachers and nurses, mothers and migrants. Funes has maintained solid backing from El Salvador’s broad-based social movement and the party has found new key support as well from a sizable Salvadoran immigrant business community in the United States and from rural communities and small and middle-sized business sectors in El Salvador that are outraged with the ruling Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party’s economic policies and systematic siphoning of public resources.
ARENA has tried to divide support for the FMLN by portraying a criminal image of the party and attributing its popularity to Funes, a journalist who critics call a “political moderate who only serves for the photos.” But the FMLN’s current popularity is not an isolated phenomenon and Mauricio Funes isn’t the anomaly the right would like us to believe. It is true that Funes’ candidacy has strengthened the FMLN’s chances of winning. His 20 years of investigative journalism and popular morning news show, The Interview, which provided people a forum to challenge the government’s actions and official reporting, has given millions of Salvadorans a long look at Funes and a wide-open view into his politics. For this work he is widely respected. It is also true that the FMLN’s current popularity is very much in line with increasing electoral gains the party has made in past elections.
In 1994, the first year it entered elections, the FMLN earned 12 mayoral seats and 22 legislative deputies; in the presidential elections of 1994, 1999 and 2004, the FMLN earned 32%, 29% and 37% of the vote respectively. The 2006 mid-term elections marked a turning point for the party as they closed an enormous gap in voter turnout and won the election with 943,936 votes to ARENA’s 854,166. By that time, the FMLN was governing over 40% of the total population of El Salvador at the municipal level. Today the party has 96 mayoral appointments—governing 60% of the population—and the most deputies of any party in the national legislative assembly, holding 35 of 84 seats.
When asked in November 2008 by Nicaraguan newspaper The Monocle, why he was running for President, Funes replied, ¨There’s an historical opening for me to be president. The problems here are so powerful that I can’t continue working as a journalist. Journalism has allowed me to know the realities of El Salvador – especially the reality of poverty. But journalism doesn’t allow me to change that reality.¨
The El Salvador We Want
Financial exclusion and major news media blackouts have all but rejected the formal existence and popular support of the FMLN. Right wing ownership of major media has made it impossible for the left to fully participate in the established political structure. Since the signing of the Peace Accords in 1992 and the recognition of the FMLN as a political party, the FMLN has consistently submitted policy recommendations to the national assembly to little avail. All are reflected in the party’s 2009 platform, which can be found in the 96 pages of the Programa de Gobierno (Government Program). They will continue to propose the implementation of these recommendations at the highest levels of government, guided by ten principles of action:
- Overcome unemployment, the high cost of living, poverty, exclusion and inequality in the distribution of benefits and costs of development.
- Exceed the slow growth of the economy by accelerating and diversifying the country’s production of resources.
- Overcome the insecurity of the population and state impunity. Defeat delinquency and organized crime. Overcome violence and the damage to norms of social coexistence.
- Overcome exclusion and inequality in the access to knowledge in the new society and reduce the gap of knowledge, science, technology, and information that distances our country from highly developed countries.
- Clean the public finances – end incompetence and irresponsibility, in the handling of public money that precipitated the financial crisis. Overcome the lack of political will and reach an accord that opens a passage for an integral fiscal reform that El Salvador needs.
- Confront impacts provoked by the global economic crisis. Agricultural insecurity, energy vulnerability, consequences of climate change, and the local effects of the recession in the United States.
- Unify the country – dismantle the foundations of intolerance, polarization and a fractured economy.
- Remove the obstacles to democracy and of the implementation of the Peace Accords.
- Overcome the fragility, deterioration, and degradation of state institutions to construct a legal security for people, families, and the life of the country.
- Overcome regional fragmentation and the lack of integration that has impoverished and disadvantaged people in this region of the world. Move forward toward integration that is justified by the interests of the people.
Evidence of the FMLN’s popularity is not hard to find. It can be glimpsed in massive attendance at rallies, the results of the first round of elections, and consistent electoral opinion polls that show they have the plan that people want and one that the ARENA isn’t inclined to follow: putting the Salvadoran government to work for the Salvadoran people.
As the right has told it, the left is making promises it cannot keep and its electoral campaign is only a smokescreen for its true ambition – arming and training children in the Salvadoran countryside to prepare to fight with Hugo Chavez, Hezbollah, FARC revolutionaries, and street gangs to overthrow the U.S Empire. This gem of fiction makes one wonder which ideas were left for scrap on the cutting room floor of ARENA’s campaign strategy meetings.
Perhaps more revealing of ARENA’s militaristic preoccupations, if less fantastic than the above-mentioned “armed groups” story, which has received incessant and unsubstantiated coverage, was President Saca’s address to the Salvadoran military on the “Day of the Soldier” in May 2007, in which he implored the 20-30 year old soldiers standing before him to rally the spirit of soldiers who fought in the civil war to stop the “waves of dangerous populism that threaten the region today.”
Who’s Afraid of Populism? Who’s Afraid of the Salvadoran People?
While in its current state of anxiety over public opinion polls, diminished support for its “Mano Dura” (Iron Fist) policies, and outright rejection to its formula for public resource privatization, ARENA could consider acquiescing to the people. Though it could gain some positive recognition for negotiating a budget for the public health care sector and repairing hospitals that were damaged in the 2001 earthquake, the ARENA government will not choose such a path.
ARENA could remove its Office of Decentralization from the public water agency, pull back on its national privatization plan and sign agreements with the water workers union to supply resources for potable water projects and new delivery systems, but then it would be undoing the steps it has already committed to. It could gain voter confidence by canceling its mining contracts with Pacific Rim Corporation and the scores of other exploitative projects it has begun across the northern half of El Salvador, but that is not the ARENA party. To this party, crises among the public sector are signs of progress and the direct consequences of the ARENA plan.
Instead, ARENA has shown contempt for voters while putting its foreign investor friends on notice of what looks to them to be an impending disaster—a functioning democracy. While asking for tougher electoral intervention from the U.S. government, the party has spent nearly $10 million on a campaign of fear and distortion, requested over $1.5 billion in international loans, and worked to secure foreign construction contracts worth billions more before President Saca’s term expires in June. What’s the rush? Is the ARENA party preparing to lose? The likely answer is that it is covering its investments, just in case. ARENA party leaders who have been selling El Salvador piecemeal to multinational corporations for years are working quickly now to consolidate development contracts before June, when an FMLN government could take office. One such project is the Port of La Union, a several billion-dollar transnational trade hub that ARENA believes should be 90% privately owned.
An FMLN victory would immediately open up the government’s accounting books, exposing ARENA’s myriad abuses to national and foreign aid budgets and, in turn, the people, land and resources of El Salvador. For example, the FMLN has repeatedly cited the existence of over $600 million dollars in “missing taxes” that corporations and individuals should be paying into the national budget each year and have denounced the fact that 85% of El Salvador’s land and commercial sectors are owned by a five-family oligarchy.
Despite its worried disposition and reluctance to engage honestly with the Salvadoran electorate, no, ARENA is not preparing to lose the presidential election. In fact, it is pulling out all of the stops to buy the election, if possible. In perhaps its strangest act of irony, the party is blasting email advertisements throughout the U.S. that offers discounted airfare rates to Salvadorans who are willing to return home to vote for ARENA candidate Rodrigo Avila. The cost is $330 and almost certainly guarantees a ride from and back to the airport and a full-time escort, who will ensure that visitors find their way to the voting box and then promptly return to work in the U.S.
Interestingly, while mainstream media has worked to stunt and vilify the FMLN’s aspirations for government, Funes’ candidacy has been maintained as a positive and prolific campaign. While the FMLN has had to pay exorbitant rates for costly and minimal ad space in daily newspapers and on prime time television, the Internet contains dozens of interviews, monologues, campaign speeches, and ads surrounding Funes and the FMLN campaign. One of the most inventive media pieces of the campaign are Microprogramas-short, smart and stylish tutorial programs that explore various aspects of El Salvador’s government and economy and outline the FMLN’s platform on such issues. Each program lasts 5-10 minutes and the FMLN has made 45 of them. The Microprogramas are windows into how the FMLN has led public education campaigns in strengthening people’s understanding and approach toward the government’s role in Salvadoran society.
If the FMLN has its way, El Salvador will join the growing movement for participatory democracy across Latin American in its own unique way, as prescribed by the people who brought them to power. Funes has promised a transparent budget prioritization process and a functional Attorney General’s Office, as well as strengthening rights to basic necessities such as food, education, housing, health care, and civil liberties while enhancing El Salvador’s role in the local and regional economy over the next five years. Because its adversaries come from outside of the interests of the people of El Salvador, the FMLN’s ability to make these modest goals a reality begins and ends with its base of support and the poor majority.
“The people’s resistance in El Salvador walks on two feet; one foot is the social movement and the other is the FMLN." said Estella Ramirez, a factory worker turned union organizer. "The work of the government is to create the legal and financial framework for all people and sectors of society to be able to access the government. This way the majority of Salvadorans can determine the course of our country’s future.”