El Salvador: The UDW Interview with FMLN Presidential Candidate Mauricio Funes (Part I)

Mauricio Funes

After weeks of following him on the campaign trail, Upside Down World finally caught up with FMLN Presidential candidate, Mauricio Funes. In this exclusive interview, Funes clearly frames himself and his candidacy within the seachange that is Latin American politics today. Salvadorans will vote in January and again in March 2009 (don’t ask).
Mauricio Funes steps into the hotel surrounded by his campaign staff and supporters. Earlier in the afternoon in the hot Central Plaza of San Miguel, he was greeted with cheers, chants, and fireworks by eight thousand supporters donning FMLN red.

Amid the excitement and exhaustion of El Salvador’s presidential campaign, where the FMLN has a strong possibility of breaking the right wing ARENA party’s 19 year grip on power, Funes searches the hotel lobby for his wife.  Vanda Pignato checks her watch, 10pm, and suggests that they should order dinner from Wendy’s. It’s the only place open this late.

“Let’s do this interview before dinner, Mauricio,” Vanda advises, “but change your shirt, first.” Energized by the day’s successful events, Funes stops to think and admits that he could use a couple of minutes alone. He has already appeared at three public events, and held an afternoon press conference.  With a packed agenda and plans to leave next week for Germany and then Brazil, he had to back out of a radio interview and turn down an invitation from a nearby community that had organized a welcome celebration.

After a ten-minute break in his room, Funes returns with a new shirt and invites me to take a seat at a nearby table in the hotel’s outdoor restaurant.  As I introduce myself and set up recording equipment, he listens but says little in reply.  His wife takes a seat at the table, hands her husband a can of Red Bull, and lights cigarettes for each of them.

It is only after I ask the first question that his apparent exhaustion lifts and the floodgates open, letting out 40 minutes of almost uninterrupted analysis and explanation.  He is now in his element.  He speaks quickly and clearly, an ability that he has practiced and refined throughout 21 years of professional journalism and six months on the campaign trail.

–Amanda Shank for UDW

Upside Down World: From the election of Hugo Chavez to the recent election of Paraguay’s Fernando Lugo we’ve seen a leftward shift in Latin American countries.  Where does the FMLN and your candidacy fit within this movement?

Mauricio Funes: 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.

We are looking for a type of society that builds functioning institutions in El Salvador, a democracy that functions, a viable nation.  

Given the current international context, we do not aspire to build socialism in El Salvador.  What we hope to build is a more dynamic and competitive economy, placing ourselves in the international playing field in a highly globalized and competitive world.  We hope to have a stronger and more dynamic economy than what has been built up until now.  

To do this we need the institutions that work, and for democracy to become a symbol that also exists in our country.  We do not need to be close to Chavez, close to Lula…or close to Bush in order for our institutions and democracy to work.  What we need is to build a model of public management that responds to the needs of Salvadorans and that will resolve Salvadoran problems.  

We respect the process being followed in Venezuela, as well as we respect and closely watch the edification of a new society which Lula is building, and the one that the new President Fernando Lugo in Paraguay has promised to build.  Those processes are a response to other circumstances and so what we hope to build are relationships based on cooperation and solidarity with the people represented by each one of these countries.  However, we are not going to follow the same recipe or model that might have worked in other countries, but has nothing to do with our reality.

UDW: During previous elections, US politicians have made public statements in the media, opining on the Salvadoran electoral process. Do you think that these declarations impacted the results of the 2004 election?

MF: I have no doubt–and as a journalist I said so [in 2004]—that the statements from the US administration had an impact on the Salvadoran electorate. Salvadorans that live in the US send $3500 [on average] per year, and that’s what keeps the national economy afloat. And that’s what rounds out the income for a good portion of Salvadoran families.

If Salvadorans in the US are hit with public declarations by top-level functionaries in the US, those are ultimately going to influence their parents or friends when they say, “Don’t vote for the left, because if the left wins…”—as they said in 2004—”relations with the US will be broken off.” And deportations will rise, or remittances will be cut off…

In the 2004 elections, functionaries like Roger Noriega, or Congressmen like Tom Tancredo went so far as to say that if the FMLN won, it would hinder US/El Salvador relations and result in hundreds and hundreds of deportations.

That didn’t happen. President Saca won. The right won and each year the number of deporteés rose exponentially anyway.

So, what are we going to do? First, we’ve asked through the US Embassy in our country and in the most direct way—as a candidate I asked Mr. Thomas Shannon, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, to instruct his personnel, above all his personnel who are accredited in El Salvador, to abstain from public declarations that could influence the opinions of Salvadoran voters.

We’ve asked for respect and of course, we will treat the US government with the same respect. Until now, Mr. Shannon has made statements, repeated by Ambassador Glazer here in El Salvador, that emphasize that [bi-lateral] relations exist between governments and not [political] parties. And that they will not make declarations in favor of the governing party, nor against the FMLN. We’re taking them at their word. We expect to see that they will respect this agreement and their commitment to not get involved in the internal affairs of our country.

UDW: In a recent [Diario] Co-Latino interview, you said that you wished to maintain close relations with the US. What are the goals that you hope to achieve with respect to Salvadoran-US relations? (Note: Diario Co-Latino is a left-leaning Salvadoran daily newspaper. -Ed.)

MF: El Salvador and the US can be strategic partners in combating problems that we face regionally. We need support from the US to combat organized crime, to combat the scourge of drug trafficking and money laundering. On these issues, we can reach regional accords to eradicate narco-trafficking, especially the forms that organized crime has bought and sacked our institutions.

I have no doubt that organized crime has infiltrated the police, the public ministry, the judicial system and the central government. Therefore, we need to collaborate with the US to combat this scourge that we are facing and that doesn’t only affect them, but the majority of countries in Latin America.

Also, we need to establish a solid alliance with the US Government to help us combat poverty, marginalization and exclusion. In all of these years we’ve been a country that’s channeled a major part of our exports to the US. Sixty percent of our exports go to the US. They are our natural partner.

We are going to be one of the countries most heavily impacted by the recession because of its depth and scope in the US. Sixty percent of our exports are to the US. We are the only country in central America that has dollarized [adopted the US dollar as the national currency…ed.] with the exception of Panamá, of course, and in that we don’t have a national currency, we have less room to maneuver.

Now from the economic point of view, the alternative is to diversify our exports and the orientation of our economy. We should look for new markets, like the European Union. That’s why we’re betting on joining the Central America-Europe Cooperation Treaty and searching for new markets like the Asian countries, particularly China, so we reduce our dependency on [the US] market. If we were to take this step, the recession wouldn’t hit us as hard as it is sure to hit us.

UDW: Beside the economic issues, what changes would you make to US-El Salvador relations? Specifically, what about the Salvadoran troops in Iraq and the presence of the ILEA in El Salvador?

MF: We have to review some aspects of our relation with the US Government. For example, upon winning the election, if there are still Salvadoran troops in Iraq, I would order an immediate withdrawl. It was an error to seend troops there, but it was connected to enjoying the benefits of renovating the Temporary Protective Status (TPS). Nicaragua and Honduras also enjoy TPS even though they don’t have troops in Iraq.

The FMLN faction in the National Assembly never voted to authorize the Salvadoran Government to send troops to Iraq. At this point, we’ve sent a number of contingents to Iraq, and we haven’t seen that military presence has contributed to a political, economic or social stabilization in that Arab nation. Quite the contrary. It puts us in the eye of the hurricane to the degree that we appear as an ally of the US, we can also become targets for international terrorism. For that and other reasons, we are sure to pull our troops from Iraq.

The ILEA is an issue that is still under debate. The FMLN has solicited a meeting with the US Embassy and our FMLN deputies to learn more about the type of information that this institution can teach our regional police forces. Until now, the issue has been taboo and the FMLN has opposed it, but the in the same way the position changed with regard to the monitoring base at Comalapa, which would track narcotrafficking and secret flights in the region: to the degree that it is demonstrated that it [the base] is being used to this end, and that it is a useful tool in combating organized crime, we don’t have any problem maintaining the monitoring base in Comalapa.

UDW: In reference to the economic relationship with the United Status you had said that the Free Trade Agreement with them should not be revoked, but rather be revised on some issues.  

MF: We cannot revoke the Free Trade Agreement…let me explain.  The Free Trade Agreement…the FMLN did not oppose it. It opposed the way in which the treaty was approved, without consultation, or the participation of societal forces.  We should have followed the example given by the Costa Rican society that only approved and ratified the treaty when they received the people’s order after a plebiscite was held.  

Now another issue would be whether conditions were created in order for people to make an educated decision, or if a campaign of fear was carried out in order to force the people to approve this treaty.  There was no such national consultation in El Salvador.  In our opinion, it is an agreement that lacks social and political legitimacy because of the way that it was approved, but that’s reality.  

It’s a reality that we can’t ignore, and just as we can’t ignore it, we can’t be irresponsible and announce that if we do not reach the presidency, we are going to encourage a revocation of the treaty.  Since it is an international agreement, the participation of the other parties is also required in order to be able to carry out the process, including its revisions.  

We would need to make an international complaint, which makes no sense for us to enter into. There were aspects of the agreement that were not duly discussed, and that have had or could have an impact on the sensitive sectors of the economy with time.  The national production forces and sectors are not protected against open trade, nor have the conditions been created so that the government can support the successful entry into the most competitive market in the world, the US market.

This is what I am referring to when I say we are going to respect the agreement, but we are also going to initiate a review process of those weak aspects of the agreement, and in order to do this we must negotiate with the US Congress.  We cannot push for a revision or not recognize certain clauses that the agreement itself establishes inappropriate for revision if there is no agreement with the other party.

Democrats in their current primary election campaign have also proposed the revision of some parts of the agreement, which they consider damaging to the US economy, given the US government’s protectionist tradition. What we are proposing is respect for the rules of the game as they were handed over to us.  

UDW: Do you have a preference for a certain US presidential candidate?  How would our own election results affect the relationship between El Salvador and the United States?   

MF: Whoever wins will have a different position than the one the Bush administration has had until now. In fact, we are already beginning to see signs of change in the group that is in charge of US and Latin American relations.  

Mr. Shannon is an official and diplomat with much pragmatism, and is much more respectful of Latin American relationship to such an extent that he has instructed officials at the US Embassy in El Salvador to not give any statement or to back a certain party’s initiatives or criticize the other’s, and so be as respectful as possible in a process that is of concern to many Salvadorans.  

Our elections will take place after the US elections, but the team that will be at the State Department will likely be the same as with the previous administration.  So, in the end, it will be the same team in charge of international relations, and [it’s] a team that has in previous months shown the utmost pragmatism but also a high level of respect for building relationships based on respect for self-determination.

In regards to personal preferences, I respect the electoral processes that occur in other countries.  

UDW: You have said that you oppose water privatization and favor a General Water Law.  What would you do to insure that people have access to drinking water and what would this General Water Law consist of?

MF: 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.  

Why?  When essential resources fall into private hands, the search for utility and profit causes neglect of social objectives.  If electrical energy production were to be in private hands, we would not guarantee that there be rural electrification projects because bringing electricity to the poor and rural areas of the country isn’t profitable. The same could be said in the case of water. [Electricity transmission lines and some electric generation are largely privatized in El Salvador. -Ed.]

If water is in private hands, bringing water or introducing water services in the poor communities of the country does not represent any type of [viable] business. It’s a public right and so it has to be provided by the state.  

We must approve a General Water Law that guarantees resource conservation.  One of the biggest problems in this country is not the lack of water but the lack of existing policy for its maintenance and conservation.  There is no institution that is responsible for this.  The state institution that is in charge of water distribution is not worried about the conservation of the resource.  

Finally, there are many institutions that have to do with water that nobody takes change in its conservation.  We can guarantee the conservation of water resources in the central government though the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources, and with a law that gives them the instruments to take actions.  

In a few years, the fight will not be over control of land. It will over water resources, because water is scarce in the poorest communities of the country.  

[Passing the law] will depend on the correlation of forces in the Legislative Assembly. The executive branch has the power of proposing and initiating a law but it is the legislature that approves it.  The content of this law also depends on what the legislative body decides and this will depend on the correlation of forces produced in the next election, where 84 legislative seats are at stake.  

On our behalf, what we will do is work hand in hand in alliance with the communities to preserve water.  This is also why, as a party and future government, we do not support mining exploration projects, as well as mining exploitation because they are projects that do not harmoniously coincide with nature. And, they pollute the few drinking water sources and reservoirs we have, putting public health at risk.

UDW: Regarding transnational companies-specifically mining companies and sweatshops that operate in the country—what specific changes would you make in the relationship between the government and these companies?

MF: I would promote a change in legislation, which currently leaves the largest amount of royalties in the hands of international companies.  

What sense does it make that in the end, mining exploration and exploitation allow the international companies to take 98% of the profit and the remaining 2% stays in the country that is the owner of the mineral resources?  

In this regard and likewise with the sewing factories, I would stimulate foreign investment, but the laws must be respected. I am not worried about the margin of profit that foreign companies, who decide to invest in the country, make. What worries me is if the companies are following or not following the laws.  If companies respect environmental, labor, and fiscal laws, then I would have no reason to oppose them making a profit, which they deem fair.     

UDW: Jean Ziegler, who is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, has said that the production of staple grains for use, as biofuel is a crime against humanity.  What is your opinion regarding the production of biofuel in El Salvador?

MF: We have to promote biofuel in those countries that have enough land and not put food security at risk.  Brazil is a country that can allow the allocation of a sizable part of their land for the production of biofuel because it does not endanger agricultural production, or risk the production of food destined to feed its population.  In this sense, El Salvador cannot afford put food production at risk.  

We have to improve agricultural production that during many years in the previous 19 years of the ARENA government, the governmental infrastructure, which supports agrifood production, has been dismantled and neglected.  It is essential and a priority to allot land use for food production, as well as the harvesting of vegetables and staple grains, which are what the people need, because we are hungry and we are malnourished, especially the boy and girls in our rural areas.  We cannot allow ourselves the luxury to allot areas of land for biofuel production because we are not going to work to feed machines; we have to work to feed human beings.  

Now that does not mean that once we have ensured our food security, we cannot allot some land to biofuel production.

UDW: What does the candidacy of Rodrigo Avila represent for El Salvador?

MF: More of the same. Continuismo. The ARENA party candidate was imposed by the cancerous bureaucracy that controls the government and the party. The best evidence of this is that the candidate doesn’t enjoy the backing of the business interests that have traditionally financed the ARENA party.

In my opinion, he is an ad hoc candidate for those who currently control the government and the [ARENA] party. As such, he doesn’t represent anything new. He represents nothing more than an expression of continuismo and, as such, he doesn’t represent a threat to us, because 80% of the population wants change, and you can’t make change with the type of candidate that the right has put forth, like Rodrigo Avila.