The dusty roads outside the town of Suchitoto in El Salvador are marked by omnipresent reminders of the coming elections: political propaganda painted on rocks and telephone polls, and homemade flags hanging from trees. Yet in a ‘back to the future’ twist,’ scattered throughout these small quiet towns are deployments of Salvadoran troops who have been patrolling the region over the last several months.
The dusty roads outside the town of Suchitoto in El Salvador are marked by omnipresent reminders of the coming elections: political propaganda painted on rocks and telephone polls, and homemade flags hanging from trees. Yet in a ‘back to the future twist,’ scattered throughout these small quiet towns are deployments of Salvadoran troops who have been patrolling the region over the last several months. AK-47 touting soldiers have become commonplace, says Pedro Miranda Rivera, president of the community association PROGRESO, ever since the Salvadoran Government accused these communities of harboring illegal armed groups the government implies are linked to the political opposition. “This concerns us in Suchitoto,” says Miranda Rivera, “because since these accusations were made, there has been constant military movement in the region—they are doing this to create fear in the population.” To date, the Salvadoran Government and Attorney General have produced no credible evidence to confirm the existence of these armed groups, and chief European Union elections observer Luis Yáñez Barnuevo has called the accusations a “typical electoral ruse” in interviews with major Salvadoran electronic media El Faro. Nevertheless, the troops remain on patrol, a dark reminder of El Salvador’s past.
The Reagan era and the Cold War may be over for many, but this week in El Salvador an important legacy of that war still fights for hearts and minds. Salvadorans go to the polls on Sunday to pick their next president, and the same major military forces that fought Reagan’s proxy war twenty years ago are still contenders. The flashpoint in this ongoing struggle over El Salvador’s future continues to be disparities and polarization enabled in large part by US intervention and prescribed economic policies. Now, the former guerrilla and current opposition FMLN party is leading most polls over the right wing government ARENA party—the same party that fought the FMLN with US training and funding to the tune of a million dollars per day, and which has ruled the country ever since. But beyond the symbolism and outdated rhetoric still used by some, this election appears to be about entirely different forces.
The Salvadoran people are suffering at from the waves of the international economic crisis, which is exacerbating an already volatile social situation. Recent opinion polls by the University of Central America in San Salvador confirm that the overwhelming majority of the population is primarily concerned with the economy, poverty, unemployment and crime during this election cycle. “The economic policies applied by four consecutive ARENA governments have favored a small group of the economically powerful that control the ARENA party. But this has had an adverse affect on the great majorities of our country,” says Pedro Juan Hernandez, a Salvadoran economist and the leader of the MPR-12 social movement, a coalition of grassroots civil-society organizations including unions, war veterans, and rural farmers. As a result, the country has experienced massive migration, and almost one third of the population now lives in the US. According to experts at the Salvadoran organization Equipo Maiz, most of this exodus has occurred after the end of civil war in 1992, creating a flood of economic refugees, victims of neoliberal economic policies that were specially packaged for El Salvador by Washington under the guise of IMF and World Bank assistance.
These policies have given rise to El Salvador’s strongest export–its millions of poor young people who have offered themselves up to US markets as cheap laborers, even while they improve the countries’ poverty indexes by conveniently disappearing. Indeed, in large part the policies that have expelled the countries’ poorest have contributed to vaulting El Salvador to its’ ranking by the World Bank as a “lower middle-income country,” based on mean income calculations from GDP. Mary O’Grady of the Wall Street Journal lauds it as one of the most “open and competitive” economies in Latin America. Yet these accolades are deceptive and not indicators of wealth distribution and employment opportunities. In fact, with only 50 percent of the Salvadoran population reporting jobs in the formal sector, according to a 2008 UN Development Program report, Salvadorans that don’t migrate or live on remittances are most often left selling whatever they can in the streets to feed their families.
Meanwhile, the US State Department reports Salvadoran homicide rates as amongst the highest per capita in the world. Generations of children that grew up in the midst of war, in turn abandon their children in search of work in the north, and imported L.A. gang culture replaces them as surrogate families. El Salvador is infamous for its violent gangs whose origins can be traced to major US cities home to Salvadoran immigrants. Yet with the current crisis in the US, remittances to El Salvador fell by 8.4 percent in the first month of this year compared with January of last year, according to data published by the Salvadoran Central Reserve Bank. As El Salvador’s largest GDP contributor at nearly 20 percent, remittances effectively ended what had been steady growth rates in August of 2008, and rates have not marked monthly growth since September. Given this scenario, you might wonder how any incumbent could dream of reelection.
But that is where Reagan’s legacy becomes important. El Salvador’s ARENA party has held presidential power for the past 20 years, in part by relying on close alliances with US military and business interests. Continuing with that legacy, El Salvador has kept troops in Iraq, served as a base for US police and anti-narcotics training schools unpopular elsewhere in Central America, and has executed US economic policy by the book, even dollarizing the economy. These policies have been widely unpopular amongst the majority of the population in polls taken by the Technological University of El Salvador. Despite this, ARENA has stuck to its anti-communist guns, and their party anthem still professes that “El Salvador will be the tomb where the reds will die.”
But equating the FMLN to radical communism isn’t as easy as it once was, despite the best efforts of the right. The Brookings Institute characterizes current FMLN candidate Mauricio Funes, who is a former CNN reporter, as more in the mold of Michelle Bachelet of Chile, or Lula da Silva of Brazil, than Hugo Chavez. While they can’t deny Funes as a moderate, conservative North American analysts and columnists for the Brookings Institute, Fox News, and the Wall Street Journal all prefer to focus on the extent of influence that hardliner elements within the FMLN party might have if Funes were elected, the same strategy used by ARENA and El Salvador’s right wing media. Meanwhile, US influence is not yet a thing of the past. On Tuesday El Salvador’s largest circulating daily, the Diario de Hoy, published news of a letter signed by over 40 Republicans in Congress, denouncing the FMLN and warning of their links to Venezuela and Cuba. The letter expresses “grave concern that a victory by the FMLN could make links between El Salvador and the regimes of Venezuela, Iran and Cuba, and other states that promote terrorism, and also with other non-democratic regimes and terrorist organizations.”
In fact, it was El Salvador’s US-styled anti-terrorism law that sparked national protest and international outcry nearly two years ago when 13 activists protesting water privatization in the colonial town of Suchitoto were charged with terrorism. All charges were later dropped, but ill treatment by police and abuse of authority, as documented by Amnesty International, can be linked back to the current ARENA presidential candidate, and then chief of Salvadoran Police, Rodrigo Avila. The US-educated Avila is hoping to become the latest heir to the ARENA presidency, yet his candidacy raises concern for leaders in Suchitoto such as Miranda, who say the population hasn’t forgotten what Avila did. “Rodrigo Avila is the person that authorized the operation the police carried out in Suchitoto. He authorized that they fire tear gas, he authorized the abuse of force, the torture of the people captured, when they threatened them that they would be thrown from the helicopter.” The abuses Miranda describes have been documented extensively by the Salvadoran Government Human Rights Ombudsmen, and these sorts of practices hark back to dirty war practices throughout the region, when dissidents were tortured and killed by ARENA and their predecessors under US guidance and cooperation in the name of fighting “communists” and “terrorists.”
This polarization persists. The recent media attention garnered by the Congressional letter is only the latest in a coordinated campaign, which has united hard-line conservatives from El Salvador, Venezuela, and the United States with the aim of undermining the FMLN. Pedro Juan Hernandez says this has been a consistent trend: “ARENA has tried to continue to use scare tactics, for example that [if the FMLN wins] remittances from Salvadorans will be reduced, or that there will even be deportations of Salvadorans. There has been a strong smear campaign by ARENA in the latest weeks, trying to discredit the FMLN, to fiercely attack the FMLN candidates, trying to scare the population about the possibility of the FMLN gaining power.”
Despite this alliance to maintain the status quo, Hernandez reports that an estimated 250,000 people participated in a San Salvador rally on Saturday in an impressive show of force for a country whose population is only 5.7 million, according to the latest census. Hernandez believes these unprecedented numbers speak to the popular rejection of years of failed policies that were often US hand-me-downs. “The economic policies that were born in Washington, have been buried on Wall Street,” he says, referring to the financial meltdown. While he is careful to caution that this is by no means the end of capitalism, he sees the inevitability of reformulating policy models, including more government regulation of the financial sector. Hernandez articulates the need for “new policies where diplomacy and respect of sovereignty prevail in relations,” and says “I hope that this happens for the good of the countries of Latin America, as well as the benefit of the people of the United States.”
While unequivocal in their calls for change, both Hernandez and Miranda are quick to condition their support of the FMLN. Indeed, the Salvadoran social movement they represent has long functioned independently, and been outspoken in advocating solutions that don’t tow any party line. Their principle platform has been the fight against poverty, reactivation of the agricultural sector for food security, the struggle against the privatization of water and mining exploitation, and a call for improved salaries as well as freedom of association for unions. In laying out the demands of the broad sectors of society that his organization, the MPR-12, represents, Hernandez is cautious about an FMLN victory on Sunday, and qualifies his support by saying “this is in no way a blank check.” He points out that the election is not a quick fix, and that it will be the Salvadoran people and social organizations that will continue to shoulder the burden of pushing their leaders toward much-needed policy reforms.
Jesse Stewart and Meredith Defrancesco are journalists with WERU Community Radio in Maine, and have spent extensive time in El Salvador. WERU is a member of US-El Salvador Sister Cities, a grassroots solidarity network partnering US cities with Salvadoran rural communities.