Democracy Promotion in El Salvador: Elections 2009

In many ways, El Salvador is a symbol. In Spanish it means The Savior. Some people joke that if God sent the Savior (El Salvador) to judge the world, we are all in a lot of trouble, and they are right. El Salvador is a classic example of a country systematically intervened by the US in the context of Cold War “low intensity warfare”. This intervention continues to the present day under the guise of “democracy promotion” which is manifested in three guiding principles: neoliberal structural adjustment policies (privatization, trade liberalization, investment deregulation, social spending cuts etc.), propaganda in favor of the existing socio-economic order, and campaigns of terror against alternatives which would threaten the existing order. The untreated traumas of the civil war combined with “democracy promotion” have resulted in the devastation of the Salvadoran social fabric, but according to cynical discourses espoused by many functionaries of the US, the UN, the Salvadoran government and other conservative institutions, the country has become a shining example of the consolidation of peace, democracy and economic development in the wake of civil war.

However, the “peace” which has been consolidated is only the latest manifestation of the hegemonic ideology which justifies the unjust socio-economic structure which has existed in El Salvador since colonial times. The neoliberal economic model is complemented by a polyarchic state (rule by the elite) which facilitates profits for transnational capital while ignoring the needs of large sectors of the population.

The political manifestation of this elite is the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) which was first founded in 1981 by Major Roberto D’ Aubisson as a political front for the death squad apparatus he had created to terrorize the left wing opposition. US support for this death squad apparatus as well as for the Salvadoran military state which was responsible for 85% of the human rights abuses during the 12 year Civil War (1980-1992) that left 79,000 dead, is rightly condemned by many progressive institutions. These crimes have remained in impunity and must be rectified through the derogation of the Amnesty Law of 1993 which currently protects any perpetrator of human rights abuses during the Civil War. But often times this is where analysis of US intervention in El Salvador in the 1980’s ends.

According to William Robinson, author of “Transnational Conflicts: Central America, Social Change and Globalization”, exhaustive and unprecedented US intervention in the 1980’s in the socio-economic realm facilitated the cohesion of a “New Right” led by the ARENA party which inserted El Salvador into global circuits of commerce and finance. This nominal unity around ARENA was made possible by direct USAID support for programs which established the hegemony of the private sector in Salvadoran society, and for the neoliberal think-tank FUSADES, which forged the necessary consensus in elite sectors and civil society to usher in the new economic and political model. This model has not been seriously threatened until the current juxtaposition of the global economic crisis, the domestic Salvadoran crisis and the country’s 2009 elections in which every elected seat is up for grabs.

Between municipal and legislative elections on January 18, 2009 and presidential elections on March 15, 2009, ARENA looks to defend its hold on executive power against the Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation (FMLN), the former guerrilla army which contested state power during the 1980s’s, and was transformed into a formal political party by the 1992 Peace Accords. These elections could serve as a referendum on the last 17 years of “peace” overseen by ARENA. The FMLN presidential candidate Mauricio Funes, a popular former journalist who promises functioning institutions, a reactivation of the agricultural sector, increased social spending and an independent foreign policy, is ahead in independent polls. His candidacy represents the first major electoral challenge to the ARENA regime whose weak presidential candidate, Rodrigo Avila, is the former chief of the National Civil Police who presided over an alarming increase in social violence during his tenure.

Ostensibly, this offers Salvadorans a chance to determine a new direction for their country, and perhaps a similar one to other Latin American countries that have spurned neoliberalism for autonomous processes of development and democratization. However, the aftermath of war combined with exclusionary ARENA governments and misinformation has left Salvadoran society characterized by fear, consumerism, corruption, violence and poverty. It remains to be seen if Salvadorans enjoy the freedom necessary to take advantage of the opportunity Funes represents, let alone if Funes would be able to substantially change the existing social order were he to be elected.

Structural Adjustment and Social Impacts

ARENA ‘s domination of every branch of the Salvadoran government since 1989 has enabled a sweeping implementation of the neoliberal agenda. Privatizations have included telecommunications, the national banks, import services, the export of coffee, the distribution of electricity, the administration of pension funds, education for all intensive purposes (public education is so costly among other factors, that the average Salvadoran child only makes it to 5th grade), and attempts have been made to privatize health care and water. Beginning in 1989, ARENA began stripping away tariffs on imported goods and taxation on large incomes, as well as controls which kept the prices of basic food stuffs low. In 2001, El Salvador made the dollar its national currency to further facilitate insertion into the globalized economy which caused a huge spike in inflation. It was the first country of Central America to ratify the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States in 2005, and has since continued to entrench the neoliberal project through infrastructure megaprojects and a “development” model beneficial to the local and transnational elite.

The impacts of these policies have been dreadful for Salvadorans. Inflation has increased dramatically, especially in the wake of dollarization in 2001 and between January 2007 and June 2008, in which the basic basket of goods in rural areas increased by 30% according to the database of La Prensa Gráfica, a right wing Salvadoran newspaper. The government maintains that poverty is only at about 38%, but realistic estimates that take into account the gross disparity between the price of living (around $350 a month for an urban family) and the minimum wage (about $195 a month) put poverty between 60 and 70%. However, according to a 2008 report by the UNDP, 43% of the population makes a living in the informal sector where not even a minimum wage is guaranteed. This causes a mass exodus of undocumented Salvadoran immigrants to the US (500-700 leave daily). The money they send back to their families keeps the Salvadoran economy from collapsing (17% of GDP), and reduces indices of extreme poverty without addressing its causes.

Economic strife and family disintegration creates conditions in which youth gangs flourish and produce significant amounts of violence. According to an analysis of a report by the Latin American Technological Information Network in the Miami Herald, El Salvador is the second most violent country in the world (behind only Iraq) with 68 homicides per 100,000 people, a figure which easily constitutes an epidemic of violence according to the World Health Organization. Public authorities blame almost all violence on gangs, but according to the 2007 annual report by the Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of San Salvador (Tutela Legal), 69% of the homicides the entity investigated were attributed to the activities of death squads or social extermination groups, and only 31% to gangs. This statistic is horrifying, but hard to verify because of the chronic deficiency of the Attorney General which was only able to solve 4% of homicides committed in El Salvador in 2007, according to a 2008 UNDP report. Nevertheless, the Salvadoran Foundation for the Study and Application of Law (FESPAD) has shown that as a result of the Amnesty Law of 1993, the death squads of the 80’s were never verifiably disbanded and have continued operating uninterrupted into the present, a finding which supports Tutela Legal claims that social extermination groups are responsible for large quantities of homicides in El Salvador.

A lack of institutionalism extends to almost every entity of the Salvadoran state, including the Treasury which, according to research released in late 2007 by the Salvadoran popular education group Equipo Maiz, has permitted systematic corruption by government officials ($1.2 billion robbed from public coffers over 18 years of ARENA governments) and tax evasion ($25 million over the same period). These funds would have been sufficient to finance the operations of the Salvadoran government for nine years.

Social Control Through Propaganda, Terror and Transnational Support

Despite the brutal reality of “peace and democracy” in El Salvador, ARENA sells a different image of the country both to the Salvadoran people and to the rest of the world. The current president Tony Saca has deemed his administration the “Government with the Human Touch” while watching 104,000 more Salvadorans fall into poverty between September 2006 and February 2008 according to the UN World Food Program. ARENA’s thematic framing of Saca’s presidency focuses on his generous investment in the Salvadoran social fabric, and with the help of FUSADES and the media, promote Saca’s “social agenda” as if it were the answer to poverty. At the forefront of this propaganda campaign is Saca’s flagship program of Red Solidaria (Solidarity Network) which gives $15 a month and transgenic terminator seeds to families in municipalities with the highest indices of extreme poverty. However, El Salvador continues to be at the bottom of the list of Latin America countries in public investment in education and health care.

ARENA also enjoys the support of transnational right wing institutions in South America, Europe and the United States. In 2007, Saca was given the Freedom Award from the International Republican Institute. In June 2008, he went on to receive the prestigious Path to Peace award from the foundation of the same name whose President, Archbishop Celestino Magliori, is the Vatican’s “Permanent Observer of the Holy See” to the United Nations. The award puts Saca’s work for peace alongside that of Kofi Annan and Boutros Boutros-Ghali. Direct US interference in the 2004 Salvadoran presidential elections, in which US officials threatened the elimination of remittances from Salvadoran immigrants in the US to their family members in El Salvador in the event of an FMLN victory, played a major role in Saca’s victory. It seems Saca was obligated to repay the favor by having Salvadoran troops as a part of the “Coalition of the Willing” in Iraq until Saturday February 7th 2009.

Furthermore, ARENA’s allies in the media demonize the FMLN and independent social movements through campaigns of terror, which are complemented by public and clandestine violence to repress demands for social change. In November 2006 El Salvador even passed its own Anti-Terrorist Law which employs a vague definition of terrorism, and has largely been utilized to further repress opposition forces and social protest according to Hector Perla , author of “Countering Hegemony: The Salvadoran Popular Movement’s Resistance to U.S. Foreign Policy in the Era of Neoliberal Globalization”. In a shocking example of this repression, 14 peaceful protestors were arrested and jailed on terrorism charges for participating in a demonstration against the privatization of water on July 2, 2007 in Suchitoto. They were only released and exonerated after massive national and international pressure. Hector Ventura, a young FMLN activist and one of the 14, was assassinated by a death squad nine months later according to a report by Tutela Legal.

The Latin American Context

The model of “democracy promotion” in El Salvador which has restricted freedom, perpetuated poverty and violence while facilitating transnational accumulation could be interpreted as the embodiment of the economic and political aspirations of the transnational elite at a technical and theoretical level. However, as reflected in the case of El Salvador, the implementation of this model exacerbates the contradictions of global capitalism and ultimately puts the survival of the system itself at risk. At a global level, this model has left human civilization confronted with economic recession, unprecedented social polarization, and a looming environmental catastrophe which promises prompt social and ecological collapse if not changed.

In distinct ways all over the world peoples and movements have woken up to this calamity and are searching for alternatives. Nowhere is this more true than in Latin America where neoliberalism had perhaps been implemented most purely over the past 30 years, and in recent years, most fiercely contested. Despite misinformation and destabilization efforts by the US and other conservative forces, along with inevitable internal shortcomings, alternative governments in Latin America have delivered, both for their domestic populations and in a regional effort to make Latin America an increasingly self-sufficient and independent global force (ALBA, PetroCaribe, BANCOSUR, ONUSUR etc.).

To cite only a few examples among the myriad alternative models in Latin America, Venezuela has cut poverty in half in the past five years according to reports by the Washington DC based Center for Economic Policy Research (CEPR) while significantly expanding the benefits of education, health care and community organizing. In the area of civil rights, US academics have chastened Human Rights Watch for their politically biased attacks on Hugo Chavez’s human rights record. In Bolivia, with the approval of a historic new constitution on January 25th, the country moves resolutely forward toward the consolidation of self-determination, grassroots democracy, respect for all nationalities and the responsible utilization of vital natural resources for domestic benefit as the pillars of a diverse national identity. In a much less acknowledged phenomenon, indigenous movements throughout Central and South America which are characterized by cultural-political autonomy and horizontal organization, are at the forefront of resistance to global capitalism in the Americas, according to Robinson in “Latin America and Global Capitalism”.

To put it simply, the US has lost influence in Latin America. To combat growing resistance to its economic and political interests, the US has increased its military presence in the region at a frightening rate during the two Bush administrations. Nevertheless, the neoliberal project of facilitating profits for transnational elites that the US continues to promote throughout the world (Obama will be no different in this regard) is being supplanted in Latin America, and the peoples of the region are deciding what will come next.

Elections 2009

With this backdrop, Salvadorans go to the polls to determine the direction of their country. In the municipal and legislative elections on January 18 the FMLN slightly increased its majority in the legislative assembly (35 seats) although it still will not have enough to overcome ARENA’s coalition with the right wing National Conciliation Party (PCN) and Christian Democratic Party (PDC). The FMLN also won new and important municipalities, but in a surprising swing which defied the last polls released before the election, ARENA won the mayoral race in San Salvador for the first time in 12 years. This was a significant blow to the FMLN campaign as ARENA gains momentum and an alleged legitimacy with the “trust” that Salvadorans have awarded them to govern the capital city.

In the first week of February, the PDC and PCD both withdrew their presidential candidates after negotiations with ARENA, leaving only Funes and Avila to compete for the presidency on March 15. Funes still enjoys a 17 point lead in the most recent poll by the highly respected University of Central America (UCA) in San Salvador, but other polls and the concrete Salvadoran reality indicate a much tighter race due to ARENA’s control of the electoral system and their devastating campaign of fear-mongering against the FMLN.

Since 1993, the Salvadoran electoral code has been altered 184 times and has concentrated decision-making power in electoral issues in the hands of the functionaries of right wing political parties (led by ARENA) according to “Reforms to Salvadoran Electoral Legislation” by Alvaro Artiga-Gonzalez, a professor of Political Science at the UCA. After an investigative visit to El Salvador in mid-February, a group of North American academics reached a similar conclusion, stating that the problems inherent to the electoral system are structural and could tip the balance in favor of the ruling party.

These problems include the lack of “neighborhood voting” (voting where you live), an electoral registry based on the 1992 census instead of the 2007 census, and ARENA’s control of the process of the emission of National Identity cards (DUI’s). The combination of these three conditions enables ARENA to enlist foreigners to legally vote in Salvadoran elections as if they were Salvadoran citizens who have, in reality, died or left El Salvador. On January 18 in the municipality of San Isidro, Cabanas so many foreigners (mainly Hondurans and Nicaraguans) showed up to vote that natives to the area shut down the voting process which was postponed until Sunday Jan. 25 in which ARENA went on to win. In total, between January 15-17, 10 busloads of Nicaraguans were found in Salvadoran territory without any explication.

Furthermore, the 2 million plus Salvadorans who live outside of El Salvador have no viable recourse to exercise their vote despite minimal legislation recently passed to allow Salvadorans to acquire DUI’s in the US. There is also no law assuring political parties equal access to media coverage and no law requiring political parties to disclose the source of their campaign funds which facilitates exceedingly dirty campaign tactics by ARENA and its affinity groups (described below).

The Salvadoran electorate recognizes these flagrant abuses. According to an UCA poll in late 2008, 55% of Salvadorans have no or little trust in the TSE. The TSE’s lack of credibility, and specifically the unreliability of the results they will emit on March 15th, could easily lead to a crisis of governability in El Salvador. Similar to the cases of direct voter fraud in the 1970’s, the institutionalized fraud inherent to the current Salvadoran electoral system could lead Salvadorans to look for change by taking to the streets if they feel the polls have failed them.

Meanwhile, ARENA’s official political campaign has focused on giving handouts in strategic poor communities, making utopic promises that go against everything ARENA has ever done in government, and depicting the FMLN as a violent party bent on terrorism and communism. ARENA officials have falsely accused the FMLN of having financial and operational links with illegal armed groups within El Salvador, the FARC, Hugo Chavez, domestic Salvadoran gangs, and have threatened that an El Salvador governed by the FMLN would restrict freedom and destroy relations with the US. As March 15 has approached, ARENA’s campaign has become exponentially more deceitful and defamatory with the overarching goal of producing terror of an FMLN government.

ARENA’s transnational support network has been crucial in underscoring these claims. El Pais newspaper of Spain was the first news outlet to “expose” the links between the FARC and the FMLN, claims that were later echoed by the US Embassy, which had previously cited a CIA intelligence report stating that Hugo Chavez would be financing the FMLN electoral campaign. The ultraconservative Venezuelan NGO, Fuerza Solidaria, has unleashed a shockingly aggressive defamation campaign against the FMLN in television and radio spots claiming (among other things) that the FMLN would permit Hugo Chavez to govern El Salvador, thus putting private remittance flows from the US to El Salvador in “danger” because Venezuela is an “enemy” of the US. The Venezuelan director of Fuerza Solidaria, Pena Esclusa, has also given talks to workers at national and international companies operating in El Salvador to make claims that an FMLN victory would jeopardize their employment.

In its unofficial campaign, ARENA activists have provoked street confrontations with FMLN activists in order to facilitate condemnation of the FMLN for violence through manipulation of the media and the Attorney General, according Maria Silvia Guillen, Executive Director of FESPAD. Furthermore, according to reports by diverse human rights organizations, there have been dozens of politically motivated assassinations in the past 2 years against members of opposition organizations. Most recently, during the night of January 28, an ex-colonel of the army, and current member of the “Friends of Mauricio (Funes)” movement, Edgar Tobar, was assassinated in his home in Colon, La Libertad. In the early evening of February 8th, David Emmanual Padilla, a studious member of the FMLN youth brigades of Chalchuapa, Santa Ana, was assassinated in front of his house. Tutela Legal has attributed both of these deaths to politically motivated death squads, and maintains that in past weeks, the rate of homicides has increased to 20 a day.

Conclusions and Considerations

El Salvador has important political and symbolic value in Latin America. No other country in the region has been more intervened by the US in the past 30 years nor is more emblematic of neoliberal hegemony. The crisis which El Salvador faces is a microcosm of the global “crisis of humanity” in which the promotion of “peace and democracy” accompanied by structural adjustment, debt-based consumption, and speculation has failed, producing extreme financial, food and ecological crises along with unprecedented social polarization. And in this most dire of moments, El Salvador has the possibility to move in a different direction.

According to Robinson in “Transnational Conflicts…” the 1992 Peace Accords institutionalized “peace” with an unjust social order subjected to the global economy as its base. The conditions under which the dominant groups and the unjust social order over which they preside is threatened, is a threat to “peace” itself. A major guarantor of this peace continues to be the veto power that the global capitalist system has over internal social transformation of any country, and especially one as dependent on global capital and production as El Salvador. But in 2009, conditions of crisis have converged at the global and domestic level to enable this false “peace” in El Salvador to be threatened regardless of the winner of the presidential elections on March 15.

First, a Funes win could be the symbolic first step in an alternative process in which Salvadorans are empowered to challenge the institutionalized injustice of the current social order, and democratize the socio-economic fabric in a “Salvadoran way” as Funes promotes. There is no guarantee that Funes could spark this vital process, but his victory would be a necessary condition for that opportunity to exist. This process of grassroots democratization is already underway in Latin America in diverse ways and countries, and is fundamentally challenging the hegemony of US promoted neoliberalism and “democracy” at a structural level. These new regional hegemonies could provide valuable knowledge, resources and political support to an FMLN government. In fact, South America could well be one of the regions least affected by the global downturn, according to the CEPR.

At a symbolic level, a Funes win would delegitimize the conventional (right wing) depiction of a peaceful, democratic El Salvador in which ARENA is the architect of “peace” and the FMLN its violent, communistic and terroristic antithesis;. El Salvador would no longer symbolize elite-managed neoliberalism and “democracy” as promoted by the US, but rather the growing rejection of this model throughout Latin America in favor of the search for sustainable alternatives.

Again, there is no guarantee that these things would happen. Even if Funes were to win, he would face enormous obstacles such as the mainstream media and the municipal government of San Salvador as ARENA’s two main weapons to demonize an FMLN government, facilitate destabilization activities from the domestic and transnational rightwing, and impede the implementation of policies. Whoever comes to power will face the affects of a worsening global economic crisis. Already, remittances sent to El Salvador from family members in the states are growing at lower rates, unemployment has risen and the Salvadoran government is almost bankrupt. Within the opposition itself, there is uncertainty about who would really govern in the event of a Funes presidency – would it be him, or the many hard-line members of the orthodox FMLN leadership to which Funes will owe a debt? And will the FMLN really put itself at the service of the marginalized majority, fomenting the empowerment of autonomous social movements, or will it pursue power and wealth in a way similar to ARENA, as some grassroots FMLN supporters fear?

But in the end, these elections will not be free. ARENA has spent 20 years consolidating its stranglehold over government institutions and the media, exemplified by its come from behind win for mayor in San Salvador. El Salvador could just as easily remain a powerful example of the resilience of the right wing in spite of adverse domestic and international conditions. However, such a scenario would provide a space for distinct threats to the current “peace” which would be embodied first, by the very real possibility that certain Salvadoran sectors would opt to take their struggle to the streets in seeing that their popular will for change was not manifested in the official electoral results, thus plunging the country into an raw and organic crisis of democratic governance.

Second, even if Salvadorans initially accept an ARENA victory, continued ARENA policies combined with the global recession would further aggravate the already intense social crisis in El Salvador, thus making instability and a future social collapse more likely. Many conservative institutions with an interest in maintaining the social order including the UNDP, the US Embassy and FUSADES, have recognized this danger and have been increasingly critical in recent reports of ARENA’s lack of attention to institutionalism, judicial processes and maintenance of a certain level of social stability by combating violence and poverty. If ARENA does not change their modalities of governance, another 5 year term could just as easily threaten the “peace” they have worked so hard to consolidate. Taking these conditions into consideration, an FMLN government which lacked the capacity or the will to substantially transform the social order, but was able to make nominal improvements in combating corruption, violence and poverty, could actually prove to be more beneficial to “democracy promotion” and the stabilization of the current social order in El Salvador, than would an ARENA government.

If the 2009 elections in El Salvador were carried out in a free, fair and transparent manner they could be seen as a referendum on the neoliberal model and its accompanying elite-controlled political system embodied by ARENA’s 20 year regime. Unfortunately, the electoral system does not enjoy these conditions. Nevertheless, the outcome will have important ramifications not only for El Salvador itself, but for the state of US influence in Latin America, the increasingly disputed global hegemony of neoliberal capitalism, and the general direction of the American hemisphere.

Danny Burridge works in El Salvador as the Field Coordinator for the Volunteer Missionary Movement and a consultant with the SHARE Foundation.