The following analysis is from the website of CISPES, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador. See also the article FMLN Takes Power in El Salvador from a year ago:
On Sunday, March 14, the streets of San Salvador once again filled with red t-shirts, hats, bandanas and FMLN flags to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the victory of the FMLN’s presidential and vice-presidential candidates, Mauricio Funes and Salvador Sánchez Cerén (March 15, 2009). In a speech before the crowd of 25,000, historic leader of the FMLN and current Deputy to the Central American Parliament Nidia Díaz declared, “Today we reassert the effort and the heroism of thousands of compatriots that continue fighting and those that gave their lives, without which this victory would not have been possible.”
Looking back on the accomplishments of the first year, many Salvadorans are quick to point out that the most significant accomplishment of the 2009 elections was the electoral defeat of the right-wing, most notably of the ARENA (Nationalist Republican Alliance) party, whose “president for life” is Roberto D’Aubuisson, the founder of the Salvadoran death-squads. For twenty years, consecutive ARENA presidents implemented drastic neoliberal measures, from the privatization of most public services like electricity and telecommunications to CAFTA, the Central America Free Trade Agreement, resulting in an unemployment rate of at least 55%. ARENA’s “iron fist” and “super iron fist” policing policies failed to lower the country’s violent crime rates and in 2008 El Salvador’s homicide rate became the highest in the Western Hemisphere, with a documented resurgence of death squad-style “social extermination” groups. The level of political, economic and military power held by the elite, not to mention their near-unconditional backing from Washington, made their ouster last March a truly historic accomplishment, one that has been compared to the 1992 signing of the Peace Accords that ended the Civil War and toppled the country’s military dictatorship.
Leading into the 2009 elections, many Salvadorans said that the country simply could not survive another five years of ARENA. One year ago today, Salvadorans mobilized en masse to the polls, casting aside the right-wing and media’s vicious fear campaign against the FMLN as well as the threats made by Republicans in the U.S. Congress to deport Salvadoran immigrants in the event of an FMLN victory. Many credit the sheer number of voters as a key factor in being able to supersede the fraud committed by the right-wing parties, most notably the buses of “voters” that arrived overnight from Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. The highly-organized community response to the fraud (several buses were blocked and turned away at the border!) was more pronounced during the 2009 elections than any other in recent history, demonstrating both the high level of opposition to allowing ARENA to rule for another five years and the high level of popular organization that will make social and economic transformation in El Salvador possible.
One of the major achievements of the new government of President Mauricio Funes and Vice President Salvador Sánchez Cerén has been the re-orientation of the government towards the needs of the majority, especially through the social ministries. While President Funes’ commitment to creating a “unity government” means there are many other sectors besides the FMLN represented in the new government, the appointment of FMLN leaders to the ministries that work most closely with the population has been critical to the success of the new administration. As FMLN general coordinator Medardo González declared during Sunday’s victory celebration, “These are measures that, step by step, indicate the vision of a leftist government.” Some notable examples:
* Health: The required payment—insultingly known as a “voluntary fee”—at all public hospitals and clinics has been abolished and the foundation has been laid for a new maternity hospital.
* Education: For the first time, the government is providing school uniforms, shoes and school supplies to every child in El Salvador, as well as extending the school meal program to urban schools, thereby addressing some of the main impediments for poor families to send their children to school. The Minister of Education, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, has also launched a national program to end illiteracy in the style of successful programs in Nicaragua and Cuba.
* Agriculture: President Funes has stated that El Salvador needs to return to food production for domestic consumption in order to ensure food sovereignty for the Salvadoran people. Through subsidized seeds and fertilizers and new lines of credit for small farmers, the government is making important steps to addressing the decimation of the El Salvador’s agricultural sector caused by neoliberal policies. The government granting of over 4,000 land titles to campesinos/as has begun to rectify past governments’ failure to complete promised land reform policies.
* Labor: For perhaps the first time, El Salvador’s Minister of Labor, is truly representing the interests of workers. Dr. de Avilés is transforming the Ministry from an institute that impeded workers’ searches for justice to an institute that defends workers’ rights and supports the organized union movement. Several unions, including in the maquila sector, have finally been recognized, drawing the ire of the business elite; unions in sectors who have been completely or partially privatized, like telecommunications and water, have finally been granted industrial union status.
* Housing and Public Works: Through the Casa para Todos program, the new government plans to build 25,000 houses and generate 100,000 jobs in the process. After Tropical Storm Ida, priority was given to the communities hit by the storm; the government has purchased land to be able to permanently move entire communities to safer ground. Long-time FMLN leader Gerson Martinez is now at the head of the most historically corrupt ministry in El Salvador, dramatically re-orienting its priorities to ensure community benefit, safety, seismic resistance, and accessibility for people with disabilities.
The FMLN, as a political party, was clear that whenever they were able to take the reigns of the government, their highest priority would be to rescue the democratic function of the State. Especially during the past two decades, the state institutions were profoundly corrupted; millions of dollars disappeared annually into the personal and political coffers of the right wing (perhaps the Funes campaign promise that scared them the most was to “open the books”!) One of the highest priorities of the Funes administration is to re-create a functional, democratic state, starting with a strict opposition to corruption. A new Inspector General was brought on board at the National Civilian Police, resulting in charges against at least 40 officers within the first month of the program, and the new Minister of the Interior, FMLN leader Humberto Centeno, has brought charges against former government functionaries including ex-President Saca’s right-hand man, former Minister of the Interior Rene Figueroa. Other significant movement toward a real democracy has been initiated in FMLN municipalities; El Salvador’s first ever popular consultation was held in Zacatecoluca and many FMLN mayors continue to promote other participatory processes of governance. Both the FMLN and the Salvadoran popular movement see these steps toward “rescuing the state” as essential precursors to more fundamental structural change in the future.
Another of the most significant factors that has changed the political landscape in El Salvador is the near-collapse of the right-wing political parties. Due to power struggles within ARENA, especially as former President Saca was blamed for the party’s electoral defeat, a third of the party’s Legislative Deputies defected and formed a new right-wing fraction, GANA, which will be requesting political party credentials this year. While not ideologically much different from ARENA, the breakup has been a blow to the right-wing dominance in the Legislative Assembly, forcing different fractions to negotiate with the FMLN as the party with the largest number of seats (36 out of 84). Furthermore, the victory of the leftist party has made many of the other parties want to appear as “populist” as possible, making it much easier for the FMLN to pass important legislation, for example, to approve the budget.
However, long-time revolutionary leaders of the party, its members, and the social movement share the understanding that the victory of Funes is far from all that is needed to challenge the power structure in El Salvador. For one thing, though the right-wing parties may be floundering, the Salvadoran elite still hold an incredible amount of power and the policies they created for their own benefit are still in place. As Medardo González said to the crowd gathered on Saturday, ARENA “was defeated but not overcome,” as they still have “partial control of the state apparatus.”
The new government inherited a nearly bankrupt state, heavily indebted to the U.S. and international institutions like the IMF and the World Bank. Though large sums of that money were stolen by former Presidents, Funes has nonetheless assumed responsibility for paying it all back. With extremely little state income and a right-wing that goes on the attack anytime someone suggests big businesses should be paying more taxes, the new government has continued to accept the “generous” offers of the U.S. and multi-lateral financial institutions in the form of even more loans. While there is no doubt that the Funes administration and all of the ministries will use this income to the best extent possible, and for needed improvements in the country, the vicious cycle remains in place.
To the disappointment of many in the social movement, the FMLN and the international solidarity movement, President Funes has also publicly stated that he will not seek to re-negotiate CAFTA, nor will he join the ALBA, the co-operative Latin American trade agreement with Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia. Even a massive investment in social spending to alleviate the effects of poverty and unemployment will reach its limit as long as El Salvador and the rest of Central America remain strangled by CAFTA. The recent lawsuits by two North American mining companies, demanding hundreds of millions of dollars from El Salvador, have re-energized the popular and labor movements against CAFTA, despite President Funes’ unwillingness to challenge it.
Another significant challenge this new phase of revolutionary struggle is the increasingly visible contradictions between the Executive Office and the FMLN—the political party that brought Funes to power. Alongside the social movement, the FMLN has opposed CAFTA and called for El Salvador to join the ALBA. As a revolutionary party, founded as an armed struggle, the party is committed to larger projects like 21st Century Socialism, Latin American integration and anti-imperialism. In one strong contradiction, the FMLN strongly denounced and mobilized against the June coup in Honduras; President Funes, however, has decided to recognize the presidency of Pepe Lobo and is calling for Honduras to be re-admitted into the OAS. In his speech on Sunday, FMLN coordinator Medardo González summed it up as follows, “We aren’t going to coincide on everything. The nature of the FMLN, as a party, is to be a revolutionary project with a socialist angle, and the project of the national unity government is broader.”
But perhaps the coup in Honduras is one of the very reasons why President Funes is being so moderate in his position, especially with regard to foreign policy. Immediately after the coup, the Salvadoran right-wing told Funes to watch out, lest he be “looking in the mirror.” Pressure from the U.S. was not far behind; in a meeting about immigration reform between U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton and El Salvador’s Minister of Foreign Relations Hugo Martínez following the Honduran coup, Clinton’s main request of El Salvador was to play a more “protagonist” role in finding an “exit to the crisis in Honduras.” Many speculated that the U.S. State Department used the over 2 million Salvadoran immigrants living in the U.S. as leverage to ensure that El Salvador would get on board with the Honduran elections in November. The tremendous amount of U.S. “aid” money, through such channels as USAID, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the ILEA, and the FBI, make it nearly impossible for the Salvadoran government to act independently without fear of U.S. retaliation. Obama and Clinton have praised Funes as being “pragmatic,” and indeed it seems the Funes administration has made the decision to act within the established parameters, while doing the most they can to improve the quality of life and the state of democratic governance for the Salvadoran people.
Before his death in 2006 long time leader of the FMLN and 2004 presidential candidate Schafik Hándal wrote that the Salvadoran social movement must always stay more radical than the party. Social movement organizations are currently in the process of reinvigorating their bases after the movement’s activity waned during the post-election “honeymoon period” and determining priorities based on their new relationship with the government. The only way President Funes will feel capable of making farther-reaching changes is if a visible segment of society demands them and gives him a mandate to make them. Though El Salvador’s social movement is facing its own set of challenges, for example, they face a right-wing media poised to exploit any and all contradictions, real or imagined, between the party, the social movement, and Funes, this role is clear. Certain sectors of the struggle, including the anti-mining movement, are also contending with a violent terror campaign (assassinations, kidnappings, and death threats) that demonstrates institutionalized impunity in the Attorney General’s Office and National Civil Police (PNC) resulting from a century of military dictatorships and right-wing rule.
Despite the challenges, the social movement and the FMLN remain committed to strengthening popular organizing, as their consolidation and mobilization will be the only ways to ensure that the next FMLN government is able to take even more dramatic steps in challenging the neoliberal system. One of the priorities of the social movement in the following year is base-building and political education, such that greater and greater numbers of the population will question why the current changes are not enough. Furthermore, if the FMLN can win a majority in the Legislative Assembly (43 seats), they will have much greater ability to lead the country in a new direction. The recent popular consultation in Zacatecoluca is another step towards the participatory democracy and construction of popular power that began with the “Open Social Dialogues” to collectively establish the FMLN’s platform for 2009-2014.
It’s impossible to know whether President Funes would be taking more radical steps if El Salvador were not in such a vulnerable position with regard to the United States, but such a situation calls for a strong international solidarity movement against U.S. economic, political and military intervention. U.S. intervention and allegiance with the elite remains one of the major impediments to revolutionary change in Latin America, much as it was in the 1980s.
The strength and promise of the Salvadoran struggle today lies in its ability to work both within and outside of the system, to create change within the government when possible and to mobilize the social movement when those changes reach their circumscribed limits; in doing so, they will consolidate greater popular and political force to continue to change the system itself.
To read more analysis in Spanish: