Power Struggle in El Salvador

Power struggle in El Salvador: The FMLN could stop the neo-liberals.

by Thomas Johansen.


“The communists are a deadly threat for the country; for its development, for its institutions, for its democracy and for its chances to participate on the international scene. (...) God have mercy with this country ..... If they once manage to get to power, they will introduce collective property, plunder the owners, centralize planning, install people´s tribunals, rationalizing and a regiment of beatings with clubs.”

This is how the editorial in one of El Salvador’s three daily newspapers, El Diario de Hoy (July 28th) portrays the country’s future. Lacking better arguments, this strongly right-leaning newspaper is telling ghost stories of a format that in Europe just seems silly. In El Salvador it´s for real: 11 years after the peace treaty between the FMLN guerrillas and the government of the country, the FMLN (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional) is the country´s largest political party and could win the presidential elections on the 21st of March next year. The country’s financial elite, which already owned a lot and which through gross privatisations during the 1990s has appropriated for itself a large share of the public services, is now afraid of loosing its privileges.


Traditionally, fourteen families have been controlled the economy of the country, heavily anchored to the parties of the right wing and with the president as their errand-boy. The elite no longer has the military might which it enjoyed during several decades, including during the civil war of the 1980s. However, its members control the media and have a seemingly unlimited propaganda budget, demonstrated even in large public relations campaigns in the small newspaper of the left, Co Latino. One can imagine that this secures that newspaper its first financial surplus ever….


During the 4 months remaining until the elections, the citizens of El Salvador will be scared into obedience with tales about a child-eating communist ghost. During the previous election campaign, which ended in mid-March 2003 with the FMLN victory in the parliamentary and local elections, 5 FMLN activists were killed and complaints of election fraud were made against the right wing party, ARENA. The current election campaign, which officially began on November 21st, could be even tougher.


On July 27th, the FMLN completed internal elections for its presidential candidate. Approximately 42,000 party members voted in polling stations all over the country. The majority of those participating chose the historic leader of the FMLN, 73-year old Schafik Handal, as the man to lead the country on a socialist course. Handal has a 59 year trajectory as a political activist: in the Communist Party, both in exile and “underground” during the time when activists of the left were being hunted by the country’s death squads; in the guerrilla army during the civil war; in the peace negotiations which concluded with the Chapultepec agreement the 16th of January, 1992; and since then in the legal political party FMLN, where he is the head of the parliamentary group. The FMLN’s candidate for the vice presidency is Guillermo Mata Bennett. Until recently head of the country’s Union of Medics (Collegio Medico), he was one of the leaders of the 9 month long strike of doctors and health workers, which, at least temporarily, has stopped the privatization of the health services.


Their opponent is the presidential party ARENA’s Antonio Saca, a businessman who by a strange coincidence has the same familiar background as Schafik Handal: not just that both come from the department of Usulutan, but both are from Palestinian families that left Bethlehem to settle in the new continent.


In addition, the centre parties, CDU/PDC, and the other right wing party, PCN, have their own candidates: the former mayor of San Salvador (then for the FMLN), Hector Silva, is the candidate of the centre. The MP Rafael Machuca is the candidate of what formerly was the party of the army, PCN. They don’t have much of chance of winning a presidential election, but will be important anyway: in the event that neither Handal nor Saca win an absolute majority on March 21st, the contest will go to a second round. It will then be crucial where the voters of Silva and Machuca will land.


Together, Schafik and Guillermo will be fronting the FMLN’s “project for a Peoples’ Government”: a plan to stop privatization and market liberalization and to start processes of change which, according to the FMLN, will give Salvadoreans better living conditions, social justice and democracy. FMLN has presented long-term visions on changes in Salvadoran society in the event that they come to power.


Among the issues awarded much attention by El Diario de Hoy and other media, is the establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba. El Salvador is the only Latin American country not to have diplomatic relations with the socialist island 160 kilometres off Florida. The FMLN maintains good relations with Cuba, and Schafik Handal has stated his wish that Fidel Castro attend when the new president of El Salvador is sworn in on the 1st of June, 2004. Still, Handal says, the FMLN’s model will be a copy neither of Cuba, nor of Brazil, Sweden, the USA or any other country. It will be an independent Salvadoran socialism inspired by experiences from other countries and fitted to the special challenges of El Salvador.


More important for the country’s population than the relation to Cuba – and more reason for the rich to worry – is the will of the FMLN to see a just distribution of the resources and  stimulation of national production. 45 % of all Salvadorans survive on less than $2 a day, while over 20% are illiterate. While the 10 % poorest receive 1.2 % of the total income, the richest ten per cent of the population earn and consume 39.4 % of the total. (source: UNDP Human Development Report 2003).


Most people now don’t see any other way out of poverty than to leave El Salvador. The country’s most important income source is “las remesas”: Money that Salvadorans abroad mail home to their family. Close to 2 million Salvadorans live in the United States, most of them in the big cities of the south-west. Their contributions are decisive for the family in their home country: annually, they mail home more than $2 billion. An ever increasing number of people who can no longer survive in El Salvador try their luck in ”the promised land”: daily, hundreds of people – the estimates vary between 300 and 1 000 – emigrate from El Salvador, most of them taking the highway northbound with the USA as their destination. Of all these, only about 10 % reach their goal. The remaining 90 % are deported, arrested, returned, or die during the northbound voyage.


El Salvador has major problems with gang crime originating from social problems and joblessness. The agriculture sector is laid to rest with ever-dropping coffee prices and lack of credits. Important public services such as telephones, electricity and pension funds have been privatized by the ARENA governments, resulting in higher prices than before for the services. According to a study conducted by the international SAPRI network in the year 2000, of El Salvador’s structural adjustment and privatization of public services, the privatization of the electricity supply has made prices go up so much that the country’s women on average have to work two hours more every day: partly longer work days in order to pay the electricity bill, and partly manual work as an alternative to the use of electricity-demanding domestic appliances. On top of all this, the country suffered a severe setback as a result of the earthquakes in 2001, where approximately 1,500 people lost their lives and tens of thousands had to leave their destroyed homes in order to start from zero in the most poverty-stricken districts. The foreign debt of El Salvador in 2001 was $4,683 million. In the same year, the country paid $384 million in debt service, equivalent to 2,85 % of GNP and about 16 % of the State Budget. In comparison, the authorities spent in the previous year just $520 million on health services and approximately 315 million on education (Source: UNDP: Human Development Report 2003)


It will be a difficult and long-term project to change this situation. The FMLN want to start with protection of the agricultural sector, important to Salvadorans. They want to maintain  customs barriers and the favouring of national production, now being dismantled through the government’s negotiations on a free trade agreement with the USA. The introduction of customs protection against foreign agricultural products “is the first thing we would do in government”, Schafik Handal said, according to newspapers, at his first election meeting after the internal elections, in his home region Usulutan in the south-east of the country. “The ARENA government has removed the customs barriers for the products, which are even subsidized and which are replacing our own products.”


The FMLN is opposing the neoliberal model which has been introduced by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the USA through a series of ARENA governments, and which is so wide-reaching that even many traditional right wing sympathizers in the rural districts have become nervous. The FMLN is also against the planned Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, FTAA, which now is being negotiated under the chairmanship of the United States,  modelled on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), but with increasing resistance from Brazil and Venezuela. And they are against the Central American Free Trade Agreement - CAFTA – which is now being negotiated between the Central American countries and the USA and which would be a cornerstone of the FTAA. The experiences of Mexico give good arguments for the opponents of the free trade agreements: After 10 years of ”free” trade with the USA, Mexico has been transformed from being a net exporter to become a net importer of the national symbol, maize! Mexican peasants cannot compete with US maize which is being sold at dumping prices with US export subsidies. With such a model imposed on the Central Americans, one fears that the producers of food products for sale will not survive. The chicken producers of El Salvador are preparing themselves to switch from selling their own products to being sales agents for dumped American chickens.


After the parliamentary and local elections of March 2003, when the FMLN became the largest political party and came to power in 76 of the country’s 262 municipalities, including the capital San Salvador, heavy criticisms were raised against the electoral system and the way the right wing are campaigning. It was claimed that the victory of the FMLN would have been much larger if it hadn’t been for the fraud. For example, people from the president’s party, ARENA, organized bus transport for voters. According to people who were aboard the buses, they were told to vote for ARENA. It’s a major problem that many votes have to travel a long way in order to vote – both because they do not live where they are registered in the electoral roll, and because there are few - and centralized - voting centres. The majority of Salvadorans are poor and cannot afford transport to the polling station. The electoral participation is between 33 and 35 per cent of those eligible to vote. The voters depend on organized, free transport, and many give in to pressure to vote for those who give them transport. A Salvadoran approached me in the polling station in Santa Tecla and told me how organizers from ARENA in the bus he travelled with had registered the identity card numbers of all travellers in order to give them a free lunch if they voted correctly. Many poor Salvadorans are led to believe that if they vote “correctly” it will be taken note of because all votes are being registered. This, of course, is not true – the election fraud is not as obvious as in the 1960s and -70s when the army simply filled the ballot boxes with the “correct” votes. But, due to illiteracy and minimal education, many Salvadorans don’t know this. Accordingly, they allow themselves to be forced to vote ARENA, fearing reprisals, something they know too well from the dictatorships some years ago.


In order to secure Salvadorans better access to polling stations without need of transportation, and thus increase both the electoral participation and the right to secret voting, the country’s Election Tribunal (Tribunal Supremo Electoral – TSE) this year wanted to introduce a new system of voting districts – “voting where you live” – with many more polling stations. This process has been stopped by the majority in Parliament – the two right wing parties ARENA and PCN. They argue that there is a need for major changes in the “election mapping”, with new electoral rolls per district, and that there is not enough time to do it now. Instead, they want to introduce a new system before the parliamentary and local elections 2006. In the parliament, the FMLN has countered with a proposal to introduce a new district voting system in the largest cities and in the metropolitan area of San Salvador. This is simply  because it would be more easily achieved, because there is more lack of mapping and electoral roll updates in the rural districts. But also, as the right wing parties surely realize, it would favour the FMLN which is especially strong in the large cities and above all in the capital. It is for this reason not very probable that ARENA and PCN will accept the proposal.


At the elections in 2003, the electoral rolls appeared to have been “doctored”. Thousands of voters came to their indicated polling station, where they have been living all their life, but were not allowed to vote because the electoral roll suddenly had them registered as living in other places. Or their election card number was not correct. In El Salvador people have  had to vote with a special card – Carné Electoral – based on a census full of errors and missing information. At the central polling station in the town of Santa Tecla, many voters produced their election cards only to find that all digits but one were in accordance with the number in the election roll. Usually, the second largest digit had been changed. This indicates manipulation of the rolls in order to prevent people from casting their vote. At the elections in 2004, one important reform will be made: the Carné Electoral is abolished and all voters are to identify themselves with their ID card (DUI). According to the Election Tribunal, about 95% of all adult Salvadorans have a DUI, and the censuses are more up-to-date. Among other things, a large number of deceased have been purged from the census. Still, on the Election Day everyone expect there to be problems, and FMLN will prepare themselves to defend every single vote against fraud.


The delaying of processes to democratize the elections is an early warning that the coming election campaign and the Election Day itself will again be marred by fraud, manipulation and pressure on voters. It can be of crucial importance that international election observers are present at the country’s polling stations. International presence reduces the will to fraud and gives important backing to all those who want democratic elections in the country. Both the political parties – above all the FMLN – and various NGOs invited observers to the parliamentary elections. This will be repeated at the presidential elections.


One important symbolic act of the FMLN seems to have evaded the eyes of the complete international press, and of course of the Salvadoran media: on the 31st of August, the National Congress of the FMLN, with more than 2,000 attending, decided to lift the party’s reservation against the role of the armed forces in the country. In the peace agreements from 1992, the then guerrilla movement FMLN made one reservation: They reserved their right to dismantle the army if the FMLN sooner or later should come to power. The army was the most important tool of repression in the hands of the small elite governing the country, and it had committed grave abuses against the human rights. The FMLN in 2003 has concluded that the army has fulfilled the demands in the peace agreements for changes and democratization, and that it now functions as a tool for the defence of the country’s sovereignty and for use in national crisis situations. The army is no longer part of a repressive system and the FMLN has therefore withdrawn its reservation, acknowledged the role of the army and its right to continue to exist, and has notified the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan of this. In government, the FMLN will work to “strengthen and deepen the democratic understanding of national security.” With this, the country has made one more step away from the civil war of the 1980s, where about 70 000 persons – most of them civilians – were killed by the military and death squads. It remains to see if these steps will lead the FMLN to the government offices and give a new spring to the long-suffering population of El Salvador.