El Salvador


Crucial Elections won by the right...with a little bit of help from Reich and Noriega - by Frank Kendrick

After twelve years of a brutal civil war and an equal period of precarious peace, Salvadorans went to the polls on March 21 and elected their new president, Elias Antonia “Tony” Saca, in the first round of voting.  While Saca, a wealthy 39-year-old former radio sports commentator turned business leader (he headed the National Private Business Association), won the election, many of his political staff had earlier expressed their apprehension over some of the polling that was conducted immediately before the election that allegedly yielded a statistical tie between the National Republican Alliance (ARENA) and the leftist opposition party, Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). 

Because the winning candidate had to receive 50 percent plus one of the total votes in the first round to claim the presidency, many experts projected that there would be a May 2 runoff between the FMLN and ARENA.  However, ARENA’s impressive margin of victory must be attributed primarily to the heavy lobbying by U.S. officials who warned the average Salvadoran voter of the consequences of electing a FMLN candidate amidst a climate of fear. Consistent with Washington’s historic pattern of both implicit and explicit intervention in the sovereign affairs of Latin American nations when important US interests were at stake, U.S. regional policy makers—namely Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs Roger Noriega and White House advisor Otto Reich—on a number of occasions, didn’t hesitate to express their alarm over the possibility of a FMLN victory, accompanied by barely veiled threats of retaliation if such an outcome would have come to pass.

Results of the Vote

To the surprise of many, the El Salvador presidential race brought out a record number of voters who gave Tony Saca (ARENA) a resounding 57.74 percent of their votes, over 36.65 percent for the FMLN candidate, Schafik Handal.  The Democratic Convergence—Christian Democratic Party’s coalition (CDU-PDC) candidate, Hector Silva, received only 3.87 percent of the votes, while the right-wing National Conciliation Party (PCN) candidate, Rafael Machuca, received only 2.72 percent.  The turnout was more than 2 million voters, or 66 percent, surpassing the previous record of 53 percent in the 1994 general elections which followed the end of the country’s brutal civil war.

This year’s election remarkably contrasted with the National Assembly elections of only a year ago when the FMLN became the leading party in the 84-member National Assembly by winning 31 seats to 27 for ARENA.  “We are the first force,” proclaimed Salvador Sanchez Ceren, the FMLN’s national coordinator.  But he failed to note that some 60 percent of the electorate abstained from voting in 2003, causing the FMLN to actually lose votes while it gained only in percentage of votes cast.

 Analyzing the 2003 Election

It appears that the FMLN’s leaders may have misinterpreted the 2003 election results to become overly confident of their ability to defeat ARENA in the presidential bid, as illustrated by the furious conflict over choosing their candidate.  While the Party’s senior members and leadership chose 73-year-old former Communist Party leader Schafik Handal, many mid-level officials and members at the Party’s base preferred several other younger and less doctrinaire candidates.  According to an internal poll, Mauricio Funes, a popular television journalist, was their leading choice, while another was Oscar Ortiz, the popular young mayor of Santa Tecla.  In fact, polls showed that Handal had the highest negative rating of any Salvadoran politician, left or right.  Nonetheless, the Party’s internal primary election in July confirmed Handal’s selection to be the official candidate by 8,077 votes to 6,093 votes for Ortiz. 

ARENA, the ruling party, was highly vulnerable having suffered a humiliating defeat in the 2003 elections and Francisco Flores, its incumbent president, was doing poorly in his approval ratings.  But ARENA also launched a thorough reorganization of its leadership and a redefinition of its objectives.  Evidently, its efforts paid off in the Party’s internal elections in July when Saca was elected with 2,023 votes to only 48 for his competitor, Vice-President Quintanilla Schmidt.  Saca thus began his campaign with strong party backing.  There is little doubt that the contrast between the two parties’ approaches to candidate selection was one very important factor in the FMLN’s ultimate defeat.

Playing Dirty

A stepped up campaign by ARENA backers in the days leading up to the election together with the anti-FLMN poisoned arrows being loosened from Washington, heralded a rancorous campaign to discredit the left-of-centre party with speculative innuendo and unsubstantiated accusations. Outgoing Salvadoran President Flores told the Miami Herald a far-fetched tale that the FMLN had been importing large caches of weapons in recent weeks from other Latin American leftist groups he refuses to identify. He suggested that these weapons would be used to create a state of chaos during the election, with the aim of discouraging voter turnout. Observers speculated that Flores invented these charges in order to distract attention away from several scandals affecting his administration that recently have been emerging, as well as allegations of growing human rights abuses that violated the terms of the country’s 1992 UN-brokered Peace Accords which had tainted his administration.

 Last June, Ambassador Rose Likins, set out on a disturbingly meddling course when she publicly warned that a FMLN victory at the polls in March would trigger a significant withdrawal of investment in the country—a prime scare tactic.  Reminiscent of past White House initiatives used to legitimate U.S. intervention in the internal affairs of regional countries due to the presence of influential leftist political parties, Washington once again set out to marginalize such movements by originally labelling them as “pro-communist,” and now “terrorist.”  Likins maliciously applied the broad brush of “terrorism” to the FMLN by speciously linking it to groups considered by the State Department to be enemies of the U.S. in the “war on terrorism,” and by engaging in such guilt-by-association behaviour, defaming a democratically-constituted political party. Such provocative statements reflected Washington’s growing anxiety at the time over the FMLN’s rising polling numbers and its increasingly vocal opposition to U.S. policies in the region.

Another factor that doubtless contributed to ARENA’s victory was Washington’s intervention in the electoral debate.  Even before the nominations of Handal and Saca, indications that the FMLN was leading among voters attracted the attention of the U.S. Embassy.  In June, Likins told reporters that the FMLN had “generated worry” and that “their holding up Cuba, China, or Vietnam as a model or speaking of an end to privatizations when there are US companies that have invested in developing key sectors of national life could endanger investment.”

The Reich/Noriega Blitz

As the campaign heated up, White House advisor Otto Reich went to work reaffirming the administration’s totally unsubstantiated allegations of supposed ties between the FMLN and terrorist organizations. Reich, as quoted in El Salvador’s daily El Diario de Hoy, linked the FMLN to the terrorist Basque separatist group ETA. The hard-line Cuban exile’s totally invented scenario alleges that FMLN supporters openly celebrated the 9-11 attacks. Reich, who narrowly escaped from being indicted for malfeasance in office due to his illegal actions during the Iran-Contra era (when he headed the Reagan administration’s propaganda arm through the Office of Public Diplomacy) breezily claimed that he saw television images of the FMLN burning American flags and calling for more airplane attacks. Reich went on to observe that, “Obviously [the FMLN] has not changed their manner of thinking since they were in the war.” Reich, according to El Diario, reiterated administration threats that an FMLN triumph could have severe trade, economic and immigration repercussions between the two countries.

More audacious were the comments made in February 2004, by Roger Noriega who warned that the FMLN had emphasized its differences around the issue of Salvadoran participation in the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), and that “Salvadorans should imagine what [El Salvador’s] relationship would be like with us” if the FMLN was to win.  Although the new U.S. Ambassador, Hugh Douglas Barclay, promised that the U.S. would respect the election results and work with whatever party wins, Noriega dominated the debate by publicly calling upon the Salvadoran people to vote for the candidate who “shares our vision, our values and the interest in deepening and improving the relations and association between our countries.” Due to Noriega’s haughty rhetoric he has become a burden to Colin Powell’s already deteriorating tenure that even fellow right-wing ultra columnist, Robert D. Novak, referred to Republican legislators being bitter over Noriega’s “woefully weak performance” at a congressional hearing.

The impact of such thinly veiled threats on the presidential elections of a dependent country like El Salvador cannot be exaggerated.  But in a country that has seen massive U.S. intervention in its civil war for more than a decade, and which supplied most of the weapons aimed at murdering over 80,000 innocent civilians, Washington has not been shy since then to generate economic pressures on the country. The threats undoubtedly caused many Salvadoran voters to think twice before casting their ballots.  Moreover, besides the threats, it was no secret that the US strongly favoured ARENA and its candidate.  In particular, Saca shared the Bush administration’s neo-liberal views and its backing of CAFTA one hundred percent.  On the other hand, Handal strongly opposed CAFTA, declaring that if the U.S. was unwilling to re-negotiate the treaty, he would discard it.

Otto Reich, the main architect of the skewed U.S. policy toward the region said, “We (the U.S. government) could not have the same confidence in an El Salvador led by a person [Schafik Handal] who is obviously an admirer of Fidel Castro and of Hugo Chávez.”  Such outrageously interventionist language (the same that he also used regarding recent elections in Bolivia and Nicaragua) as well as similar comments by State Department and embassy officials throughout the region echoed mounting anxiety on Washington’s part over the rising tide of opposition to U.S. neo-liberal economic policies, especially its trade policies, and diplomacy. Consequently, Otto Reich has just been stood up by Paraguayan President Duarte on a trip to Asunción, after the Paraguayan leader had emphasized his country would not send troops to Iraq and that there were doubts whether Paraguay would use its seat in the UN Human Rights Commission to vote against Cuba.

Reich’s words, certainly had great meaning to the highly vulnerable 2 million-member Salvadoran community during Handal’s visit to the United States in September, 2003 when he was warned by those in his audience not to weaken US.-Salvadoran relations if he was elected.  They feared deportation due to a potential termination of their temporary work permits. Obviously their concerns were shared with relatives back home.  Although they cannot easily vote, the large Salvadoran diaspora in the US remits more than $2 billion to their relatives in El Salvador.

Such ominous threats resonate with some of the more condemnable aspects of U.S. policy in the region over the years. Salvadorans are mindful of the 1990 Nicaraguan presidential election in which the U.S.-backed Violetta Chamorro won with the help of upwards of $17 million in U.S. funds. These contributions were covertly funnelled through the National Endowment for Democracy and the International Republican Institute, along with CIA and USAID channels, amidst threats that the proxy war against the Nicaraguan people by the US-financed and armed Contras would be resumed if the Sandinistas were victorious at the polls. Salvadorans are wary of the enormous economic power the U.S. wields over them, if nothing else, than through remittances from family members residing in the U.S. and prospects of enhanced bilateral trade by billions of dollars.

Washington is presently going well out of its way to make the point that an FMLN victory would have jeopardized this scenario. With El Salvador, as was the case with Nicaragua and Bolivia, the U.S. severely qualified its alleged respect for democratization, indicating that such support is contingent upon the right candidate (by Washington’s standards) winning the race.  Critics maintain that it is crucial that the U.S. State Department cease its policy of blatant intervention and that it should publicly commit to respecting the democratic electoral process throughout the region, which looks unlikely to happen anytime soon.

Fear of Crime: A Big Factor in the Race

Another factor in the election’s outcome was a number of programmatic issues.  A poll conducted by the Jesuit University of Central America’s (UCA) Institute of Public Opinion in October found several points of difference that were particularly important in the minds of the public.  Outstanding was security, and the fear of gang violence.  In July, the National Assembly approved Operation Mano Dura, a strong anti-gang law, and in October it approved an Anti-Mara Law that made it much more difficult for arrested suspects to gain freedom through the courts.  Although these ARENA-sponsored laws were opposed by the FMLN as well as by other opposition parties because they threatened civil liberties, the UCA poll found that 88 percent of the Salvadoran public supported such efforts against gang violence.  El Salvador now has the highest homicide rate in Latin America, with almost 100 murders per month, and many people credited ARENA for bringing that rate down by over 20 percent as a result of its legislation.

The FMLN also stressed economic issues in its campaign, and the public strongly supported its economic reforms and its stand against privatization.  It was aided by a government study which showed that 14.2 percent of the population lives in “extreme poverty” and are suffering from severe malnutrition, and another 21.9 percent live in “relative poverty” able to consume only a bare minimum to survive.  But polls also indicated that the public strongly supported CAFTA, who were apparently convinced that good economic relations with the U.S. might help to alleviate the country’s grinding poverty.

The incumbent ARENA government has closely adhered to the lending agencies’ guidelines privatizing pension funds, telephone services and electricity. An attempt in 2002 to privatize the public health care system, however, infuriated Salvadorans and resulted in an explosive year-long strike by health care workers with almost daily protests in the capital, several of which numbered over 100,000 participants. In spite of the FMLN’s resolute opposition to neoliberalism in general and CAFTA in particular, many analysts believe that even if the FLMN had achieved victory, passage of the controversial trade agreement by El Salvador’s legislative body would likely be assured during the final days of the Flores administration.

Finally, there was also widespread public distrust, and even fear, of the FMLN’s intentions and capabilities.  According to the October UCA poll, some 44 percent of the public believed that the FMLN wanted to turn the country into “another Cuba.”  Such feelings were certainly not mitigated by the FMLN’s publishing a letter to Fidel Castro supporting his actions in suppressing dissidents, and criticizing the “terrorist imperialist North American aggression” against Cuba.

Why did ARENA Win?         

After Saca’s stunning victory, Oscar Ortiz, the losing contender for the FMLN’s nomination in July, accordingly called for a FLMN reform.  He asserted that the Party needed to “open spaces to people not only from within but also from outside,” and to carry out a “profound restructuring.”  He also called a meeting with some 70 FMLN directors to demand “radical changes” in the Party’s direction.  On the other side, President-elect Tony Saca explained his commitment to a new style of government – “a government of all and for all” – and extended an invitation to all political parties to “work together in the construction of a better state.”  There is little doubt that ARENA, along with maintaining its fidelity to its reactionary ideology, was able to do organizationally what the FMLN failed to do after the 2003 elections.

As March 21 drew near, it became increasingly certain that ARENA would eventually triumph due to its U.S. backing and strong local media support that painted the opposition’s leader, Shafik Handal, as a dangerous ideologue who would turn the country into another Cuba.  Noriega had also arranged meetings with all of the Salvadoran presidential candidates, but at the last minute cancelled his meeting with Handal. The U.S. was deeply concerned over the rising FLMN influence, which purportedly posed a threat to the integrity of the Bush administration’s stand on Iraq and free trade.  Efforts by the Bush administration to forge a regional trade agreement between Central America and the U.S. in the form of CAFTA was thought to be jeopardized by what appeared to be diminishing ARENA popularity among Salvadorans.

Handal also had won the ire of Washington for his opposition to the dispatching of a contingent of over 300 Salvadoran troops to Iraq, who are described as helping to build (of all things, given their horrific reputation for torture and murder during the country’s decade-long civil war) democratic institutions in that country.  A withdrawal of these troops, however small in number, and coming after the announcement of a possible Spanish withdraw, would represent a telling setback to the White House Iraq strategy.

Washington is desperate to ratify and implement the now stalled Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) by 2005. While many analysts argue that the US Congress may prove to be the most formidable obstacle hindering the ratification of CAFTA, the political climate in El Salvador could still prove unexpectedly difficult for free trade proponents. A FLMN win could have posed a particularly serious threat to U.S. interests as the victories of left-of-centre political parties (Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil and Argentina) could project a winning tide that is prejudicial to the work of Bush, Powell, Noriega and Reich. Washington’s concerns over a Handal win stem as much from the FMLN’s open opposition to neoliberal economic development (including the recent dollarization of the Salvadoran economy, privatization of health care, and CAFTA itself), as it would from memories of the bitter guerrilla wars of the 1980s.

Some “Terrorists” are More “Terrorists” than Others

While White House advisor Reich is troubled by his totally bogus charges of terrorist links to the FMLN, he appears hardly disconcerted by the fact that two notorious suspected murderers of four U.S. religious women in El Salvador in 1980, General José García and Carlos Vides-Casanova, have retired with impunity to Palm Coast, Florida, undoubtedly on funds supplied by the U.S. Nor is Reich troubled by the role that he played while he was U.S. Ambassador to Venezuela in facilitating the admittance of convicted Cuban exile Orlando Bosch into the U.S. after he detonated a bomb aboard a Cuban airliner in 1976, killing all aboard.

The entire script relating to the March 21 Salvadoran presidential election had less to do with how well El Salvador’s institutions performed, than it had to do with US policymakers exhibiting their indifference towards the legitimate functioning of democratic processes. An apathetic creed spurred on by the failure of these democracies to accommodate self-serving, narrowly defined, US national interests.  While it has always been the duty of American citizens to be ever vigilant against the transgressions of their own government officials, some would argue the people of El Salvador are endowed with the same inalienable right to determine their own particular political and economic path into the future.

The author, Dr. Frank Kendrick, is a COHA Senior Research Fellow. Additional material was compiled by COHA staff researchers. The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization.  For more information, go to http://www.coha.org