Report from El Salvador's Elections

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 By Joe De Raymond

 I arrived at the Center for Exchange and Solidarity (CIS)  on Sunday, February 29th, to participate in the  international observer mission which will monitor the  March 21 Presidential elections here in El Salvador.  This  is the sixth election the CIS has officially observed,

 which includes every election since the 1992 peace  accords. The international response this year has been energetic.  270  observers from 17 countries have come to the CIS to accompany the  Salvadoran people during the  election process.  The nations represented are::   U.S.,  Canada, Spain, France, Norway, Italy, Great Britain,  Germany, Sweden, Netherlands, Guatemala, Israel,  Australia, Japan, Trinidad & Tobago, Switzerland, and  Chile.

 

 The dynamics of this election are compelling. There are  four parties in the race, but the centrist CDU-PDC  Coalition (Centro Democratico Union- Partido Democratico  Cristiano) and the nominally rightwing PCN (Partido para  la Conciliación Nacional) are each polling at 1-5% of the vote. The   CDU is led by Hector Silva, the ex-mayor of San Salvador who left the  Frente for the center, and the PDC is the party of José Napolean  Duarte, the Partido Democratica Cristiana which has been trying to  find a political center in El Salvador for over 20 years. This

 election will be decided between the party of the left  born of the guerilla group of the same name, the Partido  Faribundo Marti para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) and the  right wing party created by the Roberto D'Aubuisson.the  Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA).  Roberto  D'Aubuisson was named in the United Nations Truth  Commission Report as the intellectual author of the  assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980.  El  Salvador has a run-off system, which means that a  candidate needs 50% plus one vote to win.  It is likely we  will see a run-off election on May 2.

 

 The candidate of the FMLN, Schafik Handal, is a stalwart  of the social struggles.  He represents a party which was born out of   the guerrilla army of the civil war which converted itself to the   largest political force in El  Salvador.   Last year for the first time, the FMLN  garnered the most votes of any political party in the  local and legislative elections.  The FMLN campaign motto  is El Cambio es Hoy (The Change is Today).  Campaign literature show a

 photos of the grizzled Schafik and emphasizes a "Propuesta del FMLN,   Education, Science, Technology".

 

 The ARENA candidate is Tony Saca.  During the war years,  this fresh-faced 37 year old was a sports announcer.  His motto is  Vota por un Pais Seguro (Vote for a Safe Country).  He is a strong  supporter of current ARENA President Flores "mano dura", or hard hand,  policy toward gangs, and emphasizes the sense of stability in voting  for the party which has led El Salvador since 1989.  ARENA campaign literature proudly displays a picture of its  founder Roberto D'Aubuisson, right fist raised in salute.

 

 

 The streets are full of the colors of the FMLN and ARENA,  and the news reports the infighting of whose pole signs are legal, whose are not.  There is some question about  the impartial nature of the decisions in this regard, since the FMLN controls the mayoral posts of all the major cities, and  ARENA has a tendency to paint everything from poles to rocks to the  sidewalks, curbs and streets in their blue, white and red stripes.

 

 ARENA is running a campaign of fear, with radio and print  ads emphasizing the uncertainty of what would ensue if the voters  actually put the FMLN in power.  There are radio ads which call into  question the ability of Salvadorans to continue sending money home  from the United States if the FMLN would win the election.  The two  major daily newspapers, La Prensa Grafica and El Diario de Hoy (known affectionately as "El Diablo de Hoy") represent the far  right (ARENA) of the political spectrum, only.  Editors  who have allowed articles critical of ARENA or favorable to the left are demoted.

 

 In this election season, articles or comment favorable to  the FMLN will not appear in these newspapers.  Routinely,  the layout of the papers links Schafik with Venezuela's resident Hugo  Chavez, and links Chavez to chaos, disorder and repression.  The polls cited by the press always show Saca ahead by 18 to 20 percentage points.  Yet, I recently talked with a PCN party member who told me that other polls show a dead heat.

 

 The television situation is even worse.  Salvadoran television is dominated by channels 2, 4 and 6, which together have a 90% viewership.  They are all owned by the same media company,  Telecorporación Salvadoreña, which is in turn owned by one individual, Boris Esersky.  The homogenization of the TV news, is, therefor, almost total for the vast majority of the Salvadoran public.

 

 When Schafik or the FMLN points out this situation of lack  of balance in the news, vicious editorials immediately appear accusing him of attacking freedom of the press, and  of being in favor of a Chavez or Cuban model government of repression.

 

 There has been a steady stream of United States government intervention in the process.  Since 2003, officials of the United States have been threatening the Salvadoran people with severe  consequences if they have the nerve to actually change their governement.  The last ambassador to El Salvador, Rose Likens, warned that an FMLN government would have consequences for US-El Salvador relations.  State Department functionary Dan Fisk compared Schafik Handal to "firures of the past" such as Daniel Ortega and Rios Mont.

 

 When current US Ambassador Douglas Barclay met with Schafik Handal, and the FMLN later published their picture together, he requested they retract the photo and not use it anymore.   On February 6, the Assistant Secretary of Western Hemispheric Affairs for the U.S. State Department, Roger  Noriega, said: "I think it is fair to note that the FMLN campaign has  emphasized its differences with [the U.S] concerning CAFTA (Central America Free Trade

 Agreement) and other subjects. And we know the history of this political movement, and for this reason it is fair that the Salvadoran people consider what type of relations a new government could have with us." Most recently, Special Envoy of the White House to Latin  America, Otto Reich, laid it directly on the line on March 13, in a telephone interview conducted from the ARENA offices in San Salvador:   "We would not be able to have the same

 confidence in an El Salvador led by a person who is obviously an admirer of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, as we have today in (ARENA President) Flores."  Reich continued to warn that a win by the FMLN would cause a  reevaluation of the United States relationship with El  Salvador.

 

 The Salvadoran people know quite well what these veiled threats mean.  There are overtones of Chile's overthrow on September 11, 1973, by forces supported by the United States, as well as the more recent abandonment of the elected government of Aristide to the thugs of the coup of 1991, as well as the bitter memories of the war years of  El Salvador, when the United States supported a series of dictators and military juntas amidst a sea of violence against the civilian population.

 

 It is true that there are similarities to the political dynamic in Venezuela.  As with Chavez in Venezuela, the FMLN attempt to gain power to obtain popular reforms through legitimate electoral processes is a threat to the historic hegemony of the right, and is vigorously opposed.  The use of the press, controlled by the rich of the country, is similar in both countries.  Venezuela has supported El Salvador with aid projects after the earthquakes of 2001, and the Chavez government has supported the FMLN.  El Salvador could be the next country in the Americas to create the political ability to forge their own path for the future.  The test for the young and still forming democracy in El  Salvador will be if the forces which have controlled the  country since the 19th Century will ever allow another political force run the country.  Further, will the United States allow an FMLN government?

 

 I spoke recently with a business owner, who suggested that what is  needed now is a collaboration between the left and the right, if not  n political and social terms, at least in terms of an acceptance of  democracy.  There has never been a government in El Salvador which has  not been directly linked to the moneyed classes.  The program of the FMLN is serious, and the party has shown in can govern, as it has in the major cities of the country for many years now.  Is it the moment for change?

 

 The coming weeks may put the economic and social elites of El Salvador and the United States to the test:  will democracy be permitted in El Salvador?

 

 Joe DeRaymond is a Nicaragua solidarity activist from Pennsylvania who is in El Salvador as an electoral observer.  Follow the elections at http://cis-elsalvador.org