El Salvador: A Deeply Divided Country

Its Politicians Stare into an Uncertain Future
From almost any conceivable perspective, El Salvador is a deeply divided country that has yet to recover from its wrenching ten-year civil war. While there have been the UN-brokered Peace Accords that ended the war and the Truth Commission report, “From Madness to Hope,” there are still seismic divisions along ideological, political, and economic fault lines that keep the country polarized and prevent a cessation of persistent conflict. For example, on November 11, 2007, the date that marks the launching of the Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation’s final 1989 offensive in the country’s bitter civil war, the FMLN held its 23rd National Convention to nominate a candidate for the March 2009 presidential election. In response, the National Republican Alliance (ARENA)-dominated assembly declared November 11 a “day of national mourning” and put up a black flag to remind voters of the FMLN’s past as a guerrilla force. Thus, the war and fears of its possible recurrence are still very much in the minds of the original combatants, as well as more recent generations, and continues to dominate much of the country’s political discourse.

Tony Saca on the Offensive
Another important indication that the war is still an extremely divisive political issue to Salvadorans is the January 2008 intervention of the United States in their March 2009 presidential election. The U.S. National Director of Intelligence, J. Michael McConnell, issued an intelligence report on threats to U.S. security in the hemisphere, which stated, “We anticipate that [Hugo] Chavez will provide generous financing to the FMLN in El Salvador in their attempt to secure the presidential elections of 2009.” This speculation by McConnell prompted Salvadoran President Tony Saca, who is one of Washington’s staunchest supporters in Latin America, to request that the Salvadoran envoy in Venezuela investigate the matter.

Then, on February 7, Saca went to Washington, where he visited with Assistant Secretary of State John Negroponte and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman John Rockefeller IV. The U.S. intelligence report became front page news in El Salvador and prompted the FMLN presidential candidate, Mauricio Funes, to announce that his party will not accept money from Chavez. However, the role of the U.S. in the coming elections is expected to be as intrusive as its previous involvements, specifically regarding the election of 2004, when there were similar allegations of outside support for the FMLN. The U.S. is already suggesting that it could rescind the protective status now affecting hundreds of thousands of Salvadoran refugees now benefiting from being allowed U.S. residence if the FMLN is victorious at the polls. This could also hurt the economic stability of El Salvador because several billions of dollars in remittances are sent by refugees in this country back to their families each year with only minimum restrictions.

Politically, of course, when it comes to El Salvador, U.S. politicians and the North American media currently are mainly interested in the upcoming presidential election, but power politics are also being played out in the country’s legislative arena. In the Legislative Assembly, where neither the opposition FMLN nor the ruling National Republican Alliance enjoys a majority, ARENA can dominate matters by working with the equally conservative National Conciliation Party (PCN). The distribution of deputies in the 84-member Assembly is: ARENA, with 34 deputies, FMLN with 32, PCN holding 10, the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) with 6, and Democratic Change with 2. In practice, El Salvador has a two-party system, dominated by a one-vote majority of ARENA in alliance with another right-wing party, the PCN. Not wanting to appear as merely a puppet of ARENA, however, the PCN, on occasion, has been known to work with the FMLN in the Assembly; the PDC also supports ARENA from time to time. The U.S. is evidently very concerned about legislative elections, based on its perhaps optimistic belief that ARENA is capable of controlling events and protecting “U.S. interests” in El Salvador.

Local government is another active scene of political theatre in El Salvador. In local elections in 2006, the FMLN won 60 municipal council elections, including, in particular, El Salvador’s capital San Salvador and 11 of 19 councils in the San Salvador metropolitan area. Altogether, the capital city area is the epicenter of Salvadoran business and culture and contains 2.2 million people, nearly a third of the country’s entire population. In fact, the FMLN-held municipal councils altogether represent a majority of the country’s population. Thus, despite losses in a number of larger cities in the country, and its three consecutive failures to win the presidency, the FMLN remains a very dynamic political force in both national and local politics in El Salvador. But U.S. policymakers didn’t appear to be particularly interested in local politics, instead concentrating on the bigger fish available in the presidential political sea.

Legislative Wrangling
Politically, of course, partisan conflicts in the Legislative Assembly primarily have erupted over socio-economic issues. One of these is illustrated by the free trade disputes that erupted shortly after the 2006 elections when the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), came to a vote in the Assembly. Because the FMLN has consistently opposed CAFTA, the Legislative Assembly witnessed one of the most intense battles over the trade pact in Central America. Violence also spewed onto the city streets and the campaign led to strong denunciations on both sides.

This is now the third year of CAFTA, and its negative effects on the economy have become quite evident. Various agricultural sectors are losing productivity and the country is being flooded with relatively cheap basic grains, including corn and rice, imported from the United States because Salvadoran farmers cannot compete against U.S.-subsidized prices. Moreover, El Salvador’s trade deficit has increased since the inception of CAFTA.

CAFTA has been sharply criticized repeatedly by FMLN legislators. Its constitutionality came into question in the spring of 2007 when the Supreme Court agreed to review 14 of 30 arguments presented against the trade pact by the FMLN. The court eventually found a number of violations in the pact pertaining to investments, conflict resolution, and most-favored-nation-status. The court initiative was part of another doomed attempt by the FMLN to secure the renegotiation, or at least the reform of CAFTA. Along with CAFTA’s other problems, the drop in value of the U.S. dollar, which is also El Salvador’s official currency, has further impaired the economy. However, the U.S. has held that there can be no renegotiation of the terms of the agreement while the Court is still seized by the issue.

At the heart of much of this controversy is the soaring price of basic foodstuffs in El Salvador, which have in no way been alleviated by CAFTA- quite to the contrary. Approximately 40% of El Salvador’s population currently lives in poverty, particularly in rural areas. A recent report by the Center for Defense of the Consumer found that the country now features the highest price of corn in Central America. Additionally, the price of beans increased by 60% in the last year, that of rice went up 66%, and the overall cost of a family’s basic market basket has gone up 21% in rural areas and 14% in urban areas. This drastic increase in the prices of food staples has left many in El Salvador fearful of having to face the prospect of starvation.

Thus, as pointed out by the FMLN and other groups opposed to CAFTA-style free trade, the initiation of the trade pact has failed to fulfill four promises: There has been no noticeable increase in employment, as well as minor increase in foreign investment, sustained high consumer prices, and only a marginal increase in exports. In other words, El Salvador is not appreciably better off because of the ARENA-backed CAFTA.

Crime Control- Or a Lack Thereof
Another issue that reflects the political divisions in the country is the lack of crime control. There is no question that crime is an outstanding problem in El Salvador; in fact, El Salvador is now one of the most violent countries in the world. Its homicide rate in 2006 was 56 per 100,000 individuals, according to the Institute of Forensic Medicine, a rate 10 times that of the United States. Emblematic of the U.S. embassy’s legendary hostility to the FLMN, U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Charles Glazer has strongly supported ARENA policies on its attitude to trade, growth, and criminal justice. However, the Ambassador has stated that the solution is to have private security companies play a greater role in crime control. FLMN deputies, along with the current director of the National Civil Police (PNC), Francisco Rovira, have labeled this approach “worrisome” due to the fact that several owners of the country’s major private security companies are also influential members of ARENA.

Because of the nation’s roaring crime problem, the FMLN last year sought to secure independence for the Department of Internal Affairs, a unit within the troubled PNC. After the 2007 discovery of a clandestine group of four hit-men serving as PNC officers, the FMLN proposed reforming the police by making its Department of Internal Affairs independent so that it can investigate the PNC more efficiently. ARENA opposed this proposal as a “political maneuver by the FMLN to discredit the work of the PNC.”

It should be noted that the creation of the PNC was one of the more important provisions of the Salvadoran Peace Accords, which disbanded the original military-dominated police and replaced it with a force that was staffed with both former members of the military as well as FMLN guerrilla fighters. Thus, the FMLN’s proposal to back an independent Internal Affairs department with an independent investigating commission was intended to add to the institutional integrity of the PNC. However, former PNC Director Rodrigo Avila (currently the ARENA candidate for president of El Salvador) also admitted that the PNC was being permanently audited by the General Accountability Office (GAO) with the goal of the PNC’s “better optimizing its resources.” The president himself confirmed that an investigation had been going on involving human trafficking directed by a Chinese mafia. The investigation resulted in the discovery of ties between a handful of PNC officers and some high profile gang murders.

Despite the steps taken to try to restore credibility to the organization, the reputation of the PNC has been thoroughly tarnished by the aforementioned and many other comparable incidents. One was a massive May 2007 confiscation operation against street vendors working in downtown San Salvador. This resulted in numerous arrests, a large protest, and panic among bystanders. President Saca and his Minister of Security, Rene Figueroa, designated the vendors “terrorists,” and called for enforcement of the new custom-tailored ARENA-backed Anti-Terrorism Law and the Anti-Organized Crime Law. These sloppily written and vague measures defined as “terrorism” what formerly had been called only vandalism, with the new crime being punishable by decades in prison.

Intent on proving that it was no paper tiger, the PNC occupied the National University for several days in July 2007, during a student protest against bus fare hikes. This evoked memories of a similar police shuttering of the school during the mid-1980s. In the July 2007 incident, some 700 students were evacuated from the school, with more than 20 students arrested. The occupation was condemned by the country’s Human Rights Office which called the violence instigated by the police the “worst violation of human rights since the Peace Accords.”

In 2007, the Legislative Assembly approved an appropriations measure amounting to $110,000 for the creation of the International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) in El Salvador. Proposed by the U.S., the ILEA was established so that law enforcement officials from emerging democracies could be trained by U.S. specialists in the areas of transnational crime that including narco-trafficking, financial fraud, organized crime, terrorism, and sexual tourism. However, the FMLN and numerous social movement bodies around the Hemisphere protested the creation and funding of the ILEA on the grounds that the chances were high that it would violate national sovereignty and that the ILEA would merely be a variation of the infamous U.S.-led School of the Americas. Nonetheless, the Academy has been formally established, with ARENA’s and the Bush administration’s backing.

Actors in the Political Theater
The coming elections in El Salvador—the first in January 2009 for the Legislative Assembly and local councils, and the second in March 2009 for the presidency—will doubtless reflect deep divisions in El Salvador. In November 2007, the FMLN selected Mauricio Funes, a former journalist, for its presidential candidate. He is neither a former revolutionary nor was he ever a member of the party that nominated him. In fact, he is politically moderate, favoring trade and political ties with the United States. He has visited the United States since his nomination, where he met with members of Congress and with Assistant Secretary of State for Hemispheric Affairs, Thomas Shannon. His overall strategy is to present the FMLN as a reformed party in order to avoid seeming like a bunch of radical ex-guerrillas. He also is approaching Salvadorian business groups to reassure them that he would not reverse the dollarization of the economy; nor would he try to remove El Salvador from CAFTA, although he would try to renegotiate the trade pact.

Shrewdly, the FMLN membership also selected Salvador Sanchez Ceren, a “traditional” FMLN member and former revolutionary as Funes’ running mate for the vice presidency. As one observer put it, the party appears to want nothing less than to keep Funes on a “short chain.” Moreover, Funes is running as a reform candidate who will also seek to end the current “servility” of ARENA to the U.S. by establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, and improving the country’s ties to Venezuela. The result is that the FMLN leadership appears to be committed to presenting a “balanced” ticket.

ARENA, for its part, has been in a notable slump for the past few years, making the selection in March 2007 of Rodrigo Avila as presidential candidate appear to be a slight concession to moderation. Avila’s campaign slogan is “A more just country, progress with equity.” However, another indication of his views is that he accepted his nomination by stating “The legacy of Major Roberto d’Aubuisson and the valiant men who followed him inspire me.” He is also nicknamed “Attila,” and claims to have created a “new right” within ARENA. Moreover, while he talks up his vision of justice, freedom, and democracy, he is also very concerned about the fracturing of the right in Nicaragua that brought on the presidency of Daniel Ortega, something that ARENA insists must not happen in El Salvador. With his talk of a “new right,” Avila at heart appears to be as much of a conservative, right-wing presidential candidate as any of his ARENA predecessors. As such, he will doubtlessly receive the enthusiastic endorsement and support of the Bush administration. Thus, it appears that the coming presidential battle in El Salvador promises to be one of the more interesting ones since the war ended, mainly because of the nomination of the moderate Funes as the FMLN standard bearer.

El Salvador is considered by most observers to be one of the most successful examples of United Nations nation-building in the last century, and it definitely is an outstanding success when compared with most other U.N. attempts at the process. But the country also demonstrates the limits of nation-building and shows that the most important aspects of nation-building are the efforts that inhabitants of the affected country must themselves make. Real success within a previously war-torn country therefore depends to a very large extent on how much cohesion either already exists or can be developed over time. And cohesion definitely is something still very much lacking in Salvadoran society.