Why the left won in El Salvador

March 17, 2009

Mauricio Funes, a television journalist turned politician, became the symbol of another turn to the left in Latin American politics when he won El Salvador's presidential election March 15.

Funes, who took 51 percent of the vote, was the candidate of the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN), which led an armed struggle against a conservative government from 1980 to 1992. While Funes didn't participate in the fighting, he was accused by the incumbent ARENA party of involvement with "terrorism."

In fact, it is the U.S.-backed ARENA party--which contains fascist elements and right-wing death squads--that is steeped in blood. Following a 1992 peace deal between ARENA and the FMLN, a UN-sponsored truth commission found that of the 75,000 people killed during the civil war, the government was responsible for 85 percent of human rights violations.

The most infamous examples of the far right's violence include the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980 and the massacre of 1,000 people in the village of El Mozote the following year.

Under the terms of the peace agreement, the FMLN converted itself into a political party, and in recent years has made headway in local and parliamentary elections. Earlier this year, it captured a majority in the National Assembly. But ARENA remained in control of the presidency since 1989, and has been one of Washington's closest allies in the region, even sending troops to Iraq.

Economically, ARENA turned El Salvador into a laboratory for U.S.-dictated economic policies of privatizing government services and the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Today, some 37 percent of Salvadorans live in poverty, according to the World Bank.

All this set the stage for Funes' victory. But despite the right's attempt to portray the former CNN reporter as a puppet of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, Funes sounded moderate themes in his election victory speech. He promised to "build a dynamic, efficient and competitive economy and promote the creation of a broad base of businesses."

Pablo Rodriguez is a teacher at the City College of San Francisco and a founding member of the FMLN. A few days before the vote, he talked to Todd Chretien about what the election represented.

THIS SUMMER is the 30th anniversary of the Sandinista Revolution against the American-backed dictator Somoza in Nicaragua. Can you describe the situation in El Salvador in 1979 that led to the formation of the FMLN the following year?

I WAS in high school, and we were organizing the High School Student Revolutionary Movements (MERS). July 19 will live forever in our minds and our souls. It was the moment that told us, "If the Nicaraguans can do it, so can you. We used to say, "Si Nicaragua Venció, El Salvador Vencerá" (If Nicaragua won, El Salvador will triumph).

I remember the protest music of the Godoy brothers, Carlos and Enrique Mejia Godoy, and watching the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) coming down from the mountains, greeted with joy by hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans. They defeated the dictator Somoza who had been educated and trained in the U.S. That was the moment we knew we could win against the military government that we'd had in El Salvador. We organized a nationwide, grassroots, bottom-up movement of workers and students and peasants.

El Salvador's president elect, Mauricio Funes of the FMLN
El Salvador's president elect, Mauricio Funes of the FMLN

GIVEN THE level of popular struggle against the government, why didn't the revolution succeed in El Salvador?

WE DID defeat the government in 1979. It was replaced by a military junta. As soon as Ronald Reagan came into power in 1980, they knew they had no choice but to militarize the whole region. So they started saying that the "evil empire," the Soviet Union, was taking over Central America.

In the case of El Salvador, Reagan said he would send whatever the military government needed. Soon, El Salvador was receiving as much aid from the U.S. as Israel, even more. We became the Israel of Latin America. Between 1979 and 1982, we did overthrow the government, but the U.S. sent military aid and more military "advisors" to El Salvador than any other nation.

That was the only reason the government survived. The U.S. trained counterinsurgency special battalions in Panama and the U.S. Every month, 500 or 1,000 guys were coming back to El Salvador, trained to kill students and union members and peasants. That's why we were forced to go to the mountains.

CAN YOU describe the political climate in the 1980s?

EVERY DAY, we would find our brothers and sisters decapitated and thrown on the street. Every Sunday, before Archbishop Romero was assassinated, he would give mass in front of dozens of bodies of found in the streets of San Salvador.

Between 1979 and 1984, there were more students, union and peasants leaders, as well as priests, killed in at any other time in our history. More church members were killed in El Salvador than anywhere else in the world. Psychological terror was used in the first half of the 1980s. They took people at midnight, killed them, cut them into pieces and then threw them back into the communities. I lost most of my compañeros and compañeras as a result of this terror.

DESPITE THIS brutality, the FMLN was able to continue mobilizing and even declared liberated zones in Chalatenango and other areas. What was the level of support for the FMLN during the war?

AS REAGAN came to power, we knew the Pentagon had planned a response--and we knew it would be a total war.

We didn't have a choice. You had to go into the mountains to arm yourself, to protect yourself, or you'd be one more victim, decapitated and thrown into the street. The reason why there were liberated areas was because we had almost the total support of society. We were able to organize popular governments, run by the people in these zones.

Even in the urban areas, we had liberated zones, although the government was more efficient in crushing the urban areas. For instance, they used strategies they used in Vietnam to break up those areas. They'd go to a place where they knew the FMLN was strong, and they'd just bomb the hell out of it for two weeks. That's why all the massacres, like the infamous one in El Mozote, took place. It was part of their strategy.

IN 1989, the FMLN launched its "final offensive" aimed at toppling the government. During that offensive, members of the Salvadoran military executed five Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter at the Catholic University. They also carpet-bombed large parts of San Salvador. Can you explain the political impact of the offensive?

THE OUTCOME was that the world came to understand that the government could not defeat us. Despite U.S. military support, they couldn't defeat the people, and they were forced to negotiate. Their brutality was exposed, and the whole world denounced them.

When they killed the priests--by the way, two of them had been my teachers at the university, so I knew them personally--they blew their brains out to send a message. The soldiers who carried out this massacre were trained in the United States.

So the outcome was that the FMLN forced the government to negotiate, and proved that the government was lying when it said that it had defeated the rebellion. The offensive proved that the FMLN was a force.

AFTER THE FMLN's decision to lay down its arms and enter elections, its main rival became the ARENA party. What does ARENA represent?

ARENA WAS founded in 1981 in Guatemala by the Salvadoran and military elite. A key founder was Major Roberto D'Aubuisson--the man who planned the assassination of Archbishop Romero. The Guatemalan elite advised the Salvador elite that they needed a political party to defend their own interests--that that was better than simply relying on the military openly.

D'Aubuisson was trained in the U.S. and was on the payroll of the CIA. He was the main architect of the death squads, and he worked very closely with John Negroponte [then ambassador to Honduras and the architect of U.S. strategy in Central America]. Ever since, ARENA has dominated the political scene in El Salvador.

AN ESTIMATED 25 percent of Salvadorans have been forced to emigrate to the U.S. for economic reasons. Can you talk about the economic situation and the impact of immigration on people in El Salvador?

IN 1989, after the final offensive, the first ARENA president was elected, although they were really in power even before that.

The Salvadoran economy has always seen 70 percent of the population go without anything. Then, there are others who are doing okay. But as you may know, we are famous for being run by the 14 families. They really own the country. They run ARENA.

And look at their record. Almost half of the population has been forced to leave the country because of social, economic and political reasons. This has no precedent in history. This has disintegrated the social foundation of the country.

To make matters worse, the U.S. dollar was adopted in 2001 as the only currency. This has made the poor even worse off. Probably more people have left the country since 2001 than in the whole of the 1980s. Everything is worse for most people.

CAN YOU describe the Salvadoran social movements and their relationship to the FMLN?

EL SALVADOR is the most privatized country in Latin America. The World Bank and the IMF hold up El Salvador as an example. There are social movements, but nothing that can be compared to the 1980s. It's very unfortunate, but the social movements have taken a back seat.

What is the relationship between the elections and the movement? Well, that's a concern. There are some sectors on the left [that have split with the FMLN], like what happened in Nicaragua with the split in the FSLN. There are even some so-called leftists in El Salvador who will be voting for ARENA. But, of course, that's not the majority.

Five weeks before the vote, the FMLN had a double-digit lead in the polls, but there was a tie just before the election. That's because 95 percent of the media is controlled by ARENA.

There are even two members of Congress from the U.S. who have been quoted heavily in the newspapers, saying that if the FMLN wins, people will not be able to send money home to their families from the U.S.--and these remittances now account for 30 percent of the GDP of El Salvador. They also said that their family members' immigration status in the U.S. will be in danger if the FMLN wins. These are two very dangerous threats.

WHY DID the FMLN choose Mauricio Funes as a candidate instead of someone more closely identified with the party and the social movements?

THERE ARE several reasons. The main one is that the control of the media is so complete that the FMLN believed only by putting forward someone who was already known in the press would we have a chance.

We have nominated ex-commandantes in the past, including one of the FMLN founders, Shafik Handal, who was defeated very badly in the last elections. So this was an attempt to try something new. However, the vice presidential candidate was a founding member of the FMLN, and is a former teacher.

In terms of Funes' program, it's complicated. The dollarized economy means that fiscal and monetary policy is made in New York, not by the Salvadoran central bank. Funes was forced to agree to leave the economy dollarized. And he was forced to accept keeping CAFTA in place.

This is a big problem, because we've been arguing for a long time that these two things were destroying the economy, but now we have the FMLN candidate telling society and telling the world that the dollar will continue and that CAFTA will remain in place. Under those circumstances, he's saying he'll bring jobs. Our unemployment rate is 40 percent in some areas.

Funes will talk to the U.S. government about winning better treatment for Salvadorans living in the U.S., and he's talking about modifying the health care system. But even there, we've moved away from our initial demand to have free, national health care for all. He's also promising to fight crime. El Salvador has a murder rate that is even higher than Colombia or Mexico. So as you can see, there's not much to offer.

OVER THE past decade, we've seen leftist governments come to power in Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela. Even in Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega is back in power. Do you see this election as part of that shift in Latin America?

THAT'S THE context. But we have to emphasize that the U.S. has penetrated into El Salvador more deeply than any other country. For instance, the FMLN lost the mayor's office in San Salvador last year.

I'm not just talking about U.S. intervention through the military. We have a huge number of NGOs that have cut the movement in pieces. You even have ex-FMLN leaders who now run NGOs, and who are making $5,000 a month, but where's the revolutionary spirit we used to have? Well, with a check every month, it kind of disappears.

So we have to be realistic about the outcome of Sunday's elections. The right wing is united--it controls the press, it controls the electoral commission.

How are we going to fight this? That's a big question. There has been a long struggle in El Salvador, from before and after 1932 [when there was a general strike and mass uprising] to 1979. Either we bring back the spirit of revolution from the 1980s, or we're going to see the 14 families continuing to run the country, playing up to the interests of the United States.

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