Posted March 17, 2009
Late Sunday March 15, I listened to an English language radio broadcast from San Salvador, hopeful. The radio host provided up to the minute reporting of voting irregularities and when the polls closed at 5 PM (6 central time, here in New Orleans) reported ongoing street parties and delivered ballot box by ballot box updates––all increasingly tilted to the FMLN.
The FMLN, or Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front), formed in 1980 as El Savador entered a civil war that besieged the country for twelve years. Begun as a coalition of five leftist political parties and armed resistance movements, the FMLN has continued to represent the legacy of the tenacious left-wing resistance during the protracted civil war. It has endured as one of the two major political parties in El Salvador, the other being the right-wing (ARENA, or Nationalist Republican Alliance).
The FMLN has faced electoral disappointment and its activists have met with repression under successive post-war governments led by the hard right. But it has also played a key role in El Savador’s resolute social movements, as they have stood against privatization and US imperialism. And now, this party––a party that has transformed significantly since it was born in the white heat of civil war, akin to the the FSLN in Nicaragua––has at last won the presidency.
The FMLN has regional strongholds where it has won mayoral contests and legislative seats consistently since the conclusion of the war, and engaged in a parliamentary push-pull with ARENA on the national level. Naturally, a bedrock of its platform is opposition to the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and the dollarization of the country’s economy. It has also participated in movements against ARENA’s privatization of healthcare, water and electricity.
The fortunes of struggles around these flashpoints have been uneven. However, a hard-fought and pivotal victory came when healthcare workers and doctors––in league with the FMLN––defeated privatization of healthcare. It was the conclusion of a battle that consumed the early years of this decade, culminating in an all-out nine month long strike in 2003. Even as ARENA has tried to claw back what it had lost and deepen cuts and economic liberalization across the board, it was after this struggle that the right-wing bastion began to stagger, and a shift in the political cycle began to take place.
Unlike in previous elections, the FMLN was able to overcome fear wrought by the US government and its rightist allies, and instill hope. El Salvador is dependent upon remittances for near 20% of its GDP. ARENA and Republican legislators in the US have repeatedly threatened to cut off this infusion of cash to families of those already forced to migrate due to threats from death squads––or, more recently, the policies implemented under the regime of “free trade” agreements like CAFTA.
Four days before the election, Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES, www.cispes.org) reported that five Republican Congressmen threatened Salvadorans living in the U.S. with the loss of their immigration status and a ban on remittances to their families if the FMLN proved successful on Sunday. Luckily, supporters in the US flooded the State Department with complaints, and these threats were rebuffed, and 33 members of US Congress came out publicly against past intervention. More importantly, this threat was not enough to sway voters in El Salvador, as they headed to the ballot box.
Now, the rubber meets the road, where we will see a decisive moment in the FMLN’s epochal political trajectory. How will the FMLN use its plurality in the legislature (35 of 84 seats) and the presidency? This raises questions that have confronted and tested the left when faced with the obligations inherent in managing the affairs of the capitalist state.
The newly elected president, Mauricio Funes, did not come out of the FMLN’s armed period, but is a career journalist and only recently joined the party. Many people––independent journalists, the left, and the tribunes of capital––question where Funes will take the country. A few right-wing pundits say that he is akin to Fidel Castro, or Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, though others think that he will be more like Lula, the leader of Brazil’s Workers Party, who cut his teeth as a leading trade union militant but introduced neoliberal reforms once in power. Funes has stated that he has no intentions of repealing CAFTA or dollarization, and has taken pains to assuage the fears of both the national bourgeoisie and the US ruling class that he will not make any moves that jeopardize foreign investment. In this, his actions echo Lula’s.
Funes now heads a party named for Farabundo Martí, a founder of the El Salvador’s Communist Party. The FMLN has long boasted party platforms and candidates that reflect its Marxist origins. Their 2004 presidential candidate Schafik Handal was a long-time communist leader, and a leading figure of the party’s Coriente Revolucionario y Socialista (CRS, or Revolutionary Socialist Current), which successfully fended off a sizeable current within the party accused of being friendly with led by Facundo Guardado, the party’s presidential candidate in 1999.
The FMLN has a socialist vision for society. Funes has lauded “change,” “dialogue” and “reconciliation.” Once president, he will have to contend with a number of serious challenges in ruling the smallest Central American country, including the worldwide economic re/depression (including shrinking remittances into the local economy 1), violent crime, and despite the very repressive “Mano Supo Dura” legislation, in 2004, the persistence of some of the Americas’ most notorious gangs 2. Internationally, he has said he will forge an independent foreign policy, and it seems as though he hopes to strike a balance between a continued relationship with the US (likely allying himself to the Democrats, since ARENA was very close to the Republicans).
The election represents a continuation of the “red and pink tide” that is sweeping Latin America. But will it continue to give inspiration for years to come or ultimately disappoint?
The answer depends on the power of the social movements against neoliberal policies, and continued pressure from below, led by grassroots organizations and the ranks of FLMN membership.
News and analysis hub from CISPES:
1. Émigrées sent $2.7 Billion to El Salvador in 2007, which amounts to 7 times the direct foreign investment.
2. An estimated 40% of the prison population of El Salvador is made up of gang members.