[News] El Salvador 2009

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Sat May 10 12:35:19 EDT 2008

Weekend Edition
May 10 / 11, 2008

Yet Another Feather in the Cap of Hugo Chavez?

El Salvador 2009


An image flashes across the screen of pretty 
young women.  They’re dressed in red T-shirts, 
wave a red flag, and run towards the camera.  A 
voice intones, “Let us all participate in the 
great party of hope!  Change is coming!”  The 
image then shifts to a dapper young man with 
glasses who is thronged by enthusiastic crowds.

Meet Mauricio Funes, bane of the U.S. foreign 
policy establishment and the likely next 
President of El Salvador as of March, 
2009.  Funes’ party, the FMLN (or Farabundo Martí 
National Liberation Front), is running television 
ads such as these in an effort to appeal to the 
young generation and roll back the political 
right which has dominated the country’s politics for decades.

Funes is a former commentator for CNN 
International and for years had a popular daily 
show called The Interview with Mauricio Funes 
which wasbroadcast on national television.  Well 
known amongst his compatriots, he is arguably El 
Salvador’s most respected journalist. A frequent 
critic of government abuses, Funes quickly 
developed a reputation as a political crusader.

As the so-called “Pink Tide” sweeps through South 
America 2009 is fast sizing up as a momentous 
political year for El Salvador, a Massachusetts 
sized nation of some six 6 million people.  Like 
Barack Obama, Funes is poised, youthful and 
inspiring.  He even has a similar campaign 
slogan: “Cambio” or “Change.”  Like the 
presumptive nominee of the Democratic Party, 
Funes is already drawing large crowds.  He is 
currently leading in public opinion surveys 
against his main political rivals.

The U.S. left doesn’t know much about Funes, but 
that’s hardly surprising given the political 
trends of the past fifteen years.  During the 
1980s, in the midst of the country’s civil war, 
the FMLN was a cause célèbre for the U.S. 
left.  But once the U.S.-backed 
insurgency war ended and FMLN guerrillas 
demobilized and formed their own political party, 
radicals focused their attention elsewhere.  El 
Salvador dropped off the media horizon.

The small Central American nation is about to 
leap back into the headlines, however.

A victory for the FMLN would further embolden 
Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and continue Central 
America’s drift towards the center left, already 
underway with the return of Daniel Ortega of the 
Sandinista Party in Nicaragua and the election of 
Álvaro Colom Caballeros in Guatemala.  If a solid 
pro-Chávez column of smaller nations emerges in 
the region this could prove to be a difficult pill for Washington to swallow.

ARENA: “The Reds Will Die”

When you consider just how entrenched the right 
wing has become in El Salvador, Funes’ political 
rise is even more remarkable.

Ever since 1992, the year El Salvador’s horrific 
civil war ended, ARENA (or Nationalist Republican 
Alliance) has reigned supreme in election after 
election.  The party was founded by right wing 
death squad leader Roberto D’Aubuisson, held to 
be one of the intellectual authors behind the 
assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 
1980.  Many see ARENA, whose party colors are 
red, white and blue, as modeled on the U.S. 
Republican party but with even stronger nationalist overtones.

The hymn of the party touts El Salvador as the tomb where “the Reds will die.”

By the early 1990s, with the international left 
now ignoring the political story in El Salvador, 
ARENA consolidated its control through the ballot box.

Remaking the Party

Fearing relatiation from Washington, Funes has 
bent over backwards to placate the U.S.  He has, 
for example, met with State Department officials 
as well as members of Congress and reassured them that he is no radical.

Meanwhile, Funes has declared that El Salvador 
should not scrap use of the dollar by returning 
to its previous currency, the colón.  Funes says 
that "dollarization" and the adoption of the 
Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2006 
have had negative effects, such as inflation and 
unfavorable competition for small-scale farmers, 
but that it is too late to scrap these policies.

The former media commentator seeks to remake the 
FMLN into a pragmatic political party.  At 
rallies, he doesn't sing the party's anthem or 
wear the traditional red colours, preferring to 
campaign in a crisp white guayabera shirt.  It’s 
a symbolic move designed to contrast himself with 
many in the party who still wear fatigues and 
brandish pictures of Che Guevara and Soviet flags at campaign rallies.

ARENA President Antonio Saca, whose term ends 
next year, has questioned the FMLN's supposed 
moderation. "If it flies like a duck, swims like 
a duck and eats like a duck, it's a duck. The 
FMLN is a communist party. Its ideas haven't changed," he has remarked.

Demonizing Funes by Linking Him to Chávez

Despite such dismissive rhetoric, ARENA is 
fearful that Funes may not go down to electoral 
defeat like his FMLN predecessors.  Facing a 
possible debacle in March, the Salvadoran right 
and Washington have gone into overdrive, trying 
to tarnish Funes by linking him to Hugo Chávez of 
Venezuela.  ARENA in fact has accused Funes of being a “little Chávez.”

Earlier this year, U.S. Director of National 
Intelligence Michael McConnell warned Congress 
that he expected Chávez to provide "generous 
campaign funding" to Funes.  Similar U.S. 
national security reports, later exposed as false 
and comprised of politically-manipulated 
intelligence, were used by the Bush White House 
to justify its preemptive war against Iraq in 2003.

Nevertheless, ARENA President Antonio Saca 
pounced on the report, remarking that this act of 
“interference” would be “unacceptable.” He even 
ordered an investigation into the matter and, in 
another high profile move, recalled El Salvador's 
diplomatic envoy from Caracas.

On the other hand, Saca apparently views 
electoral intervention by the United States 
government as not only acceptable, but welcomed. 
In a November 2007 press conference with 
President Bush, Saca stated that the U.S. "can 
help out a lot in preventing citizen support for 
certain proposals in the upcoming elections."

Funes has denied any links to the Venezuelan 
government, and Chávez has scoffed at McConnell’s 
accusations.  The Venezuelan leader said the FMLN 
needed no extra financial support as it was a 
"solid" and "well-organized" party with popular 
backing. Chávez described the “gringo” 
allegations as just another U.S. attempt to 
discredit him and cause divisions in the 
region.  "It's a lie,” Chávez said.  “We don’t 
need to do that, and they don’t need it.”

History Repeating Itself

It’s not the first time that Bush and the 
Salvadoran right have played the Chávez card.

During the 2004 presidential election in El 
Salvador, the Bush administration was nervous the 
left might win as Schafik Handal, the FMLN 
candidate, opposed the Central American Free 
Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and was threatening to 
withdraw El Salvador's troops from Iraq.  As 
payback for U.S. support for the 
counter-insurgency war of the 1980s, ARENA sent 
381 soldiers to Iraq in the early stages of the 
war.  Salvadoran troops generally refrained from 
front-line fighting and were instead delegated to 
humanitarian and reconstruction efforts.

In March, 2003 Special White House Assistant Otto 
Reich, an implacable Chávez foe who met with 
Dictator-For-a-Day Pedro Carmona in the run-up to 
the 2002 coup in Venezuela, declared that the 
United States would reevaluate its relationship 
with "an El Salvador led by a person who is an 
admirer of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez."  The 
red-baiting tactics instilled fear in the 
Salvadoran electorate, which no doubt worried 
about a return to combative relations with the 
United States.  Handal went down to crushing 
defeat, winning just 38% of the vote to ARENA candidate Saca’s 58%.

Entrenched Trade Relationship

With a more charismatic, media-savvy candidate at 
the helm, 2009 could be different for the 
FMLN.  But if Funes were to actually win, what 
might be the future of Salvadoran-U.S. relations?

The FMLN leader would find it difficult, if not 
impossible, to take an antagonistic position 
towards the United States.  The young politician 
would enter office with El Salvador’s trade 
relations with the United States already well 
established: in 2006 the two countries signed a 
free trade agreement providing El Salvador with 
preferential access to U.S. markets.

El Salvador exports everything from textiles to 
apparel to shoes and processed foods to the 
United States, and Funes certainly wouldn’t want 
to jeopardize such a vital trade relationship. 
Indeed, right now the U.S. is El Salvador’s most 
important market, purchasing 57.1% of the Central 
American nation’s goods.  El Salvador in turn 
receives more than 40% of its imports from the U.S.

The Iraq-El Salvador Connection

Nevertheless, Funes may take some punitive 
measures against Washington.  He has stated for 
example that one of his first decisions as 
President would be to withdraw Salvadoran troops 
from Iraq.  ARENA is now paying a high political 
price for its loyalty to Washington: polls have 
shown that a majority of the Salvadoran people 
oppose their country’s troop presence in the Middle East.

While other Central American countries such as 
Nicaragua and Honduras have long since withdrawn 
their forces, El Salvador is holding firm and is 
currently the only Latin American country with 
forces still deployed in Iraq.  ARENA’s position 
is that Salvadoran forces will continue their 
service in Iraq until they “finish what [they have] started.”

Were the Salvadoran troops to leave, such a 
development would prove insignificant from a 
military point of view.  However, Funes would 
succeed in making a symbolic and political point: 
that El Salvador is no longer Washington’s lackey in Central America.

Chávez and FMLN: Furthering Ties through Oil

In another worrying development for Washington, 
Funes has said that he would seek friendly ties 
to Venezuela.  For the two Latin American 
nations, oil might prove to be highly 
instrumental in solidifying ties.  Recently, 
Chávez has undertaken an alliance with Sandinista 
leader Daniel Ortega by agreeing to supply the 
Central American nation with discounted oil.  El 
Salvador is not an oil producer and a Funes 
administration would no doubt welcome any 
Venezuelan assistance to meet its energy needs.

Indeed, the FMLN has been steadily building up 
its relationship with the Chávez government over 
the last several years.  At the local level FMLN 
mayors set up ENEPASA, a joint venture energy 
company which signed an energy deal with 
Venezuela in 2006.   The initiative is designed 
to provide less expensive fuel to El Salvador’s drivers.

Clearly there was more to the deal than just providing cheap gas.

  The FMLN seeks to rebuff ARENA President Saca 
and his neo-liberal economic approach by laying 
the groundwork for closer integration through 
ALBA, the Bolivarian Alternative to the 
Americas.  The plan, initiated by Chávez several 
years ago, seeks to counteract the corporately 
driven U.S. Free Trade Area of the Americas and 
promote barter trade and solidarity amongst left 
wing Latin American countries.

When FMLN mayors signed the agreement in Caracas, 
Chávez suggested that money the Salvadoran 
municipalities saved on energy could be used to 
subsidize public transport and food prices. Under 
the terms of the agreement, cities pay 60% of 
their fuel bill within 90 days.  The rest may be 
paid in barter for agricultural and other locally 
made products or in cash over a 25-year period.

Chávez used the moment to criticize U.S. trade 
deals like the Central America Free Trade 
Agreement (CAFTA).  "They're making deals with 
the devil, the devil himself," Chávez said, in 
one of his typical rhetorical flourishes.

Over the past two years, Venezuela has exported 
thousands of barrels of diesel to El Salvador 
under the new deal.  The oil is sold by gas 
stations bearing a special non-corporate, “white flag” emblem.

The Legacy of Neo-Liberalism: Organized Crime and Maquiladoras

There is little doubt that under a Funes 
administration, much of the energy integration 
with Venezuela would continue.  But how likely is 
a Pink Tide sweep in Central America in the first 
place and a decisive FMLN win in 2009?

Judging from recent political trends, ARENA’s 
political monopoly is jeopardized.  The 
Salvadoran people are tired of the right’s 
relentless charge towards neo-liberal policies 
including privatization and shredding of labor 
protections for public sector workers.  In 
particular, ARENA’s recent attempt to privatize 
the health care system proved deeply unpopular 
and was beaten back by the likes of doctors and nurses supported by the FMLN.

Poverty is soaring and organized crime has 
reached epidemic proportions in the country.  In 
response, the police and military have allegedly 
organized vigilante groups that orchestrate 
“social cleansing” of criminals.  In a move to 
further emulate the Republican Party in the U.S., 
ARENA instituted draconian anti-terror 
legislation based on the USA Patriot Act in 
2006.  ARENA uses the anti-terror legislation to 
pick up and jail political activists who protest 
unpopular government moves such as the privatization of water resources.

  The agricultural sector meanwhile has been 
flooded by cheap goods from the U.S. and hasn’t 
been able to compete; in desperation cooperative 
farmers have been selling off the land and 
sending their children to the U.S. to look for 
work.  Remittances from Salvadorans working in 
the United States are an important source of 
income for many families and total almost $4 
billion a year. According to the United Nations 
Development Agency, an estimated 22.3% of families receive such remittances.

For those who don’t receive money from their 
loved ones abroad in the U.S., one of the few 
options left is to seek work in the maquiladora 
sweat shops.  These dismal sewing factories 
employ hundreds of thousands of workers and pay 
laborers a scant 80 cents an hour.  Employees 
have been exposed to horrible conditions such as 
unhealthy air and water, large amounts of forced 
overtime and frequent dismissals for those who 
get the wrong idea and support labor unions.

The Road to 2009

Because of ARENA’s pursuit of such unpopular 
policies, the stage seems set for a big left win in March.

What might we expect from a Funes 
administration?  Though Funes has distanced 
himself somewhat from the party rank and file, 
there is a great ideological affinity between 
Venezuela and the FMLN.  Funes would probably 
seek to put a break on the neo-liberal policies 
of the past, and has said that he supports the 
notion of government-funded social programs like 
those backed by Chávez and his allies.

"Up until now, I haven't been the hunter being 
hunted," political novice Funes has said. "But if 
I myself say that public figures need to be 
scrutinized, how can I reject that same scrutiny?"

Expect more than mere scrutiny in the following months.

Having fought for twelve long years to defeat the 
FMLN militarily, Washington is not about to give 
up now.  Count on ARENA and its U.S. patrons in 
the White House to launch an all out red-baiting 
assault to prevent the FMLN from coming to power 
through the ballot box and thereby halting the 
further spread of the Pink Tide which is sweeping through Central America.

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of 
Chávez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the 
U.S. (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), and 
South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2008).

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