Features » December 10, 2008
El Salvadors New Left
Once a guerrilla movement, the FMLN has swapped revolutionary rhetoric for pragmatic politics.
Ex-combatant communities: the FMLN’s voto duro
One voting bloc that doesn't want El Salvador's FMLN party to become political pragmatists is the ex-combatant community that spent much of the war in exile.
This group—the party's base—is known as the "voto duro" (or hard vote), and they received appropriated land from the government after the 1992 peace accords. For its members, a victory by the FMLN would help heal wounds inflicted by government repression, burned villages, and murdered family members. It would also mandate a path toward socialism.
The community of Ciudad Romero—in the Bajo Lempa region of Usulután province, where the Rio Lempa empties into the Pacific Ocean—was born from the war's ashes. It was named after El Salvador's martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was murdered by a military assassin on March 24, 1980, for condemning the government's repression of the peasantry.
"Romero denounced everything we wanted to denounce but couldn't," says José Nohé Reyes Granados, 30, who is writing a book about his community's journey. "He was the voice for those without a voice. ... When they killed him, we realized that talking was futile. They killed the archbishop ... who could speak now? The only path was armed resistance."
Two months later, the military attacked the village where Reyes and his family lived in La Union—a province in eastern El Salvador—because many in the community were suspected of being active in the guerrilla movement. Some 600 villagers fled across the Lempa River to neighboring Honduras—under the cover of night because an equally repressive Honduran military was guarding the border.
The Organization of American States learned of the refugees' plight and gave them food and shelter for six months in Honduras, until the Panamanian government agreed to shelter them—under the condition that the Salvadorans would help clear roads through the thick jungle, from Panama City to the Atlantic Ocean.
But when Panama's leftist President Omar Torrijos was assassinated a year later, the Salvadorans found themselves politically isolated. They built a village deep in the jungle that they named Ciudad Romero, or Romero City. There, community members built homes and a church, in which they painted a mural of their beloved archbishop. They were able to pick up a radio signal from the FMLN rebels, which allowed them to follow events back home, as they lived in exile for a decade.
In November 1989, the FMLN launched a successful offensive in both San Salvador and in the countryside, proving to the military regime that it had the popular support to continue its resistance indefinitely. The offensive, coupled with the military's massacre of six Jesuit priests at the University of Central America, forced the government to negotiate with the FMLN.
The refugees took down the church wall, piece-by-piece, and returned to El Salvador with the mural in tow. The government granted land in Bajo Lempa to the approximately 220 families that represented Ciudad Romero, and there they arrived in March 1991 to build another community from scratch.
Approximately 1,000 people live today in Ciudad Romero, which operates under the umbrella of the Associacion Mangle, a nonprofit rural development organization that works with 70 communities to facilitate public projects, such as building homes or protecting the nearby endangered mangrove forests. The association also operates Radio Mangle, a radio station in nearby San Nicolas that broadcasts music, news and cultural programming.
Other communities in the Associacion Mangle share similarly dramatic war stories. The residents of San Hilario and Amando Lopez were originally from Morazán and La Union, provinces in eastern El Salvador where the guerrilla was based, because of their remoteness and access to the Honduran and Nicaraguan borders. Most joined the rebels or were active in the resistance. Like Ciudad Romero, many had to leave the country when the military arrived in their villages.
San Hilario resident Arnoldo Ortiz, who joined the guerrilla at age 14 in 1980, never thought he'd survive the war—and see the other side. "The transition from armed conflict to peace has been difficult because I grew up with the war," he says. "We arrived from a process where we didn't know much about civilian life. We had no idea about houses, land or economics.
"What we learned during the war was to live together like brothers. As combatants, we shared everything to survive... whether it was a tortilla, a cookie or a cigar."
Mariela Luciña Hernandez, 45, of Amando Lopez—a community named after one of the Jesuit priests the military murdered in 1989—was a doctor with the rebels. The military captured and tortured her in 1981, and she later escaped to Nicaragua.
Today, Hernandez directs an association of community women and works with war veterans. She says the most important thing she and her compañeros learned during that time is how to organize and work together.
"We work to organize on a local level for the party, to advance the cause through the community, through Radio Mangle," she says. "If we can plant corn, and harvest all the seeds we plant, the FMLN can buy them and feed the people. The country has to change, bit by bit."
In a striking turn of the political tide, Ciudad Romero's neighbors in Nuevo Amanecer now join them in wearing the red shirts of the FMLN. The military granted land to ex-soldiers, who named their community Nuevo Amanecer ("a new dawn"), and they have remained faithful to the ARENA-government, until little by little, Reyes says, they realized that ARENA was doing little to help their community. For 20 years, they've struggled with limited water access and agricultural projects.
Enemies during the war, Ciudad Romero and Nuevo Amanecer are now allies, and they represent the base of the FMLN.
SAN SALVADOR–Red banners, olive fatigues and Soviet-style marching music filled Parque Cuscatlán on Oct. 12, as hundreds of loyal members of El Salvador’s Faribundo Marti National Liberation (FMLN) party celebrated in the nation’s capital.
They were there on what would have been the 78th birthday of Jorge Schafik Handal, one of their movement’s founding fathers and the 2004 FMLN presidential candidate, who died two years ago.
Speakers drew applause upon mentioning the names of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, Bolivian President Evo Morales and late Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara. Teenage children of former rebels performed a play about the dangers of forgetting the massacres that the Salvadoran military perpetrated during the country’s bloody, 12-year civil war, which ended in 1992. A speech by Schafik Handal’s wife, Tanya, brought tears of nostalgia to many in the crowd. She concluded by placing a red rose at the base of the park’s Memory and Truth wall, which is inscribed with the names of roughly 35,000 civilians killed during the war.
Perhaps the showstopper was Alberto Lima, 14, who took the stage and, in a squeaky adolescent voice, threatened the demise of capitalists everywhere. He later picked a stick off the ground and cradled it like a machine gun.
Based on these scenes, one could be forgiven for thinking that Latin America’s Cold War-era conflicts were about to rage again. But a curious change is blowing through the FMLN party, dusting off the old guard or, perhaps, sweeping them into the dustbin of history.
A pragmatic approach
El Salvador will hold parliamentary elections in January and presidential elections in March, and el frente (or “the front”) – as the FMLN party is commonly called here – is poised to win the presidency for the first time since five rebel groups founded the party in 1980.
FMLN presidential candidate, Mauricio Funes, 49, only recently joined the party. He is well known in El Salvador as a political journalist and television host. Funes’ long-running morning show was one of the few national programs that consistently criticized the right-wing government of the Nationalist Republican Alliance party (ARENA), which has held power in El Salvador since 1988.
Key military players formed ARENA during the civil war, led by Maj. Roberto D’Aubuisson, a death-squad leader accused of masterminding the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980.
As of mid-October, Rodrigo Avila, ARENA’s presidential candidate and the director of the National Civilian Police, trailed Funes by 15 percentage points, according to a national poll by the San Salvador-based University of Central America.
Unlike the FMLN’s old guard and Schafik Handal, who lost the 2004 election in a landslide to current president, Antonio Saca, Funes doesn’t preach the rhetoric of communist revolution.
At official events in the capital, Funes wears a suit and tie. On the campaign trail, he typically sports a white guayabera shirt – instead of clothing with the red banner and white star that adorns the FMLN flag, as previous party candidates have done.
Funes’ rhetoric and policies are far more social democratic than socialist. He often emphasizes his friendships with left-of-center heads of state, such as Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula de Silva, Argentina’s Cristina Kirchner and Spain’s José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. He has made several trips to the United States to meet with Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs Thomas Shannon, Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.), and others.
Most importantly for his image as a pragmatist, Funes never fought in the civil war.
If el frente wins the presidency in March, it will inherit a desperate country.
In the 20 years of ARENA rule, El Salvador has suffered from neoliberal economic reforms that privatized social services and destroyed jobs, primarily in the agriculture sector. Paul D. Almeida, a professor of business at Georgetown University, writes in his 2006 book, Waves of Protest: Popular Struggle in El Salvador, 1925-2005, that the post-war generation of Salvadoran dissidents has fought not for land or to overthrow the government, but to oppose the privatization of key human needs like healthcare, education and water access. In return for the hundreds of millions of dollars the United States sent to the Salvadoran government during the war, Washington insisted on planting the seeds to liberalize the post-war economy.
The repression has continued. In July 2007, the Salvadoran police arrested 14 rural activists in the town of Suchitoto, who were protesting water privatization. They were tried under the government’s “Special Law Against Acts of Terrorism,” which was modeled after the U.S. Patriot Act.
Julia Evelyn Martinez, a progressive economist at the University of Central America, says that the privatization of social services, El Salvador’s adoption of the U.S. dollar in 2001, and free-trade agreements – such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) – have placed the country at the mercy of foreign corporations and made it too dependent on imports.
Remittances from Salvadorans living in the United States – which represent an astounding 20 percent of the country’s gross domestic product – are keeping the economy afloat, and as many as one-third of all Salvadorans live abroad.
Meanwhile, food and fuel prices have skyrocketed in El Salvador. A can of beans that cost 30 cents a couple years ago now sells for over $1. Gasoline prices topped $5 a gallon in mid-October. Those staple products cost more in El Salvador than they do in parts of the United States. An estimated 100,000 Salvadorans – approximately one out of every 60 – fell below the poverty line between September 2007 and June 2008, according to the World Food Program.
Martinez says the first thing the new government must do is to tear down all the neoliberal policies that were implemented in El Salvador since 1989. She suggests the new president and parliament put their focus on developing markets within the country: “That would stimulate businesses to produce for internal markets, and not just for certain groups of the population,” Martinez says. “Instead, all the opportunities for development are directed outside of the country, in the form of remittances, maquiladoras [that export cheap clothing] or the need for foreign investments.”
The U.N. Development Program reported recently that 62.4 percent of Salvadoran youth are underemployed – lacking work sufficient to sustain a dignified life – compared to half of the general population.
The lack of sustainable markets within El Salvador leaves many youth with two options: Scrounge up $9,000 – reportedly the going rate for a coyote to traffic a person into the United States – or join a gang.
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Jacob Wheeler is a contributing editor at In These Times.
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