El Salvador’s New Left

Once a guerrilla movement, the FMLN has swapped revolutionary rhetoric for pragmatic politics.

Jacob Wheeler

FMLN party faithful celebrate the late Jorge Schafik Handal's 78th birthday in Parque Cuscatlán on Oct. 12.

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.

Neolib­er­al catastrophe

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.

Mod­ern cap­i­tal­ism or road to socialism?

The incum­bent ARE­NA par­ty has filled the air­waves, the dai­ly news­pa­pers and the sym­pa­thet­ic ears with­in the Bush admin­is­tra­tion with rhetoric that an FMLN pres­i­den­tial vic­to­ry would be akin to a com­mu­nist takeover of El Sal­vador – or worse. 

On Sept. 18, at the Amer­i­can Enter­prise Insti­tute – a con­ser­v­a­tive think tank in D.C. – Sal­vado­ran Min­is­ter of For­eign Affairs Marisol Argue­ta appealed to the U.S. gov­ern­ment to not let dan­ger­ous pop­ulists” win the upcom­ing election. 

El Salvador’s two nation­al­ly dis­trib­uted news­pa­pers, El Diario de Hoy and La Pren­sa Grafi­ca, have run almost dai­ly reports try­ing to link the FMLN to Chávez’s Venezue­lan oil mon­ey, the Colom­bian FARC rebels’ arms- and drug-run­ning activ­i­ties, Cuban dic­ta­tor Fidel Castro’s world­view, or Nicaraguan Pres­i­dent Daniel Ortega’s sup­pres­sion of democracy.

ARENA’s Saca has all but called Funes a pup­pet of the FMLN, telling CNN’s Span­ish-lan­guage net­work in Feb­ru­ary, 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.”

A for­eign non­govern­men­tal orga­ni­za­tion work­er told In These Times that a fright­ened, elder­ly peas­ant woman had recent­ly asked her if it was true that if el frente won, the elder­ly would be turned into soap.”

But is today’s FMLN tru­ly a Cold War-era throw­back? Would it over­turn cap­i­tal­ism, kick out for­eign cor­po­ra­tions, can­cel free-trade deals and expro­pri­ate land?

Hard­ly, says econ­o­mist Martinez.

If you read their gov­ern­ment plan, you’ll see that it’s a plan to mod­ern­ize cap­i­tal­ism in El Sal­vador,” she says. It’s an eco­nom­ic plan with bet­ter oppor­tu­ni­ties to dis­trib­ute wealth and social ser­vices among the pop­u­la­tion, and [it] insists on com­bat­ing pover­ty and guar­an­tee­ing food secu­ri­ty for sec­tors that have tra­di­tion­al­ly been exclud­ed from the polit­i­cal process. … What we’re see­ing is a return to pragmatism.”

The 96-page FMLN plan fea­tures a smil­ing young woman in a white dress on its cov­er. She is about to breast­feed her healthy baby. Behind her is the blue and white Sal­vado­ran flag. The red text on the cov­er, above the par­ty logo, reads: Nace la Esper­an­za, Viene el Cam­bio” (“The Hope is Born, the Change Arrives”).

In it, el frente pro­pos­es to stim­u­late the econ­o­my on local lev­els, such as by offer­ing micro-loans and cred­it and invest­ments for small- and medi­um-sized busi­ness­es, though it stops short of explain­ing which cor­po­ra­tions or mem­bers of the land-own­ing elite will pay more tax­es to foot the bill.

Includ­ed in the man­u­al are a two-page let­ter from Funes and a one-page let­ter from vice pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Sal­vador Sánchez Cerén, a mem­ber of the party’s old guard. Here­in lies doubt as to whether the par­ty has mod­ern­ized, after all.

Cerén, 65, was known as Coman­dante Leonel González dur­ing the war, and took the party’s reins after Han­dal died. He was a found­ing father of the Pop­u­lar Lib­er­a­tion Front, one of five oppo­si­tion groups that merged to form the FMLN in 1980

To for­mer FMLN mem­ber Julio Her­nan­dez, Cerén is proof that the par­ty is still liv­ing in the past.

This is a rare com­bi­na­tion in which you have Funes, a fresh, mod­ern fig­ure, but [the influ­ence on the par­ty of] Hugo Chávez is very vis­i­ble, espe­cial­ly his mon­ey,” Her­nan­dez says. The FMLN [must] open up the par­ty, but they’re not doing so.”

Her­nan­dez served in the guer­ril­la and reached the party’s upper ech­e­lons in 1992. He says he felt con­fi­dent that el frente was grow­ing more mod­er­ate – even as some of the rebels’ heroes, such as Joaquin Vil­lalo­bos, refused to par­tic­i­pate in the post-war FMLN. Her­nan­dez resigned in 2005 after the old guard insist­ed on run­ning Schafik Han­dal as its can­di­date – instead of a more prag­mat­ic choice, like Funes. FMLN was sub­se­quent­ly trounced by ARENA.

Her­nan­dez has since formed a new, left-of-cen­ter polit­i­cal par­ty called the Rev­o­lu­tion­ary Demo­c­ra­t­ic Front. He applauds FMLN’s deci­sion to run Funes this time around, but he says the par­ty is feed­ing the Sal­vado­ran peo­ple a mixed message.

The FMLN … gives Funes the title of pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, but that’s it,” Her­nan­dez says. All of the [con­gres­sion­al] can­di­dates are from the hard line, the lin­ea dura. The can­di­date fre­quent­ly says one thing, but the par­ty base says anoth­er. These aren’t mis­takes, but ways to show Funes who’s in charge.”

Change, poco a poco

The ubiq­ui­tous pho­tos of Gue­vara, and of Schafik Han­dal palling around with the three mae­stros of Latin Amer­i­can social­ism – Cas­tro, Chávez and Morales – still adorn the lob­by of the FMLN’s unpre­ten­tious head­quar­ters in San Sal­vador. The ceil­ing fan clanks more than it whirs, and the cof­fee inside the dis­penser has long since gone cold. The lit­tle mon­ey el frente does have for the cam­paign is cer­tain­ly not spent on office amenities.

When Sigfri­do Reyes enters the room dressed in a part­ly unbut­toned, check­ered shirt, it isn’t imme­di­ate­ly obvi­ous that he is the party’s chief of com­mu­ni­ca­tions and one of its most influ­en­tial members.

Called Joaquin dur­ing the war, Reyes, 48, has since earned a master’s degree in eco­nom­ic pol­i­cy at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty in New York. He attend­ed the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Nation­al Con­ven­tion in Den­ver in August and met with Pres­i­dent-elect Obama’s for­eign pol­i­cy advis­ers to help forge a rela­tion­ship between the FMLN and Democrats. 

All polit­i­cal move­ments, all social bod­ies, change,” Reyes says. For us, change isn’t bad. It’s a nat­ur­al state of adapt­ing. We don’t believe that the FMLN is a par­ty that rep­re­sents just the left in this soci­ety, but that it’s oblig­at­ed to rep­re­sent oth­er sec­tors. We don’t just rep­re­sent the work­ers, but also the nation­al busi­ness­es that take the risk of invest­ing in our coun­try.” The FMLN, he says, is not a mono­lith­ic body.”

CAF­TA is an exam­ple of a top­ic that some FMLN offi­cials have con­demned out­right on the cam­paign trail, yet Funes says he wouldn’t with­draw from the trade agree­ment as president.

Reyes con­cedes that, El Sal­vador was told that CAF­TA would cre­ate thou­sands of busi­ness­es, that it would cre­ate an inun­da­tion of for­eign invest­ment, a trans­fer of tech­nol­o­gy, and that the insti­tu­tions of jus­tice and labor would work bet­ter,” he says. The real­i­ty is that hasn’t happened.”

Hato Has­bun, one of Funes’ clos­est per­son­al advis­ers and his one­time soci­ol­o­gy pro­fes­sor, refus­es to sug­gest that the FMLN par­ty would make any rad­i­cal changes upon win­ning power.

We need to respect the inter­na­tion­al agree­ments that have been signed,” Has­burn says, but noth­ing is writ­ten in stone, and we’re not going to ide­ol­o­gize the dis­cus­sion. We’ll make deci­sions based on the cur­rent real­i­ty. We want to be a respon­si­ble gov­ern­ment, not a reac­tionary one.”

Unlike the late Schafik Han­dal and oth­er hard­lin­ers with­in el frente, Funes enjoys some sup­port with­in the Sal­vado­ran busi­ness com­mu­ni­ty. This sup­port includes a wealthy fra­ter­ni­ty of sup­port­ers with no ties to the FMLN, many of whom call them­selves ami­gos de Mauri­cio.”

One inter­est­ing thing about Funes is that there are clear­ly busi­ness sec­tors that are will­ing to live with him,” says Geoff Thale of the Wash­ing­ton Office on Latin Amer­i­ca, a coali­tion that pro­motes human rights, democ­ra­cy, and social and eco­nom­ic jus­tice in the region. Though they may not be enthu­si­as­tic, they’re unhap­py with the last 20 years of ARE­NA rule.”

Thale says he didn’t real­ize how much things had changed since the war until he recent­ly ran into a for­mer guer­ril­la com­man­der, whom he knew, at a hotel in San Sal­vador. When asked what he was up to, the for­mer com­man­der replied that he was off to a busi­ness meet­ing at the cham­ber of commerce.

Appeal­ing to the base

Where crit­ics see mixed mes­sages between Funes and the party’s hard­lin­ers, Mar­tinez sees mere­ly a dif­fer­ence in polit­i­cal approach.

El frente is a social demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty now, but a par­ty that claims it’s devel­op­ing toward a social­ist rev­o­lu­tion. They’re doing that for their base … peo­ple in rur­al areas who were com­bat­ants or fam­i­lies of ex-com­bat­ants. If el frente were to renounce their effort to build a social­ist soci­ety, they would lose a big chunk of what they con­sid­er their sol­i­dar­i­ty vote, their voto duro.”

On a Sun­day morn­ing in mid-Octo­ber, the voto duro was not hard to find. They often trav­el in a sea of red, singing songs and recit­ing poems about their fall­en coman­dantes. Back in Par­que Cus­catlán, a famil­iar song car­ried through the warm Cen­tral Amer­i­can air. At the oppo­site end of the park, a well-dressed crowd was seat­ed under a white tent, lis­ten­ing to loud­speak­ers that crooned Frank Sinatra’s voice, and his ode to the city of world cap­i­tal­ism, New York, New York.”

El Sal­vador remains a coun­try liv­ing in the past and present – divid­ed by ide­o­log­i­cal lines, between left and right, and with many of the same faces from the civ­il war, shout­ing toward any­one who will listen. 

Whether Mauri­cio Funes will bridge that divide – or dis­ap­pear into it – remains an open question. 

This report­ing was made pos­si­ble by a grant from Communitas. 

Jacob Wheel­er is a con­tribut­ing edi­tor at In These Times.
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