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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.

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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. 

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Jacob Wheeler is a contributing editor at In These Times.
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