Smear Campaign

Fear and suspicion in El Salvador

Paul Brohaugh

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San Salvador — The people of El Salvador will vote March 21 in the most polarized presidential election since the tiny Central American country’s 12-year civil war.

In 1992, the Salvadoran government signed peace accords with the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) that transformed the FMLN from a left-wing guerrilla movement into a legally recognized political party. The president who signed the Peace Accords and the two presidents in succession have belonged to the Republican Nationalist Alliance party (ARENA). This year’s election will be the first in which the FMLN has a real chance of capturing the required 50 percent of the vote.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Roger Noriega, has expressed concerns about an FMLN government. During a February 6 visit, Noriega canceled plans to meet with FMLN candidate Schafik Handal, referring to the history of this political movement,” which as a guerrilla force fought against U.S.-financed troops and death squads. Salvadorans should judge what type of relations this movement can maintain with us,” Noriega said.

ARENA candidate Tony Saca is 10 to 20 points ahead in the polls, yet the Salvadoran right still seeks to discredit the 73-year-old ex-guerrilla leader Handal. Major Salvadoran newspapers and television stations have published declarations against Handal. Right-wing foundations are taking out anti-FMLN advertisements that accuse Handal of kidnapping civilians during the armed conflict and warn that the communists” will destroy the country’s freedom and economic progress.

ARENA Congressman Guillermo Gallegos questions whether the FMLN has fulfilled its commitment to the 1992 Peace Accords. We don’t know if the guerrillas have turned in all their weapons,” he said. President Francisco Flores (ARENA) also suggested that the FMLN might be distributing firearms to youth gangs to generate violence on Election Day, a contention the FMLN rejects as absurd. Web journal El Faro recently reported that Flores, at a forum of Central American presidents, said the FMLN can’t win the election because a system of life” is at risk.

Salvadoran Human Rights Ombudswoman Beatrice de Carrillo said the right-leaning upper class is promoting a campaign of fear against the monster of communism.” 

If the FMLN wins the elections, it will be the first time in Latin America that a former guerrilla movement gains a presidency via democratic elections,” she said. She also expressed doubt that the United States would allow this to happen.

In late February the FMLN requested that the United Nations verify results of the elections. According to FMLN coordinator Salvador Sanchez Cerén, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) has not responded to the party’s multiple denunciations of campaign violations. The TSE supervises elections and is swamped with charges of electoral violence and dirty campaigning from both parties. Hundreds of independent international observers will be accredited by the TSE to monitor the elections and many already are meeting with local electoral committees, political parties and social groups.

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Paul Brohaugh is an election observer in El Salvador, where he lived from 1999 to 2002.
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