“Si, nosotros podemos” –
Change Comes to El Salvador
March 15th, change came to El Salvador as Mauricio Funes,
a well known television talk show host, was elected President with
51.3% of the vote. Funes was the candidate of the FMLN political
The Farabundo Martí
National Liberation Front (FMLN) was created in 1980 as the umbrella
organization uniting five rebel factions. El Salvador’s horrific
civil war lasted twelve years (1980-92), with the FMLN emerging as
the country’s second-largest political party after the signing of
the peace accords.
The losing party
ARENA had held power for twenty years. The conservative party’s
candidate, Rodrigo Avila, had been head of the National Police.
ARENA was created in 1981 by military officers and a few members of
the economic oligarchy. Major Roberto D’Aubuisson was the person who
led the effort to create ARENA. At the time, he was running the
army’s intelligence war. According to declassified US documents,
Major D’Aubuisson gave the orders for Salvadoran police intelligence
agents to assassinate Archbishop Oscar Romero.
With memories of the
civil war still alive in the Salvadoran people, one could expect the
campaigns to be negative, especially regarding television and radio
advertising. Studies showed that two-thirds of the negative ads
were aired by ARENA. The theme was predictable. A FMLN victory
would mean El Salvador would be under the influence and control of
Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez. Forty-six Republican U.S. Congressmen and
women signed a letter stating that a FMLN victory would necessitate
a change in US foreign policy towards El Salvador since “Chavez and
Venezuela are tied to Iran, a terrorist nation”. Other ads linked
Funes to the Castro brothers and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega.
Funes’ campaign was a
replica of Obama’s. The theme was not simply change but responsible
change. The FMLN’s candidate constantly referred to Brazil’s
President Lula da Silva as his role model.
In reality the two
parties’ political platforms were very moderate. ARENA, recognizing
recent elections of leftist presidents throughout Latin America,
wrote a party platform very different from past elections. The
economic oligarchy recognized that ARENA would lose big unless it
could convince undecided and poor voters that it cared about their
The ARENA Platform
Poverty was the first
priority in ARENA’s platform. The first order of business would be
to design a program for the alleviation of poverty in the country’s
poorest 100 rural communities and 80 poorest urban marginalized
barrios. The core of this effort to alleviate “extreme” rural
poverty (families living on less than $2 a day) consisted of a
A direct transfer of funds
to use for education and pre-natal care.
Funding for municipal
infrastructure (water, electricity and roads).
Extending credit for
agriculture and the service sector.
The program for the
urban poor consisted of:
A $4,000 housing subsidy
enabling families below the minimum level of poverty, living in
multi-material homes to construct a new home with a concrete floor,
wood walls and a corrugated tin roof. The homes would have
electricity and propane gas.
Funding for sports
Funding for community
development to combat delinquency and strengthen security.
alleviation program also had an international aspect designed to
grow the economy. This entailed:
Public investment in
ports, airports, irrigation systems and major highways.
Improvement of conditions
for private foreign direct investment.
fertilizer, grain and technical training to the agricultural sector.
Increase credit for small
and medium sized businesses and industries (SMEs). The goal was to
grow the export sectors.
The second major
issue for ARENA was public security. In this area the platform
called for restructuring the judicial system, the Attorney General’s
office, the office of the Ombudsman, and introducing updated
technology for the police in forensics. With El Salvador having a
serious gang problem, ARENA called for strengthening the family,
strengthening the presence of churches in neighborhoods and
institutionalizing regional cooperation to combat drug trafficking.
ARENA has approved free high school and proposed that this become a
constitutional guarantee. Universal pre-school education (ages 4-6)
was proposed. According to ARENA the educational curriculum needs to
better reflect the Salvadoran reality. This would mean a greater
emphasis on vocational education in high school and university and
the strengthening of university level engineering and computer
In the area of health
care, ARENA called for creating hospital centers throughout the
country, with specific health programs for women and children.
ARENA’s platform in
foreign policy proposed signing a free trade agreement with the
European Union, strengthening ties with Taiwan while expanding trade
with mainland China, assuring the political rights of Salvadorans
living in foreign countries and passing migratory reform measures.
The FMLN Platform
In June 2007, the
FMLN initiated a grassroots process of consultation with communities
and party members to dialogue about prioritizing issues for the
party’s platform in the presidential election. The methodology was
rooted in the pedagogy of the Brazilian educator Paulo Freire. The
FMLN platform was finalized in December 2008.
For the FMLN, extreme
poverty is the greatest national concern. The FMLN differed from
ARENA by addressing the need for the poor to transcend the
psychological trauma of having lived in extreme poverty. For the
FMLN, economic growth is not synonymous with sustainable economic
development, a holistic approach to the problem of poverty. It is
the FMLN belief that developing human capital must precede the
development of productive capital.
The FMLN platform
emphasized the need for an immediate program for food and nutrition,
since many Salvadorans do not have a diet that meets minimum daily
calorie intake. Therefore, the FMLN called for subsidizing the
production of food for domestic consumption. There was also a call
for ending ARENA subsidies that benefit the wealthy more than the
poor, for example, the $203 million gas and electricity subsidy that
currently is benefiting the wealthy.
The FMLN called for
an integral healthcare plan that would provide all 14 Departments
(states) in the country with access to basic medical treatment.
Emphasis would be placed on health education to prevent common
illnesses with the focus on women and children. The FMLN platform
called for increasing spending on health care from 1.6% of GNP to 3%
of GNP by 2014. Related to a healthy citizenry the FMLN also called
for increasing spending on water and sewage infrastructure from 0.3%
of GNP to 1.5% by 2014. Education and a healthy population are also
related. Currently, El Salvador spends 2.7% of its GNP on education,
while the average for developed countries is 6%. The FMLN recognizes
that more must be allocated to education but the 6% of GNP figure
will not be achieved in five years.
Job creation would be
focused on youth entering the workforce. The FMLN platform
recognizes that there are few jobs for high school and university
graduates with 63% of youth unemployed or underemployed. Gangs
succeed in recruiting members from the pool of disenchanted youth.
Therefore, the FMLN proposed subsidizing the salary of a youth for
one year when employed by a business or industry.
The issue of crime is
more complex for the FMLN. The party platform refers to three types
of crime: street crime, organized syndicates and white collar
crime. An example of the latter given by the FMLN is the accusation
that $262 million disappeared from the national public water
system. The FMLN position is that any policy on criminal behavior
ought to be as tough on white collar crime and public corruption as
on gangs and organized syndicates. Increased cooperation with the US
on transnational criminal activity is supported by the FMLN.
Organized crime poses a threat to El Salvador’s sovereignty in the
eyes of the Party.
policy, the FMLN, referring to the fact that El Salvador sent troops
to Iraq, called for a non-ideologically aligned foreign policy. The
FMLN does want to have the country’s military participate in UN
sponsored peace operations. The program also calls for Central
American economic integration. The FMLN wants the Central American
nations united so they can negotiate a new relationship with the
United States. For example, prescription medication is currently
more expensive in El Salvador than in the United States. The hope is
that if Central America spoke with one voice, the region could
negotiate better prices.
Alfonso Goitia, an
economics professor at the Jesuit University of Central America (UCA)
presents a stark analysis of the Salvadoran reality. The most
optimistic projection for El Salvador’s economic growth in 2009 is
1%. Recently, 30,000 jobs were lost when maquiladoras were closed.
More job loss in this sector is projected for this year. Regarding
remittances, there was a significant drop in the last five months of
2008 compared to 2007. Normally remittances, which sent $3.57
billion to El Salvador in 2007, grow 7-8% annually. In 2008, the
growth rate was 2.5 %. It is expected to be zero growth in 2009.
Approximately 22% of El Salvador’s families receive remittances
which have an impact on stability, lifting families out of poverty
and preventing massive social unrest.
Goitia’s critique of
a reliance on remittances is that it is not a sustainable way to
grow an economy. Remittances are not equivalent to sustainable human
development. They create an unhealthy and unstable dependency!
currency is now the U.S. dollar. Dollarization in the midst of a
global economic meltdown presents challenges for the country. The
Government was placed in an economic reality where it had to apply
for IMF loans. However, having dollarized the economy means El
Salvador has no central bank or Federal Reserve equivalent.
Therefore, the government has no ability to design a national
monetary policy in a time of crisis. While the government applied
for IMF loans, the money was given to the large transnational banks,
especially Citigroup and Scotia Bank. Thus, transnational banks
determine what they will do with the loan money and the types of
loans to be approved. As Goitia pointed out, if the US government
takes control of Citigroup, the US will be making decisions that
limit the ability of the Salvadoran government to design policy
deemed to be in the best interests of the country. This means that
President-elect Funes will assume the office with one arm tied
behind his back. While Funes would prioritize loans to agriculture
and small-medium sized enterprises, the transnationals might not
approve of this strategy.
The last two years
have been devastating to Salvadorans due to the food and oil crisis.
According to a UN study the food crisis led to 104,000 families
entering extreme poverty in El Salvador. Poor families are currently
spending 13% less in food than two years ago. In a modest grocery
store in San Pedro Perulapan, a poor town, a gallon of milk cost
$4.05, three litres of cooking oil $12.85, 30 eggs $3.57, a loaf of
bread $2.17 and a pound of cheap coffee $2.04. Twelve rolls of
toilet paper cost $6.05.
In El Salvador the income needed to provide a family with a lower
middle class lifestyle is $800 a month. In San Pedro Perulapan the
average family income is $190. In remote rural areas families often
live on less than $60 a month.
A recent poll of
youth 16-18 years of age showed that over 60% say their goal is to
migrate to the U.S. They see no future in El Salvador. Studies have
found over 500 persons leaving El Salvador daily! Economist Goitia
stated that more Salvadorans have left for the US since the war
ended than during the war. ARENA, he states, has had a two decade
economic policy of exporting labor rather than building a
sustainable economy. It was a policy designed to export the
many problems beginning with a breakdown of the family making
children more susceptible to gangs. The strongest and most violent
gang is Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13. It began in a Salvadoran barrio
in Los Angeles in the late 1980s. With a deportation program in
which the U.S. returned gang members to El Salvador, MS-13 grew to
become a transnational organization. The FBI states that MS-13 now
operates in 42 states in the United States.
Another way ARENA has
held down social unrest is to ignore the informal sector of the
economy. This sector accounts for 52% of the economy. Businesses in
the informal sector do not pay taxes nor do those working in the
informal sector pay into the social security and pension fund. In
retirement, those who have paid into the fund receive just under
$100 a month.
My first trip to El
Salvador was in January 1986, in the midst of the civil war. I
returned every year until the Peace Accords were signed. The trip to
be an election observer for the March 15th presidential
election was my eleventh to this country named after the Savior.
I admit to being
emotionally tied to El Salvador. On the first trip our group of
seven was abruptly ushered out of the US Embassy for questioning the
woman responsible for writing the human rights report for the US
State Department. The human rights officer stated that she got her
statistics on human rights violations by reading Salvadoran
newspapers because of the war. Our questions became more specific
and the young Foreign Service Officer was not handling them well, so
her supervisor, who had been listening to our discussion from
another room, suddenly came into our room and escorted us out of the
In 1988 I interviewed
Fr. Ellacuria, the Jesuit priest who was president of the University
of Central America. He stated the five most powerful
groups/institutions in the country were:
1) The US
Fr. Ellacuria said
the critical issue was how to have numbers 1 and 5 exchange places.
Unfortunately, I had
other bad experiences at the US Embassy. On one occasion the
Director of Public Affairs answered a question about the El Mozote
massacre by saying Embassy personnel were not convinced a massacre
had occurred, that it was a very remote area difficult to access.
Plus, he said, “There is a war out there”. I replied that it was
hard to access since it had taken our group one whole day to reach
El Mozote, but we were able to interview the lone survivor. And yes,
I stated, “There is still fighting in the area”.
The summer after the
six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and daughter were assassinated
(December 16, 1989) this same Foreign Service Officer stated that
this was an “unfortunate incident”, not planned, but a result of the
intense pressure one man was under – Col. Benavides. To say this was
not planned was, to put it politely, insulting.
In the summers of
1988 and 1989, I interviewed Herbert Ernesto Anaya, the Director of
CDHES, a human rights NGO. As a student of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin
Luther King, Jr., he advocated nonviolent resistance to the military
and government. Anaya was assassinated on October 16, 1987. He had
just dropped off his two children at school. I remember asking him
why, since had received death threats, he did not take his family to
Canada where he would receive political asylum. I said “what will
your children be left with if you are assassinated?” He responded,
I was also fortunate
to be in El Salvador in July 1991 when U.S. Representative Joseph
Moakley, on the University of Central America (UCA) campus, read his
findings on the murder of the Jesuits. It was a packed room. On the
front row was U.S. Ambassador Walker, the President of El Salvador
and Rene Emilio Ponce, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Moakley gave a courageous talk, naming Gen. Ponce among others for
creating a military responsible for institutionalizing violence.
Jesuit Fr. Jon Sobrino gave a moving response to Moakley’s
I could go on with
stories too numerous to mention, but this is the background for my
happiness when Funes and the FMLN won the election. I believe the
FMLN victory is good for El Salvador. It strengthens the transition
to democracy. When Funes takes the oath of office it will mark the
first meaningful peaceful transition of political power in El
Salvador’s history. If the FMLN victory was psychologically healing
for me, I can’t begin to imagine the depth of feelings of
Salvadorans who voted for the party.
Funes will have to
work with a legislative assembly controlled by a coalition led by
ARENA. Although the FMLN party won 35 seats in the January
legislative elections, it lacks a majority in the 84 seat assembly.
A two-thirds vote is needed on major legislation so much of Funes’
success will depend on whether ARENA chooses to cooperate on key
legislation or tries to block Funes at every turn. The FMLN will
constantly try to convince one or more of ARENA’s coalition partners
to split and join with it. There is nothing radical in the FMLN
program but it does promote policies giving a preferential option to
On our way to the
airport to leave El Salvador we stopped to have breakfast tamales in
the home of Maria Julia, whose son was the godson of our group
leader, Ann Butwell. Maria and her family had moved to San Salvador
after the devastating earthquake in the 1980s destroyed her village.
She and others from her community squatted on unused land and have
lived there ever since. The home had a tin roof, cement floor and
three rooms. Her youngest son, Arsenio, is a university student
studying to become a teacher and school administrator. Her daughter
died in her late twenties leaving a daughter to be raised by Maria
Julia. Ann told us Maria Julia had gone back to school and had just
passed exams for the 9th grade. Maria Julia said “I did
this so I can help my grandchildren with their homework”. There was
no “victim” message from her. Maria Julia was full of hope for the
future and gave thanks to God for all her blessings. She was
excited the FMLN won the presidency. I asked if she had a specific
hope for the Funes presidency. She replied “I have one. I want
Funes to give me and other families in our community (23 families in
all) title to the land our house is on. ARENA presidents would never
do this”. If Funes were to do nothing else than give Maria Julia
title to the land under her house, I would mark his presidency a
El Salvador has
serious economic and social problems and they will worsen in 2009,
but in the midst of all the suffering I continue to meet persons of
hope. Therefore, I must also be a person of hope. The summer after
the murder of the Jesuits, their housekeeper and daughter, I asked
Fr. Jon Sobrino, who lived in community with those assassinated, how
I could be in solidarity with Salvadorans when I returned to the
United States. He looked me in the eyes and said in a gentle voice
“you teach at a Catholic University. When you go to commencement and
watch students you have taught receive their diplomas, ask yourself
if those students are going to be part of the problem or part of the
solution. If they are going to be part of the problem, you need to
re-evaluate what it is you are teaching and whether students see you
as part of the problem or as part of the solution”. Throughout El
Salvador’s history as a nation the United States has been part of
that country’s problems. If the U.S. is to now become part of the
solution I must accept my responsibility to work to make this a
reality. Si, nosotros podemos.
Larry Hufford, PhD is a professor of International Relations
at St. Mary’s University, San Antonio, Texas. He was an
official election observer for the March 15 Presidential
Election in El Salvador.