Street mobilisations secure FMLN electoral victory

By Nick Everett, in San Salvador

As voting centres across El Salvador closed at 5 pm on March 15, the streets around the San Salvador headquarters of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) filled with supporters determined to defend and to celebrate the party’s first presidential election victory. Chants of “Sí, podemos!” (Yes, we could! — borrowed from Barack Obama’s presidential campaign) and “El pueblo unido jamas sera vencido!” (The people united will never be defeated!) resounded throughout the city centre. Young people, wearing FMLN T-shirts and waving red flags, chanted enthusiastically “Hugo! Hugo!” and “Evo! Evo”! — referring to the Venezuelan and Bolivian presidents who are much admired by many Salvadorans wanting to see their country join the leftward political tide that has swept Latin America in recent years.

Shortly after the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) issued its second bulletin, officially confirming the FMLN’s lead by 51.3% to 48.7% of the votes, the party’s presidential candidate, Mauricio Funes, made a televised address to the nation to declare victory. “This result says to the world that El Salvador is prepared for democratic alternation in power”, Funes said. “Tonight, Salvadorans have signed a new peace agreement.” He added: “I want to thank all who voted for me, all who defeated fear, all who chose the path of hope. Today the public who believed in hope and defeated fear have triumphed. This is a victory for all the Salvadoran people.”

Funes, a former CNN television anchor, was formally nominated as the FMLN’s presidential candidate in November 2007, alongside vice-presidential candidate Salvador Sanchez Ceren, a former FMLN guerrilla commander. In rejecting the ruling Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) candidate, former police chief Rodrigo Avila, Salvadorans indeed defeated fear. Since the FMLN’s formation — as an alliance of five left-wing guerrilla organisations in 1980 — it has faced severe repression from the Salvadoran state.

Between 1980 and 1992, the FMLN led a guerrilla insurgency by Salvador’s poor workers and small farmers against the country’s US-backed military-dominated regime. Some 75,000 Salvadorans — mostly civilians — were killed and 6000 were disappeared, largely at the hands of far-right death squads led by the late founder of ARENA, Major Roberto d’Aubuisson. While the 1992 peace accords between the ARENA government and the FMLN formally ended the civil war, and enabled the FMLN to function as a legally recognised party, the TSE and other institutions of the Salvadoran state have remained tightly controlled by ARENA officials.

Formed in 1982 by right-wing military officers, ARENA lost the 1984 presidential election to the centre-right Christian Democratic Party. But after cosmetically “moderating” its politics and gaining the support of major business groups, ARENA won the 1988 legislative elections and the1989 presidential election. It has headed every national government since then. However, in the January 18 legislative elections, the FMLN outpolled ARENA, by 42.6% to 38.5% of the total votes cast, gaining 35 seats in the 84-seat national parliament, to ARENA’s 32 seats.

Campaign violence

In the final week of this year’s presidential election campaign, Salvadorans received a reminder that those in power are still willing to resort to extralegal violence. The Cuban Prensa Latina news agency reported that two FMLN campaign workers were shot dead on their push bikes in San Salvador on the evening of March 11, in a death squad-style shooting. A similar incident took place just before the January 18 legislative and municipal elections, when two FMLN youth were also shot dead. While no one was found responsible for the January killings, the police claimed that these murders were not politically motivated, but simply a result of “criminal activity”.

On March 17, Blandino Nerio, FMLN mayor of the San Salvador municipality of Mejicanos, told a delegation from the US-based Committees in Solidarity with the Peoples of El Salvador (CISPES), that seven FMLN cadre were seriously injured as a result of the attacks from ARENA members in his municipality during the presidential campaign.

“The politics of fear strengthened our militants”, Nerio told the delegation. “Our comrades’ morale was never defeated. Every day 300 cadres went out into the streets to work. In the last 15 days of the campaign, ARENA was totally on the defensive. Our three municipalities [in San Salvador] will continue to be red”, said Nerio.

In the municipality of Mejicanos, all 277 voting booths for the presidential election were won by the FMLN. According to Nerio, the FMLN increased its vote in the Mejicanos municipality by 13,000 votes on the January 18 municipal election result, achieving 65.6 % of the valid votes. “In an electoral battle of this magnitude”, explained Nerio, “where the other side has all the media — not only because they can but it, but because they own them — our struggle is on the streets.”

“We needed to be in the street talking with people house-to-house, making political arguments”, Nerio explained. “Going out onto the street is our mechanism for letting the people know we are fighting. It has to do with the consciousness of the masses.”

According to Nerio, there were four ARENA television advertisements for every FMLN ad. ARENA’s campaign propaganda depicted Funes as wanting to surrender El Salvador’s national sovereignty to Venezuelan socialist President Hugo Chavez. Colombian government allegations of links between Chavez and Colombian FARC guerrillas — since proven to be false — also featured in ARENA electoral advertising. El Salvador’s largest circulation newspaper, El Diario de Hoy, campaigned daily for an ARENA victory, accusing Funes of being “the candidate of the party of kidnappers and criminals”.

The Salvadoran capitalist media also widely reported statements by US Republican congress members that remittances from Salvadoran-Americans to their relatives in El Salvador — which make up 19% of the country’s GDP, and the residency status of many Salvadoran-Americans, would be under threat if the FMLN won the presidential election. On March 12, Dan Burton, third ranking Republican on the US House of Representatives foreign affairs committee, declared on the floor of Congress that Salvadoran immigrants’ remittances home “will be cut, and I hope the people of El Salvador are aware of that because it will have a tremendous impact on individuals and their economy”. Republican Representative Trent Franks said: “Should the pro-terrorist FMLN party replace the current government in El Salvador, the United States, in the interests of national security, would be required to reevaluate our policy toward El Salvador, including cash remittance and immigration policies to compensate for the fact there will no longer be a reliable counterpart in the Salvadoran government.” A statement issued by the Obama administration, that the US government would seek to work with the elected Salvadoran government regardless of the election outcome, was much less widely reported in the Salvadoran capitalist media.

“Electoral struggle is another type of war”, Nerio told the CISPES delegation, likening the FMLN’s electoral battle with the popularly supported armed struggle during the civil war. “During the war they attacked us with modern weapons and we responded with popular strength. This time, with the weapons of the media, they attacked us again. Again they couldn’t destroy us, we won.” Nerio, explained that in addition to control of the mass media, ARENA also had the institutions of the Salvadorian state at its disposal. “We don’t trust the TSE. Three years ago [in the 2006 municipal elections for the municipality of Mejicanos] they tried to steal victory from us. Only after four days of mobilisation did we achieve victory.”

Electoral fraud

During and after the March 15 election, numerous allegations surfaced of electoral fraud committed by the ruling ARENA party. FMLN spokesperson William Hernandez told a briefing of the CISPES delegation on the day after the election that the ARENA-controlled TSE established a voting centre in central San Salvador that was allegedly intended to allow 40,000 Salvadorans returning from overseas to vote. However, according to Hernandez, only 8000 did so. Four planes, allegedly intended to bring Nicaraguans in to the country to participate in electoral fraud, were refused exit from Managua by the Nicaraguan government. In one voting centre alone, according to Hernandez, 15 Nicaraguans were caught attempting to vote.

Hernandez reported that ARENA had attempted to bring more than 800 Nicaraguans, Guatemalans and Hondurans into the country on buses, but these buses were stopped and turned around by ordinary people throughout the country. Hernandez told the CISPES delegation, “anti-riot police were not brave enough to intervene”.

“The people”, he added, “were determined to change the course of history: a people with a conviction, a people with a determination for change. Without the people we would not have won. This is the first time we have achieved the complete involvement of the Salvadorian people.”

According to Hernandez, ARENA was not scared of losing government, “but scared of being imprisoned. The former minister for public works stole [US]$40 million in six months and now walks free.” The desperation of ARENA leaders to win the election was starkly demonstrated at one of the three voting centres in the municipality of San Martin, on the outskirts of San Salvador. While participating as an international election observer, I witnessed the ARENA coordinator for the voting centre attempt to leave with a large envelope of blank actas (official voting tally forms used to submit voting results to the TSE by fax). The FMLN supervisor for the voting centre, who had vigilantly monitored the ARENA campaign workers activities throughout the day, came upon the ARENA supervisor trying to stuff the envelope into his pants. She immediately alerted the other FMLN volunteers in the voting centre, as well as the police, who soon had the supervisor surrounded. He was detained and taken to a school classroom inside the voting centre, where FMLN supporters maintained watch to ensure the police did not allow him to escape.

Challenges ahead

Funes, the first FMLN presidential candidate to have the support of sections of El Salvador´s capitalist class, as well as the support of a number of retired army generals, will face significant hurdles when his presidential term commences on June 1. According to a March 18 Prensa Latina report, the FMLN representative in Cuba, Alfredo Elias, told Cuban national television a FMLN-led government will inherit a complex social panorama in El Salvador, characterised by extreme violence and emigration to the US, as well as a free trade agreement with the US that has resulted in widespread layoffs including in farming and the dollarisation of the economy of one of the poorest countries in the region.

Elias said that re-establishing diplomatic relations with Cuba, broken off in 1959 after the victory of Cuba’s workers’ and peasants’ revolution, would be a priority for the future FMLN-led government.

“For us, Cubans are blood brothers”, said the FMLN representative, who recalled Cuba’s solidarity with El Salvador’s workers and peasants. “In the past, Cuban hospitals were open to our war victims, while right now, many Salvadorans are having free eye surgery here, or are studying at Cuban universities”, Elias said. “Based on that, we asked all social organisations and the people for support to design an action program that will prioritise the reactivation of agriculture.”

On March 19, just hours before he was due to meet in San Salvador with US Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon, Funes announced that his incoming government would re-establish relations with Cuba, declaring: “We would be, at present, the only country in Latin America that doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Cuba.” Funes’ announcement came shortly after centre-right Costa Rican President Oscar Arias also announced that he had decided to restore diplamtic relations with Cuba, broken off in 1961. “Today there is no sense of pretending that we are officially at a distance from each other. We cooperate in various areas, we support consular and trade relations with Havana and have direct air links”, he said, adding: “Today, since the world is diametrically different from what it was in those days, we must be capable of adjusting to the new realities.”

Elias said that the incoming FMLN-led government was interested in strengthening ties with the Bolivarian Alternative for the People of the Americas (ALBA) grouping of countries. The ALBA international cooperation organisation, which was initiated in 2004 by the revolutionary governments of Cuba and Venezuela, now also includes Bolivia, Dominica, Honduras and Nicaragua. Elias told his Cuban TV audience that Salvadorans were already benefitting from ALBA by getting cheap oil, fertilisers and medical aid from Venezuela and Cuba.

Hernandez also favours El Salvador entering ALBA. “Right now El Salvador is not part of ALBA, but we are going to need to make ourselves part of it. Is a leftist government in El Salvador going to stay out of ALBA?” asked Hernandez. “ALBA is an initiative to do things for the people”, Hernandez said. He described the US-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which El Salvador signed in 2004, as “another form of slavery and exploitation of the people. We can’t go against the current history that is sweeping Latin America. We are writing a new history and ALBA is part of that.”

However, in media interviews to date, Funes has pursued a much more cautious approach, seeking to maintain close ties with Washington. On the evening of March 15, Funes told the US Nation magazine: “I will not seek alliances or accords with other heads of state from the southern part of the continent who will jeopardise my relationship with the government of the United States.” In relation to CAFTA, and the dollarisation of the Salvadoran economy, Funes told The Nation: “We can’t get mixed up in repealing CAFTA ... nor can we reverse dollarisation, because that would send a negative message to foreign investors, and then we’d be facing serious problems because we wouldn’t have enough investment to stimulate the national economy.”

Lula, not Chavez

The day after his election win, Funes told local Megavision television: “Nothing traumatising is going to happen here. We will not reverse any privatisations. We will not jeopardise private property. There is no reason at this moment for fear.”

How then would his government be different from its predecessors? “We’re going to change the way we make policy”, Funes told The Nation. “And one of the most significant changes is that we will no longer have a government at the service of a privileged few. And we will no longer have a government that creates an economy of privileges for the privileged … I would say that this government should have [a] preferential option for the poor, for those who need a robust government to get ahead and to be able to compete in this world of disequilibrium under fair conditions. This government implies a break from traditional policy-making. Now, what we’re going to do is put the government and the structure of the state at the service of the Salvadoran people — the totality of the Salvadoran people — but fundamentally, of that great majority who are oppressed and excluded from the country’s social and economic development.”

Hernandez also told the CISPES delegation that the FMLN is committed “to mak[ing] a different kind of government … We have to create a new culture of politics. If people hadn’t come out into the street [on March 15] we would have lost. The involvement of the people is essential in creating a new form of government in this country.” Appealing for continuing international solidarity, Hernandez told the CISPES delegation: “This is not where the revolution ends, this is where the revolution begins and we are going to have to defend that revolution.”

Nerio explained that the FMLN’s electoral victory was closely linked to the leftward tide sweeping Latin America. “A few months ago”, said Nerio, “political analysts from the right wing announced that the cycle of change in Latin America had closed — that the period of change was coming to an end. But constitutional reform was won in Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela. And now El Salvador has joined the shift to the left. The change is continuing throughout Latin America.”

“In the end”, said Nerio, “the fight is not for power, but so our children can go to bed with food in their stomach, so they can have schools, so our elderly do not die alone, so our women can occupy space in society. That is our dream, what we continue to struggle for and if that is called socialism, then that is what we are struggling for.”

The day after Funes’ election win, the US-based Associated Press observed: “While the FMLN has long-standing ties to Chavez, Funes kept the Venezuelan president at a distance during the [election] campaign. Last week, Funes told foreign reporters he admired Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva for gaining the trust of the business class despite misgivings when the leftist first took office in 2003. Critics who once questioned the sincerity of such messages gave Funes the benefit of the doubt Monday.” AP quoted Fabricio Altamirano, executive director of the pro-ARENA El Diario de Hoy, as saying: “Let Lula, and not Chavez, influence the direction of this country. The president-elect has said it a million times and the whole country is waiting to see if he keeps his word.”

[Nick Everett, a Perth-based member of the national committee of the Revolutionary Socialist Party, was a member of the CISPES election observation delegation in El Salvador, between March 9 and March 20.]