Leftist candidate front-runner in March 15 El Salvador presidential poll

By Nick Everett

Salvadorans will vote for a new president on March 15. For the last 12 months, former independent journalist Mauricio Funes has held a double-digit lead over his rival, Rodrigo Avila, a former chief of the national police. Funes is standing as the candidate of the left-wing FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front), while Avila represents the governing US-backed Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA). The two are now the sole candidates in the election after the Christian Democrat Party (PDC) and the National Conciliation Party dropped out of the race. Both parties are expected to support Avila.

The presidential election follows municipal and legislative elections on January 18, in which voters elected 84 Legislative Assembly deputies and 262 mayors. In the Legislative Assembly, the FMLN, the country’s former guerrilla movement, increased its representation by three seats to 35 deputies, while ARENA lost two seats, winning a total of 32.

Having won 43% of the national vote — 100,000 more votes nationally than ARENA — the FMLN has emerged as the most popular party in El Salvador. The FMLN has steadily increased its representation in the Legislative Assembly since 1994, when the FMLN first entered electoral politics, having transformed itself from a guerrilla force via the 1992 peace accords.

US domination

El Salvador has been ruled by a succession of authoritarian US-backed regimes since the 1930s. A blatantly fraudulent election in 1972 defeated PDC reformer Napoleon Duarte, who was forced in to exile when anti-government protests were repressed. Repression of anti-government demonstrations in the 1970s and the flagrant manipulation of the 1974 elections strengthened support for the idea that only armed struggle would bring change.

In 1979 an armed struggle — soon led by the FMLN — was launched against the military junta that had taken power. In 1980, Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, head of the junta’s security apparatus, ordered the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero after the archbishop called for the withdrawal of US military support for the junta. On May 7, 1980, six weeks after Romero was assassinated, D’Aubuisson was arrested on a farm, along with a group of civilians and soldiers. Although documents found in the raid implicated the group in the assassination, D’Aubuisson was released without charge. A year later, D’Aubuisson founded ARENA.

For the next 12 years, the US became involved in its largest counter-insurgency war against left-wing guerrillas since Vietnam. Beginning with the Carter administration, and continued by the Reagan and Bush administrations, the US sent US$7 billion of foreign and military aid to El Salvador in 10 years. The silent partner role of the US in the Salvadoran civil war became public when a National Guard death squad raped and murdered four US nuns and a laywoman on December 2, 1980. While US President Jimmy Carter was forced to suspend military aid to El Salvador briefly, his successor, Ronald Reagan, steadily increased assistance to El Salvador’s murderous regime. Throughout the 1980s, US servicemen were party to the torture of prisoners, and the CIA secretly supported the death squads.

In 1984 the US government attempted to give the military regime an air of legitimacy by aiding Duarte, the PDC candidate, via the CIA. Duarte won the presidency from D’Aubuisson and ARENA. However, ARENA returned to head a government in 1989, led by Alfredo Cristiani as president.

Despite over US$1 million per day worth of assistance from the US military, the regime was unable to crush the FMLN. From the early 1980s, the FMLN controlled many rural areas and, in 1989, mounted a popularly supported offensive that briefly captured parts of the capital, San Salvador. The murder of six Jesuit priests that year, by a special military unit called the Atlacati Battalion, caused international outrage that forced the US government to stop its military support for the junta. Negotiations began between the ARENA government and the FMLN aimed at ending the war.

Peace accords

The Chapultepec peace accords were signed by both parties on January 16, 1992. Under the accords, El Salvador’s treasury police, national police and several special battalions of the armed forces were dismantled and the new National Civilian Police was created, integrating former combatants from the FMLN. The accords guaranteed reforms that provided the political space for the FMLN to convert itself from a clandestine guerrilla alliance into a legal political party.

The decade-long civil war waged by the US-backed capitalist oligarchy against the country’s workers and peasants directly caused the loss of at least 85,000 lives. According to the 1993 UN Truth Commission report, the Salvadoran military and paramilitary death squads carried out over 96% of the human rights violations during the war. In addition, hundreds of thousands were internally displaced and more than a million Salvadorans left the country — most for the US.

Despite the fact that it has retained the largest single vote in national elections, the FMLN has never won national government. The right-wing ARENA — whose generals have made the transition to civilian political life with immunity from prosecution for war crimes — has governed continuously for two decades.

However, the FMLN has governed much of the country at the provincial and municipal levels since the 1992 accords. When recently elected mayoral candidates take their seats on May 1, the FMLN will govern 96 of the country’s 262 municipalities (up from 59 in the last municipal election). Despite losing San Salvador to ARENA’s mayoral candidate Norman Quijano after governing the municipality for 12 years, the FMLN won mayors’ offices in several large cities, including Mejicanos, Apopa and San Marcos.


Twenty years of ARENA national governments have ravaged El Salvador with neoliberal policies. Trade barriers and environmental protections have been removed and maquilas — tax-free industrial complexes — have allowed foreign companies to take advantage of cheap Salvadoran labour. El Salvador was the first country to sign on to and enact the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), initiated by the US Bush administration in an effort to revitalise faltering talks for a Free Trade Area of the Americas.

The ARENA government, headed by Elias Antonio “Tony” Saca, which began implementing CAFTA in March 2006, has promoted the agreement as a means towards job growth and increased investment. But Salvadorans continue to leave the country to look for work. An estimated 2 million Salvadorans live and work in the US today. The country’s largest source of income is remittances sent by Salvadorans in the US to their relatives in El Salvador.

FMLN leader and deputy in the Central American parliament Lorena Pena has observed: “The government [relies] on remittances to cover the deficit, and that is why the policy is to get people to leave. You can get a passport in half an hour — that’s the only thing in this giant bureaucratic state that you can get in a half hour!”

According to a recent report, The 2009 El Salvador elections: between crisis and change — jointly authored by the Committees in Solidarity with the Peoples of El Salvador (CISPES), the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) and Upside Down World — one of CAFTA’s most damning effects is migration from the countryside, where unemployment has more than doubled since CAFTA came into effect. In the first year of CAFTA, according to the report, 11,457 rural jobs were lost.

The CAFTA-induced Intellectual Property Law imposed fines and even jail terms for those who sell or purchase pirated goods, destroying the livelihood of thousands of poor Salvadorans who depend on the informal economy. The repressive enforcement of this law — which drove street vendors off the streets — sparked mass protests by vendors throughout 2006 and 2007.

Struggle over water

One of the biggest battles that has raged between neoliberal ARENA governments and the popular movements has been over water privatisation. Despite El Salvador’s annual rainfall being three times what its six million inhabitants consume annually, fewer than six in ten households have access to piped water, and sometimes water stops running for days. Drinking water — sold by private companies door to door at a cost of US$15-20 per month — is out of reach for most Salvadorans. Seventy percent of those with jobs earn the minimum wage of $158 per month.

In 1998 the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) gave a $43.7 million loan to the ARENA government contingent on the opening of the water sector to private competition. Part of the plan included rebuilding public water infrastructure in an effort to entice potential private investors. Under the terms of the loan, the government also committed to passing a General Water Law, which would reform the water “market” to make it more profitable. In August 2005, El Salvador’s water workers union (SETA), as part of a larger activist coalition, prevented the introduction of a bill that would have mandated the privatisation of the supply of water by the national water company (ANDA) in 152 municipalities. Despite this widespread opposition, ARENA moved ahead with its privatisation plans in the municipalities it controlled. According to SETA, ARENA mayors adopted “decentralisation” schemes in 41 municipalities.

On July 2, 2007, President Saca decided to promote the decentralisation policy in the town of Suchitoto. Journalists and foreign dignitaries were invited, including agencies that had funded decentralisation projects in the past. Suchitoto’s water services are run by a municipal water company, but the company is governed through a series of public meetings, and all profits are funnelled back into infrastructure development. By holding the event in Suchitoto, Saca was seeking to overturn popular control over the expenditure of government funds through his privatisation model.

But when Saca flew in by helicopter to a lakeside resort, there were no journalists to greet him. Protesters had blocked all entrances into Suchitoto, and police had sealed off the entire area. The protest was brutally repressed by riot police, who opened fire with rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray, injuring 75 people. Fourteen people were arrested and 13 charged with “acts of terrorism,” which carries a sentence of up to 60 years in prison. In early 2008, nearly a year after their arrest, the attorney general dropped the bogus charges. Since releasing the Suchitoto 13, the Saca government has made no more public declarations on privatisation of public water services.

In December 2008, the town of San Pedro Nonualco became the first municipality to reverse a decentralised water system after residents demanded that all mayoral candidates sign a pledge to return the system to public hands. Even ARENA Mayor Luis Guillermo Garcia Cortez agreed to sign the pledge under pressure from the growing anti-privatisation movement. Rosa Centeno, a leader of the fight for public water, told the authors of the CISPES-NACLA-Upside Down World report: “The government doesn’t invest in public services, and then claims they don’t work, and that to improve services they need to be privatised. But this only improves services for those who can pay for them, and the poor are forgotten. Water is a human right, and if the government doesn’t guarantee it, who will?”

Interference in elections

According to the report, Funes has opposed water privatisation and declared his support for state management of water. Erica Thompson, a San Salvador-based activist with CISPES, reports that Funes has also declared his opposition to biofuel production and the granting of mining concessions that rob farmers of badly needed arable land. Thompson quotes Funes as saying: “Over the past 19 years of ARENA government, the infrastructure for food production has been neglected and dismantled. It is essential and a priority to allot land use for food production and the harvesting of vegetables and staple grains. This is what the people need. We cannot allow ourselves the luxury of allotting areas of land for biofuel production because we are not going to work to feed machines; we have to work to feed human beings.”

But Funes has publicly stated that he has no plans to withdraw El Salvador from CAFTA. Under CAFTA’s “freedom of investment” provisions, corporations can sue national governments over laws or regulations that cause a loss in corporate profits. Funes’ policy is no doubt aimed at easing historically tense relations between the FMLN and the US government. But an FMLN victory is likely to strengthen a campaign — supported by the FMLN’s base — for the cancellation of CAFTA.

ARENA has sought to stoke fears that an FMLN victory would provoke a backlash from the US. When the 2004 elections looked like a close contest, US State Department officials and members of Congress warned that remittances by expatriate Salvadorans would be interdicted by the US if the FMLN candidate won. US officials also threatened to repatriate the large Salvadoran refugee population.

Election violence and the possibility of fraud remain significant fears for the Salvadoran people. The Salvadoran Human Rights Defence Office has published reports connecting the National Civilian Police to death squads and repeated cases of corruption and misconduct. Another report by the Archbishop’s Legal Aid and Human Rights Defence Office provides evidence for 10 murders allegedly committed by police officers during 2006. According to the report, eight of the murders resembled “death squad executions”.

But the tide of change in Latin America — in which successive Latin American countries have elected left-wing governments opposed to US intervention and Venezuela’s socialist Bolivarian revolution led by President Hugo Chavez has consolidated itself — is today being felt in a resurgence of support for the left in El Salvador. An FMLN victory in the March 15 poll would open a new phase of struggle by El Salvador’s workers and peasants, who for two decades have suffered under the heel of repressive ARENA governments all too willing to do the bidding of their imperial masters in Washington.

[Nick Everett will be participating in an election observation delegation from the US-based Committees in Solidarity with the Peoples of El Salvador in March. For more information on CISPES’s activities, visit the CISPES website.]