Friday, March 20, 2009

From Portside

El Salvador's Left Wins Historic Election

By Mark Weisbrot

Center for Economic and Policy Research The
Guardian (UK) March 18, 2009

Last Sunday's election in El Salvador, in which the leftist
FMLN (Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation) won the
presidency, didn't get a lot of attention in the
international press. It's a relatively small country (7
million people on land the size of Massachusetts) and fairly
poor (per capita income about half the regional average). And
left governments have become the norm in Latin America:
Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay, and
Venezuela have all elected left governments over the last
decade. South America is now more independent of the United
States than Europe is.

But the FMLN's victory in El Salvador has a special
significance for this hemisphere.

Central America and the Caribbean have long been the United
States' "back yard" more than anywhere else. The people of
the region have paid a terrible price - in blood, poverty,
and underdevelopment - for their geographical and political
proximity to the United States. The list of U.S.
interventions in the area would take the rest of this column,
stretching from the 19th century (Cuba, in 1898) to the 21st,
with the overthrow of Haiti's democratically elected
president Jean-Bertrand Aristide (for the second time) in

Those of us who can remember the 1980s can see President
Ronald Reagan on television warning that "El Salvador is
closer to Texas than Texas is to Massachusetts" as he sent
guns and money to the Salvadoran military and its affiliated
death squads. Their tens of thousands of targets - for
torture, terror, and murder - were overwhelmingly civilians,
including Catholic priests, nuns, and the heroic Archbishop
Oscar Romero. It seems ridiculous now that Reagan could have
convinced the U.S. Congress that the people who won Sunday's
election were not only a threat to our national security, but
one that justified horrific atrocities. But he did. At the
same time millions of Americans - including many church-based
activists - joined a movement to stop U.S. support for the
terror, as well as what the United Nations later called
genocide in Guatemala, and the U.S.-backed insurgency in
Nicaragua (which was also a war against civilians).

Now we have come full circle. In 2007, Guatemalans elected a
social democratic president for the first time since 1954,
when the CIA intervened to overthrow the government. Last
September, President Zelaya of Honduras - which served as a
U.S. base for U.S. military and paramilitary operations in
the 1980s -- joined with Bolivia's Evo Morales and
Venezuela's Hugo Chávez when they expelled their U.S.
ambassadors: Zelaya defended their actions and postponed the
accreditation of the U.S. ambassador to Honduras, saying that
"the world powers must treat us fairly and with respect." In
2006 Nicaraguans elected Daniel Ortega of the Sandinistas,
the same president that Washington had spent hundreds of
millions of dollars trying to topple in the 1980s.

El Salvador's election was not only another step toward
regional independence but a triumph of hope against fear,
much as in the U.S. presidential election of 2008. The ruling
ARENA party, which was founded by right-wing death squad
leader Roberto D'Aubuisson, made fear their brand: fear of
another civil war; fear of bad relations with the United
States; fear of a "communist dictatorship." Almost comically,
they tried to make the election into a referendum on Hugo
Chávez. (Venezuela kept its distance from the election, with
no endorsements or statements other than its desire to have
good relations with whomever won).

ARENA was joined by Republican Members of Congress from the
United States, who tried to promote the idea that Salvadorans
- about a quarter of whom live in the U.S. - would face
extra-ordinary problems with immigration and sending
remittances home if the FMLN won. Although these threats were
completely without merit, the right's control over the media
made them real for many Salvadorans. In the 2004 election the
Bush administration joined this effort to intimidate
Salvadoran voters, and it helped the right win.

The right's control over the media, its abuse of government
in the elections, and its vast funding advantage (there are
no restrictions on foreign funding) led José Antonio de
Gabriel, the deputy chief of the European Union's observer
mission to comment on "the absence of a level playing field."
It's amazing that the FMLN was still able to win, and
testimony to the high level of discipline, organization, and
self- sacrifice that comes from having a leadership that has
survived war and hell on earth.

This time around, the Obama administration, after receiving
thousands of phone calls - thanks to the solidarity movement
that stems from the 1980s -- issued a statement of neutrality
on the Friday before the election. The administration appears
divided on El Salvador as with the rest of Latin America's
left; at least one of Obama's highest-level advisors on Latin
America favored the right-wing ruling party. But the
statement of neutrality was a clear break from the Bush

El Salvador's new president Mauricio Funes, a popular former
TV journalist, will face many challenges, especially on the
economic front. The country exports 10 percent of its GDP to
the United States, and receives another 18 percent in
remittances from Salvadorans living there. Along with
sizeable private investment flows, this makes El Salvador
very vulnerable to the deep U.S. recession. El Salvador has
also adopted the U.S. dollar as its national currency. This
means that it cannot use exchange rate policy and is severely
limited in monetary policy to counteract the recession. On
top of this, it has recently signed an agreement with the IMF
that commits the government to not pursuing a fiscal stimulus
for this year. And the FMLN will not have a majority in the

But the majority of Salvadorans, who are poor or near- poor,
decided that the left would be more likely than the right to
look out for them in hard times. That's a reasonable
conclusion, and one that is shared by most of the hemisphere.

Mark Weisbrot is Co-Director of the Center for Economic and
Policy Research, in Washington, D.C. (


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