Op-Ed: El Salvador vote should be decided by the people, not the U.S.


On Thursday, the San Francisco Chronicle published an op-ed by Hector Perla, Jr. entitled, “El Salvador vote should be decided by the people, not the U.S.” a response to various right-wing hit pieces that have been published in US news outlets like the Washington Post.

Professor Perla’s provides a thought-provoking response to the following question: Why do Salvadoran politics evoke such passionate responses from the U.S. conservative establishment?

Op-Ed: El Salvador vote should be decided by the people, not by U.S.
by Hector Perla Jr.
Thursday, January 30, 2014
(re-posted from the San Francisco Chronicle with author permission)

Luis Lopez, Associated Press

Luis Lopez, Associated Press

More than 20 years after the end of its civil war, El Salvador’s politics continue to polarize views in the United States. In advance of Sunday’s presidential elections in El Salvador, a slew of State Department officials and members of Congress have issued declarations, many urging U.S. neutrality in the country’s internal affairs, respect for democratic processes and support for the important democratic advances that the country has made under the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), which first won the presidency in 2009.

But others, such as Elliot Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, tried to influence the electoral outcome in this tiny country. In a Jan. 5 opinion piece in the Washington Post, Abrams tried to link the FMLN to a hemispheric drug conspiracy solely on the basis that the name of one of its leaders was found on the laptop of a dead Colombian guerrilla commander. He argued that the United States should support the candidacy of the Republican National Alliance (ARENA) Party. Abrams’ argument ignores the fact that the drug trade in El Salvador developed during 20 years of ARENA rule and that drug trafficking is not an ideological problem but a social one.

Why do Salvadoran politics evoke such passionate responses from the U.S. conservative establishment?

There are two reasons. One is that these sectors have historically seen the region as “our backyard.” The second is that the outcome of El Salvador’s development has huge symbolic implications in the United States, where U.S. ideological sponsors seek to keep allies in power to score political points for their preferred economic models.

If this resource-poor nation were to successfully use state-led development policies, similar to those embraced by the United States during the New Deal era, to increase the standard of living of the Salvadoran people, then why couldn’t the United States do the same today? Such an example would essentially undermine the economic platform of the Republican Party and of a good portion of establishment Democrats‘ position as well.

What is really at stake in Sunday’s election is the future of a nation. Will there be a return to the economic policies of the past? Or will a new path be forged, based on democratic participation and increased economic inclusion, subordinating the market to the needs of Salvadoran society?

Since coming into power in 2009, the FMLN has implemented changes such as providing a free glass of milk, breakfast, lunch, school uniforms, shoes and a complete packet of school supplies for every public elementary and middle school student.

The milk, eggs, cheese, beans and tortillas are bought from local farmers, thus stimulating the local economy.

Similarly, the uniforms and shoes are manufactured by small Salvadoran businesses that provide jobs for working-class Salvadorans – exactly what is needed so these workers aren’t forced to migrate to the United States, where about 30 percent of all Salvadorans reside.

The minister of education who launched these programs is the front-runner to become El Salvador’s next president.

So far, the Obama administration has remained neutral with respect to the Salvadoran elections – an improvement over Bush administration officials and Republican members of Congress threatening Salvadorans with deportation of their loved ones in the United States if they elected an FMLN president.

It behooves President Obama to honor the Salvadoran electorate’s sovereign right to choose its own leaders. I hope he will.

Hector Perla Jr. is an assistant professor of Latin American and Latino studies at UC Santa Cruz.

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