In March 1984, the Salvadoran people went to the polls to elect the first president under the country’s current constitution. They voted with the on-going violent civil war as its backdrop and with death squads threatening to kill anyone who did not vote – they saw abstention as equivalent to support for the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) guerrillas. The left was not allowed to participate in those elections. In fact, at the time just being suspected of leftist sympathies was enough to justify your arrest, detention, torture, disappearance, and/or death.
Thirty years later and Salvadoran voters are once again going back to the polls to choose their future president. While many things have changed – the civil war ended in 1992, and the FMLN is now not only a legal political party but also the presidential incumbent – some things remain the same. Most of the economic problems that led to the armed conflict, such as huge levels of inequality, wealth concentration, grinding poverty, and a tiny economic oligarchy that still wields enormous power, are still intact.
From 1989 to 2009, the country was governed by the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) founded by Roberto D’Aubisson – infamous for organizing the death squads and being the intellectual author of the assassination of Monsignor Oscar Romero. During those twenty years ARENA implemented the thorough neoliberalization of Salvadoran society, the state, and economy. After the initial euphoria of the end of the war, reality began to set in that ARENA’s economic policies would not resolve the major causes of the conflict, but instead aggravate them.
This was reflected by the fact that migration to the United States not only didn’t stop after the war, but actually increased as people were economically displaced by the neoliberal reforms. As the number of Salvadoran migrants to the U.S. increased, the remittances that they sent back to support their families skyrocketed. Coffee, once the country’s main export and principal source of hard currency was replaced by Salvadoran migrants’ labor as the country’s primary export and source of dollars to maintain the economy.
At the same time, the ARENA government became a devoted client-state of successive U.S. administrations, particularly after the 2000 election of George W. Bush. El Salvador faithfully voted with the U.S. on repeated international disputes, such as the embargo of Cuba, quickly recognized the coup-government that temporarily ousted Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, signed the U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), and was one of the few Latin American nations that sent troops to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. In exchange, El Salvador was “rewarded” with grants funded by the U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation and by repeated renewals (required every 18 months at discretion of U.S. President) of Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for approximately 250,000 Salvadoran migrants in the U.S. under that classification.
Even more emblematic of the clientelistic relationship that characterized U.S.-Salvadoran relations during this period was the role that U.S. Congressmen, ambassadors, and Administration officials – predominantly Republicans – played in El Salvador’s internal political affairs. In several elections during the first decade of the 21st century, U.S. elected officials intervened blatantly in Salvadoran elections by visiting the country and/or issuing public statements to the press, which threatened citizens against voting for the FMLN. The apex of this intervention occurred during the 2004 election when the FMLN ran its historic guerrilla commander Schafik Handal for the Presidency. In response to the real possibility of Handal’s victory, the Bush Administration sent a parade of Republican operatives, including Jeb Bush, to visit the country in the month before the elections to unleash a sophisticated fear and smear campaign on the Salvadoran people. With the complicity of the local media, the U.S. government issued veiled threats implying that if the FMLN won the presidency, Salvadorans, especially those under TPS, would be deported and remittances to the country would be cut off. For example, on March 14, 2004 Otto Reich, Special Envoy to the Western Hemisphere for the White House, was quoted in La Prensa Gráfica (one of El Salvador’s two largest-circulation papers) stating: “We are concerned about the impact that an FMLN victory could have on the commercial, economic and migration-related relations of the US with El Salvador.”
A few days later more direct threats about immigration were made by Congressmen Tom Tancredo (R-CO) and Dan Burton (R-IN), giving the impression that this was official U.S. government policy. On March 18, 2004 Tancredo told El Diario de Hoy that: “It could be necessary for the American authorities to examine very carefully and possibly apply controls to the flow of $2 billion of remittances… If the FMLN controls the Salvadoran government after the March 2004 Presidential Elections, it could mean a radical change in US policy regarding the essentially free flow of remittances from Salvadorans living in the US to El Salvador.” On March 19, 2004 Burton stated to La Prensa Gráfica that: “If the communist candidate of the FMLN assumes the presidency of El Salvador, it could very well be necessary for the United Status to reconsider our relationship with El Salvador, the prolongation of TPS and our current support for the sending of their remittances to their country.” The campaign was extremely successful and even though Handal won about twice as many votes as the previous presidential winner, the FMLN fell short of winning the presidency.
In 2009, ARENA and the outgoing Bush Administration tried a similar trick. However, with the January inauguration of Barack Obama and a strong mobilization effort by the Salvadoran-American community and its allies, the ARENA-Republican fear campaign was effectively neutralized. When Republican Congress people came out with statements similar to those of 2004, they were refuted by leading Democratic members of Congress. Among those that made statements promising U.S. neutrality in the Salvadoran election, and respect for the will of its people were Raul Grijalva (D-AZ), Sam Farr (D-CA), and Howard Berman (D-CA) who at the time served as the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Likewise, the Obama State Department and U.S. Embassy in El Salvador both issued statements of neutrality, respect for the Salvadoran people’s vote, and willingness to work with the candidate of whichever party was elected. In the end, the FMLN’s candidate Mauricio Funes was elected President.
Over the next five years (2009-2014), the Funes’ FMLN coalition government began to implement social programs that alleviated the worst impacts of neoliberalism on the poorest sectors of the Salvadoran population. Among the most important achievements were the elimination of “voluntary” quotas charged at public schools and hospitals that essentially prohibited the poor from accessing these basic services. Additionally, the budgets of the Health and Education Ministries were increased by redistributing money from the Ministries of Defense (Army) and Justice (Police). Counterintuitively, the level of violence in El Salvador has decreased during this time – homicides dropping from a peak of 14 per day to 6 per day. Instead of continuing the draconian and punitive ARENA “tough on crime” policies, the Funes-FMLN government has backed a peace treaty brokered between the two major Salvadoran gangs. The truce has lasted for over a year and there are plans to extend it to other gangs and begin introducing rehabilitative programs to re-incorporate youth into society productively with economically viable skills.
Meanwhile, as a result of the increased budget four new regional hospitals have been opened and the FMLN-led Legislative Assembly passed a law governing the importation and provision of medicines, which led to the decrease of the price of numerous vital medicines. At the same time, the Ministry of Education launched a national literacy campaign using a low-cost, volunteer-based program that in a few years has succeeded in eradicating illiteracy in almost 10% of all the country’s municipalities. Similarly, it has implemented a program that guarantees that nearly every public elementary and middle school child receives a free glass of milk, breakfast, and lunch everyday. The government is also providing public school students with school uniforms, shoes, and a complete package of school supplies free of charge. The plans are in the work to extend these programs to high school as well.
As Salvadorans once again go to the polls this Sunday, February 2, 2014, they are faced with a stark choice. Will they vote to return to the neoliberal past as promised by ARENA, or will they choose to continue down the path that the FMLN has begun. In a promising change, attempts by Republican pundits seeking to influence the outcome of the Salvadoran elections by intimidating its voters have been silenced by an even stronger chorus of voices calling for respect for El Salvador’s sovereignty and U.S. neutrality. Members of Congress, the Obama Administration, and various political actors, including former U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador under George Bush Sr. William Walker, have made public statements reminding everyone that ultimately who governs El Salvador is a decision by the Salvadoran people alone – and that’s the way it should be.
If the Salvadoran people decide to elect president Salvador Sanchez Ceren, the FMLN’s candidate, it will be a historic moment in Latin American history. It will be the first time a former commander of one of the region’s most prominent leftist guerrilla movements takes power not after a triumphant revolution but through the ballot box. He’s promised to deepen the reforms that have started in the country, which some label as 21st Century Socialism. He has also signaled that he wants to maintain good mutually respectful relations with the U.S. government. Only time will tell if that will happen.
However, if the recent statements by the Administration and Congress are an indication we may have reason to be optimistic. This is not necessarily because of a newfound respect for Salvadoran sovereignty by the U.S. establishment, but because of a new political reality in the United States – Salvadoran-Americans are now the third largest Latino group in the country, making up important domestic constituencies in key battleground states. For instance, both Democratic Senators from Virginia, a state with a large and growing Salvadoran-American population, came out strongly in favor of neutrality. This trend is likely to only increase as a new generation of young Salvadoran-Americans come of age and become politically mobilized. If it does, it will represent a positive new development in the traditional relationship that has historically existed between the two countries.
Hector Perla Jr. is an assistant professor of Latin American and Latino studies at UC Santa Cruz.