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Democracy in El Salvador?



On March 21 in El Salvador, over 2 million Salvadorans went to the polls, 58% of whom voted for Tony Saca, the Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA) party candidate for President. Schafik Handal of the Frente Faribundi Marti para la Liberacion Nacional (FMLN) received 36%. I was present at the election as an international observer working with the Center for Exchange and Solidarity (CIS) at a voting center in a small municipality in western El Salvador, Jayaque, where I saw bus after bus with ARENA flags flying arrive at the park, jammed full of voters who evidently made their crayoned “X” over the ARENA banner on their paper ballots. When the ballot boxes were opened after 5 PM, the ARENA vigilantes could hardly contain their glee as they collected fat piles of ballots for their party.

The Salvadoran people had voted, but there was little joy in the decision. In San Salvador on the night of the 21st, after everyone knew the results, an eerie quiet prevailed. ARENA had defeated the FMLN and two other smaller parties who failed to achieve sufficient votes to maintain themselves under Salvadoran election law, but had broken election laws at will, spent 10’s of millions of dollars, employed a vicious smear campaign, and enlisted the aid of United States Congressmen and the United States State Department to do it.

ARENA is the right wing party created by Roberto D’Aubuisson in the early 1980’s. He was named in the United Nations Truth Commission Report as the intellectual author of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980. It remains a far right political party whose main ideological idea is a fervent anti-communism. This approach is described by Joan Didion in her 1982 book “Salvador”: “to the right, anyone in the opposition was a communist, along with most of the American press, the Catholic Church, and, as time went by, all Salvadoran citizens not of the right…(the political) left may mean, in the beginning, only a resistance to seeing one’s family member killed or disappeared.”

The candidate of the FMLN, Schafik Handal, is a stalwart of the social struggles. He represented a party which was born out of the guerrilla army of the civil war which converted itself to the largest political force in El Salvador. Last year for the first time, the FMLN garnered the most votes of any political party in the local and legislative elections.

ARENA started their campaign in August with an intense advertizing campaign introducing the fresh-faced ex-sports announcer Tony Saca. This was over 3 months before a campaign was legally allowed. They painted their blue, white and red colors on almost every light pole in the nation. They employed a vicious smear campaign against the FMLN candidate Schafik Handal, a veteran of the civil war, who was labeled a kidnapper and a terrorist in a personal attack campaign also illegal under the law. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal was paralyzed by the ARENA voting bloc, and no adjudications of these violations of law went forward during the campaign. According to Blanca Flor Bonilla, a Deputy of the FMLN, ARENA spent $55 million of government funds in their massive advertizing campaign.

There was a steady stream of United States government intervention in the process, against the FMLN and in support of ARENA. Since 2003, officials of the United States have been threatening the Salvadoran people with severe consequences if they have the nerve to actually change their governement. The last ambassador to El Salvador, Rose Likens, warned that an FMLN government would have consequences for US-El Salvador relations. State Department functionary Dan Fisk compared Schafik Handal to “firures of the past” such as Daniel Ortega and Rios Montt. When current US Ambassador Douglas Barclay met with Schafik Handal, and the FMLN later published their picture together, he requested they retract the photo and not use it anymore. On February 6, the Assistant Secretary of Western Hemispheric Affairs for the U.S. State Department, Roger Noriega, said: “I think it is fair to note that the FMLN campaign has emphasized its differences with [the U.S] concerning CAFTA (Central America Free Trade Agreement) and other subjects. And we know the history of this political movement, and for this reason it is fair that the Salvadoran people consider what type of relations a new government could have with us.”

The Special Envoy of the White House to Latin America, Otto Reich, laid it directly on the line on March 13, in a telephone interview conducted from the ARENA offices in San Salvador: “We would not be able to have the same confidence in an El Salvador led by a person who is obviously an admirer of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez, as we have today in (ARENA President) Flores.” Reich continued to warn that a win by the FMLN would cause a reevaluation of the United States relationship with El Salvador.

In the days before the election, the major daily newspapers ran front page articles about the efforts of United States congressmen such as Dan Burton of Indiana, William Diaz Ballart of Florida, and Thomas Tancredo of Colorado introduced bills threatening remesas and immigration should the FMLN take the Presidency.

Finally, there were many reports of employee coercion in this nation of non-union workers. (Excepting the hospital workers, who in 2002 to 2003 had to strike for many months to avoid a disastrous privatization of the public health system.) Maquila, bank and business employees were told that a Frente victory would mean that their employer would simply leave the coutry.

The closest analogue to this election I can recall is the 1990 Nicaraguan election, during which the Nicaraguan people were told in no uncertain terms that the economy would continue to be ravaged if they kept the Sandinistas in power. In El Salvador 2004, United States officials and El Salvador elites made it clear that all hell would break loose if the FMLN came to power. In this small nation of 8 million, over 2 million of whom live and work in the United States, and send over $2 billion dollars a year back to their families (remesas), threats against this system of forced migration are taken very seriously.

The Salvadoran people know quite well what these threats mean. There are overtones of Chile’s overthrow on September 11, 1973, by forces supported by the United States, as well as the more recent abandonment of the elected government of Aristide to the thugs of the coup of 1991, as well as the bitter memories of the war years of El Salvador, when the United States supported a series of dictators and military juntas amidst a sea of violence against the civilian population.

Leslie Schuld, director of the CIS, which sponsored the largest international election observer project this year (or ever) in El Salvador, stated, “The huge election turnout was a positive sign, but as we review the process we will be making suggestions for improvement. The fact that voters were made to fear for their jobs, their immigration status or their remesas was a setback.”

The big losers of the election are the poor of El Salvador, the majority. They will continue to live without health care, clean water, basic housing. 90,000 maquila workers will continue to struggle for $5.43 a day or less, without the hope of unionizing, without government protection for workers’rights. The agricultural sector will continue its plummet, as the small and medium sized farmer will continue to have no credit, and markets will be penetrated with ease under free trade agreements and unfair trade advantages of the United States.

On March 24, three days after the election, the United States Ambassador to El Salvador, Douglas Barkley, came out with a statement that the US government would recognize any government chosen by the Salvadoran people, and that the remesas and immigration policy were not at risk at any time. What a bizarre, cowardly act, days after the election, after he had refused to state this during the campaign, and had even refused to allow a picture of him with the FMLN candidate to be published.

The elites of El Salvador and the rightwing multinational power brokers of the United States put a gun to the head of the Salvadoran people in this election. This election did not achieve democracy for El Salvador; it did not allow the voice of a free people making a free choice.

JOE DeRAYMOND has been in El Salvador since February 29 on this 6th election mission of the Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (CIS). He can be reached at:


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