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The Presidential Election in El Salvador

Washington Keeping An Eye On Its “Backyard”

by NICK ALEXANDROV

The Salvadoran presidential election, pitting the progressive FMLN’s Salvador Sánchez Cerén against the right-wing ARENA Party’s Norman Quijano, is this Sunday. Roberto D’Aubuisson, a School of the Americas graduate, founded the latter party in 1981, around the same time he perfected the art of blowtorching political prisoners, his favorite means of interrogation. And ARENA has proven a reliable U.S. ally over the decades, especially in implementing the combination of privatization and austerity measures known throughout Latin America as the Washington Consensus.

But the party has struggled in the current contest: it consistently trails in the polls, and one of its most prominent leaders, former President Francisco Flores (1999-2004), attempted to flee the country Tuesday in the wake of a scandal. Flores faces corruption charges for possibly treating himself to $10 million in Taiwanese development funds, and ARENA representatives couldn’t synchronize their spin as reports of the possible embezzlement emerged. Was Flores still advising Quijano in his bid for the presidency, or wasn’t he? Either way, the situation called for immediate damage control, a consummate political practitioner—J.J. Rendón, in other words.

INTERPOL recently issued a “red alert” against Rendón, citing an assault charge. Law enforcers were likely thinking of something other than Rendón’s assistance to the upper-class assault on Latin America’s poor—the cause to which he regularly provides his talents. A Venezuelan, he insists “there is no argument, or enough money on the face of the earth, that would convince me to work with anyone involved in Chavismo.” Little wonder: “What Chávez did,” correspondent Fred Rosen wrote last summer, “was to bring the poor…into the cultural and political life of the country”—an unpardonable sin, from the perspective of those in power.

Rendón has demonstrated his class allegiances on several occasions. He advised Porfirio Lobo’s campaign in the November 2009 Honduran presidential race, which journalist Michael Corcoran observes was characterized by “state violence against dissidents in the run-up to voting, ballot irregularities, and manufactured turnout numbers.” Lobo won just months after a coup toppled Manuel Zelaya, the leader responsive to popular pressures, and thus a threat to “democracy,” in the technical sense of the term Washington employs. Four School of the Americas graduates had directed Zelaya’s expulsion from the country in June 2009, and the event revealed, through Washington’s ensuing silence, that Obama’s foreign policy was merely Bush’s, rebranded. The ouster was criminal, as even the attorney charged with providing it a veneer of legitimacy admitted, and Lobo knew who to thank following his win months later: J.J. Rendón, the “best strategist in Latin America,” as he modestly refers to himself.

In El Salvador, Rendón’s interests align with those of ARENA, the traditional U.S. partner. But Washington has recently been forced to adapt to changing Salvadoran realities. ARENA has struggled to maintain political primacy as defections, corruption scandals, and now an electoral challenger from the center-right—former President Tony Saca—undermine their position. The U.S. government, meanwhile, has sought a new political vehicle for its economic agenda, revealing how the State Department has responded to the leftward shift in—to borrow Secretary of State Kerry’s preferred term—its “backyard.”

I spoke late Wednesday night with Patrick, an activist with the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), who is currently in El Salvador to observe Sunday’s election. He reviewed U.S. efforts to push through its objectives when the FMLN, its historic opponent, held power under President Mauricio Funes (2009-2014). And he described an ongoing campaign, waged to a significant extent by U.S. Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte, to see that Salvadoran society is privatized to the fullest extent possible. It’s not enough that state company after state company—banks, telecommunications and electricity firms—have been appropriated over the decades. The process must proceed until even the most basic resources (water) and government services (healthcare), along with the nation’s children (schools), are affected as well.

Enter the Public-Private Partnership (P3) Law, drafted for El Salvador with U.S. Treasury input, and part of Obama’s Partnership for Growth initiative. The bill would open most of the country’s major industries to 40-year concessions to private bidders—usually without any legislative debate. But workers, environmentalists and FMLN supporters view this rebranding effort for what it is. “For us, a public-private partnership is nothing more than privatization,” José Alberto Cartagena Tobias, of the SITEAIES airport workers union, clarified.
The P3 Law was hardly an innovation, as a statement former U.S. Representative Cass Ballenger (R-NC) delivered in October 1999 reveals. He explained that El Salvador’s “program to privatize the key national industries,” nearly a decade old by then, had been a ripping success. Thermal generation facilities, the state telephone company, the pension plan—all of these had been auctioned off, in addition to 75% of the shares of four state-owned electrical distribution companies. AES Corporation was one of the winners in the latter bidding war. Its offices are in Arlington, VA, one of the cities where thousands of Salvadorans sought refuge from the government’s near-ceaseless, U.S.-funded political murder campaign underway in the 1980s, responsible for the overwhelming majority of the 75,000 killed at the time.

Ballenger would no doubt be equally proud of the recent P3s, which have had no shortage of successes, including the transfer, via a 2002 contract, of the state geothermal energy company into the hands of an Italian corporation. Last fall, the Salvadoran Attorney General’s office charged 21 businessmen and former public officials with embezzlement in the deal, which deprived the government of nearly $2 million—and which Paco Flores oversaw while in office.

But the so-called “partnerships” subsequently faced serious challenges. The Salvadoran labor movement and solidarity actions from the U.S. bolstered FMLN efforts to ensure the P3 bill would stall in the Legislative Assembly. These efforts worked, as one can discern from the U.S. Embassy’s ensuing outrage. The reaction was vicious, and sought to punish the FMLN’s intransigence via threats to withhold some $300 million in Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) development funding until the bill was approved. (The MCC has a dubious track record, to be sure, and in Africa its money facilitated land privatization, author-activist Carlos Martinez reported last spring. But we can leave these issues aside for now.) Embassy pressure persisted to the point where the bill was pushed through last May. But the FMLN was able to exempt essential public services—water, health care, higher education—from the final version. Getting most of what it desired was cold comfort for Washington, which wanted it all. And so the Embassy continues to insist that Salvadoran lawmakers first must “reform”—read: “strengthen”—the P3 Law along the lines initially introduced before the compact will be approved.

The continuity from the 1990s until today, in terms of Washington’s ad nauseam insistence on privatization, reveals the consistent policies behind an apparent diplomatic turn. State Department officials, including Ambassador Aponte and Roberta S. Jacobson, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, have delivered statements proclaiming U.S. neutrality in the upcoming election. In previous contests, ARENA had been able to rely on its State Department allies for supportive declarations whenever the FMLN seemed likely to win. That’s what happened in 2004, for instance, when Otto Reich and Roger Noriega made menacing remarks about the rupture in U.S.-El Salvador relations that would follow an FMLN victory; the falling-out would have been inevitable, they implied, given the divergence between FMLN policies and U.S. “values.” ARENA’s backers now include mainly the likes of Elliott Abrams and right-wing columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady—a situation adding to the party’s desperation, reviewed above, and creating the kind of crisis only a self-proclaimed master like J.J. Rendón can supposedly resolve.

Over the past month, news has emerged regarding a different crisis: a spate of homicides throughout El Salvador, providing Quijano with an opportunity to blame Funes for rising murder rates, and the ARENA candidate announced that the situation calls for a militarized approach to public security. Parallels between this proposal and the recent deployment of militarized police forces in Honduras should not be ignored, and neither should Rendón’s activity in Honduras—both in 2009 and in the sham election a few months ago, when he advised Juan Hernández’s successful campaign, just before ARENA enlisted his services. But Patrick and Ana, another CISPES activist, explained a few nights ago that these efforts to intimidate the public, whether stemming from Rendón’s work or not, are failing, as their delegation’s numerous conversations with progressive groups and the broader Salvadoran public have made clear.

But a victorious FMLN this Sunday—or following a March run-off, if the election moves to that stage—would still face challenges in the near future. A review of the Funes era reveals, again, how Washington, working to advance the goals it shares with the Salvadoran right, can exploit fault lines in progressive governments—as when Funes supported, but FMLN legislators opposed, privatization of essential sectors. The U.S. goals remain constant regardless of who holds office, it bears repeating. Three months ago, for example, Washington and its Salvadoran allies—every presidential candidate but Sánchez—signed a “Nation’s Agreement,” committed to prioritizing business needs for the next three decades. Washington is only impartial in the sense that it doesn’t care in the end who does its bidding, so long as U.S. aims are achieved—ample reason for us to focus on El Salvador and its resistance to the Washington Consensus, not only through the election’s conclusion, but in the coming years as well.

Nick Alexandrov lives in Washington, DC.