Facing a serious electoral debacle in advance of Sunday’s presidential election, and recognizing that it cannot win the election based on practical ideas, the right-wing ARENA (or Nationalist Republican Alliance) party has launched an ugly campaign to link leftist FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front) candidate Mauricio Funes with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
There are many similarities between ARENA’s position and the Republican Party prior to the November, 2008 election. Like the GOP, ARENA has now been entrenched in power for a long time. To many Salvadorans, ARENA seems like a colossal dinosaur mired in the past. Founded by right wing death squad leader Roberto D’Aubuisson, held to be one of the instigators of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980, ARENA is still fervently anti-Communist. ARENA, whose colors are red, white and blue, models itself on the U.S. Republican party but is even more explicitly nationalist. The hymn of the party touts El Salvador as the tomb where “the Reds will die.”
While such heated rhetoric may have appealed to some in the midst of the country’s bloody civil war between the right and left in the 1980s, ARENA now looks increasingly bereft. Salvadorans want practical solutions to the country’s intractable social problems and are hardly in the mood for more of the same anachronistic Cold War rhetoric.
Even if ARENA were to run a novel and innovative campaign however, the party would still face a huge uphill battle. ARENA has been in power now for twenty years. During this time the small Central American nation has descended into violent lawlessness with robbery and homicide rates flying off the charts. ARENA candidate Rodrigo Ávila, the country’s former head of national police, has pledged to combat violent crime. Only Funes however has said he would purge elements of the police force linked to organized crime.
Adding to Ávila’s worries, ARENA has mismanaged the economy. In recent years, the party has eagerly followed Washington’s dictates by privatizing social services and public utilities. The outgoing administration of Antonio Saca signed the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States, but the deal has not led to social harmony. The country is still plagued by extreme inequality while 37 per cent of Salvadorans live in poverty and can’t pay high food prices. This fuels the crime wave which has proven so worrying to poor Salvadorans.
Funes is hardly what one might call a fire breathing leftist. A former media commentator, he seeks to remake the FMLN into a pragmatic political party. At rallies, he doesn’t sing the party’s anthem or wear its traditional red colors, preferring to campaign in a crisp white guayabera shirt. It’s a symbolic move designed to contrast himself with many in the party who still wear fatigues and brandish pictures of Che Guevara and Soviet flags at campaign rallies.
Meanwhile he has bent over backwards to placate the U.S. and has met with State Department officials as well as members of Congress, reassuring them that he is no radical. In addition, Funes has declared that El Salvador should not scrap use of the dollar by returning to its previous currency, the colón. Funes says that “dollarization” and the adoption of the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2006 have had negative effects such as inflation and unfavorable competition for small-scale farmers but that it is too late to scrap these policies.
To listen to the Salvadoran right you’d think Funes was leading El Salvador on the march towards Stalinist dictatorship. While campaigning near the Honduran border recently, Ávila claimed that the Funes campaign was being funded by Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez. “There’s a saying that ‘Whoever pays the mariachi decides what song is going to be played,’” Ávila remarked. “And that’s going to happen with them,” he added. “No matter what they say, what they do, their campaign is being financed by Venezuela.”
Funes himself denies having any political links with the Chávez government and has said that Venezuela will not meddle in Salvadoran internal affairs if he wins the presidential election. Furthermore, the FMLN leader has distanced himself from some of the more enthusiastic pro-Chávez members of his party. Despite Funes’s disavowals however, ARENA has continued to press on with its hysterical red baiting even though the rightist party has no proof that Funes has received financial support from Chávez.
Both Funes and Chávez, said outgoing President Antonio Saca, were trying to spread “totalitarian projects” and wanted to “stick their noses” in anti-democratic practices. It was “no secret” Saca added hyperbolically, that the FMLN received “its ideological nourishment from Havana” and its economic nourishment “from some other place.” In yet another ridiculous and over the top aside, Saca declared “I am sure that there’s some kind of working group in Venezuela which seeks to take over El Salvador.”
As evidence of the supposed Chávez-FMLN conspiracy, ARENA points to Chávez’s Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (known by its Spanish acronym ALBA). The plan, initiated by Chávez several years ago, seeks to counteract corporately driven free trade schemes backed by Washington and to promote barter trade and solidarity amongst left wing Latin American countries. Chávez himself has been a rather bombastic critic of CAFTA, remarking that ARENA was “making deals with the devil, the devil himself.”
As a party, the FMLN has historically opposed CAFTA and U.S.-backed free trade while approving of Chávez’s barter schemes. El Salvador does not produce oil, and in 2006 FMLN mayors set up a joint venture energy company with Venezuela called ENEPASA. The initiative is designed to provide less expensive fuel to El Salvador’s drivers. The oil is sold by gas stations bearing a special non-corporate, “white flag” emblem.
When FMLN mayors signed the agreement in Caracas, Chávez suggested that money the Salvadoran municipalities saved on energy could be used to subsidize public transport and food prices. Under the terms of the agreement, cities pay 60 per cent of their fuel bill within 90 days. The rest may be paid in barter for agricultural and other locally made products or in cash over a 25-year period.
While it’s certainly true that Venezuela has increased its diplomatic and political visibility in El Salvador over the last few years, ARENA’s claims about Chávez’s insidious designs are uproarious. Since the inception of the ENEPASA deal, Venezuela has only sent modest amounts of diesel to El Salvador. Moreover, it’s not clear whether Venezuela can continue to sell discounted oil to the FMLN. In years past, Chávez has been able to increase his geopolitical standing throughout the region by providing cheap oil to poor and impoverished nations. But now, with world oil prices falling, Venezuela may be forced to curtail its ALBA program.
As an issue, Venezuela is a red herring in Sunday’s Salvadoran election. But that hasn’t stopped ARENA from launching a full frontal assault on Funes for having alleged political ties to another foreign power. It’s a sign of political desperation from a party bereft of any coherent ideas about how to solve El Salvador’s enduring social and economic problems.
NIKOLAS KOZLOFF is the author of Revolution! South America and the Rise of the New Left (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2008)