El Salvador is the most tragic and oppressed country in the Americas, yet today it wakes up to a new dawn of hope and anticipation, with the election victory of Mauricio Funes, the candidate of a historic leftwing party, the Farabundo Martm National Liberation Front (FMLN). Funes himself is a journalist, a former television presenter and a moderate social democrat, but his party is the heir to the principal radical tradition in the country established over the past 80 years, years of extreme conservatism punctuated by periods of excruciating violence unleashed on the population by the most reactionary landed oligarchy in the Americas. The 500-year struggle in Latin America between indigenous peoples and white settlers from Europe is finally being won, and El Salvador will now take its place beside Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador as a country where the rights of the continent’s indigenous peoples are recognised and defended.
The party of Funes takes its name from Agustmn Farabundo Martm, a member of that first generation of communist leaders in Central America in the 1920s that included Augusto Cisar Sandino of Nicaragua, the inspiration of the Sandinistas. Farabundo Martm took part in the famous peasant uprising of 1932, sparked off by the global economic crisis that led to a collapse of the coffee price, the country’s principal export earner. The crisis was crushed by the US-backed military dictator of the time, General Maximilian Martmnez, in what was called “La Matanza”, or “slaughtering” , in which 30,000 mostly indigenous people were killed.
Farabundo Martm was captured and shot, but his name was taken up by the guerrilla movement that emerged in the 1970s, to carry on the struggle against the successive military governments that dominated the country in the 20th century. That struggle, waged throughout the 1980s, was even more viciously crushed than “La Matanza” of the 1930s, and led to the deaths of more than 70,000 people. The war in El Salvador was one of the best-reported stories of its time in the international media, which highlighted the huge financial support provided by the Reagan government to the local military.
A particular feature of the war was the repression ordered by the army of the Catholic church, with the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero in March 1980 and of four American churchwomen in December that year, and of six Jesuit teachers in November 1989. The war was finally brought to an end with a UN-brokered peace process in 1991, but although the FMLN was then able to participate in politics, the country has remained dominated by the ultra rightwing Arena party that had once fuelled the paramilitary militias and death squads of the 1980s. Until today. The Arena candidate, Rodrigo Avila, himself a former police chief, gracefully conceded on Sunday night that he had lost the election. As in the 1930s, El Salvador is feeling the effects of the global economic crisis, and the neoliberal model inflicted on Central America over recent decades is already being rejected in Nicaragua, Honduras and Guatemala. El Salvador is just the latest country to follow this trend.
Much was made during the election campaign of the possible leftist influence of Hugo Chavez of Venezuela or of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, but the FMLN made considerable efforts to emphasise the national dimension of their ambitions. In an interview last year, Funes explained his modest aims:
We do not need to be close to Chavez, close to Lula or close to Bush in order for our institutions and democracy to work. What we need is to build a model of public management that responds to the needs of Salvadorans and that will resolve Salvadoran problems. We respect the process being followed in Venezuela, as well as we respect and closely watch the new society which Lula is building, and the one that the new President Fernando Lugo in Paraguay has promised to build. Those processes are a response to other circumstances. What we hope to build are relationships based on co-operation and solidarity with the people represented by each one of these countries. However, we are not going to follow the same recipe or model that might have worked in other countries, but has nothing to do with our reality.
The election campaign brought back many memories of the country’s troubled and divided history, but today’s FMLN is very different from the Marxist guerrilla movement that once sought to bring the Cuban revolutionary style to Central America. Yet another victory for the Latin America left is certainly a challenge for the new government in the United States. President Lula met President Obama in Washington on Saturday and suggested that he should create a relationship of “trust not interference” , with Latin America. “What I said to President Obama, and I hope he will make it happen, is that there would be closer ties with Venezuela, closer ties with Cuba, closer ties with Bolivia,” Lula told reporters. In April, when Obama travels to Trinidad for a meeting with Latin American presidents, he will have to explain where his new administration will stand.
This article originally appeared in the Guardian.