Rumorology: Elections in El Salvador
rue or not, international opinion says the Venezuelan government has been repressing a broad- based social movement seeking the ouster of President Nicolas Maduro. The anti-Maduro memes created by opposition ideologues in February have gained momentum as reposts and retweets from George Takei, Cher, and Madonna. The memes, some using recycled images from conflicts outside of Venezuela, purport to give clear and irrefutable testament to the claims of repression and have led to original anti-Maduro messaging and conflicts in international relations.
This is the effect of “rumorology”—the process of using established media and social media to spread misinformation or speculation to create political instability. In Latin America, where media control often rests in few elite hands and where international aid often takes on as a goal improving government institutions, such as electoral bodies, a group of political advisers have mastered the use of rumorology and legal processes to influence elections and lay the groundwork for future coups d’etat across the region.
One of these advisers is the self-exiled Venezuelan Juan José “J.J.” Rendón who has sported black outfits for the past 14 years as a statement against the Bolivarian Revolution and claims to be “a warrior of thought and political marketing.” In recent years, Rendón has had success working on campaigns of political parties in the process of consolidating or re-consolidating. Helping to carry out a farce of an election in Honduras consolidated the coup regime of Porfirio Lobo, who ensured his right-wing National Party controlled the country’s electoral tribunal for last November’s election. With Rendón operating the campaign of National Party candidate Juan Orlando Hernández, the tribunal looked the other way when presented with serious charges of fraud, giving the victory to the National Party. In Mexico, Rendón oversaw the campaign of Enrique Peña Nieto and the right-wing PRI, which had previously led the country for eight decades with extensive patronage networks, returning to power amidst accusations of vote buying.
But the recent Venezuelan election and post-election period may mark a shift in Rendón’s focus and the birth of a right-wing campaign strategy—a strategy recently carried out in El Salvador. Rendón became the campaign adviser to the right-wing ARENA party in El Salvador after the previous adviser and former ARENA president, Francisco Flores, fled the country to avoid prosecution for allegedly embezzling $10 million in aid from Taiwan. In the lead-up to the February 2 first round of voting, the corruption charges against Flores were in the news every night. The two main right-wing parties—ARENA and Unidad were polling around 35 and 15 percent, respectively, and the poll numbers for the leftist FMLN were soaring. The presence of Rendón as campaign adviser wasn’t apparent and the FMLN won the first round election by 10 points, coming close to the 50 percent plus one that would eliminate the need for a second round of voting.
The March 9 run-off election is where Rendón stepped up his game. He and ARENA launched an effort to buy votes through paying to renew the national ID cards for tens of thousands of Salvadorans. And at ID registration centers flooded with renewal applicants, “the ARENA candidate was going around…handing out water, food, and basic goods and asking for the vote even after the campaign was supposed to stop,” said FMLN representative to the Central American Parliament William Hernández on the day after the March 9 election.
While the FMLN continued to poll way ahead of ARENA and many commentators suggested that a leftist win was in the bag, Rendón and El Salvador’s major media outlets seized on the situation that was beginning to unfold in Venezuela to scare potential FMLN voters. Meanwhile, the FMLN sought the votes of people who supported the Unidad ticket in the first round, voters likely to be swayed not to vote or to vote for ARENA by speculation of Venezuela-style instability should the FMLN win. The National Republican Youth ran television commercials featuring snipers and street violence, suggesting El Salvador’s future as the “next Venezuela.” In short, rumorology, fear-mongering about 21st-century socialism, and traditional, if illegal, means of garnering votes set the stage for the new right-wing strategy.
The first step in this strategy: call into question the possibility of a free and fair election due to the supposed weakness or bias of the country’s electoral authority. ARENA started claiming that it lacked representation on El Salvador’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) well before the party began paying Rendon his $4.5 million consultation fee.
In October, Walter Araujo, the ARENA representative on the TSE, renounced his affiliation with the party. According to ARENA, this defection paved the way for corruption in the spring elections. As the elections neared, ARENA maintained its accusations that free and fair elections were unlikely. On the morning of the run-off election, some ARENA officials indicated the party planned to refuse to recognize the results. Days before the Venezuelan election, right-wing candidate Henrique Capriles took a similar tack, stating his intent to challenge the election results.
STEP TWO: declare victory before the electoral authority announces the winner. When it became clear that the elections results would be close, the Rendón camp made up its own results and declared that Norman Quijano had won the election. While the TSE delayed its decision to be sure about the results, the premature declaration of victory usurped the authority of the elections body. Again, the Venezuela election matched this trajectory.
STEP THREE call on supporters to defend the right-wing victory. In trying to override the authority of the TSE, ARENA candidate Norman Quijano called on the military to defend the Constitution and for his supporters to take to the streets. “As of this moment we are ready for war,” Quijano said in his victory speech. “Our armed forces are watching this fraud that is brewing. We are committed to defending this victory, we are going to fight with our lives if necessary.” El Salvador’s history of civil war and ARENA’s affiliation with death squads give important context to Quijano’s speech. Military officials, however, were quick to discredit Quijano’s claim of alliance. In Venezuela, Capriles riled supporters to take to the streets days after his electoral defeat and amidst ongoing protests that had already killed seven people.
STEP FOUR: denounce the election as fraudulent and demand a vote-by-vote recount. Though observers from the Organization of American States, the U.S. State Department, and various other organizations have said the Salvadoran elections were notably transparent, the ARENA party claim- ed fraud and called for all votes to be hand counted. The way the voting tables were set up to include members of both parties monitoring the vote and the requirement that all representatives sign off on the count at each table, ensures transparency. Challenging the process as fraudulent intensified the conflict in both El Salvador and Venezuela, giving the right wing in both countries a demand around which to organize.
FINAL STEP: mobilize whatever street protest the party can muster. In the days following the election, the ARENA campaign staged media spectacles. Participants of a demonstration in San Salvador stepped out of Mercedes-Benz vehicles and wore Rolex watches and held pre-printed protest signs about fraud at the TSE. ARENA offered food from Pollo Campero at subsequent protests, attracting a few dozen protestors. Protests in Venezuela have been limited to the affluent guarimba region and middle class college campuses. In both cases, protests give the right wing a veneer of broad-based support, even though class composition divulges the motivations of the protests.
In El Salvador, the leftist FMLN party won the election by a margin of .11 percent. ARENA’s multi-million dollar effort to renew identification cards and turn out voters work- ed to increase votes for the right, according to William Hernández of the FMLN, while the FMLN’s alli- ance-building with Unidad and assumptions of FMLN supporters of the party’s victory hindered turnout Still, ARENA has publicly conceded its loss and the Supreme Court has thrown out the cases filed by Norman Quijano.
Since the election, however, an email attributed to ARENA has made waves in Salvadoran social media. The message outlines five strategies to sabotage the Sánchez Cerén government. Reading like a page from the customary destabilization playbook in Venezuela, the message calls for the right wing to expend the government’s energy through legal challenges, create conflict through protests, use gangs for political gain or destruction, encouraging economic sabotage and strengthening ties with the international right wing.
The U.S. State Department recognized the victory of former union militant and guerrilla leader Salvador Sánchez Cerén. In a statement on March 25, Secretary of State John Kerry congratulated the president- elect on his victory. He also made clear the ongoing economic interests of the United State: “The United States looks forward to working with President Salvador Sanchez Ceren and to continuing joint efforts to promote security and economic development through the Partnership for Growth. Our longstanding partnership and commitment to El Salvador and the Salvadoran people continues.” The Partnership for Growth encourages the privatization of public-sector services, and privatization is likely to be the first post-election fight the Salva- doran social movement will take on.
Salvadoran Revolutionary Project Continues
A theme exists in the campaigns Rendón takes on. Where “he is essential and the political moment demands it” seems to be where the global neoliberal system faces challenges. The Bolivarian Revolution of Venezuela is a prime example of what a state could do with massive amounts of wealth if the objective was supporting poor and working-class people and a stark contrast to wealthy Western countries. In Mexico, after the defeat of a strong leftist in the last two presidential elections, privatization of public services, such as the state oil company, moves forward, to the benefit of a wealthy few. In Honduras, a president who sought to create social programs for the poor was replaced with another who proclaimed the country “open for (transnational) business.”
In El Salvador, the FMLN government is on pace to eradicate illiteracy by 2015. Its community health teams have brought care to traditionally underserved communities and brought down the rate of infant mortality. The government has provided uniforms and school supplies, all donated by local businesses. El Salvador’s is a different kind of development, one focused on meeting people’s needs.
Allen Hines is the Seattle Chapter coordinator of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador. He was in El Salvador as an international observer for the March 9 election. Photos by Hines.