Reading any of the mainstream newspapers in El Salvador, you’d think that the leftist Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation (FMLN) party had been soundly defeated in March’s mid-term legislative and municipal elections. The truth is more complicated. Since winning the presidency in the historic 2009 election, the first FMLN government has been busy developing social programs directed at meeting the needs of poor and working Salvadorans.
Popular support for the FMLN going into the March 11, 2012 elections seemed higher than ever, while reforms to the electoral system implemented by the country’s first FMLN-led electoral tribunal (TSE) were expected to prevent fraud and boost voter turnout. The party was optimistic about its chances of gaining a few more seats in the legislative assembly, making progress toward the 43-seat majority that would allow them to go after deeper structural changes. Instead, turnout was low and the FMLN lost 4 legislative seats—ending up with 31—while the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party gained 1 seat for a total of 33, replacing the FMLN as the party with the most seats. In the municipal races, the FMLN failed to retake San Salvador and lost key urban FMLN strongholds, but gained municipalities in rural areas that have traditionally gone to ARENA.
Absent from the March elections was the fraud and intimidation that has repeatedly thwarted the democratic process and kept the right-wing in power since the civil war ended in 1992. Under the FMLN government, El Salvador had its most transparent elections in recent history, yet the FMLN still suffered losses at the polls. Why?
The Revolutionary Project
According to Gregorio Muria, a voluteer teacher, “there’s never been a program like this before in El Salvador. We have a lot of poverty and our basic needs aren’t met. Past governments have never worked in the community like this, have never known our needs. This is the kind of thing that moves the country forward.” Muria teaches at the adult literacy circle in San Pedro Perulapan, a community in the rural province of Cuscatlán. They meet for two hours a day, five times a week for the Ministry of Education’s national literacy program—entitled “Si Yo Puedo” (Yes I Can)—that uses a Cuban methodology to teach the basics of reading and writing in just five months. Gregorio’s group is one of dozens around the department and one of thousands of circles meeting each weekday across the country.
“I was the youngest of nine siblings and the only daughter, so I didn’t get to go to school. The only education I got was how to make tortillas,” related Juliana Alberenga, one of the group’s elderly members. “At this point I know the numbers and letters of bus routes. Before, I’d wander around asking where the bus went to, which bus will I take? Now I can make my way.”
Over 100,000 adults graduated from the literacy program in the first 2 years. Several municipalities have already declared themselves illiteracy-free, making headway towards the government’s goal of eliminating its 17 percent illiteracy rate by 2021.
Similarly, the FMLN-led Ministry of Health has been taking major strides toward providing universal health care as guaranteed by the country’s Constitution. They eliminated hospital fees and started building women’s centers that offer free reproductive services, childcare, and domestic violence intervention. But the Ministry’s crowning achievement has been the creation of 400 community health teams (ECOs) that provide free door-to-door care in the poorest, most remote areas of El Salvador.
We were able to visit the 5-person ECO that serves the 2,000-person farming community of San Francisco Dos Cerros, an hour’s drive down a rugged dirt road from the town center of El Paisnal. A pregnant woman awaiting her appointment in the bustling ECO clinic confided, “Before the ECO came here, it was really expensive to go out to the clinics. Sometimes you don’t have the money so you can’t afford it. Now the community health team tracks everything. They come by the house to give my children vaccinations and check on my pregnancy once a month. I used to always be very worried when I was pregnant because it cost so much to get to El Paisnal to give birth. Now I’m not worried.”
Literacy and health care are just two examples of the social investment undertaken by the “government of change.” New elementary school education programs have doubled graduation rates while creating over 50,000 jobs as farmers and tailors in the community are commissioned to produce free uniforms, a pair of shoes, supplies, and meals for every student. The Ministry of Agriculture is working with agricultural cooperatives to produce packets of free seed and fertilizer for small-scale family farmers with the aim of reducing food imports and breaking the country’s dependence on transnational corporations. These programs paint an inspiring picture of the change that’s possible with a government that prioritizes the needs of the 99 percent. This kind of progress is what the FMLN had hoped to advance with a victory in the March elections.
Win For The Right Or Misstep For The Left?
After 12 years of armed struggle against the U.S.-backed Salvadoran government, the FMLN began its transition to electoral politics with the 1992 Peace Accords. From the first post-war elections in 1994 through the presidential elections of 2009, every election has been plagued by ARENA’s fraud, violence, and intimidation campaigns, often buttressed by overt U.S. support. This well-documented history of right-wing electoral manipulation was the tense backdrop for the March 2012 elections. Add to the mix the complicated new voting system and right-wing oligarchs desperate to recover lost ground, and the atmosphere was a powder keg. Our observer delegation was prepared to respond to an electoral explosion. But that never happened.
While some fraud did take place—thousands of ARENA “voters” bussed and housed in the capitol overnight before the election, the discovery of burned ballots cast for the FMLN—confusion over the process and technical errors were more common, but neither significantly impacted the elections’ results. In fact, these were the most open and transparent elections in El Salvador’s history.
Ultimately, neither the FMLN nor ARENA received a popular mandate at the polls, with merely 3 percent of the national votes separating the parties. Given the marked decrease in voter turnout from 62 percent in the 2009 legislative elections to 49 percent in 2012, it appears that one of the most significant electorate blocks on March 11 were those who did not come out to vote. Numbers indicate the sobering reality that many of these no-show voters came from the base of the FMLN. ARENA only received 1 percent more votes than in 2009, while the FMLN received 7 percent less—a loss of 150,000 votes from the last elections. These results clearly speak more to challenges the FMLN had in mobilizing its base, rather than the growing strength of ARENA.
The party leadership has framed the narrow loss as a critical lesson and opportunity for the FMLN to strengthen itself moving toward the 2014 presidential elections. In a public statement that reflected the political maturity and pragmatism of the party in the face of defeat, the FMLN pledged to “study with a cool head the causes and lessons of this process to make the readjustments that are necessary and possible, with a commitment to work better to find solutions to the major problems of the country…we will undertake a responsible assessment in a self-critical spirit.”
So why didn’t FMLN supporters come out as expected? For one thing, the national social programs that have been the bulk of the FMLN’s political projects over the past three years—like the literacy program, agricultural packets and ECOs—have benefitted the rural poor without addressing the declining economic conditions facing the urban poor and working class.
This bears out in the FMLN’s electoral gains in rural municipalities that have been long-time ARENA strongholds and their losses in many urban FMLN strongholds. Meanwhile, ARENA outspent the FMLN by 4 to 1 on the campaign trail, successfully turning out their urban voters to eke out victories in 7 of the 14 big municipalities of greater San Salvador—almost all of which had formerly been governed by the FMLN.
The results also speak to a level of disenchantment with the slow pace of change from the party’s grassroots militancy. As then FMLN mayor Blandino Nerio said before the elections, “To have a revolutionary project isn’t a question of 5 days or 15 years and the process isn’t easy. There are aspects that the people want done more quickly. The problems in this country are complex and urgent. How do we reconcile the desires of the people with the time it will take to deliver them?” Blandino subsequently lost in Mejicanos by less than 1 percent of the vote, after governing the working-class city for 9 years.
Perhaps the most intriguing factors to consider are the intertwined issues of security and the growing distance between President Mauricio Funes and the FMLN. Funes, who is not from the FMLN and was a strategic center-left candidate chosen to uproot ARENA, has frequently made decisions that have strained his relationship with the party that got him elected. The party has made it policy not to fight publicly with Funes, but nowhere have tensions been more evident than around the security question, which is closely tied to the U.S. agenda for El Salvador.
U.S. Imperialism Through Militarism
The U.S. government has been actively cultivating President Funes as a “security ally” in the region since President Obama’s visit to the country in March 2011. No less than three top officials from the Obama administration have met with Funes to promote the expansion of drug war policies from Mexico and Colombia into Central America, including Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano, and Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield. These visits came on the heels of proposals by several Central American presidents to legalize or decriminalize drugs as opposed to continuing with the current militaristic war on drugs model, which a recent UN report has declared a total failure. Their response has been to urge Central American countries to “stay the course” while firmly ruling out the possibility of legalization or decriminalization. Funes has bent over backwards to reassure them that he agrees.
It has become increasingly clear that the U.S. sees El Salvador as a lynchpin for its security plans in Central America, even throwing its weight around to ensure that El Salvador’s security cabinet is staffed with backers of its militarization scheme. High-level sources within the Ministry of Security claim that the U.S. government conditioned the signing of the Partnership for Growth, a security policy masked as economic cooperation, on the resignation of FMLN Minister of Security Manuel Melgar. Shortly after Melgar’s removal in November 2011, the rest of the FMLN security cabinet members were purged and replaced with former military officers trained at the School of the Americas. FMLN spokesperson Roberto Lorenzana denounced U.S. pressure on Funes with unprecedented candor: “This was not a decision that the president made; he is simply a spokesperson. It’s a decision that was made somewhere in the U.S. capital.”
With the dust barely settled after the cabinet shake-up, the U.S. government increased its pledge to the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) by a third, to $300 million. For the FMLN and Salvadoran social movement, U.S. motives are clear. According to Mayor Blandino, “Narco-trafficking is being used as an excuse to remilitarize our society and secure access to our resources. They’re bleeding our people with the drug war, and consolidating hegemony at the same time.” Under the guise of the war on drugs, the U.S. is reasserting its power in Central America.
The Salvadoran right-wing has also capitalized on security issues to further their agenda. The effect of these on the elections was two-fold. On the one hand, U.S. intervention exacerbated tensions between Funes and the FMLN, playing into the right-wing strategy of trying to make the party seem divided and shake the confidence of voters. Many FMLN supporters have grown angry with the party for not taking a stronger stand against Funes. On the other hand, in the months leading up to the elections, the media bombarded the public with images of crime and violence, portraying the FMLN as too weak to solve the problem. In this way, security issues were being used to justify U.S. intervention via the war on drugs while the right-wing was able to prey on people’s fears for political gain.
The March To 2014
On the morning of March 12, freshly-defeated FMLN mayoral candidate Jorge Schafik addressed the nation, the party, and their supporters with a call to forge ahead: “It’s important to have a very clear mind, just like we did during the war, when we won some battles and lost others. But we never lost sight of where we wanted to go.”
The FMLN is dealing with their first real setback since they swept into the presidency in 2009 amidst a sea of red flags and dancing in the streets. The question now is whether the party can rise to the challenge, reconnect with the people, and build strength for their next big battle—the high-stakes presidential elections in 2014. The logical next step for the Salvadoran revolution is to vote in and defend an FMLN president primed to challenge the Salvadoran elite, transnational corporations, and U.S. interests in the region. Regardless of a Democrat or Republican president in office, there is no doubt that the U.S. government will pull out all the stops to block a socialist FMLN presidential bid. The Salvadoran left will have to galvanize the population enough to withstand political attacks from a U.S. empire desperate to maintain its historic Central American ally.
At the same time, the losses of the mid-term elections, the movement of President Funes away from the FMLN and closer to the U.S., and the remilitarization of Salvadoran society make for a complicated political landscape. In the legislature, neither ARENA nor the FMLN has enough seats to push legislation alone. Both parties will have to court the 11 votes of opportunistic right-wing ARENA splinter party, the Grand National Alliance (GANA). In the past, GANA has voted with the FMLN on a number of important laws, but will undoubtedly vote with ARENA to protect the oligarchy’s economic hold on the country.
In the meantime, literacy students in San Pedro Perulapan and expecting mothers in San Francisco Dos Cerros are holding their breath. The right-wing has repeatedly denounced the FMLN’s social programs as gross over-spending and is likely to attack federal funding for these programs during the budget approval process. In San Pedro Perulapan, people told us, “If the FMLN loses, we’ll have a step backwards and the programs will be affected.” In San Francisco Dos Cerros, others said more hopefully, “If the FMLN remains in government, these changes will become permanent.”
The elections have made the future of these programs unclear, but not the future of the revolutionary project itself, which marches on to 2014.
Janae Choquette and Lisa Fuller are activists with CISPES. They participated in the March elections observation delegation. Photo from Wikimedia.