El Salvador Conquers Fear, Elects Leftist President

FMLN supporters in San Salvador’s Masferrer Plaza on March 15photo by Joeff Davis / www.Joeff.com

On March 15, 2009 the people of El Salvador elected leftist candidate Carlos Mauricio Funes under the FMLN flag. By a narrow margin of 51.3 percent to 48.7 percent of the vote over the opposition party, ARENA, the FMLN (Frente Farabundo Martí de Liberación Nacional) won its first presidency since the peace accords were signed in 1992. Voting participation was 61 percent.

"This is for the martyrs, the fallen, the dead," said Chiyo Vásquez, an ex-combatant who lost most of his family during the civil war and who had started fighting with the guerrillas when he was 12 years old: "Our people carved their liberty with so much sacrifice."

"We have to honor and recognize the great courage of more than one million people against strong winds and high water who defied a campaign based on lies," wrote Iván Montecinos, a photojournalist who covered and survived the 1980s war. He was referring to the roughest (and dirtiest) part of the campaign launched against Mauricio Funes and the FMLN during the last weeks of the 2009 electoral process, like the 30-minute spot played on several TV stations linking Mauricio Funes to Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro while alluding to the "nation’s fight against communism."

Historically, elections in El Salvador have been riddled with fraud and a prohibitive democratic process, particularly for the poorest. But to really understand the historical importance of the 2009 elections, one has to look back to 1931—the year General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez deposed in a coup El Salvador’s first reformist president, Arturo Araujo, and crushed the campesino uprising that followed in January 1932. Dubbed by Salvadorans as "La Matanza," or the Great Massacre, it resulted in the death of between 10,000 to 30,000 mostly indigenous people and marked the beginning of 60 years of military regimes.

It was the Communist Party led by Farabundo Martí that helped plan the failed 1932 uprising. Months before Araujo’s fall, members of the Communist Party were not allowed to take congressional seats gained during the 1931 elections.

After the uprising, political parties were not allowed to form until the early 1960s. In 1972 leftist candidate José Napoleón Duarte won an election under a coalition of opposition parties (the Union of National Opposition or UNO), but was not allowed to take power. He was detained, beaten, and exiled to Venezuela together with his vice presidential candidate Guillermo Ungo. Political repression was in full force.

In 1977 a last attempt of democratic participation via elections was again thwarted by fraud, handing the presidency to General Carlos Humberto Romero. By October 1980, five guerrilla forces merged to create the FMLN and war was declared against a military that was ravaging the country with state terror. The ARENA Party won the presidential elections in 1989 and has ruled El Salvador since with an aggressive neoliberal agenda.

ARENA’s origins are worth noting. On March 22, 1980, Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero told government soldiers during his weekly radio sermon to refrain from violence, calling for an end to the repression. A few days later, he was murdered while conducting mass. The assassination was orchestrated by Major Roberto D’Aubuisson (confirmed during an investigation by the UN’s Truth Commission in 1993), founder of the ARENA Party and head of the death squad, the Unión Guerrera Blanca. D’Aubuisson is considered a hero by the ARENA Party—President Antonio Saca named a plaza and street after him in 2006.

However, on March 15, San Salvador was covered in red flags and T-shirts as people celebrated the FMLN victory after six decades of political defeat. They sang songs about the war, La Matanza, Archbishop Arnulfo Romero, and D’Aubuisson. President-elect Funes said in an interview the day after his victory that the 2009 election was "a new peace accord for national conciliation" and that these elections opened a space for a new "democratic coexistence and the creation of unity."

Funes is well aware that he won with a narrow margin of 2.5 percent of the votes—although a Gallup poll had placed him 15 points ahead 2 weeks earlier. He inherits a country in a deep economic crisis with a widening gap between the poor and the rich; a country that in the past 20 years faced the dollarization of its currency, the privatization of the electric and telecommunication systems, and a national economic dependency on the remittances sent by the 2.9 million Salvadorans living overseas. But it’s a country now filled with new hope." It’s the springtime of our democracy," writes César Caralva Ramírez, a well-known writer and editor at the century-old Diario Co Latino newspaper. "In the end, we didn’t vote for an ‘ideology’ or ‘a change of the economic system.’ We voted for the institutionalization of the best system humanity has known: democracy."


Sofía Jarrín-Thomas is co-host of the news affairs show "What’s Left" on 88.1 FM, Cambridge. She has published articles with Z Magazine, Dollars & Sense, Tintaji, and Indymedia. She is currently working on an oral histories project about El Salvador.