El Salvador Elections



The signing of a peace
accord between the guerrilla commanders and the right-wing
government in 1992 promised a period of freedom, prosperity,
and peace. Overseas donors would contribute funds for
reconstruction, reinsertion of combatants, and social reform.
The regime would dismantle the repressive apparatuses
including the paramilitary death squads and encourage popular
participation in the political process. The guerrillas would
lay down their arms and seek change through the electoral
arena and legal social movements. The ensuing stability would
encourage new investments, jobs, and rising income.

In the five years
since the Peace Accords have been signed the emerging social,
economic, and political reality is a great deal more
contradictory and the popular movements are far from
realizing the goals that they were originally led to believe
would emerge from the accords.

In the first instance,
the accords have different meaning for different political
sectors and social classes of Salvadoran society. What were
originally ambiguities in meaning regarding the nature of the
economy and society are being resolved in ways unfavorable to
the trade unions, peasant organizations, and public employees
(teachers, health workers, etc.) who provided the bulk of
supporters and most of the victims in the revolutionary
struggle. On the other hand, most of the leading commanders
seem to be doing well, firmly ensconced in the party
apparatus of the FMLN, in private business, or occupying
seats in Congress, municipal governments, or in NGOs.

The period since the
Peace Accords has brought out the divergent class interests
that were held together during the revolutionary struggle by
the indiscriminate terror of the pro-U.S. right-wing regime.
The same is true on the right: socio-political
differentiation has provoked important realignments within
the ruling class.

The changes favoring
electoral activity over extra-parliamentary politics of
social movements is accompanied by a new style of politics in
which national and capitalist vertical alliances replace
class and socialist horizontal coalitions.

The new politics takes
place in the context of a new role for the U.S. No longer
directly intervening in the minutiae of financing and
directing everyday repressive activity, Washington stands as
an overseer. The Embassy and the associated aid agencies and
military advisors are consulted by major parties and social
movements and are involved in setting forth economic agendas
and delimiting the boundaries of "acceptable

Together this ensemble
of new-style political activity and alliances and
redefinition of roles by the U.S. and its military allies
represents a kind of New Order. The New Order is defined by
the deepening of neoliberal economic agenda, an increase in
the electoral presence of the Left, and the displacement of
the popular social movements by NGOs and other professional
and middle-class organizations directed toward privatizing
public services and depoliticizing their popular

Thus, the central
paradox: the Peace Accords, by eliminating the threat of
revolution, have facilitated the introduction of free-market
capitalism and the marginalization of popular actors.

In many ways, the
accords are clearly modeled after the so-called
"democratic transitions" in the Southern Cone of
Latin America. The same process of  "impunity for
the military," preservation of the class structure, and
the deepening of neoliberal economic agenda forms the
framework for the introduction of electoral processes. While
the starting point in El Salvador differs (a massive popular
revolutionary struggle, an agrarian reform of some
consequence), the political direction is similar: a state
policy directed toward polarized development; a political
process in which electoral parties diverge from social
movements; and a re-thinking within the social movements of
their relation to the electoral parties and processes.

Ambiguities and

The Peace Accords have
been interpreted by the major political and social forces in
different ways. Even within the major blocs on the Left and
Right there are different meanings regarding the policies the
post-accord regime should pursue.

On the Left, the FMLN
has opted for an electoral political party format, is deeply
immersed in electoral activity and largely divorced from the
day to day struggles of base organizations. Its policies
reflect the heavy bias of lower middle class and even
national business interests, favoring national
industry-protectionism, and state incentives to local
enterprise. It is largely a party of the upwardly mobile,
lower middle class, ex-combatants set on the new course of
finding a niche in the society and in the interstices of the
"neoliberal" economy. In large part, the FMLN looks
to the Center politically and upward to the national
bourgeois for political and social alliances. Its
mobilizations are largely confined to electoral campaign
marches and meetings, drawing on the urban lower class and
rural co-op members threatened by the counter-reform agenda
of the regime.

The social movements,
the major umbrella peasant organization, the ADC (The
Democratic Peasant Alliance-Alianza Democratica Campesina)
and the major trade union organization (UNTS) have suffered a
series of setbacks, both politically and economically.
Politically, the government has put forth agrarian and labor
legislation that seriously weakens their capacity to organize
and engage in struggle. Land occupations are now illegal,
legislation facilitating the sub-division of co-ops is in
place, rural debt payments are being enforced forcing
peasants off the land, trade union strikes have been broken,
free trade production zones banning unions and strikes
proliferate, etc.

Equally important, the
leaders of the social movements feel abandoned by the FMLN.
Their demands and struggles no longer have a privileged place
in the FMLN. They carry out their struggle with only a
symbolic nod of approval from their ex-commanders.

The most striking
divergence between movements and parties, however, is found
in the case of two prominent personages, Joaquim Villabobos
and Ana Guadalupe Martinez, both ex-commanders in the FMLN.
Both have supported right-wing sponsored socio-economic
measures and formed congressional alliances with ARENA and
conservative Christian Democrats. They have formed a new
party, the Democratic Party, which has supported raising the
regressive value added tax by 25 percent, supported the
privatization and sub-division of the co-ops, and are
increasingly linked with the economic program of the
"free market" right.

In the five years
since the signing of the Accords, the electoral left has
achieved legitimacy, but lost its class identity and
revolutionary character; gained political office but diluted
its program to an inoffensive platform of honest
administration, increased social spending and promotion of
national capitalist enterprises. The social movements have
become fragmented, weakened, and without effective and strong
presence in the new political order.

The right-wing
split-offs from the FMLN have had some short-term regional
impact but have gradually been absorbed by the existing
right-wing formations, evolving toward marginal actors on the
fringe of the bi-nominal political system.

The Divergence in the

The basic social
classes on the Right (the business, landlord, financial,
manufacturing and real estate groups) secured their basic
objective in the Peace Accords: political stability and the
preservation of their wealth, property and class position.
They also retained control over the state—the Army,
police, judiciary and Central Bank. By eliminating the
revolutionary popular army and dispersing its social base,
they have been able to attract new private financial flows
and the expatriation of overseas Salvadorean capital. In this
new climate and correlation of forces, the Right has been
able to legislate repressive legislation (as opposed to using
paramilitary forces and state terror) and measures to
dismantle the agrarian reform. The Right held together by its
fear of revolution, common opposition to the popular army and
by its common purpose in undermining labor unions and co-ops.
Today they are deeply divided over which sectors of the elite
should benefit from the economic opening and what kind of
development strategy should be pursued. Essentially two
positions, increasing in conflict, have emerged. The dominant
sector proposes an open economy, linked to overseas financial
markets, real estate and tourist based growth, and
maquiladores run by overseas investors. The other sector
represents manufacturing and agricultural producers hit by
foreign imports, high interest rates and loss of state
subsidies. Thus there is a fissure on the Right between
"financial liberals" and "productive
nationalists." Their struggle is over who will redirect
income away from the working class and peasants toward what
kind of capitalist strategy.

The ascendancy of the
financial liberal right in ARENA, the governing party has led
to defection by the nationalist toward the older right-wing
party, the PCN and, in a few cases, toward the FMLN.

The end of the war and
the deepening of the neoliberal agenda has produced deep
fractures within the upper classes and between the middle and
working class. It has led to political realignments on the
right and left: nationalist capitalists moving toward the
traditional right and some to the center; liberal leftists
moving to the center-right. Parallel to the political
realignment is the social fragmentation of the social
movements. During the war the social movements were unified
under the leadership of the FMLN which supported their
demands and to which they directed their material and
personal support. The relation was reciprocal with extensive
family, neighborhood and community bonds linking peasant,
neighborhood, trade union and guerrilla organizations. In the
post-Accord period most of those social bonds have been
fractured: the ex-guerrilla commanders and the FMLN are
decidedly oriented to public office holding and exercising
power from the seats of government; the social movements have
each turned to trying to solve the specific problems
confronting their sector; communities have in differing
degrees become internally divided as NGO projects
depoliticize and concentrate on focus groups; families,
especially of the poor, increasingly compete over scarce
resources; individual ex-combatants look toward maximizing
consumption. For many, the absence of solidarity and
collective struggle has led to rampant crime as a means of
social mobility. A key element in this social fragmentation
is the conscious decision of the FMLN leaders to embrace
"pragmatic democratic rhetoric" and to renounce
Marxist class analysis and the socialist vision of the
future. For many it is a return to the
"progressive" capitalist dogma of the 1950s. The
capacity to unify and motivate solidarity among the poor is
very limited, hence the recourse is to employ vague populist
slogans of change and progress. The structural analysis and
class relations remain unstated, leaving the way open to
cross-class alliances at the top and social fragmentation at
the bottom. The electoral appeal is now directed to atomized
citizens not to class; the appeal is to "social
pacts" not to "class struggle." In the context
of the neoliberal offensive by the employers, the pragmatic
rhetoric does not resonate with the experiences at the
bottom. While the "class struggle from above"
continues, the electoral campaigns capture the discontent at
the bottom, but without providing a framework from which to
confront neoliberalism.

Growth of FMLN,
Decline of Social Movements

There is no question
that the FMLN is an accepted part of the political class
today in El Salvador. While the right-wing media still
persists in sporadic efforts to stigmatize them and to
discover "subversive plots," by and large the FMLN
leaders have access to the print and electronic media. While
electoral activists are harassed and on occasion
assassinated, the FMLN has been accepted as a valid
interlocutor with business, professional, and even military

The legitimacy of the
FMLN has been purchased, however, at a political price. It
has become an electoral party not a mass party. While
individual FMLN activists do engage in mass mobilization and
national leaders do consult with social movements, most of
their time is spent on their parliamentary and legislative
functions and in negotiating and dealing with a variety of
social entities, including business and agro-business
associations. As a result, the FMLN is a growing electoral
force, one which increasingly attracts lower middle- and
middle-class support while continuing to draw votes from the
rural areas. Most of its lower-class loyalties are drawn from
its past political capital, the promise of improved social
services, and its campaign against government abuses and
corruption. Yet most of its lower class support is passive.
It is not activated between elections. During electoral
campaigns there is a kind of mobilization and the older
solidarity relations are recalled. There is, however, a new
discourse that is devoid of class content and full of vacuous
"democratic" and "change" rhetoric. Thus
far, the FMLN has been able to build from its popular base
and reach out to the middle and business class. However, the
unattended lower class is up for bids by the vote buying
Right which is not adverse to large-sale high impact
short-term projects in target neighborhoods.

On the other hand, the
social movements that deal not in votes and political deals
but in defending the material interests of workers and
peasants against factory owners, bankers, and landowners have
not been accepted. There is a vast gap between their legal
standing and their de facto recognition as social
interlocutors. In this regard, the ADC has seen its proposals
for debt forgiveness ignored; the trade unions have seen
thousands of jobs disappear as privatization moves ahead.

In contrast to the
expansion of the FMLN, the social movements have been in
retreat and on the defensive. The divergent policies and the
different social interests behind them has led to the growing
autonomy of the social movements. During the war the social
movements channeled money, food, resources and personnel to
the popular army. The commanders generally set policy and
defined strategies and by and large the social leaders
followed. The demands of the war legitimated the vertical
relation between the FMLN and the social movements. After the
Peace Accords, the FMLN moved toward greater assimilation
into the institutional-electoral system and de facto put
distance to the movements; the movements in turn felt that
the old vertical ties led to a neglect of their class
interests. Thus autonomy of the movements meant less pressure
on the FMLN leaders and more freedom to maneuver toward the
Center; for the movements it meant greater capacity to
articulate their struggles and develop their own agenda
independent of the deals and agreements formulated by the
FMLN within the Congressional arena.

In the short run the
growth of movement autonomy and the evolution of the FMLN has
yielded uneven results. The FMLN grows numerically by
diluting its original revolutionary project. The movements
have been weakened organizationally and politically but they
have recovered their capacity to deepen their ties to the
bases and develop a more coherent class perspective and
strategy to confront the neoliberal agenda providing they can
overcome their internal divisions.

New Politics on the

The Left, basically
the FMLN, has clearly shifted its political orientation from
its earlier period. The shift began during the
mid-1980’s and has deepened with the entry into
electoral politics. The basic shift is from class-based
politics toward populist-nationalist coalitions up to the end
of the war. Since 1992 the nationalist policy has been
accompanied by an adaptation to the "modernization"
rhetoric that permeates Salvadoran intellectual and political
class today. The practical implication can be summed up as
attracting sectors of the bourgeoisie by de-mobilizing the
social movements. The national front means emphasizing the
struggle against neoliberalism at the expense of the class
struggle. The focus is on the inter-capitalist struggle and
the critique of external enemies.

The "new
reformers" of the FMLN are increasingly professionals,
technocrats, small business people and a few entrepreneurs.
Their interlocutors, include big business and agro-business
groups adversely affected by the free trade policies. This
conversion of the FMLN to national-capitalist politics is
evident in its political language. The bridging of class
differences is found in the frequent references to consensus.
The political negotiations with the center are directed
toward securing "social pacts." The pursuit of
essentially an electoral strategy and the negative view of
popular mobilization is directed toward "consolidating
democracy." Participation in multi-class forums with
representatives of big business is described as establishing

The new project of
FMLN is coherent from the perspective of a Party seeking to
maximize votes and manage the system through incremental
reforms. The problem is the contradiction between its new
alliances and its traditional social base. Underlying the bid
for a multi-class alliance is the idea that the capitalists
are willing to share wealth and property, and finance welfare
and social programs with their profits amassed through
protectionism. The leaders of the FMLN believe that the
capitalist class and the welfare state can be made
compatible—a nostalgic view—based on the social
democratic model of Europe in the 1960s and 1970s. In
interviews with FMLN leaders one senses a frustration and
even hostility when questioned about the absence of
contemporary examples of capitalism financing welfare states.
As Shafik Handel put it: "What you’re saying is
that nothing can be done. Since socialism is definitely not
on the agenda today your are denying that any practical
program of reform is feasible! That leaves us with the status
quo or with unrealistic proposals that are not politically

Clearly an electoral
alliance is possible between Left and Center. The FMLN has
increased its electoral position and influence in local and
national government. However, the advance of its
"capitalist strategy" increasingly dilutes its
welfare program: the party of social democracy increasingly
resembles a social-liberal party.

While the FMLN turns
toward the Center, the social movements move toward the Left.
There is a strong sense of the need to deepen class politics
among certain dynamic sectors (ADC, UNTS). The tendency to
look upward to the FMLN and outward to NGOs is declining. The
radicalization is a reaction against political coalitions
that fail to confront the regimes’ neoliberal offensive
that is reducing salaries, bankrupting peasants and sending
the urban poor into the informal economy. The radicalization
reflects a recognition that outside funds are increasingly
centralized into NGOs run by manipulative upwardly mobile
professionals who serve as transmission belts for the free
market agenda of their overseas financial benefactors.

In the short term
these realignments create a financial as well as political
crises within the movements. But it also forces them toward
greater self-reliance and independence. The "new
politics of the left" involves building coalitions among
the social movements, greater autonomy from the NGOs, and a
revival of class analysis. The experience of the social
movement since the Peace Accords goes contrary to the social
pact and consensual rhetoric of the ex-Commanders.

The renewed class
warfare is an extension of the military struggle of the past
decade. Firings of workers, breaking of strikes, expulsion of
land squatters now take place through the reorganized army
and police. The orders are given by legally constituted
authorities citing written laws, upheld by the legal system.
The result is the same: reinforcement of the rule of the
capitalist class and increased exploitation and
impoverishment of the peasants. The laws are not applied (the
judicial system also reflects its ruling class bias however)
when they adversely affect the interests of capital—such
as the application of land reform provisions that provide
expropriation of excess land holdings.

The class nature of
the regime and economic policy directly impacts on the
members of the social movements in a way that the political
class of the FMLN cushioned by its location in the political
system is not affected. Isolated from official power, the
movements today focus on developing an economic program for
the co-operatives in the countryside and the community-based
economies in areas of long-term FMLN influence. These islands
of co-operative production operate however, in a sea of free
market capitalism—the waves of which are increasingly
breaching the walls of social solidarity created during the
war. As one community leader in Segundo Monte told us,
"Either we extend our economic base to the adjoining
regions or else we will end up absorbed by the neoliberal
economy. It is difficult or impossible to build a socialist
economy in one community."

New Politics of the

The Right, basically
ARENA, has shifted its tactics in the Post Accord period.
Counting on its control of the Executive, Congress,
Judiciary, Police and as well as the Central Bank and most
municipal governments, it has moved quickly to implement a
neoliberal program centered in the privatization of public
enterprises, the reversal of the Agrarian Reform and the
dismantling of the popular movements. It has reined its
para-military groups and mainly relied on legalized
repression and selective extra-judiciary violence. While
human rights violations have declined in relation to the
past, the abuse of the collective rights of organized
movements continues to be the norm.

In place of terror
ARENA increasingly resorts to the use of public treasury to
promote their re-election, and relies heavily on its control
of the mass media. The inter-locking power between elite
economic interests and the Right insures that ARENA will
vastly out-spend its opponents during the election campaigns.
It remains to be seen whether ARENA will confine its efforts
to retain power by solely relying on vote buying, media
blitzes, and occasional thuggery or whether it will return to
its former practices of voter fraud and political terror if
it perceives an imminent loss of executive power. The basic
test of the democratic transition is whether the Right will
accept the rules of the electoral game if they lose. Clearly
the FMLN’s move to the Center makes losing more
politically acceptable.

The other problem
facing ARENA does not come from the Left but from its own
ranks. The application of free market policies has led to a
number of important defections toward other right-wing
parties. The division between finance capital and "the
productive sectors" that some analysts draw should be
taken with a grain of salt—as many of the principal
capitalists move their capital across sectors and all share a
common interest in curtailing labor rights and keeping wages
low. Nonetheless the political divisions exist and have
weakened the unified front of ARENA. What is likely is that
ARENA will be forced to negotiate coalitions with other
right-wing forces, which probably requires sharing the
privatization booty with a variety of economic groups, rather
than with the narrow financial strata currently controlling
the economic opening.

The New Political
Culture (NPC) thus is built on wheeling and dealing within
the political class, coalition building from the Left and
Center and between the liberal and nationalist Right. The NPC
involves the demobilization of the social movements, the
hegemony of variants of capitalist discourses and a shift
from terror to corruption and co-optation as mechanisms for
neutralizing the deepening social polarization. The
transition to multi-party politics however is still
problematical as the authoritarian state institutions are
still in place and the Right has not been dislodged from any
significant position of power. Significant external actors
continue to play a preponderant role in shaping the parameter
of El Salvadorean politics.

The Emperor Changes

The U.S. role
continues in El Salvador. The Agency for International
Development is very intrusive, defining the do’s and
don’ts of development strategy through its direct
influence on financing and indirectly through U.S. influence
and control of the IFI (International Financial
Institutions). U.S. policy is a strong supporter of the
privatization and free market policies being imposed by the
regime. The U.S. military maintains strong links to the
"reformed" Salvadorean military, counseling
impunity to the political class and conformity to the
neoliberal order.

strategic goal of ending the revolutionary threat and
incorporating the FMLN into the free market-free election
political-economic framework has been successful. The Embassy
serves an overseer function, maintaining channels to
different sectors while keeping away from the day to day
implementation of the free market policies. Washington was
successful in spinning off one section of the FMLN in the
free market direction (the Villalobos-Martinez clique) and is
ever on the look-out for other "centrists" seeking
entry into the niches of the neoliberal economy.

U.S. strategy operates
at two levels: at the top its economic mission formulates the
"macro-economic" adjustment strategies and points
to new sectoral activities (maquiladores, tourism, etc.). At
the bottom, it finances NGOs and other voluntary groups made
up mainly of upwardly mobile professionals who are funded by
the World Bank, Private Foundation, and governments intent on
dismantling public services in health, education, and social
services. The U.S. presence is just as ubiquitous as in the
past, only the rationale has changed. In the past, Washington
organized the struggle against social revolution, today it is
the fight against narco-traffic. With the end of the war,
Washington has dropped its populist rhetoric and come out for
the "free market," agro-business, highly
exploitative free trade zones, and de-regulation of financial
markets. Washington has opted for the privatization of the
co-ops, a policy that leads the heavily indebted small holder
to sell out to large scale farmers and tourist developers.

presence is just as intrusive in the past, though it now
takes the form of "economic missions," foreign aid
functionaries, and Drug Enforcement Officers instead of the
military field advisors. Washington’s presence is as
much symbolic as it is substantive—a reminder to the
Left of the new socio-economic and political parameters of
the electoral process.

The Political Culture
of the Post Accord

Despite the electoral
euphoria and the sense of surface calm that pervades the
country, the underlying mood among social activists and the
leaders of popular movements is one of retreat and
disorientation. From the perspective of the popular
organizations this is a period of counter-reform. For some
organizations the issue is holding the line, others have
experienced a series of reversals, in which the government
has chipped away at the reforms initiated to combat the
rising tide of popular revolutionary struggle during the

One of the paradoxes
of El Salvadorean politics is the fact that under the
tutelage of U.S. military and political advisors during the
1980s, the regime combined mass terror of genocidal
proportions with advanced social legislation (including land
redistribution, formation of co-ops, labor reforms, etc.)
Since the accords ended the revolutionary war the regime has
launched an offensive against the popular class.

Essentially this
political offensive is directed toward bringing El Salvador
in line with the neoliberal agenda promoted by the Washington
Consensus. ARENA’s neoliberal political agenda includes
(a)privatization of public enterprises, the sub-division of
co-op lands into private plots for individual co-op members;
the privatization of social security funds and the transfer
of social services from the public sector to privately funded
NGOs; (b) the complete opening of the Salvadorean economy to
foreign manufacturing and food imports, turning the country
into one big maquiladora (or assembly plant) based on low
wage non-unionized labor without social benefits; (c)
international specialization in a few export products-namely
coffee, sugar, maquila products and tourism; (d)
de-regulation of the financial sector, unrestricted entry of
foreign investment in all sectors previously locally
controlled (retail trade, food services, real estate,
banking, etc.); (e) continued dependence on overseas
remittances for hard currency to cover foreign debt payments;
(f) elimination of thousands of public sector employees and
elimination of public subsidies of basic food staples,
transport, etc.

To date the regime has
succeeded in imposing part of the neoliberal program; and as
the experience of class war recedes, the Right accelerates
implementation of the neoliberal agenda.

The basic underlying
factor influencing the rhythm and scope of implementation is
the change in the correlation of political and social forces.
Prior to the Peace Accords there was a basic stalemate of
power. The essential parity of political power was based on
the military equation. The Army could not defeat the
guerrillas. The latter were in a position to challenge the
former’s control over territory and sectors of the
economy. The end of the war left the military in sole control
of the country—despite some significant changes in its
size, internal recruitment, formation and regulations. The
shift from a military stalemate to undisputed power was the
framework within which Right-wing legislators and Executive
could launch their neoliberal offensive. The bourgeois
monopoly of force was cloaked in the rhetoric of
"democratization" and the "opening of
democratic space." The change in state power was the
most important factor that enabled the bourgeoisie to pass
the counter-reform legislation—despite opposition from
the minority of FMLN legislators. The same change in power
enabled the regime to use the military and police to enforce
its privatization program against trade unions, striking
public employees and peasant land squatters. The minority of
FMLN representatives in Congress and their ex-combatants
incorporated as subordinates in the Army and police clearly
were no counter-weight to the political power of ARENA in the
legislative-executive branches of government.

The popular movements
are no longer threatened with physical extermination by
U.S.-backed death-squads but they also lack the back-up
support of the guerrilla army. The inter-lock between
peasants, workers and the popular army was broken and the
popular movement lost a vital source of pressure for reform.
In exchange for its arms, the FMLN gained a minority voice in
Congress which has had a minimal impact in stemming the
neoliberal offensive. The FMLN benefited in the electoral
arena from popular discontent increasing the number of mayors
from 11 to 54 and congresspeople from 14 to 27 in the 1997
elections. However this is unlikely to change the overall
direction of state policy. The Right combined controls
two-thirds of Congressional deputies. The optimal scenario
will be an increasingly vocal anti-liberal congressional
opposition in Congress, local municipalities clamoring for
greater resources, and a rise in extra-parliamentary
protests, strikes, and land occupations.

Discussions with ADC
leaders emphasized the legal and administrative procedures
preventing implementation of change. The regime has relied on
extended processes of adjudication of a small fraction of
land claims. The result is the resolution of only an
insignificant number of cases. While the social movements are
bogged down in the drawn out legal tangles, social action is
paralyzed. Meanwhile the government prepares a new series of
laws designed to prevent the peasant movement from resorting
to land occupations and to reverse the reform clauses. To the
popular social movements the regime holds up the threat of a
return to violence or submission to laws that subject them to
unemployment, landlessness and/or subsistence wages.

The Accords, by
eliminating the threat of revolution makes reform more
difficult. Coincidentally they open the door for the
consolidation of capitalist political power and the
implementation of the neoliberal agenda.

One argument that was
repeatedly thrust forward as a justification for the Accords
was that they would create political space from which the
popular movements could advance taking advantage of the newly
won "democratic freedoms."

This argument
overlooked the vital political space that the bourgeoisie
could accumulate both in terms of institutional power,
territory, and legislative and executive prerogatives. The
argument also was purely legalist and political. It
overlooked the socio-economic context, the privatization
logic embedded in the political settlement, which
strengthened the NGOs and the capitalist class which signed
the agreement. The deep structural ties between the economic
power holders and the policy elites quickly moved to diminish
the economic space of the popular movements by mass firings,
reduction in social benefits and land evictions. The notion
of added "political space" was much more relevant
to the capitalist class which was in the best position to
occupy the space previously contested by the popular army.

The trade-off of guns
for ballots was very unequal. While the popular movements
secured individual freedoms (speech, assembly, etc.) they did
not gain collective rights (of employment, land and social
rights). On the contrary insofar as the exercise of
individuals’ rights was linked to social struggles for
collective economic interests, (wages, land, social benefits)
it was legally repressed, according to new labor and rural
legislation enacted by the right-wing dominated legislative
and executive.

The issue of political
space is very problematical—it is an equation which
depends on what the letters represent. In the case of El
Salvador, the question is political space for whom and for
what? The record over the past five years suggests greater
capacity for the right-wing to reverse reforms and undermine
social organizations.

Paradoxically more
elections means more regressive legislation. Obviously the
institutional and political context has a lot to do with the
legislative outcomes and not merely the elections per se.
Nevertheless, the facile assumption propagated by the
publicists of the Accords that the popular movements will
occupy new positions of power, accumulate support and deepen
their social weight in civil society doesn’t accord with

Comparative Historical

The nature of the
political transition in El Salvador is marked by striking
similarities to processes in the Southern Cone of Latin
America. The first point of similarity is the issue of
impunity of the military, police, and paramilitary forces
responsible for gross human rights offenses. None of the top
officials were ever brought to justice. As best some of the
more notorious officials were "retired" from active
military service. While the size of the military was reduced
and ex-guerrillas were incorporated into the lower echelons,
the political role of the military and police as protectors
of the neoliberal order was legitimated.

As in the Southern
Cone, the socio-economic class structure was left intact, the
distribution of wealth and power remained unchanged and even
the allocation of state resources and taxes remained skewed
toward the upper classes.

In contrast to the
Southern Cone where the military regimes destroyed the
agrarian reforms prior to the transition, in El Salvador the
dismantling of the reform sector has been a more prolonged
and gradual process. These differences largely reflect the
fact that the military won the class war in the Southern
Cone, whereas in El Salvador the war was stalemated. Hence it
is with the transition and not before that the full
neoliberal agenda is being implemented.

In both El Salvador
and the Southern Cone countries, the process of reforming the
state has been part of the transition. In both cases, there
are massive reductions of social welfare payments and an
increase in subsidies, tax exemptions and other incentives
for the export, banking and business elites.

While the military
remained intact in the Southern Cone, in El Salvador some
efforts were made to change its institutional character and
social orientation. Changes in curricula at the military
academies, the opening of recruitment to all sectors,
retiring the most notorious human rights violators, were
attempted. The El Salvador case falls between the Chilean
experience, where there was virtually no change at any level,
and the early Argentine experience where the top Generals
were put on trial and even served a short prison sentence.

In El Salvador the
transition accelerates and deepens the application of the
neoliberal agenda—as was the case in the rest of Latin
America. El Salvador started later, partly because of the
need to carry out social reforms during the war. The bulk of
the privatization and de-regulation will have to take place
under civilian rulership. The situation in El Salvador
resembles Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil more than Chile
where the most regressive changes were initiated under the
military dictatorship. As in the South Cone countries, the
transition results in the ascendancy of electoral politicians
and the relative marginalization of the mass movements that
facilitated the return to electoral politics. In both cases
the electoral process legitimates the growth of inequalities,
increases the levels of poverty and implementation of
structural adjustment programs. As a result, the popular
movements became increasingly independent of the electoral
parties and act in extra-parliamentary arenas. As in the
Southern Cone, the Salvadorean popular movements had great
expectations of positive social outcomes from the transition.
As the negative return began to accrue, a process of
demobilization and disenchantment set in, a questioning of
the nature and meaning of the Accords and
"democratization." This was manifested in the
elections of 1997 where over 60 percent of the electorate
abstained and ever higher percentages of the urban and rural
lower class.

The Salvadoran case of
popular demobilization has, however, particular features
because of the immensity of the struggle and the relative
parity of military outcome. The bourgeois state was obligated
to subsidize the "re-insertion of the combatants"
into society, and to provide land and financial resources to
facilitate their incorporation. In historical perspective,
this was a small price to pay for securing absolute control
of the state and ending a severe revolutionary challenge to
basic property rights. Moreover, it is a transitory
phenomena, as many ex-combatants have found it very difficult
to compete with foreign food imports, pay high interest
rates, and function without adequate commercial outlets.

In the ideological
sphere, as in Latin America, neoliberal dogma has gained
ascendancy not only within the Right but also among sectors
of the Center-Left and among a faction of ex-guerrillas. The
powerful revolutionary current has given way to a reformist
impulse which has put socialism on the far back burner. The
dominant mood of the Salvadoran Left increasingly resembles
that of the Center-Left in the Southern Cone: multi-class
alliances that are held together by a modernization discourse
that emphasizes selective privatization, poverty alleviation,
and honest government.

The abandonment of the
class analysis perspective ironically occurs, in both cases,
during a period of intense class warfare from above. The
attribution of the reactionary and regressive core
legislation to neoliberalism obscures the capitalist class
roots that directs the rollback of social rights. As in Latin
America, the Salvadoran Left attempts to draw a hard and fast
distinction between progressive national productive
capitalism and neoliberal financial capital. Thus the
Salvadoran Left has returned to the politics of sectoral as
opposed to class alliances; it has revived a theory of
revolution in stages—first democratic capitalism, much
later (?) socialism. In any case, the Salvadoran Left,
despite its guerrilla background, converges with the
Center-Left of the Southern Cone in its pursuit of a
neo-structural strategy, that accepts neoliberal
fundamentals, but brings the state in to regulate the
excesses of the market and to provide funds to alleviate
extreme poverty. The loss of a structural critique is
expressed among the FMLN leaders who talk of being
"realistic," "political" and
"pragmatic"—essentially a
"possibilist" position, theorized by Argentine
intellectuals in the early 1980s in defense of the Alfonsin

As in the Southern
Cone, the NGOs have been competing with the public sector
employees and the social movements for economic resources and
political influence. Largely funded by overseas governments,
the World Bank, and other international financial
institutions, they have been active in complementing the
liberal agenda: concentrating on self-help,
micro-enterprises, and other such voluntary projects, they
serve to de-mobilize the poor, displace local leaders, and
de-politicize the struggles. Their localist, privatizing
doctrines complement the regime’s efforts to cut social
expenditures and transfer state resources to the wealthy. In
effect, the NGOs serve to co-opt upwardly mobile
professionals and incorporate them to the dominant
class’s neoliberal project.

As in Latin America,
foreign aid agencies direct their funds to the professional
class as effective barriers to autonomous political-social
movements. As one Canadian foreign aid officer told the
leadership of the major peasant organization, "You
should co-operate with them (the NGO) to formulate
alternatives." Thus, the professional classes serve as
the transmission belt from the neoliberal funding agencies to
the grassroots via co-opted popular leaders.

As in the Southern
Cone, there is an emerging crisis of political representation
emerging in El Salvador. The upper class, despite internal
divisions, moves between two parties, ARENA and the PCN. The
upwardly mobile lower middle class and sectors of the
professional class are relocating in the new electoral spaces
of the FMLN. The popular classes with long-standing ties to
the FMLN are being crowded out by the new social alliances,
their demands diluted in the non-class discourses of the

Increasingly social
activists either try to carve out electoral posts in the FMLN
or turn inward toward revitalizing the social movements. The
search for popular representation through class and sectoral
movements in El Salvador reflects similar processes in Latin
America. The growth of movement autonomy, the emphasis on
direct actions organized by leaders from within the movement
and the embrace of structural analysis, resonates with the
politics of the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil,
the peasant federations in Bolivia and the Zapatistas in

The overall effects of
the transitions in Salvador and Latin America are quite
similar—the deepening of neoliberalism, the decline of
the reformist impulse within the electoral left, the
emergence of a polarized class struggle that pits the state
against the socio-political movements and the re-emergence of
authoritarians with a legal face.

The crucial role of
Washington in fashioning these transitions in Central and
South America is evident in the formula: free elections, free
markets and an intact military/police apparatus to sustain
the highly exploitative, non-representative system.

Washington today has
played a decisive role in shaping the
politico-economic-military parameters for the highly
exploitative framework: multinational capital’s
penetration of economic sectors, and the accumulation of
profits, royalty, interest, and rent payments. El Salvador is
no exception. The neutralization of the revolutionary threat
and the rapid extension of the free market policies in El
Salvador culminates a process that began with
Washington’s bloody military rulers in the 1970s and now
continues under the facade of parliamentary elections that
marginalize the interests and needs of the urban poor and the


The Salvadoran
experience since the Peace Accords affords ample material for
theoretical reflection on the relation between electoral
processes and social change, the process of democratization
the conversion of Marxists to post-Marxists and the
perspectives for the emergence of a new post-guerrilla
revolutionary left.

The Salvadoran
experience reinforces observations gathered from other Latin
experiences: that elections are not a vehicle for social
change benefiting the poor. In the case of El Salvador the
Peace Accords only dealt with the re-integration of the
ex-combatants—and left the whole range of social issues
(landlessness, rural debts, etc.) untouched. When the debt
question was finally dealt with, debt forgiveness was
directed at large landholders and financial interests. The
debt of the peasant co-ops provided for discounting 70
percent but demanded effective payment of the rest in one
year—terms which few if any co-op farmers could meet.

The socio-economic
power structure shaped the political agenda of
democratization and in the process introduced a series of
free market measures which substantially reduced the
bargaining position of labor and sharply reduced living
standards. The demobilization of the popular movements that
accompanied the FMLN’s embrace of the electoral process,
limited collective resistance. The fundamental practical
problem is the confusion of electoral procedures with
democracy. While the procedures are necessary, they are
insufficient in creating a level playing field for all the
social actors. Given the institutional class biases built
into the political system, the centralized decision-making
structure, and the highly skewed control over campaign
finances and the mass media it was inevitable that the
electoral process would not only fail to redress the historic
social inequalities but lead to a reversal of the few
positive social changes implemented during the civil war.

The Salvadoran
experience, unlike the Latin transitions, began on a more
substantial basis. The popular guerrilla army and allied
social movements were able to secure concessions in
restructuring the armed forces and to secure some financial
concessions to subsidize communities. However, over the time,
as the war recedes in the past and as the social movements
associated with popular power have been weakened, the
transition has veered away from an inclusive democratic
solution toward a neo-authoritarian system of class rule.
Today only the middle classes have gained a modicum of
influence—largely shared with the upper classes. The
landless peasants, co-op members, community leaders and urban
poor are not the subjects of power, but the periodic objects
of electoral campaigns. As a result electoral abstention and
political cynicism grows in the urban slums and among the
rural poor.

The regime has moved
from a ‘military influenced’ power configuration to
a corporate business centered elite. That is the real meaning
of what academic publicists call democratization. And within
the corporate core it is the executives of financial, real
estate and multi-national corporations who dictate the free
market policies. The transition from a state directed
‘military economy’ to a corporate dominated
neoliberal economy has been aided and abetted by U.S.
economic advisors, AID and the World Bank. Despite the
presence of mass of popular organization and the hopes held
out by the rhetoric of the guerrilla commanders, the
Salvadorean transition has followed the neo-authoritarian
trajectory of the rest of Latin America. As in the rest of
Latin America, El Salvador is governed by a regime which
rules by decree, promotes policies that favor the export
elite and excludes the social movements from any voice or
vote on macro-economic decisions. The latter are fashioned by
non-elected foreign and domestic "experts" linked
to big business.

The Left is
increasingly divided between relatively successful electoral
party apparatus centered in the FMLN and an increasingly
fragmented and weakened trade union and peasant movement. The
FMLN’s gradual but perceptible assimilation into the
‘electoral culture’ with its vague slogans
("we are the real change"), its embrace of diffuse
classless democratic or nationalist rhetoric and its search
for modern business allies, indicates its shift to the
Center. The dropping of its socialist vision and its effort
to fashion a pragmatic policy attractive to the urban middle
class of San Salvador may win it office, but cannot kindle
any enthusiasm among those who desperately need a structural
shift in power, state investments and property ownership.

The Salvadorean Left,
however, is not identical with either the FMLN nor the well
publicized ex-guerrilla commanders of the Democratic Party.
The social movements and trade unions who have taken the
brunt of the neoliberal offensive of the ARENA regime have
declared their organizational independence and have embarked
on a political course of rebuilding their bases. Their
strategy of mass mobilization, land occupations and general
strikes resonates with the populace’s deepest felt
socio-economic interests.

It would be a mistake
to believe that the immense popular movement which withstood
almost a decade and a half of a state killing machine
sustained by a million dollars a day in U.S. financing will
docilely accept free market depredations. The temporary lull
in the popular struggle was in part induced by continuous
warfare and in part expectations that the Peace Accords would
bring about a modicum of social justice. Those expectations
are turning to disillusionment. The new aggressiveness from
the Right is stirring a renewed call for class solidarity.

Perhaps as in the rest
of Latin American, a new generation rising out of the social
struggles of the 1990s can once again challenge the
institutions of private power and privilege that condemn the
immense majority of Salvadorans to languish in poverty.