Salvadoran Presidential Elections


I watched the votes being counted in San Miguel, El Salvador, and
listened to the arrogant cheers of the ARENA supporters, one question
loomed large for me as a U.S. citizen: what would the March 21 elections
have looked like without the “U.S. factor”? 

State Department intervention in the Salvadoran campaign started
in June 2003 and escalated in February when Assistant Secretary
of State Roger Noriega went to El Salvador to denounce the leftist
FMLN party and to call on people to vote for someone who “shares
our [U.S.] vision and values.” Less than a week before the
elections, White House envoy Otto Reich linked the FMLN to various
terrorist groups and reiterated the Administration’s threats
that an FMLN triumph could severely impact the trade, economic,
and migratory relations between the U.S. and El Salvador. 

clincher came three days before the elections when Representative
Thomas Tancredo (R–Colorado) threatened to introduce legislation
that would control the flow of remittances (money sent home from
Salvadorans working in the U.S.) should the FMLN win. 

was the U.S. watching these elections so closely? In part, because
of CAFTA, the proposed U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement
that Bush hopes to sign into law this year. The FMLN, the party
of the former guerrillas that holds the most seats in the Salvadoran
National Assembly, publicly opposes the trade deal and has pledged
to fight it. For several months this winter, and for the first time
in the history of El Salvador, the FMLN was in a statistical tie
with the right-wing ARENA party. For a while it seemed as if El
Salvador would follow in the footsteps of Venezuela, Brazil, and
Argentina by electing a leftist government that would oppose U.S.
policies of “free” trade and neoliberalism. 

week before the elections, I was detained for 23 hours in the migration
police headquarters at the airport 30 minutes south of El Salvador’s
capitol city, San Salvador. I was told that they were protecting
the people of El Salvador from people like me, arrogant internationals
butting into the happy and nearly perfect political system. Bitter
underpaid guards complained that discrimination takes place in my
country not in El Salvador. “Your country deported 70 Salvadorans
today, that’s discrimination, why should I help you get into
El Salvador? Wwhat does your country ever do to help us enter?” 

swear to you,” I repeated to every guard who made the same
tired argument, “if I had your job in the U.S. I would let
you all in. You can do the same, there’s no reason to follow
these kinds of orders.” The guards had to spend the night at
the airport with us and none of them got paid overtime for it. They
joked that if Schafik wins then I could enter the country without
a problem. “Well, who are you going to vote for?” I stupidly
asked not realizing that guards, police, soldiers, and other government
emergency employees are all considered “on call” and therefore
not allowed to vote. Many of the disenfranchised government employees
making as little as $155 a month (an approximation of the Salva-
doran minimum wage) would probably vote for a change in government.
The FMLN tried to pass legislation that would allow them that opportunity,
but were called desperate by the ARENA government who quickly vetoed
the request. 

the police spent March 21 intimidating the masses in low- flying
helicopters and marching through polling sites in riot gear. The
airport guards detained Salvadorans coming home to vote because
they were wearing red FMLN T-shirts. 

U.S. power and influence is obvious in Iraq, the impacts are more
subtle, yet no less pervasive, in a place like El Salvador. Many
U.S. citizens know that the U.S. funded a horrifically bloody 12-year
civil war that left over 75,000 Salvadoran people dead. But the
war ended, the world’s attention shifted to other regions,
and most people in the U.S. rarely thought about El Salvador again.
Yet, the U.S. did not pack up and leave. It has remained intimately
involved in every step of El Salvador’s political and economic
development since the civil war ended in 1992. 

order to understand the right-wing electoral fear campaign, it is
important to know that one quarter of the Salvadoran population
lives in the U.S. and that the $2 billion they send home to their
families in El Salvador represents over half of El Salvador’s
total budget. The threat that the U.S. government would deport these
workers or prohibit them from sending money home sent a shiver through
El Salvador. These comments were part of a larger dirty campaign
waged by the right wing that focused on U.S. relations and the issue
of national security. The ARENA party reportedly spent over $50
million spreading fear and misinformation and the FMLN could not
begin to counter the propaganda. The U.S. government, for its part,
refused to deny the bogus claims relating to immigration and remittances
until after the election was over.

to activists mobilizing both in the U.S. and in El Salvador, I was
able to stay and witness the electric energy that was El Salvador
the week before the elections. People were high on the possibility
of change and their optimism was contagious. The closing FMLN rally
was twice as big as the closing ARENA rally. The Bloque, a coalition
of unions and farmer organizations shut down the borders to keep
Nicaraguans and Guatemalans out. Foreign neighbors manage to vote
in every election in El Salvador. People had spent the whole last
year rallying for this moment and everything was leading them to
believe that the time for change had finally arrived.  

I couldn’t help but feel the intensity of the other side as
well. Three internationals were held up at gunpoint at an Internet
café and their “international observer” badges were
stolen. Over 200 internationals were detained at the airport and
at least 14 of them were deported. ARENA supporters in red shirts
threw a firebomb at the STISSS (pro-FMLN healthcare workers union)
headquarters while we were meeting with them. A forensic expert
who is now forced to sell ice cream from a cart told me that an
FMLN victory would lead to a horrible recession that they would
never get out of. On the Friday before the elections over $100 million
was withdrawn from the banks in fear of the immediate devaluation
of their dollars should the left win. 

did the average U.S. citizen never hear about the Salvadoran elections?
The first reason is that the U.S. press underestimates the central
role El Salvador plays in the U.S.’s Latin American policy.
These election results could have kept El Salvador out of CAFTA
and impacted Bush’s free trade agenda in the region. To Bush
and the State Department, these elections represented a key battle
in a strategic part of the world. 

to imagine what the Salvadoran political reality would look like
without U.S. intervention would be like trying to picture New York
City without a single Star- bucks coffee shop: it’s almost
too integrated to contemplate. Still, the Salvadoran elections could
have been about economic recovery, local development, and the environment—themes
that the FMLN focused on during its door-to-door campaign. If the
people had an opportunity to hear from their leaders and understand
the platforms and the visions without fear, intimidation, and outside
influence, these election results would have been radically different.
In five years, when Salvadorans take to the polls to elect a new
president, we must work to ensure that the intervention of the U.S.
government is not a factor in their decision.


Daniella Ponet
is national program organizer for the Committee in Solidarity with
the People of El Salvador (CISPES).