Fear and Loathing in El Salvador

The memory of Archbishop Romero still resonates in El Salvador, even with 24 years passing since his death. Leading the candle-light procession of thousands who marked his anniversary was a banner that stretched across the main thoroughfare in the Capital, and it read:


Three days prior to this sacred event the Salvadoran voters, in record numbers, took to the polls and re-elected the far right ARENA (republican alliance) for another 5 years in office. The President-elect is Tony Saca, a 39 year-old media mogul with no political experience. Saca won about 57 % of the popular vote, while the leftist FMLN gathered 35%. Despite the fact that the FMLN gained many more votes than in any previous election, party activists were devastated by the results. Pre-election polling had indicated that the result would be much closer and would at least lead to a second ballot. This election offered a choice between two very different parties with competing visions, not at all like the Republican/Democrat option in the U.S. or Conservatives/Liberals in Canada.

The big story for the hundreds of international observers on the ground was the campaign: specifically how filthy. The most memorable image from the television was an ARENA commercial that played repeatedly prior to election day, showing an airliner crashing into one of the WTC towers on Sep 11, then the face of Osama bin Laden, then finally the face of Schafik Handal, the FMLN’s presidential candidate.

The major daily newspapers -all of them right-wing- ran front-page articles and commentaries by U.S. State Department officials as well as sensational stories that emphasized the following:

1. George W Bush’s preoccupation with apparent FMLN links to terrorism.
2. The possibility of Salvadorans who live in the U.S. being deported in the event of an FMLN win.
3. U.S. govt re-considering their ties to El Salvador if the FMLN are victorious.
4. Preventing remittances (the key source of income) to flow from Salvadorans in the U.S back to their families in Central America.

Once again, a free and fair election without the intervention of the U.S. administration of the day appears to be an impossibility in Latin America.

Many international observers -from several countries and NGO’s- were detained at the airport in the Capital. Some were held for over 24 hours while others were simply refused entry. Foreign owners of factories in the many free-trade zones shut down their machines and warned employees that production would not resume unless  they cast their votes for ARENA.  Shadow organizations, for example “Women for Freedom”, purchased full-paged advertisements that compared an FMLN-governed El Salvador with Cuba, and warned against voting for “communists”. ARENA activists handed out anti-FMLN propaganda outside voting centres; images of  a demonic-looking Schafik Handal cheering the 9-11 attacks,  manipulating labor organizations and telling foreigners to stop investing in El Salvador are only a few examples.

The FMLN were unable to counter this propaganda blitz, as they had almost no resources for  purchasing airtime. This would be similar to Ralph Nader competing with the Bush administration for access to print and other media. The party relied instead on a “house to house” campaign that lasted for months and brought the FMLN head-to-head with ARENA in the polls by February.

Some members of the FMLN labelled the ARENA campaign “political terrorism” while others simply called it fraud. There is no doubt that Tony Saca will assume power not because of his agenda to privatize and further an economy dominated by sweatshops and the informal sector. He will take over the presidency because the governing party exploited basic fears and insecurity in the Salvadoran citizens, so that they felt they had no choice but to vote against change.

The morning after the election I was sitting in a Salvadoran café in the Capital, reading the headlines when I was approached by a weathered old man with his hand stretched out, asking for change. He looked at me, smiled and said “we won”. I asked myself what he thought he had won. Another five years of the right to beg for coins?  Or did he simply think , because of my fair skin , that this is what I wanted to hear? That encounter was, I think, symbolic of what has happened to Salvadoran society and its political culture. An impoverished citizenry reduced to contradictions and Catch 22’s; men and women selling pirated DVD’s on street corners so that their children have school uniforms.

The national media trumpeted a clean and transparent election, ignoring a number of press conferences called by international organizations in the days following the election to report  the many violations of electoral law. The President-elect kept himself busy by visiting media outlets to thank them for their coverage of his campaign. And what of international media? Completely absent from the affair, no doubt focusing on the matters of Iraq, Michael Jackson and Kobe Bryant.

A week before the election, tens of thousands of ARENA faithful filled a soccer stadium in San Salvador to hear their host, Tony Saca, predict a victory on the first ballot. A huge billboard, several metres across, displayed the face of Roberto D’aubisson, the man who both ordered Archbishop Romero’s assassination and founded the ARENA party decades ago.

El Salvador has never appeared so polarized.

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