A desire for change isn't a sentiment unique to voters in the United States, and it's not something that our country should fear when embraced by our Southern neighbors. El Salvador, a country that will hold presidential elections on March 15, is a case in point. It's a place where a single party has been in power for two decades. It has long been mired in poverty, crime, and corruption. And its own Cheneys and Rumsfelds remain in power. A victory by the progressive frontrunner in the electoral contest — the first Latin American presidential elections since President Barack Obama's inauguration — would give the new White House an opportunity to reject fear-mongering about the rise of left-leaning governments in Latin America and instead praise the regional wave of democratic transformation.
In recent months, Mauricio Funes of the progressive FMLN party (the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional) has consistently led in the polls. A February 20 poll reported Funes with an 11% edge over Rodrigo Ávila, a private security mogul, former director of the National Civil Police, and nominee of the right-wing ARENA party (the Alianza Republicana Nacionalista). Funes is well known in El Salvador as a television journalist who hosted one of the few programs openly critical of the government. He has capitalized on public support for new approaches to a crime epidemic and an economy that has provided too few alternatives to destitution or migration to the North. ARENA has held the presidency in El Salvador for the last 20 years, including the 17 years since the signing of the 1992 Peace Accords that ended the country's civil war.
A key tactic of the Salvadoran right has been to paint Funes and his party as tools of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Many U.S. commentators have mirrored this position by caricaturing the Latin American left as naively obedient to Chávez and encouraging Obama to craft a tougher response. Within the context of El Salvador, the accusation against Funes is baseless; in the United States, this simplistic reading of Latin American politics invites a wholly counterproductive approach to the region.
The Obama administration's policy toward Latin America should be based in a more sophisticated understanding of regional politics, respect for democratic processes, and acknowledgement of the profound failure of past U.S. interventions. El Salvador provides a clear example of a country in which both military and economic policies promoted by Washington under previous administrations have had disastrous results — and it now offers an opportunity for the United States to express a new understanding of its national interest.
The Shadow of War
El Salvador's civil war still looms large both in the country's domestic politics and in its relations with the United States. Unfortunately, the record of U.S. involvement was systematically distorted by the Bush administration, creating a continued need for Americans to face a difficult history.
In the 1980s, El Salvador was the site of one of the United States' largest Cold War interventions. Tragically, Washington sent $6 billion in aid to a Salvadoran government whose army and paramilitary death squads were responsible for heinous crimes. Some 75,000 people were killed in the country's civil war during that decade. In 1993, a United Nations-backed Truth Commission determined that the government was responsible for 85% of human rights abuses and that the rebel forces were responsible 5%, with the remaining 10% undetermined. Among the most notorious acts of the right-wing counter-insurgency included the massacre of at least 1,000 people in the village of El Mozote in 1981 — an atrocity the Reagan administration tried hard to obscure and deny — and the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980.
The conservative ARENA party was formed in the 1980s by an infamous death squad commander, Major Roberto D'Aubuisson, one of the figures responsible for Romero's killing. Nevertheless, as a conservative pro-business party, ARENA has held executive power since 1989, and it has won three successive presidential elections in the post-war period.
If eight years of Bush administration rule was enough for voters in the United States, it's easy to see why Salvadorans, too, would be ready for change. ARENA was eager to join Bush's "coalition of the willing," making El Salvador the only country in Latin America with troops in Iraq. The move won the country strong praise from Washington's neoconservatives. In 2004 Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld lauded El Salvador's "human struggle for liberty and democracy" and Vice President Dick Cheney held up El Salvador's 1980s counter-insurgency as a model for the "War on Terror." Each ignored the damning Truth Commission report naming U.S.-backed forces as the central actors responsible for terrorizing the country's population. Similarly warping history, ARENA's current presidential candidate, Ávila, expressed his admiration for D'Aubuisson's "defense of liberty" in accepting his party's nomination.
Breaking With Tradition
The FMLN also comes out of the civil war, formed by former guerilla forces that fought to wrest control from the country's traditional oligarchy. The FMLN became a left political party after the Peace Accords. Since then, it has served as the main opposition party in El Salvador, with members ranging from more traditional socialists (represented by vice presidential candidate Salvador Sánchez Cerén) to moderate social democrats (represented by Funes). Over the years, it has made steady gains at the mayoral level and in the National Assembly. In the municipal and legislative elections that took place in January, the FMLN became the predominant party in the Assembly. Its deputies now outnumber ARENA's 35 to 32. The FMLN also increased the number of towns and cities it will govern by more than 50%, to a total of 90 municipalities.
The party sees these results as encouraging signs. However, it has similarly entered past presidential contests with high hopes and electoral momentum, only to see its candidates fall short. Demonstrating that a lead in the polls doesn't always translate into an election-day victory, the FMLN's incumbent mayor of San Salvador, Violeta Menjívar, lost in January despite being favored to hold the post.
That said, there are several reasons why the results this presidential election might be different than those of the past. These include Funes's own merits, the declining appeal of ARENA's "law and order" policies, a region-wide demand for a new economic vision, and hope that the Obama White House won't repeat Bush administration interference in the Salvadoran electoral process.
Funes, now 49, was one of many citizens who experienced personal loss during the civil war. His older brother, a student leader, was kidnapped and killed by police forces in 1980. Funes also studied at the Jesuit Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas (UCA) in San Salvador, where six priests, some of them his mentors, were murdered in 1989. However, representing a break with party tradition, Funes is the first FMLN presidential candidate who didn't fight in the conflict. This and his popularity as a well-known broadcaster have made right-wing charges that an FMLN victory would "place our nation in hands stained with blood" sound hollow.
ARENA has also lost the advantage of positive public perception of its anti-crime policies. Facing persistently alarming rates of homicide and robbery, both presidential candidates have vowed to make combating crime a priority of their administrations. However, only Funes has pledged to purge the police force of corrupt elements linked to organized crime. In polls released on February 20, 43.9% of Salvadoran respondents believed Funes could better solve the problem of insecurity, compared to 26.3% who trusted Ávila. Similar numbers believed that the FMLN would be more effective in confronting corruption.
That leaves the economy. For the first time in recent election cycles, the economy replaced crime as the issue identified by the most Salvadorans as their greatest concern going into the elections. Few in the country seem satisfied with business as usual. ARENA's economic management has largely failed to address entrenched poverty and has maintained dramatic levels of inequality in the country. Since the war, the party has pursued an aggressive program of Washington Consensus economic policies, working to privatize social services and public utilities like electricity and water. The outgoing government of Antonio Saca led El Salvador into the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), promising jobs, investment, and cheap imports.
The results have been unimpressive, particularly for the 37% of Salvadorans who still live in poverty, according to World Bank data reported in September 2008. Real GDP growth languished well below 3% annually for most of the past decade. In the last two years, the economy as a whole has benefited from high commodity prices, and growth rates have been uncharacteristically healthy. But high prices have proved a double-edged sword for the poor, who have been forced to confront the bleak reality of food crisis. The World Food Program reported in February 2008 that "initial estimates are that as a result of the recent skyrocketing market prices, the actual calorie intake of an average meal in rural El Salvador is today roughly 60 percent of what it was in May of 2006."
In the realm of trade, CAFTA hasn't delivered on its promoters' promises. Since the deal was implemented, El Salvador's trade deficit with the United States has soared, as have rates of rural unemployment. This has fueled problems with crime, and it has left migration to the North as the only viable economic option for many Salvadorans. As a result, the country grows ever more dependent on money sent back from immigrants in the United States. Such remittances accounted for 18% of El Salvador's GDP in 2007.
This dependency, in addition to El Salvador's reliance on the United States to consume over half of its exports and the government's decision in 2001 to adopt the U.S. dollar as the national currency, have left the country nakedly exposed to the international financial crisis. More than for almost any other country, the downturn in the world's economic superpower will have dire consequences for El Salvador. The looming crisis could prove crucial in the elections, as elsewhere in the hemisphere economic woes have propelled progressive governments into power.
A New U.S. Role
Hope that the Obama White House will diverge from past administrations' interventions on behalf of ARENA is a final key reason for expecting change. The right in El Salvador has consistently charged that an FMLN victory would mean retaliation from Washington. In the past, U.S. officials have collaborated in affirming this impression, spreading fear among Salvadoran voters.
In advance of 2004 elections, several Republican members of Congress issued threats that the vital flow of funds sent by Salvadoran immigrants back to their home country would be disrupted if the election results did not please Washington. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-CO) bluntly stated: "If the FMLN controls the Salvadoran government after the March 2004 presidential elections, it could mean a radical change in U.S. policy regarding the essentially free flow of remittances from Salvadorans living in the U.S. to El Salvador." Bush administration officials such as Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega and Special White House Assistant Otto Reich further suggested that an FMLN election could jeopardize the immigration status of Salvadorans allowed in the United States under the Temporary Protected Status program.
In December 2008, several dozen prominent North American academics specializing in Latin America signed a letter expressing concern that such interference in the Salvadoran electoral process might be repeated. They cited statements in May 2008 by then-U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador, Charles Glazer, who tried to tie the FMLN with the violent FARC guerrilla organization of Colombia. Without substantiating these ties, Glazer ominously said, "any group that collaborates or expresses friendship with the FARC is not a friend of the United States." Furthermore, U.S. Director of Intelligence J. Michael McConnell claimed in February 2008, also without substantiation, that the FMLN would be receiving "generous financing" from Venezuela's Hugo Chávez in the elections. "Such statements," the academics argued, "constitute unacceptable outside interference in the electoral process."
Fortunately, despite early warning signs, incidences of U.S. officials making such threats over the past year have been limited, and the change in government in Washington bodes well for non-interference. Thus far, the new Obama administration appears resolved to remain on the sidelines. Moreover, the decision of Nicaraguan voters in late 2006 to elect Daniel Ortega, a candidate who ran a populist campaign that prompted its own round of Bush administration warnings, gave the FMLN hope that the lingering impact of Washington's threats may not be decisive this time around.
Redefining National Interest
Given a disastrous history of intervention, a form of benign neglect from the Obama administration represents a significant improvement in U.S. policy. Democratic critics faulted President Bush for not taking a more energetic role in Latin American affairs. However, the last eight years have been a period of robust democratic debate in the region, which flourished in part because White House attentions were focused on the Middle East. When the Bush administration did take an active interest in Latin America, as in El Salvador in 2004, the results were negative.
For the Obama administration to do better, it must develop a new understanding if U.S. national interest — one that repudiates not only the military interventionism that fueled many "dirty wars" like El Salvador's, but also the Washington Consensus economic policies that were forcefully promoted even under Democratic administrations such as Bill Clinton's. In September, Obama railed against the doctrines of deregulation and trickle-down prosperity, describing the financial crisis as "the final verdict on an economic philosophy that has completely failed." Acknowledging that market fundamentalist policies have wreaked havoc in North and South America alike, the White House should applaud countries that pursue economic alternatives.
Indeed, it's the failure of neoliberal economic policies throughout the hemisphere, and not Chávez's machinations that have led to a wave of progressive governments winning elections in the past decade. Should Funes prevail in El Salvador, he'll have a wide range of peers from whom to draw lessons — from Evo Morales to Bolivia, to Cristina Kirchner in Argentina, to Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil, to the newest progressive head of state, Fernando Lugo, an ex-cleric known as the "Bishop of the Poor" who was sworn in as Paraguay's president last August.
Obama's own desire to break with Republican economics might make him sympathetic to Funes's vows for greater spending on social services and money to stimulate the local economy. With regard to trade, Funes's criticisms of CAFTA have been subdued and generally vague, perhaps as part of his effort to court support in the business community. Nonetheless, the FMLN as a party has harshly condemned the free-trade model. This, too, has a parallel in U.S. politics. On the campaign trail, Obama's literature presented him as a "consistent opponent of NAFTA and other bad trade deals," criticizing their lack of protections for workers' rights and the environment. As a senator, Obama voted against CAFTA, deriding "the White House's inattention to the losers from free trade."
Yet even while the Democratic Party overwhelmingly opposed CAFTA, the White House and media commentators routinely painted foreign countries that opposed unjust "free trade" deals with the United States as anti-American. President Obama is uniquely situated to break this pattern and dismiss the ridiculous double standard.
In describing the national interest of the United States, elected leaders have regularly invoked a desire to promote democracy and alleviate poverty in Latin America. As the history of El Salvador vividly illustrates, these worthy goals have been ill-served by past interventionism — military, economic, and electoral. But they are goals shared by the progressive governments that are winning elections and coming to power with mandates to find economic alternatives. There could be few better reasons, on the eve of the first presidential elections in the hemisphere since Obama's inauguration, for his administration to again embrace change and adopt a new vision of the U.S. role in the Americas.
-- Mark Engler, a writer based in New York City, is a Foreign Policy In Focus senior analyst and the author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008). He can be reached via the Web site http://www.DemocracyUprising.com. Research assistance for this article provided by Sean Nortz.