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This page is where David provides periodic commentary on issues he considers important, and on which he pretends to have more than a passing knowledge.

January 21, 2009

21A Promise for Change—in El Salvador

Due to the Obama inauguration, events outside Washington took a back seat in news coverage this week, so it shouldn't come as a surprise that many people failed to notice that El Salvador held its constituent assembly elections on Sunday, January 18th. After a tense day of voting and claims of violence and intimidation, both the leftist FMLN and the right-wing ARENA celebrated victories—the leftist FMLN (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional) winning the most seats in the legislative assembly and the right-wing ARENA taking the government of the capital San Salvador.

With 75% of the ballots counted, the FMLN had won 42.76% of the votes for the assembly, with the right-wing ARENA party garnering 38.4%. Before the election, the FMLN had held 36 assembly seats to ARENA's 32, with three smaller parties holding the remaining 18.

The FMLN also won some key municipalities that it had previously not governed, including La Unión, Izalco, and Zacatecaluca, as well as winning most of the other largest cities surrounding San Salvador, such as Mejicanos, Apopa, and San Marcos. Overall, the FMLN will likely win between 80 and 90 municipalities, far more than the 59 that the party currently controls.

The voting was not unproblematic. The FMLN in many districts charged that large numbers of foreigners—particularly Nicaraguans and Guatemalans—were bussed in on Election Day, presumably in an attempt by the right wing to commit voter fraud. FMLN representatives reported that six buses of foreigners were detained in the department of La Unión, another three in the department of Usulután, and the National Civilian Police reported another bus of Nicaraguans in the municipality of San Miguel.

US activists from the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) participating in the International Observation Mission reported numerous irregularities, such as polling places not being opened by 7 AM as required by law.

There were also incidents of violence in the lead-up to the elections. A father and son, both FMLN activists, were shot and killed in their home Jan. 9 in the small town of Las Minitas. Maximino Rodríguez, 26, and his father Delfo de Jesús Rodríguez—an ex-guerilla—were attacked by a group of six or seven masked and heavily armed men who were reported to be disguised as police officers. The style of the assassinations—in which the men arrived in a vehicle and unloaded their weapons indiscriminately into the Rodríguez house—recall the death-squad killings of the 1980s. The national police has claimed the killings were gang-related, though it is unclear on what basis this claim has been made. No suspects are in custody.

The FMLN's strength in the assembly election is considered by many observers a harbinger for the upcoming presidential elections in March. The FMLN's presidential candidate, Mauricio Funes, a former freelancer for CNN en Español, is considered by most observers to be a moderate who will not drastically move El Salvador into the far left nexus of Cuba and Venezuela.

According to a news report from CNN:
Heather Berkman, a Latin America analyst with the Eurasia Group, thinks the FMLN would take a pragmatic approach. The nation relies too much on outside investments and remittances from Salvadorans living abroad for the FMLN to adopt too much of a radical approach.

"I don't think they're going to mess with that," she said.

Instead, she said, the FMLN would more likely be concerned with local social policies such as health care and giving municipalities more power.

In addition, Berkman said, since the FMLN did not win enough seats to rule the National Assembly, the party will have to strike deals with other parties.

"The hopes are that some of the smaller parties will exert a moderating influence on leftist initiatives," she said.

An out-of-power Arena Party may be of greater concern, she said: "The big worry I have is how Arena will act as an opposition party."

Other commentators also referred to Funes as a non-radical alternative, including Larry Birns, director of the nonprofit Council on Hemispheric Affairs, who called Funes "a very non-revolutionary...Teflon-coated candidate preaching moderation."

The Bush Administration worried about El Salvador joining "the pink tide" of countries that have elected leftist leaders in Latin America in recent years: Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Argentina, Honduras, Chile, Paraguay, Guatemala, Ecuador and Brazil. This concern, however, fails to recognize a fundamental difference between governments like those in Brazil, Argentina and Chile which respect the free market while also focusing on social justice, and more radical populist governments such as Venezuela under Hugo Chávez. Fortunately, not all analysts view the region through such an ideological lens.

Even Bernard Aronson, who was President George H.W. Bush's assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs from 1989 to 1993—and thus hardly what one might describe as an apologist for leftist regimes—said he would interpret an FMLN victory in March as "the ultimate fruition of the peace accords we backed."
"It's not a bad thing that 'out' parties become the 'in' party. That's how democracy is supposed to work."
Aronson added that the incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama may enjoy improved relations with the area.
"The Bush administration was seen in a more ideological lens by the left in Latin America. Obama comes in with a fresh start."
Robert Pastor, a Latin America national security adviser for President Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s, sees a lesson at work.
"This should show Americans that revolutionary and guerrilla groups that have a political agenda can evolve to be democratic."
Many commentators, including Larry Birns, director of the nonprofit Council on Hemispheric Affairs quoted above, saw the defining issue of the campaign as crime. Murder rates in El Salvador outpace those in most of the world, with a burgeoning gang problem and other armed groups acting with impunity due to political, military or social connections. ARENA is also viewed as corrupt, and its policies have overwhelmingly favored the wealthy few in a country battered by extreme poverty.

One distinctly contrarian voice in the general analysis comes from the Wall Street Journal's Mary Anastasia O'Grady, who sees a potential FMLN presidency as "tragic" and fears that Funes is only a beard for more radical FMLN members who hope to swing El Salvador hard to the left, i.e., into the orbit of Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador. She appears to have no knowledge whatsoever of the internal struggle between hard-line ortodoxos and more moderate progresivos that occurred within the FMLN after its presidential defeat six years ago, in which progresivos such as Funes laid blame for that defeat on the selection of Shafik Handal, a former guerilla whom many Salvadorans saw as too representative of the party's revolutionary past. This internal shakeup resulted in the FMLN's move to a more pragmatic stance—i.e., the rise of Funes within the party is not the result of some insidious trick by extremist efemenelistas, but rather an indication of the FMLN's capacity for internal dialogue and course correction. O'Grady appears to have spoken only to ARENA members who have a vested interest in painting all FMLN members as Marxists in liberal clothing, though it's hard to tell since O'Grady cites few if any Salvadoran sources. For the original article, go here.

O'Grady somewhat intriguingly lays blame for ARENA's falling fortunes at the feet of the party's most visible representative, current president, Tony Saca—but not because of his failure to curb crime despite increasingly draconian and arguably unconstitutional mano dura policies, or because of the perception that his government and the courts are corrupt and favor the well-established powers-that-be. No, Ms. O'Grady claims ARENA's lack of popularity results from "abrogation of contracts."

To her credit, this is a fresh analysis. Pity it's so wrongheaded. Her ignorance of basic Salvadoran politics and the general zeitgeist among the people is breathtaking. To think that the average Salvadoran, whose chief concern is making enough money to survive and not getting shot during one of the hundreds of robberies that take place every day, is concerned chiefly about a matter as abstruse as abrogation of contracts is almost charming in its ridiculousness. O'Malley quotes no one in this analysis, and one can only wonder who filled her head with such nonsense, or why she was so lazy or indifferent in accepting it without challenge.

She appears to be generalizing from a single example—a logical error we used to call faulty induction back in my math days—that of Pacific Rim Mining, a Canadian company that wants to mine gold and silver in El Salvador. For reasons no one seems to understand clearly, the business-friendly Saca administration has refused to approve this project.

O'Grady appears to have spoken only to Pacific Rim representatives concerning the project, which she claims is near the Honduran border, revealing that her ignorance of Salvadoran geography is almost as total as her lack of insight regarding local politics. And she accepts at face value Pacific Rim's claim that gold mining could transform El Salvador the way copper mining has transformed Chile, an argument that is blithely dismissive of the incredible differences between the two countries. El Salvador is the size of Massachusetts with the population density of India. It's simply too overpopulated, and too dependent on the main river systems for daily needs, to make mining along riversheds viable, something O'Grady completely ignores. (For a map that shows the actual location of the project, as well as an analysis of the potential ecological harm the project could cause, see this report by hydrologist Robert Moran, writing on behalf of Mining Watch of Canada, in a response to the Environmental Impact Assessment submitted by Pacific Rim.

O'Grady makes no mention of Moran's analysis, which is summarized in its prologue as follows:
The following document completed by Dr. Robert Moran highlights the near complete lack of baseline water quality and quantity data in the El Dorado Gold and Silver Mining project EIA, the lack of transparency in the public consultation process that is required under Salvadorian Law, the failure to consider the costs to the community of "free water use" by the mining company, and concludes that the EIA would not be acceptable in countries such as Canada or the United States. (emphases in original).

The results of this review were:

—Presented in a public forum October 8th, 2005 in Cabañas, El Salvador;

—Presented to the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARN) El Salvador October 19th accompanied by a declaration signed by over 350 members of the community proclaiming that they feel that their lives will be threatened by the mining project; and

—Widely distributed to institutions at the local, national and international levels.

Despite the widespread distribution of this document, O'Grady ignores it entirely and seems to believe the Salvadoran government's refusal to approve the project is based purely on perverse whim.

However, intriguingly, she hints at a hidden motive: Pacific Rim's stock has plummeted due to the failure by the Salvadoran government to approve the project. In December 2008, parties unknown purchased considerable shares at the distressed value—suggesting that someone is betting that the Salvadoran government will reverse its stand, either due to the threat of litigation or, as some suggest, as a means of manipulating the upcoming presidential election. Pacific Rim has indeed sued, hoping to force a favorable result in arbitration due to provisions in CAFTA that permit recovery of shareholder losses when national laws create circumstances that cause these losses. Such laws are routinely public interest statutes that seek to protect the environment or the country's social fabric.

The ninety-day arbitration period ends a mere five days before the presidential election, suggesting that ARENA may use the FMLN's environmental stand against the project as a campaign theme, a hypothesis that requires one to assume that ARENA, despite its own role in refusing to approve the project, can viably blame its opponents for that position.

There may be reason to believe the incoming Obama administration will look more favorably on the mine's opponents' position than the outgoing Bush administration. As noted in an article by Cyril Mychalejko of www.upsidedownworld.org or go here for the complete article.
Obama, in a February letter to the Wisconsin Fair Trade Coalition (an affiliate of CTC), clearly stated his opposition to these "investor rights" provisions in free trade agreements.

"With regards to provisions in several FTAs that give foreign investors the right to sue governments directly in foreign tribunals, I will ensure that this right is strictly limited and will fully exempt any law or regulation written to protect public safety or promote the public interest," said Obama, who voted against CAFTA while in the Senate.

Obama added that "we should add binding environmental standards so that companies from one country cannot gain an economic advantage by destroying the environment. And we should amend NAFTA to make clear that fair laws and regulations written to protect citizens in any of the three countries cannot be overridden simply at the request of foreign investors."

Which brings us full circle. Change appears to be afoot not just in Washington but in Latin America, and the circumstances for that change are linked. I hope that proves to be true. However, as Jorge Montano, former Mexican ambassador to the United States, pointed out: the Bush administration was too focused on Afghanistan and Iraq to notice that Latin America was drifting away from the United States, and Mr. Obama might prove little different. "Right now, the people of the United States are worried about their credit cards, their mortgages," Montaño said. "These will be Obama's priorities, and this region will have to wait." (For the New York Times article in which this appeared, go to: www.nytimes.com.)

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