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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.

May 7, 2009

Funes the Moderate?
In my most recent post, I discussed the recent election of FMLN candidate Mauricio Funes, to the presidency of El Salvador. A former correspondent with CNN Español, he is the first leftist ever elected to that post. (Although José Napoleon Duarte was elected president during the civil war years, he was a Christian Democrat, and thus something of a socially conservative economic moderate. To be sure, he was considered a Communist by the hard-line right, but the left saw him as a straw man for the Americans and the oligarchy.)

This posting deals with Funes' claims to be a moderate, not a Socialist in Sheep's Clothing, suspicions that this may not be the case, and the prospects for his effective rule.

Centrism or Cynicism?
As a testament to his moderation, Funes has often emphasized his friendships not with the more radical, anti-American leftists in the region—Venezuela's Hugo Chàvez, Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, Bolivia's Evo Morales, Ecuador's Rafael Correa—but more moderate left-of-center heads of state such as Brazil's Luiz Inàcio Lula de Silva, Argentina's Cristina Kirchner and Spain's José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero. He has made several trips to the United States to meet with Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs Thomas Shannon, Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.), and others.

Funes identified his model for governance as Brazil's Lula, a former union leader who rose through leftist politics to reach a workable rapprochement with capitalism that still addressed social justice. This was no small feat. After the turbulent 1970s and 1980s, when the US, staunchly defended any regime, regardless of its human rights record, against any perceived dalliance with communism, the surviving governments by and large turned to the guidance of a group of American economists known as "The Chicago Boys" (due to their links to the University of Chicago and its devoutly laissez faire approach to economic policy). These economists, with their allies at the IMF and the World Bank, had a crucial role in developing the pro-privatization policies in Latin America that so exacerbated already crushing inequities of wealth that it resulted in the leftist backlash known as the "pink wave." This leftward tilt across the subcontinent has to date affected every major country in the region except for Mexico (by the narrowest of margins), Colombia and, up until March 15th, El Salvador.

Funes' identification with Luna was an attempt to make sure people saw him as a pragmatist who fully understood the need to build a strong economy with the help of all sectors, and to maintain good ties with the U.S.

Still, Funes made no secret of his intention to reverse the effects of the neo-liberal agenda. One of his advisors, Julia Evelyn Martinez, a progressive economist at the University of Central America, argued that the first thing the new government must do is to tear down all the neoliberal policies that were implemented in El Salvador since 1989. She suggests the new president and parliament put their focus on developing markets within the country:
"That would stimulate businesses to produce for internal markets, and not just for certain groups of the population. Instead, all the opportunities for development are directed outside of the country, in the form of remittances, maquiladoras [that export cheap clothing] or the need for foreign investments."

"If you read their (Funes' and the FMLN's) plan, you'll see that it's a plan to modernize capitalism in El Salvador. It's an economic plan with better opportunities to distribute wealth and social services among the population, and [it] insists on combating poverty and guaranteeing food security for sectors that have traditionally been excluded from the political process... What we're seeing is a return to pragmatism."

(The 96-page FMLN plan was titled, "Nace la Esperanza, Viene el Cambio" ("The Hope is Born, the Change Arrives").
This is echoed by Sigfrido Reyes, the party's chief of communications and one of its most influential members. Called Joaquin during the war, Reyes, 48, has since earned a master's degree in economic policy at Columbia University in New York. He attended the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August and met with President-elect Obama's foreign policy advisers to help forge a relationship between the FMLN and Democrats.

Reyes makes the case that the FMLN is not a monolithic pack of doctrinaire Marxists:
"All political movements, all social bodies, change. For us, change isn't bad. It's a natural state of adapting. We don't believe that the FMLN is a party that represents just the left in this society, but that it's obligated to represent other sectors. We don't just represent the workers, but also the national businesses that take the risk of investing in our country."
An example of Funes' ability to forge his own course concerns CAFTA, the Central American free Trade Agreement pushed strongly by the U.S., and which is seen by many on the left as an economic disaster that has devastated the poor. FMLN officials have condemned CAFTA outright on the campaign trail, yet Funes says he wouldn't withdraw from the trade agreement as president. He would, however, attempt to renegotiate some of its more damaging provisions.

Another of his chief advisers and his onetime sociology professor, Hato Hasbun, emphasized:
"[A Funes administration will] respect the international agreements that have been signed, [though] nothing is written in stone, and we're not going to ideologize the discussion. We'll make decisions based on the current reality. We want to be a responsible government, not a reactionary one."

Also, unlike many hardliners within el frente, Funes enjoys some support within the Salvadoran business community. This support includes a wealthy fraternity of supporters with no ties to the FMLN, many of whom call themselves "amigos de Mauricio."

Geoff Thale of the Washington Office on Latin America, a coalition that promotes human rights, democracy, and social and economic justice in the region, remarked:
"One interesting thing about Funes is that there are clearly business sectors that are willing to live with him. Though they may not be enthusiastic, they're unhappy with the last 20 years of ARENA rule." [ARENA is the rightwing party that has owned the presidency since 1988.]

Thale added that he didn't realize how much things had changed since the war until he recently ran into a former guerrilla commander, whom he knew, at a hotel in San Salvador. When asked what he was up to, the former commander replied that he was off to a business meeting at the chamber of commerce.

However, many critics saw Funes' purported moderation, in conjunction with more traditional leftist rhetoric from other FMLN candidates and supporters during the campaign, as either a wildly mixed message or outright hypocrisy. To this, Martinez, the Funes advisor and economist at UCA, responded:
"El frente is a social democratic party now, but a party that claims it's developing toward a socialist revolution. They're doing that for their base... people in rural areas who were combatants or families of ex-combatants. If el frente were to renounce their effort to build a socialist society, it would lose a big chunk of what it considers its solidarity vote, its voto duro."
Of course, politics being what it is, Funes' opponents claimed that his supposed moderation would be undermined by the more orthodox hard-liners within the FMLN, who were still the real power center within the party. Worse, some claimed his moderation was really just a cynical ploy to fool the voting populace.

This confrontation may continue to play out on the policy front since Funes' ability to pursue his own agenda will be severely curtailed by simple arithmetic. Neither the FMLN nor ARENA enjoys a majority, but ARENA can dominate matters by working with the equally conservative National Conciliation Party (PCN). The distribution of deputies in the 84-member Assembly is: ARENA with 34 deputies, FMLN with 32, PCN with 10, Christian Democrats with 6, and the Democratic Change party with 2. In practice, El Salvador has a two-party system, dominated by a four-vote majority of ARENA in alliance with its fellow right-wing party, the PCN.

This raises the question: Will ARENA work with Funes to solve the country's considerable problems, such as increasing poverty and spiraling crime, or will it seek to undermine and discredit him with an eye toward regaining power in the next presidential election?

Can ARENA Accept a Role as Loyal Opposition?
To rule effectively, Funes and the FMLN must overcome the troubling history of El Salvador which, as many observers note, has never had a fully fair election.

Indeed, it was the violent suppression of peaceful political campaigns in the late 1970s that drove the FMLN into a guerrilla war against the government's security forces.

Kevin Casas-Zamora, previously vice-president of Costa Rica and now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute in both Foreign Policy and the institute's Latin American Initiative, remarked:
"This [Funes' election] is remarkable in a country that for as long as anyone remembers has been ruled, by hook or by crook, by a reactionary oligarchy. If the Salvadoran left's close electoral victory is peacefully accepted—as it has been so far—it means that Latin America has truly come a long way."
There are still seismic divisions along ideological, political, and economic fault lines that keep the country polarized and prevent a cessation of persistent conflict. For example, on November 11, 2007, the date that marks the launching of the Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation's final 1989 offensive in the country's bitter civil war, the FMLN held its 23rd National Convention to nominate Funes, its candidate for the March 2009 presidential election. In response, the ARENA-dominated assembly declared November 11 a "day of national mourning" and put up a black flag to remind voters of the FMLN's past as a guerrilla force.

The election campaign itself was marred by numerous reports of not just dirty tricks and disinformation but violence:
  • Salvadorans in the United States reported being offered discounted airline tickets home if they promised to vote for ARENA.
  • A father and son, both activists for the FMLN, were shot and killed in their home on January 9 in the small town of Las Minitas. Twenty-three-year-old Maximino Rodriguez and 63-year-old Delfo de Jesus Rodriguez—an ex-FMLN combatant during the armed struggle—were attacked by masked men who arrived in a vehicle and unloaded their weapons indiscriminately, a style of attack reminiscent of the death squad killings of the 1970s and 1980s. The FMLN denounced the assassinations as part of an escalation of political violence and called on the government to carry out a full investigation. The National Civilian Police and the attorney general implied the killings were carried out by gang members, an assertion that friends and FMLN leaders see as ridiculous. At least two suspects were detained by the police, but no charges were ever filed. The FMLN declared that continued impunity for the perpetrators of such political violence is a severe setback for the 1992 peace accords.
  • ARENA supporters working on behalf of San Salvador mayoral candidate Norman Quijano attacked and injured a group of FMLN members campaigning door-to-door. Quijano's campaigners also attacked vendors and shoppers at the Montserrat Market who refused their campaign flyers. In response to the attacks, Quijano infamously stated that his campaigners are usually armed and should be "considered dangerous."
  • The security ministry announced that supposed armed groups were undergoing military training in the Salvadoran countryside, an announcement disseminated by the media. As a result, Salvadoran military troops were deployed to the region. The key piece of evidence for the existence of the alleged militia was a photograph of community members re-enacting a military formation with plastic prop guns taken during a social-cultural public event in El Paisnal—an event to commemorate the civil-war death of Comandante Dimas Rodriguez. The presence of FMLN members was used to denounce supposed party involvement with paramilitary groups. Regional organizations denounced this move and mobilized against the presence of soldiers in their communities. According to community representative José Antonio Rivera, the presence of soldiers was a blatant violation of the guidelines in the peace accords that ended the civil war in 1992.
Such tactics created fear on the left that ARENA and its supporters would never accept defeat in the election. It was not that the left were anti-democratic; it was just that they'd lost faith in the fairness of a political system dominated by the right since the 1992 peace agreement. However, in some places that lack of faith was almost total. In the town of Tejutla, for example, tracts were handed out urging armed struggle and civil disobedience in the event of another left-wing defeat. Left-wing groups were also patrolling the roads at night in efforts to stop cars that they believed were bringing Hondurans across the border to vote illegally in exchange for cash.

To date, the neither left's nor the right's worst fears have materialized, i.e., Funes has not torn off his moderate mask to reveal an inveterate Marxist beneath, nor has ARENA marshaled its forces to resist the surrender of power. The nation's bloody history does not provoke optimism. But history has turned a page here; it remains to be seen whether that augurs for good or ill or just more of the same.

* * * * *

Sources consulted for this piece include:

www.inthesetimes.com
www.consortiumnews.com
www.bloomberg.com
www.nytimes.com
www.coha.org
www.abc.net
www.greenleft.org

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