El Salvador Votes Away Its Bad Past

Last Sunday's election in El Salvador,
in which the leftist FMLN (Farabundo Marti Front for National
Liberation) won the presidency, didn't get a lot of attention in the
international press. It's a relatively small country (7 million people
on land the size of Massachusetts) and fairly poor (per capita income
about half the regional average).

Last Sunday's election in El Salvador,
in which the leftist FMLN (Farabundo Marti Front for National
Liberation) won the presidency, didn't get a lot of attention in the
international press. It's a relatively small country (7 million people
on land the size of Massachusetts) and fairly poor (per capita income
about half the regional average). And left governments have become the
norm in Latin America: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela have all elected left governments over the last decade. South America is now more independent of the United States than Europe is.

But the FMLN's victory in El Salvador has a special significance for this hemisphere.

America and the Caribbean have long been the United States' "back yard"
more than anywhere else. The people of the region have paid a terrible
price - in blood, poverty and underdevelopment - for their geographical
and political proximity to the United States. The list of US
interventions in the area would take up the rest of this column,
stretching from the 19th century (Cuba, in 1898) to the 21st, with the overthrow of Haiti's democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide (for the second time) in 2004.

Those of us who can remember the 1980s can see President Ronald Reagan on television warning
that "El Salvador is nearer to Texas than Texas is to Massachusetts" as
he sent guns and money to the Salvadoran military and its affiliated
death squads. Their tens of thousands of targets - for torture, terror
and murder - were overwhelmingly civilians, including Catholic priests,
nuns and the heroic archbishop Oscar Romero.
It seems ridiculous now that Reagan could have convinced the US
Congress that the people who won Sunday's election were not only a
threat to our national security, but one that justified horrific
atrocities. But he did. At the same time millions of Americans -
including many church-based activists - joined a movement to stop US
support for the terror, as well as what the United Nations later called
genocide in Guatemala, along with the US-backed insurgency in Nicaragua
(which was also a war against civilians).

Now we have come full
circle. In 2007, Guatemalans elected a social democratic president for
the first time since 1954, when the CIA intervened to overthrow the
government. Last September, President Zelaya of Honduras - which served
as a base for US military and paramilitary operations in the 1980s -
joined with Bolivia's Evo Morales and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez when they
their US ambassadors. Zelaya defended their actions and postponed the
accreditation of the US ambassador to Honduras, saying that "the world
powers must treat us fairly and with respect". In 2006 Nicaraguans
elected Daniel Ortega of the Sandinistas, the same president that
Washington had spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to topple
in the 1980s.

El Salvador's election was not only another step toward regional independence but a triumph of hope against fear, much as in the US presidential election of 2008. The ruling ARENA party, which was founded by right-wing death squad leader Roberto D'Aubuisson,
made fear their brand: fear of another civil war, fear of bad relations
with the United States, fear of a "communist dictatorship". Almost
comically, they tried to make the election into a referendum on Hugo
Chavez. (Venezuela kept its distance from the election, with no
endorsements or statements other than its desire to have good relations
with whomever won.)

ARENA was joined by Republican members of
Congress from the United States, who tried to promote the idea that
Salvadorans - about a quarter of whom live in the US - would face
extraordinary problems with immigration and remittances if the FMLN
won. Although these threats were completely without merit, the right's
control over the media made them real for many Salvadorans. In the 2004
election the Bush administration joined this effort to intimidate
Salvadoran voters, and it helped the right win.

The right's
control over the media, its abuse of government in the elections and
its vast funding advantage (there are no restrictions on foreign
funding) led Jose Antonio de Gabriel, the deputy chief of the European
Union's observer mission, to comment on "the absence of a level playing
field". It's amazing that the FMLN was still able to win, and testimony
to the high level of discipline, organisation and self-sacrifice that
comes from having a leadership that has survived war and hell on earth.

This time around, the Obama administration, after receiving thousands of phone calls - thanks to the solidarity movement that stems from the 1980s - issued a statement
of neutrality on the Friday before the election. The administration
appears divided on El Salvador as with the rest of Latin America's
left: at least one of Obama's highest-level advisors on Latin America
favoured the right-wing ruling party. But the statement of neutrality
was a clear break from the Bush administration.

El Salvador's
new president, Mauricio Funes - a popular former TV journalist - will
face many challenges, especially on the economic front. The country
exports 10% of its GDP to the United States, and receives another 18%
in remittances from Salvadorans living there. Along with sizeable
private investment flows, this makes El Salvador very vulnerable to the
deep US recession. El Salvador has also adopted the US dollar as its
national currency. This means that it cannot use exchange rate policy
and is severely limited in monetary policy to counteract the recession.
On top of this, it has recently signed an agreement with the International Monetary Fund
that commits the government to not pursuing a fiscal stimulus for this
year. And the FMLN will not have a majority in the Congress.

the majority of Salvadorans, who are poor or near-poor, decided that
the left would be more likely than the right to look out for them in
hard times. That's a reasonable conclusion, and one that is shared by
most of the hemisphere.

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