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26 Mar, 2014 10:09

Will El Salvador become another Venezuela?

Will El Salvador become another Venezuela?

Inspired by the US-backed anti-government protests in Venezuela, El Salvador’s oligarchs are preparing to follow the same strategy.

If the electoral results are not to its benefit, the US-backed Venezuelan opposition almost always refuses to recognize the outcome of Venezuela’s fair elections. This is now the case in El Salvador too. The oligarchs heading the country’s right-wing National Republican Party (ARENA) are using the same playbook as the Venezuelan oligarchs. ARENA’s leaders have refused to acknowledge that they lost the 2014 presidential elections and that the left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) won.

Before all the ballots that were cast were even counted, ARENA accused the FMLN of fraud and claimed that the elections were rigged. ARENA’s presidential candidate, Norman Noel Quijano González, pledged that ARENA would not “allow this victory to be stolen from us like it was in Venezuela” from the political opponents of the Chavistas. Echoing Venezuelan opposition leader Henrique Capriles and his so-called Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), ARENA has said that it is “prepared for a war.”

For a while, many were afraid that El Salvador, a deeply polarized country, would revert to a state of civil war. ARENA was urging the Salvadorian military to overthrow the government in San Salvador and enable its candidate take over the presidency.

Eventually ARENA was forced to concede defeat and recognize Vice-President Salvador Sánchez Cerén and Oscar Ortíz respectively as the president-elect and vice-president-elect.

Salvadorean presidential candidate for the National Republican Alliance party, Norman Quijano waves at supporters after receiving the voting results during the presidential election run-off in San Salvador, on March 9, 2014 (AFP Photo / Inti Ocon)

Sánchez beat the ARENA candidate, Norman Quijano, by a narrow 0.22 percent according to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal of El Salvador. He got 50.11 percent of the vote, while Quijano got 49.89 percent of the vote.

I had the benefit of being present in El Salvador as an international observer and election monitor. I was able to see the process up close and observe how both sides conducted themselves. I monitored the presidential elections on February 2, 2014; the voting in February would become the first round of the presidential election, because Señores Sánchez and Ortíz got 48.93 percent of the popular vote. They needed at least 50 percent to win the election without a second round taking place.

The second round duly took place March 9.

As a tactic, ARENA tried to annul as many votes as possible during the first round of voting. One example is the case of the out-of-country ballots that ARENA had nullified on the basis of a technicality; many Salvadorian voters had mailed their second-round ballots instead of their first-round ballots. Despite the fact that the electoral choice of the out-of-country Salvadorian voters was clear, ARENA worked to have their ballots nullified due to their voting preference for the FMLN.

It is noteworthy that ARENA lost the presidential elections in 2009 even though it cheated. Former election observers accounted how the Salvadorian mayors belonging to ARENA were issuing false Salvadorian identification cards to foreign citizens who were brought into El Salvador by bus from other Central American countries.

Supporters of Salvadorean presidential candidate for the National Republican Alliance party, Norman Quijano wait for the voting results during the presidential election run-off in San Salvador, on March 9, 2014 (AFP Photo / Inti Ocon)

The Gringos have not lost all their influence

The US government had endorsed ARENA during the presidential elections in 2004 and 2009. Before this, during the civil war in the 1980s, the US government was helping keep the Salvadorian oligarchs in power under a continuum of undemocratic regimes. Washington even intervened directly in El Salvador with the Pentagon to fight on behalf of the oligarchs.

The US government, however, did not publicly endorse ARENA this time. Washington’s silence during the 2014 election campaigns was suspicious and I talked about it with various Salvadorian officials and FMLN politicians.
While I was preparing for the election in San Salvador, I was informed by colleagues in the Canadian contingent that William G. Walker, a retired career diplomat and the former US ambassador to El Salvador from 1988 to 1992, wrote a sympathetic Op-Ed in the New York Times titled, “Don’t Fear El Salvador’s Leftists.”

Walker’s late-January 2014 Op-Ed was a pre-election message to US politicians and officials in the so-called Washington Beltway that there was no need for alarmism about an FMLN victory. “The drumbeat started early this month when Elliott Abrams, who oversaw the Reagan administration’s Central America policy during El Salvador’s civil war, warned in The Washington Post of the dangers of” Vice-President Sánchez winning the Salvadorian election, his NYT pieces claims. “Other conservatives have echoed his warning. Implicit is a threat that if Salvadorans make the wrong choice, America will reduce its support,” the former diplomat wrote, talking about the line that Abrams and a section of the ruling class in the US had adopted.

Walker, however, breaks ranks with Elliott Abrams with the following: “From 1985 to 1988, I worked closely with Mr. Abrams at the State Department. I respect his honesty, but I believe he is wrong in this case.”

A man casts his vote during the presidential run-off election in Panchimalco, 18 km south of San Salvador, El Salvador on March 9, 2014 (AFP Photo / Jose Kabezas)

A pause is needed. Begging your pardon: Elliott Abrams, honest? This is the same propaganda-spewing, Project for the New American Century-founding, and take-over-the-world-planning arch-neo-con who has demonstrated a pattern of dishonesty throughout his entire career. He is one of the cads in the Bush II cabal that unashamedly lied to the world about weapons of mass destruction existing in Iraq to justify the illegal Anglo-American invasion of Baghdad in 2003. Whether it was in Libya or Syria, he pushed for war at every chance. He is an unapologetic supporter of militarism and empire that continues to warmonger against Iran, for years using Benjamin Netanyahu’s talking points that falsely claim that Tehran is only a few days away from a nuclear bomb. Now he wants the US and NATO to confront Russia over the simmering crisis in Ukraine.

Walker, himself, is far from a saint. The fact that Walker took this position raised a red flag when I heard it. After all, this was the US official who worked intimately with the Salvadorian military and worked with the death squads in San Salvador in their repressive war against a huge section of the population and any form of Salvadorian dissent, peaceful or otherwise.

Walker was sent to El Salvador by Washington, because of his expertise with militias and death squads. Not only was this US official involved with organizing the death squads and coordinating US military intervention in El Salvador – as US deputy assistant secretary of state for the Reagan Administration he was key in providing support (alongside the disgraced Lieutenant-Colonel Oliver North) for the CIA-supported, cocaine-trafficking Contra insurgency in neighboring Nicaragua.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should. For those that have not caught on, the outcome of Walker’s activities in Nicaragua led to the Iran-Contra scandal, where the US public found out about the dirty wars of their government that involved international narcotics and weapons trafficking and how people like Elliott Abram and his friends openly disobeyed the Boland Amendments that prohibited the US government from continuing the financing of the overthrow of the Nicaraguan government by a counter-revolutionary insurgency. Members of the US State Department “who provided support for the Contras were involved in drug trafficking,” a 1989 report by the Kerry Committee, named after – you guessed it – the globe-trotting liar John Kerry, even concluded. Their friends in Israel, too, were involved in sending arms to Central America.

Salvadorean presidential candidate Salvador Sanchez Ceren, of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), speaks during a press conference in San Salvador, on March 10, 2014 (AFP Photo / Jose Cabezas)

Trying to reach an accommodation with Washington

Due to his involvement with arms smuggling, narcotics trafficking, and death squads, Walker was eventually given a job in the Albanian-dominated breakaway Serbian province of Kosovo – where the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) militias were involved with weapons smuggling and narcotics trafficking – later in his career as the US-promoted head of the Kosovo Verification Mission (KVM) for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
Walker’s NYT Op-Ed continues: “I travel often to El Salvador on business. I have seen how much the country, and the FMLN, have changed in the 22 years since the war ended in 1992. I believe those spreading fear are stuck in the past.”

Hell did not freeze over. Walker’s position on the FMLN has a rationale for reassuring US officials about an FMLN victory.

The Gringos still have lots of control. FMLN victory or not, the FMLN has worked for an accommodation with Washington.

Most of El Salvador’s exports and imports are from the US. Aside from trade, the Salvadorian economy is heavily dependent on remittance payments being sent back by the Salvadorian population working inside the US. Remittances account for something in the order of 17 percent of El Salvador’s national gross domestic product (GDP).

Washington also has leverage on the fiscal sovereignty of El Salvador. Thanks to ARENA, the US dollar is the official currency.

Then there is the neoliberal structure of the Salvadorian economy. In this regard the FMLN has been criticized. There are former FMLN members that accuse its upper echelons of comprising their civil war platform.

Supporters of presidential candidate Salvador Sanchez Ceren (not pictured) celebrate at the closing of voting for the run-off election in San Salvador, El Salvador on March 9, 2014 (AFP Photo / Jose Cabezas)

Neoliberalism secured by the “Friends of Mauricio Funes” or the FMLN?

One of the radical critics of the FMLN is the sociologist James Petras. A Marxist sociologist, he has portrayed the peace agreement that brought the FMLN into electoral politics, transforming it from a guerrilla movement into a political party, as an ideological setback of sorts.

“When negotiations began, the FMLN dropped its demand for dismantling of the military, the expropriation of the leading financial, banking, commercial and mining interests and accepted a ‘truth commission’ which would ‘examine’ war crimes – the mass murder of over 75,000 civilians,” Petras says.

For Petras and many others, it is clear that the Chapultepec Peace Accords between the Farabundo Martí Liberation People’s Forces (FPL), which transformed itself into the FMLN, and the Salvadorian oligarchs gave amnesty to vile criminals who were behind the murder of entire innocent civilian families and villages.

Although it was a painful choice, there are countering and adamant explanations by the FPL/FMLN faithful that forgiveness was a strategic decision. For many a FMLN loyalist and official, giving amnesty to the members of the US-supported death squads – many of which are now members and supporters of ARENA – was viewed as a way to end the cycle of violence gripping Central America. One former FPL guerilla told me that nothing could bring her husband, who was stabbed in the head 60 times with an ice pick and then dismembered, back to life; seeing enough death and destruction, she feels forgiveness is the best way to rebuild her country and society.

Despite this, contradictions exist throughout El Salvador. Corruption is still a structural problem too.

Petras is correct about the FMLN’s pragmatism and about the embrace of neoliberalism by a segment of its leadership. Practical and ideological arguments inside the FLMN about these issues are ongoing as well.

It has to be remembered that there was a grotesque civil war that created problems while there was a parallel war of increasing socioeconomic problems. Both have left their marks on Salvadorian society. Furthermore, the FMLN took over the reins of government in a country that was already deeply entrenched in both the orbit of Washington and in the neoliberal paradigm.

An electoral worker counts ballots at a polling station after the presidential election run-off in San Salvador, El Salvador on March 9, 2014 (AFP Photo / Jose Cabezas)

This is why the FMLN carefully moved forward. As a result, FMLN leaders decided to endorse the independent politician Mauricio Funes as their presidential candidate in 2009. Funes is not a member of the FMLN, as it is often wrongly assumed outside of Latin America.

After the FMLN won the 2009 presidential election, El Salvador’s cabinet was divided between Funes and the FMLN and Vice-President Sánchez was forced to tell the public that the FMLN could not keep all its election promises.

Funes and his advisors (called the Friends of Mauricio Funes) controlled strategic issues, core economic matters, and the secretariat for political reforms, while the FMLN managed areas such as healthcare, education and security. Under this framework, the FMLN was prevented from implementing the economic reforms, political restructuring, and strategic changes that most of its supporters wanted.

Damian Alegría (José Mauricio Rivera), currently an FMLN alternate deputy in the Salvadorian Legislative Assembly and a high-profile former guerrilla in the FPL, told me on several occasions that President Funes and his advisors prevented the diplomatic recognition of the People’s Republic of China by El Salvador. This was only possible because of the agreement that the FMLN had with the backers of Funes.

The FMLN is walking a fine line. This is why the FMLN as a governing party has to perform like a trapeze artist. The outcome of this is that the FMLN has introduced public planning within a neoliberal system.

FMLN officials have worked to create vital public services and infrastructure in El Salvador. At the same time, however, the FLMN is trying not to antagonize the US, foreign capital, and all of the Salvadorian oligarchs. Thus, the FMLN is a hostage to the mantle that it has inherited. If the FMLN antagonizes the US or foreign businesses and all of El Salvador’s oligarchs, its leadership fears that the economy could be pushed to collapse from the outside and a civil war could be restarted by ARENA.

The exploitative foreign-owned maquiladoras, which underpay and routinely exploit garment industry workers, are still open. Now, however, there are free medical services and school children are being provided with milk (under the “cup of milk” program) and shoes. Wages have also been raised for teachers and generally throughout the public sector. Free mobile public clinics are diagnosing patients and handing out the medication being subscribed for the patients at no cost to users.

Supporters of presidential candidate Salvador Sanchez Ceren (not pictured) celebrate at the closing of voting for the run-off election in San Salvador, El Salvador on March 9, 2014 (AFP Photo / Jose Cabezas)

Oligarchs and Monsanto v FMLN

Not to downplay the importance of criticism against the FMLN, but it has taken great leaps forward, too. Granted, these leaps are not what many former FPL guerrillas and FMLN supporters want. Even if the changes in El Salvador under the FMLN do not go far enough in restructuring the country, they still need to be acknowledged.

When the FMLN was elected into government, numerous unfair private business monopolies existed and almost all state infrastructures had been privatized by ARENA. Monopoly laws were established by ARENA to protect the business interests of the oligarchs. It was illegal and almost impossible to buy medication from anyone except from Alfredo Cristiani, the ARENA oligarch who was formerly the president of El Salvador. Cristiani used his private monopoly over medication to overcharge Salvadorians and to additionally sell bad and expired medication with impunity. Through a legalized monopoly supported by ARENA, the corrupt Cristiani did the same with overpriced fertilizer, deadly chemical pesticides tied to Monsanto, and other agricultural products.

Professor Adrian Bergmann, a Norwegian who was appointed to the transitional team of President Funes in 2009, told me that organized crime in El Salvador revolved around Alfredo Cristiani too. Despite this, ARENA tries to blame the FMLN for all the crime in El Salvador.

Some people in El Salvador forget, or pretend not to know, any of this. During focus groups with university students it became clear that the hold that the oligarchs in ARENA have on the media is one of the primary reasons.

The lesson should be to diversify your sources of information: Question more.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.