El Salvador Rising
In his inaugural speech, President Mauricio Funes said his "reference points" were Lula and Barack Obama, and his spiritual guide the martyred Monsignor Óscar Romero, at whose monument he paid his respects that morning. In an editorial the following day, El Mundo described him as emblematic of "moderation without extravagant ideologies." Inaugural day passed with notable calm, as had election day on March 15, despite the depth of political fissures in the country. The public expectation seemed to lie in what Funes called "reinventing hope." He promised 100,000 new jobs, an expansion of healthcare, education and housing, an aggressive program of redirecting public subsidies away from privileged interests, and a crackdown on a pervasive culture of institutional corruption. Instead of the mano duro (tough-fisted) repression of any young people with tattoos, there will be a greater emphasis on rehabilitation, jobs and partnership with gang intervention groups such as Homies Unidos. (See "Gato and Alex--No Safe Place," in The Nation, July 10, 2000.) Underlying these policy priorities will be the theme of liberation theology--a special preference for the poor--advocated by Romero and a generation of 1960s theologians.
This will be a huge project of radical reform, endangered by powerful right-wing opposition and hardly helped by policies like CAFTA, whose privatization measures have made the lives of the poor even more precarious. The FMLN, with Funes's support, led a successful street campaign against privatizing health services in 2007, the largest mobilization since the war ended in 1992.
El Salvador will benefit from the progressive continental nationalism sweeping Latin America. Some elites try dividing the continent into a "bad" populist bloc (led by Venezuela) versus a "good" left that collaborates with the US (led by Brazil's Lula). This reductionism places Funes in the ranks of the "good," but the distinction is not so simplistic. In his inaugural remarks, Funes announced his first foreign policy initiative, the recognition of Cuba, to a long standing ovation. He was in Venezuela the previous week, successfully seeking the expansion of Venezuela's discounted oil program from local FMLN municipalities to his new national government.
Then there is Funes's alliance with the FMLN itself, considered the "bad" left by the national security hawks. FMLN leaders in the Funes cabinet will include the elected vice president and minister of education, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, key ministers for health and educational expansion, and a former commandante in charge of the intelligence services (all discussed below). None of the economic portfolios, on the other hand, went to FMLN representatives, perhaps as a signal to investors.
According to one independent supporter of the FMLN I interviewed, "the government of Mauricio Funes and the government of the FMLN are two separate entities, and will be negotiating the terms of their coalition."
Funes benefited hugely from the rapid growth of Los Amigos de Mauricio, a formidable fund-raising and outreach network, somewhat like Barack Obama's vast independent volunteer structure, with the potential of becoming a political party of its own. While Los Amigos includes former members of the FMLN, its principle founders include members of a modern business elite like Carlos Caceres, later named Funes's treasury minister, and Alex Segovia, his chief of staff. This rising elite tends to be composed of businessmen in technology, banking and real estate development, more than the narrow and notorious "fourteen families" of coffee barons who controlled the country for more than a century. This new class will have to construct a new social contract with the FMLN and social movements rooted among rural campesinos, urban workers, those who toil in the informal economy and the left-wing intellectual class.
This said, it is true that Funes is not part of the movement towards "twenty-first-century socialism" embodied by Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba, does not seek an ideological confrontation with the United States, and is not a favorite of the Latin American left. It is true that Funes is extremely close to Lula. Funes's wife, Vanda Pignato, is a native Brazilian who met him when she was working as the embassy representative of Brazil's Workers Party in San Salvador. Brazil is loaning El Salvador $500 million, currently more than the European Union, and other forms of Brazilian assistance will follow.
But the new Latin America, despite contradictions, has more in common than not. Besides the unity about Cuba, the continent has rejected the failed neoliberal policies of the Bush years, and seeks to negotiate far better trade, energy and diplomatic deals with Obama. Lula, widely labeled a moderate, recently faulted the Wall Street meltdown on "white-skinned people with blue eyes." The Brazilian-led, southern-tier common market (Mercosur) is compatible with Venezuela's sponsorship of the Andean development project.
Both counties are deeply engaged in Unasur, the twelve-nation initiative to resolve South American disputes among Latin Americans. As Brazil's foreign minister puts it, these projects represent "countries of all ideological strands harboring the common desire of integrating Latin America and the Caribbean as their common space." This Latin America is a completely different continent than the one ripped apart by coordinated death squads, police repression and right-wing dictatorships only decades ago.
If the Funes-FMLN coalition holds together, it will be a microcosm of the political currents already evolving, both in unity as well as tension, across Latin America.
Hillary Clinton must have sensed all this in as she sat quietly amidst other diplomats while one Latin American president after another ascended above her to the inaugural stage. Not only did she sit through the huge applause for the new FMLN vice president (Sánchez Cerén), but for Cuba, and the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay, Ecuador, Brazil and Chile, interrupted by periodic ¡que viva!s for Venezuela, Vietnam, Palestine, and Monsignor Romero. "¿Quienes aqui?" rippled across the well-dressed crowd of dignitaries, professionals and diplomatic observers, and the answer was shouted back, "el Frente Farabundo Martí."
This will be a rowdy coalition.
At a press conference during the inauguration, Clinton turned from the cold war paradigm to more constructive thoughts on the occasion: "Some of the difficulties that we've had historically in forging strong and lasting relationships in our hemisphere are a result of our perhaps not listening, perhaps not paying close enough attention."