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El Salvador Rising | The Nation

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El Salvador Rising

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How the March election was won

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Tom Hayden
Senator Tom Hayden, the Nation Institute's Carey McWilliams Fellow, has played an active role in American politics and...

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It was very, very close. The final figures for the March 15 national election gave Funes and the FMLN 51.32 percent, versus 48.7 percent for ARENA (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista), the party of the Salvadoran right that had won every presidential election since the 1992 peace accords. In the national assembly, the FMLN won thirty-five seats, ARENA thirty-two and traditional parties the remaining twenty.

The victory was caused primarily by internal factors, but external ones like the Wall Street crisis and the neutrality of the Obama administration played important parts as well.

The ARENA campaign plan was about front-loading, trying first to win January's election in the FMLN-controlled capital of San Salvador, then exploiting that momentum to capture the presidential election in mid-March. They would emphasize the themes of mano duro, free trade and public fear that an FMLN victory would threaten remittances and the temporary protective status (TPS) of many Salvadorans in the United States, and turn the country into a haven for terrorism. Continuous television spots were run associating Funes with the FMLN, Hugo Chávez and narco-terrorism.

ARENA's initial move was successful. The FMLN was vulnerable to charges of mismanagement and crime after a decade in power in San Salvador, and was driven out of office in the January elections. But Funes and the FMLN launched a political counter-offensive.

Funes could portray himself as a genuine independent. His older brother Roberto was an FMLN member killed by the police on August 14, 1980, but he himself had never joined. Instead, he became the country's best-known television newscaster and commentator, periodically harassed by the ARENA and corporate media owners. He was considered a tough questioner, fair-minded, willing to disagree at times with the FMLN, while describing himself as a reporter indignant at structural injustices. Five years ago, Funes expressed an interest in the presidency, but the FMLN chose its Marxist founder and commandante, Schafik Handal, whose candidacy never reached beyond the organization's hardcore base of approximately one-third of voters. The FMLN seemed doomed to perpetuate the pattern, unless something changed internally.

To learn what happened in 2009, I interviewed a longtime contact and renowned FMLN commandante, Eduardo Linares, known as Commandante Douglas Santamaria during his years in the mountains of Chalatanango. Under the 1992 peace accords, Linares became the police chief of San Salvador, and later a member of the capital's city FMLN council bloc, which had been defeated in January. On the day Hillary Clinton was arriving, Linares was directing security preparations for the inauguration and an FMLN rally of 50,000 people. The following day he would be named chief of intelligence for the government.

Linares's description of the FMLN strategy was as methodical of any of his guerrillas campaigns.

The hardest strategic decision was whether to support Funes in an effort to win, or to once again put forward a commandante candidate destined to lose.

Paying close attention to their popular base, Linares said, the party heard a massive call for a strategy to finally defeat ARENA, its police and free-market policies. A majority of the party's militants also concurred, that they needed "a plan to take the right out of power," to "start believing in themselves as a party strong enough to win," and put forward Funes, the only candidate who "would not make the people afraid and the right afraid."

Not everyone on the left was in agreement, and the possibility of a long fratricidal primary loomed, with the FMLN's factional disunity on public display. Therefore, Linares said, the party adopted a plan to pre-empt other candidates and unify early around Funes. "We became verticalist," he said. "Internal democracy wouldn't work in the primaries, but at least we had the advantage of knowing what the people wanted and the party members too."

The FMLN cemented a pact with Funes by choosing its national coordinator, Sánchez Cerén--"my jefe in the montanas," Linares called him--as the vice-presidential nominee. They also negotiated a platform agreement that included such guarantees as an increase in health spending from 3 percent to 5 percent of the country's gross economic product. The campaign was on.

Other domestic factors helped the FMLN coalition along. ARENA and the Salvadoran right were splintering among themselves. In a bizarre twist, a faction of evangelicals blessed the Funes-FMLN ticket in the final days. But the most important issue factor was the Wall Street meltdown, whose social impact brought back deep historical memories. The FMLN had risen from such a crisis eighty years before; according to a recent Lonely Planet guide, "the stock market crash in the US...led to the collapse of coffee prices in 1929. Thereafter, the circumstances of the working classes, and in particular the indigenous Salvadorans, became that much more difficult." The 1932 rebellion led by Farabundo Martí in response to capitalism's collapse was crushed but gave rise to the Front that still bears his name. The next great Wall Street crash, in 2008, according to observers, was decisive in the FMLN's victory in 2009.

The other critical external factor was the role of the new Obama administration, which, under pressure from solidarity activists, made clear its neutrality as the election approached, thus deflating the ARENA claim that protective status and remittances would be repealed with an FMLN victory. According to Linares, "the Obama win (in November 2008) was a big hit against ARENA." The theme of change was in the air. An FMLN delegation had been invited by the National Democratic Institute--considered a hawkish conduit of campaign assistance--to attend the August 2008 Democratic convention in Denver, where they held discussions with party leaders. Obama's declared new diplomacy of dialogue implied the end of the wars, hot and cold, against the FMLN.

But FMLN supporters were deeply worried about a repeat of 2004, when ARENA and US Republicans generated a fear of sanctions if the FMLN won. This time the FMLN, and a strong Salvadoran-American lobby, pressured the administration to dissociate from television ads quoting an Obama senior adviser, Dan Restrepo, and a spiritual adviser, Antonio Bolainez, which warned of disaster if the FMLN succeeded. The ads were a false depiction of Obama's stand on the election. After a torrent of pressure, the State Department's Thomas Shannon issued a statement two days before the election denying an American tilt, dissociating from the commercials and pledging to work with the winner. In an election decided by less than two percent of the votes, the US position became a critical factor.

Four thousand people descended on El Salvador as international observers, most of them longtime participants in the solidarity movements of the 1980s. Fear of a stolen election kept the observers, along with thousands of FMLN activists, on high alert for fraud, including the ARENA tactic of busing in illegal voters from Honduras and Nicaragua. "People became more suspicious and started watching the borders and highways, thinking they had to protect the election for the good of the country," Linares said. Popular radio stations began broadcasting warnings about potential ARENA schemes. Fearing that democracy would be stolen, many Salvadorans took spontaneous direct actions, at one point attacking a bus they believed to be full of illegal voters.

On election night, amid a sea of red banners, red shirts and red posters, Funes proclaimed victory in the name of Monsignor Romero.

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