FMLN Congresswomen Speak
The morning at the end of June when envío had its first contact with the FMLN congresswomen seemed like a special day: the third floor of the Legislative Assembly, where the FMLN bench members have their offices, was full of people from all the country's provinces. "This happens every day that there are appointments," the young receptionist responded to our surprise. She dealt with all the groups that requested appointments with interest and openness.
And what motivates so many appointments? "Problems, compañero, problems and more problems. They know that here at least they are heard." We asked to speak with some FMLN congresswoman without having made an appointment. My guide immediately suggested four names: Ileana Rogel, María Morales, Ofelia Navarrete and Violeta Menjívar. "If you'll wait, I can communicate with two of them. Violeta isn't on this floor, but on the sixth floor, where the Assembly board is. And María Chichilco is out, doing field work," she added, referring to Ofelia Navarrete, who became famous for two decades in all the hills and valleys of Chalatenango with that alias, challenging the soldiers and haranguing the people. Today, representing Chalatenango, she occupies one of the 27 seats that the FMLN won in the Legislative Assembly in the March elections, 1 less than the rightwing party ARENA and 16 more than the third-place National Conciliation Party.
A third of the 27 FMLN congresspeople in the Legislative Assembly are women. Among the 27 alternates, 7 are women. In addition, there are 6 women mayors and 125 women Municipal Council members in 54 of the country's 162 municipalities. This is a total of 141 women in positions of power and responsibility in El Salvador's new stage of democratic transition.
We Want a Different Assemblyenvío was finally able to speak with all four congresswomen suggested. Violeta Menjívar is a medical professional, single, with no children, and currently secretary of the Assembly board. She, too, was forged in the revolutionary struggle for over two decades, first in medical services in the Chalatenango guerrilla base and then in the FMLN political directorate at the national level. She believes that the FMLN, faced with today's concrete challenges within the Legislative Assembly, must fight to transform the damaging tradition of the legislative branch's institutional subordination to the executive branch.
Historically, the Assembly has legislated only what the President wanted it to, a simple transmission belt. In addition, the laws that the President promotes almost always respond to the interests of large capital.
The FMLN should face this structural challenge and this doesn't only mean negotiating with the right in the framework of evenly balanced forces. The Legislative Assembly must establish its own agenda, making itself independent from other state entities, and the issues on that agenda must respond to the country's great problems and not only to the privileged minority sectors. By becoming independent, the Assembly can recover its position as the first branch of state. It should not only approve the budget proposed by the President and the various ministries, but should audit the use of approved resources. All of this assumes a truly efficient legislature open to public opinion.
Violeta Menjívar says it frankly: "The Assembly should stop being a cave of bandits who use their immunity to give free reign to dirty businesses. Laws should be approved in front of the people, based on criteria that unite the technical with the political. An Assembly that has funds only for salaries and representation costs is a fount of inefficiency and corruption. People have grown accustomed to a forum that offers no services to society, but is a platform for the misdeeds of a few. If we in the FMLN don't fight to change that situation, we run the risk of falling into the same corruption mill. The Assembly has to be cleaned out of parasites and restructured based on administrative efficiency and its new democratizing role."
Along the Knife's EdgeIleana Rogel has extensive experience in urban organizing. As one of the six representatives who won on the FMLN's national slate and not by province, she spoke with us about the party's current legislative activity. "We are now involved in fulfilling our 100-day program, which has to do directly with our campaign promises.
"The tasks set out for this period, which is just ending, were, first, to reactivate the economy; second, to firmly confront the privatization process promoted by the ARENA government; third, to get the agrarian debt pardoned; fourth, to push through the constitutional reforms needed especially in two areas—electoral reform and the Family Code; and finally, to reduce the taxes that directly affect consumers and approve mechanisms to guarantee that big business pays its taxes.
"To fight for these objectives," continues Ileana, "it is necessary to establish accords to be able to govern. If we entrench ourselves in a closed position, not only will we remain alone as a party, but we will become weaker and will lose the new opportunities opened to us with the electoral process. Our role in orienting the current political transition began with the peace accords and should lead to the consolidation of a participatory democracy. We know that our fight lies within the framework of putting neoliberal measures into practice, and that we run the risk of becoming facilitators of these measures. But as the FMLN, we seek to transform the neoliberal proposals promoted by ARENA, incorporating the public's participation, responsibility among private economic sectors, and assuring that the beneficiaries of the economic proposals and policies are the majority sectors. We are aware, however, that taking this path is walking along the knife's edge."
From Plans to RealityA rapid review of the proposals for the first 100 days shows that the FMLN already failed in its crusade to prevent the sale of ANTEL, the state telecommunications institute. After long discussions and meetings, ARENA managed to convince all the parties to approve the sale of all shares belonging to the state, isolating the FMLN in its position that the state retain 51% of ANTEL's shares, and divide the other 49% among transnational buyers, workers and direct users.
It has also had no success in its objective of economic reactivation. Instead, Salvadorans are discovering the financial corruption that has reigned in the country over the last decade; illegal diversion and misuse of funds to the tune of over one billion colóns was made public in July. The information upset the climate of investment security and involved various congresspeople from the Salvadoran right, who, upon seeing themselves exposed, tried to involve FMLN congresspeople to divert the scandal enveloping the national financial system to the political terrain.
Confront the Evaders"We know we face challenges that go beyond our possibilities," says Violeta Menjívar, "but no matter how difficult it seems, we have to confront tax evasion in the country. In these first 100 days we've been paving the way for a serious and far-reaching tax reform. We have to develop legislation that halts tax evasion. We have to broaden the tax base, not increase taxes. Big business must be confronted, because it is responsible for at least 50% of tax evasion. If big business paid its taxes, we would collect enough to respond to many of the country's social and infrastructure demands. Today, in reality, it is the simple people, the majority sectors, who pay the IVA [value added tax]. They are the ones who overwhelmingly support the state. And the greatest tax evaders are the ones with the greatest earnings, who are constantly demanding tax increases. Since they know the system guarantees that the poor pay and the rich don't, they will tenaciously oppose the tax reform that we, from the FMLN, are proposing in the Assembly."
In these first months, what has the FMLN's greatest action been in the Legislative Assembly? Ileana Rogel doesn't even blink before responding: "Giving the legislature power and putting on the floor large national issues that involve all Salvadorans. Until now, the Legislative Assembly has been a docile instrument at the service of large capital. In these first months, that reality is already tottering. Now there is debate and political negotiation not based on blackmail, which could reach serious levels. The balance of forces necessarily obliges us to discuss national issues and seek consensus, taking into account the diverse sectors of Salvadoran society."
It Starts with Civil SocietySome Salvadoran analysts think that political traditionalism still has weight in the country. According to this traditionalist understanding, it is political society that determines the country's direction while the diverse organized sectors of society are mere transmitters of political party lines and interests. What do the leftwing congresswomen think about this issue? Who do they represent in the Legislative Assembly?
Ileana gets very enthusiastic when talking about the balance of forces in the Assembly, but she is momentarily disconcerted when this question is put to her directly. Then she reacts: "In the Legislative Assembly I don't represent only the FMLN's interests. There are social sectors, for example the consumers, whom I feel I represent. And I don't fail to place myself as part of civil society, even as a politician. I'm convinced that we have a huge task in the current process of consolidating democracy in Salvadoran society. That task is to break with that political traditionalism, which I have always understood to be that the politicians go out to the communities looking for votes, and only during electoral periods, they offer lots of things and then capitalize on everything in favor of their own party. And even worse, in favor of their own particular interests."
Given an issue as relevant and controversial as the relationship of politicians to civil society, Maria Chichilco reacts energetically: "I think those are theoretical discussions. In practice the paths cross. One has to look at how politicians listen and respond to what the people are suffering and fighting for and the people should channel their demands politically. It's an issue of a practical commitment in everyday life. We Frente politicians try to involve ourselves with people's daily lives and to represent them in the debates we have in the Assembly. In practice, the people at the grassroots are also taking their own path, fighting for their own dignity. We aren't the same thing, but when we seek the same thing, honorably and respectfully, then we can walk the same paths. I think that, in order to be true politicians, we politicians should always also be people, and the people should always put a political twist on their demands in order to avoid falling in the trap of believing that only the affluent sectors benefit."
Representing the GangsOne issue that involves all sectors of Salvadoran society is the gangs. María Chichilco believes that the Legislative Assembly must keep looking for a serious judicial framework for dealing with the critical problem of urban youth. She thinks that the youth gangs should be accepted and their struggle legalized. She is convinced that this is the only way that what they want can be made known, and they can be brought back into society.
"We went underground for many years because the power structures didn't accept our demands. Everyone called us maladjusted, terrorists, anti-socials... So, when I hear that the gang members are called violent and anti-social criminals, I remember us. That's why I think that we in the FMLN shouldn't close our eyes to this clamor from the youth to organize in gangs. The best we can do is fight to legalize their organization and the best of their demands. That way we'll be dealing with the violence, but without using clubs or sticks; and at the same time, we'll try to rescue an extensive youth population that is demanding to be recognized in a society so disheartened by social and economic exclusion. If we don't take up this fight in the Assembly, why are we congresswomen saying we represent civil society?"
Ileana Rogel joins this discussion: "An important sector in the FMLN is working to be present in daily community life. One mechanism that we've put in practice is that each representative is assigned to a territory to get to know its people. For example, I've been assigned to Morazán province. I go there to learn what the people are feeling and to hear their problems. I want to know what people are thinking about the country, the government, the FMLN. I'm not interested in the people knowing me or in offering promises from the FMLN. I am interested in knowing the people's issues. We've developed a Provincial Work Plan to gather the population's priority needs from various communities of the province and define strategies for proposing solutions with the participation of affected social sectors, and to strengthen the party's abilities to put forward these proposals."
Being on the Left TodayIleana Rogel and María Chichilco are convinced that, at least for now, the FMLN must join forces to win more space to make its proposals credible and possible. They know it's not an easy task. The key will be to rescue and build on the potential of the great values of resistance, dedication, intimacy, audacity and honor. Making these values a reality in Salvadoran society was what years ago led many Frente militants to choose a fight in which they risked their lives.
Ileana is one of those who thinks that the left will never be a new left as long as it does not confront an unavoidable challenge: "We politicians must approach civil society sectors with our hearts focused on people's needs and with a total willingness to open ourselves to the citizenry's participation. For its part, civil society must approach politicians with proposals in order to transform the party structures into entities open to extra-party interests. The leftwing party structures will only be valid to the extent that they open themselves to civil society's proposals and will only be internally strengthened in the degree to which they worry less about protecting their party interests. Only this way can the left continue to be critical and catalytic in the popular struggle."
This reflection links with the experience of the March 16 elections. The triumph of the FMLN's mayoral candidates in the country's principal municipalities was due to its decision to propose citizens whose main characteristic was not their known party militancy, even though they ran under the party banner.
María Chichilco wanted to make very clear that if politicians want to continue to be leftwing, they must not lose their link with the people. "We can't lie to people. We have certain days assigned to attention to the public on our agenda. I tell my compañeros: we can't deceive people, we can't promise them things that we won't ever be able to do, because they come to us from everywhere and ask for everything from a job to a plate of food. Our mission as congresspeople is not to give an immediate response to everything people ask for. It's true that we must listen to them, but our main mission is to fight for the approval of laws that will not be a club against society, and at the same time, to accompany the people so that their concrete demands are received in the diverse state entities."
I Call it "Imperialism"During the war, the FMLN identified its main enemies as the armed forces, the oligarchy and the United States government, whose interests the military served. "Today," Ileana explains to us, "we still have the same enemy against which we once decided to take up arms: large capital, insensitive to the lives of the majority, personified in small business, commercial and financial sectors that are blind transmission belts for the perverse interests of large international financial, industrial and commercial capital.
That is our eternal enemy, the enemy of the Salvadoran, Central American and world popular sectors. There it is, masked as a bank and a restaurant, as car and cosmetic dealerships, as airlines and credit cards. Those are our enemies, the ones who globalize the illness of children and the violence of youth throughout the world. That is our enemy. There is no other. I call it by the same name we called it by twenty years ago: imperialism. It has many faces and extensive roots.
We have to face that enemy from the local level, from the struggle for legal reforms and by preventing the privatization of social benefits in El Salvador. It must be confronted on a small scale and locally, but with a clear awareness of structural change, knowing that our laws for the defense of children are spaces we have conquered so that other Central American countries can fight for the same. Knowing that the struggle for ecological spaces is the fight against the devastating policy exercised by the transnationals against the earth's resources. We aren't afraid to continue saying that our enemy is still imperialism, which today dresses itself as neoliberalism and has its lethal sting targeting the poor in the city's neighborhoods and in any corner of our Salvadoran landscape."
I get passionate about politics"I have a vocation for politics," says Ileana in a solid voice, "and I exercise politics with enjoyment and passion. I like the meetings, I like trying to find a favorable correlation to reach the goal we're seeking on such and such a law or idea. To walk around seeing whom to talk to, whom to win over, whom to establish alliances with. All of that gets me passionate. I'm part of the leadership of the collegial fraction, which is the part of the FMLN charged with following up our political objectives in the Legislative Assembly. I enjoy that work."
And family? When I ask this Ileana changes her tone, loses her defenses, and is transformed from a determined politician into a vulnerable woman. She avoided talking about her personal life throughout the interview, but succumbed to the inevitable at the end. "I have two daughters," she says, "Ana and Marianella. They are my adoration. And my cross." Her feelings betray her. "I don't like to talk about this issue, because I lose control. This is my weakness. I can't be a politician fighting full time for my people without feeling the sting of my two daughters who demand my presence. They demand it with their gestures and their looks. They fight for it with blackmail. 'I want to have a mama,' the youngest told me last month, 'like our neighbor. She never goes out, she spends all her time with her children. She sees them off to school and is waiting for them when they get home. That's the mama I dream about.' That is my cross. The system twists my arm with my family."
Only for Single Mothers?María Morales receives us with hugs, a cup of coffee and a firm decision to share her experiences. "This stage of the struggle isn't easy," she tells us with a deep and perhaps betraying sigh. "One has to seek equilibriums that are difficult to maintain." She looks at us as if she wants to go back in the conversation to avoid a turn she was not looking for, but that touches her deepest fibers as a woman: her personal situation.
As we look at each other I remember the information I know about her. She joined the guerrilla struggle at 11, and now is 32. A full lifetime enmeshed in war. She had to take on leadership tasks at a very young age. First during the war and then in the mass organizations in the capital. Mother of one son and one daughter, with various failed relationships, all linked to unstable clandestine life.
"It's not easy to find a balance," she tells us again, having decided to continue the conversation. "How to live family values and fight for their lives in Salvadoran society as a congresswoman? Sometimes I leave the house while the children are still asleep. I return late at night and all I can do is kiss them while they are dreaming. A congresswoman faces many challenges. But none is as arduous as that of balancing family life with work. I have come to believe that to be mother, wife and politician demands exceptional conditions that are very difficult to meet. Or at least to live in constant struggle. And that is my current fight. Starting with the couple, both of whom must be very mature and understanding. That's why we women who have decided to live our commitment as congresswomen, in the political framework, are in a permanent crisis." After a brief pause, she asks rhetorically: "Does it mean that we women who choose to fight for a new society will always have to live as single mothers?"
Loves and Lack of LovesMaría Morales told us bits of her history. Her first mission was in the Chalatenango popular militias. "At 13 they sent me to be part of the Popular Movement security in San Salvador. By that time I was already on the black list of the armed forces' paramilitary groups. At 12 they had captured me and asked me about a María Morales. 'Yes, I know her,' I told them, 'she lives over there in those houses.' And I pointed the way out to them." That's how she escaped death the first time, but at the cost of her father, whom they captured instead, and who disappeared forever.
At 15 she challenged the armed forces' power from an urban command platoon of 30 people. She was the only woman. And the boss. After the 1981 offensive she was transferred to Guazapa, where she resisted the armed forces' attack known as "40 Days and 40 Nights." María was exhausted, but alive and more committed than ever.
Then she was transferred again to Chalatenango. She was almost killed by a grenade in a vicious combat. She had to be transferred to San Salvador and almost lost a leg. During her long recuperation she read a lot about the country and found out about the new winds blowing in those days at the end of the 1980s. She thought a lot about her life and decided to reclaim all her disasters and solidarities, her meetings and separations, her loves and lack of loves.
That was when she decided to have her first child. She was pregnant when she heard that her compañero had been killed. This loss made her even more committed to the struggle. Because of her daughter and of an urgency to promote urban work in the capital, she was assigned to run the San Salvador urban commandos and the mass organization work in the capital's poor neighborhoods. It was the eve of the peace accords.
We were very tired when peace arrivedWith peace, reality changed for María Morales. Now, after more than two decades, she is called by her name again. She hasn't gotten used to it, nor have the others. She identifies herself more as Miriam, the name she took for 20 long years. And she no longer lives in the terror of underground life or of road blocks. These are spaces that have been won. But many dreams have been frustrated. "What you thought would happen, didn't." She hoped that peace would bring a more shared country. "I hoped for different results. We came to peace with more tasks than ever. And we came tired and full of injuries. A leg injury. A rib injury. And a heart injury. These are the injuries that hurt me. The physical wounds left war scars. Those of the heart still bleed. They don't let me face the challenges of peace in this stage of peace."
What are those injuries of the heart? "Never to have a home to enjoy. After the peace accords I decided to form a couple. I got pregnant with my second child and the relationship fell apart before he was even born. Once again a single mother. I didn't want to give up and I began a new relationship. But I have to say that balancing the demands of a couple with political demands is an as yet untold story.
"The stage changed," continues Miriam. "It changed, but the struggle didn't end. It has taken too long. We are in a new period, but we Salvadorans who gambled on the country's transformation are tired. And the wounds bleed more in these new stages without defined trenches. I never thought I would make it this far alive. Since we were born and raised in other stages, this is a gift we never hoped for. I always told myself that I was fighting for future generations, and that the value of the struggle was in sacrificing myself for others to enjoy the fruits. That's why ever harder tasks gave me such satisfaction. Now I continue fighting for a new society, without having enjoyed a home life or a youth. Those are injuries that continue to bleed, and I need strength and hope to communicate this to others."