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  Number 454 | Mayo 2019
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El Salvador

The FMLN’s debts at a time of transition rife with questions

After ten years in the presidency the FMLN leaves behind quite serious debts for a party that calls itself revolutionary. What will the new government bring? Its priority is a full fiscal overhaul. Events surrounding the transition foretell months of confrontation between the executive and legislative branches, even greater than when ARENA or the FMLN were in opposition. Now, both parties sit in opposition to Bukele.

Luis Antonio Monterrosa

The February 3, 2019, elections brought an end to the FMLN’s decade in El Salvador’s presidency.

Its victory in the 2009 presidential elections and Mauricio Funes’ subsequent inauguration kicked off an experience that tested the new political skills of a multi-organization guerrilla movement that for over a decade had challenged an army backed by the United States—to the tune of a million dollars a day in the civil war’s most critical moments. With the peace accords, this movement turned itself into a political party.

From enthusiasm
to disappointment


The transition to political life in 1992 was far from easy for the FMLN. While it lost three consecutive presidential elections, it kept up a presence in the Legislative Assembly, although it never won a significant majority of representatives. In 2009 the party finally decided to present a presidential candidate who didn’t meet a key requirement perennially prioritized by the FMLN’s historic leader, Schafik Handal, who died in 2006: being a “pureblood” party member.

That year journalist Mauricio Funes made it possible for the FMLN to take power. After Funes, the victory of Sánchez Cerén (a pureblood) allowed the FMLN to hold the presidency for another five-year term. Ten years should be enough time to put its proposal for social transformation into practice. But the high levels of popular support that accompanied the beginning of this process soured over the years, reaching a nadir of obvious disillusionment in the 2019 elections.

Debt 1: Transforming
the economy and inequality


Over their decade in power, the two successive FMLN governments were unable to achieve any reform, much less structural changes in the foundations of the Salvadoran economy. They worked on market conditions for agricultural products, provided core incentives for microbusinesses and entrepreneurs,
and also promoted public–private partnerships. And in 2018 they tried to promote Special Economic Zones, an effort widely criticized for its privatizing, neoliberal bent. They didn’t, however, touch the core of capital accumulation that has grown up around the country’s service sector, or even modify the tax structure with a fiscal agreement, a proposal that has been on the table for years. Reality demonstrated that the FMLN got comfortable rubbing elbows with big capital.

It’s true that the number of poor people in El Salvador has been decreasing over the last 15 years. Statistics even show a Gini index that reflects less inequality. But has this been the fruit of economic transformation? Setting aside doubts about official statistics and different methods for measuring poverty, economists agree that there has been a real decrease in poverty in the country, although not as steep as needed. Nevertheless, this has not meant that economic survival is no longer the main concern for the majority of El Salvador’s population, nor that inequality ceased to be a real problem in a country where families in extreme poverty live side by side with Forbes list multimillionaires.

The number of poor people has certainly decreased, but not due to economic development strategies or the transformation of traditional economic structures. The decrease comes from the family remittances sent by a million and a half Salvadorans in the US who prop up the economy. The economic model is still based on the export of these plentiful workers, who send significant financial resources back home through these remittances, in turn fueling the financial and real estate sectors.

The FMLN got cozy with big capital without modifying this model in any way, totally contradicting what people expected from a party that prided itself on being revolutionary and anti-establishment.

Debt 2: Violence and crime


The Mano Dura [Iron Fist] and Super Mano Dura [Super Iron Fist] programs implemented by ARENA in the years prior to the FMLN’s ascendance to the presidency in 2009 emphasized repression as the answer to violence and crime. These programs turned out to be ineffective for stopping either one, instead heightening both.The FMLN’s rise to government created expectations that they would try alternative forms to deal with these social problems, ones far removed from traditional models based on increasing police repression.

There was talk of reinsertion programs, prison reform, restorative justice and the re-launching of community policing models. Specific community intervention programs were in fact strengthened with increased access to basic services and education. But the announced efforts all soon withered away. Repressive programs against youth reemerged, eroding the National Civilian Police’s already weak credibility, while the Army increasingly played a leading role in public security.

We even saw the unthinkable: an Army general heading the Ministry of Justice and Security, and another heading the National Civilian Police Directorate.While the 2012 Truce produced results that no other program had achieved in reducing the number of homicides, the process ended up not just aborted but also discredited, despite the best efforts of Organization of American States and church officials. Some program managers even ended up being tried. Later on, repressive methods became more common, in the end tarring the police with serious suspicions: they operated unofficial extermination groups and prepared special units, similar to those for counterinsurgency combat, with Tactical Operations Sections or the Jaguar Battalion in the territorial police delegations.

As its decade in government comes to an end, the FMLN has neither substantially addressed violence and crime, nor managed to wrest from the State the repressive models that always start off by seeing poor communities and poor youth as suspects. This has had a deep impact, seriously eroding the image of a party that proclaims itself grassroots and revolutionary.

Debt 3: High-quality education


Following the education reform of the 1990s, the neoliberal ARENA governments managed to attain over 90% coverage in primary education, a level that rightwing party considered more than sufficient for the country, while limiting investment in infrastructure and education quality.

An authentic education revolution was expected when the FMLN came to power. This was especially true in 2009 when Funes’ Vice President, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, became the new minister of education. A guerrilla commander educated at the Teachers College and a teacher for 10 years before joining the guerrilla movement, he would later serve as President of the Republic (2014–2019).

The first FMLN government’s Social Education Plan intended to reposition schools as a significant social actor, emphasizing their community-based nature and proposing that teachers be agents of change in their community, not just classroom instructors. However, this plan faced uncountable limitations in the teacher corps and among officials and technicians responsible for promoting change. Finally, the government shifted its emphasis from teacher management to a few social programs: free school meals; free uniforms, shoes and school supplies; and the elimination of secondary school fees. While the grassroots classes were grateful for this assistance, the middle class never supported it.

The FMLN government did not increase secondary school coverage, which never exceeded 30–35%. Neither were substantial improvements made to educational quality; efforts were limited to merely sustaining these social programs. The final outcome is negative: neither training nor living conditions improved for the teaching sector, and education coverage was not expanded, especially not in secondary school. The quality of education didn’t improve, either. After ten years of two FMLN governments, it remains expensive—too expensive—to receive high-quality education in El Salvador due to the poor quality of free, public education.

Without high-quality education for the majority, our country loses the possibility not just of achieving equitable development, but also of improving people’s living conditions, which is critical for structurally addressing the problem of violence.

Debt 4: Reconciliation and justice


The 1992 agreements that ended the civil war guaranteed significant political transformation and the creation of new institutions of a democratic nature, such as the Office of Human Rights Ombudsperson. They even implied crucial qualitative and quantitative transformations to the Armed Forces. However, the “full and free” amnesty decree that covered acts committed during the war years, was always seen as a direct blow to the heart of the peace accords, becoming a legal obstacle to truth and justice, and thus to national reconciliation.

While in the opposition, the FMLN demanded annulment of the amnesty decree, but forgot all about it after taking power in 2009. It’s likely that this happened when the parties that had been in conflict entered into a pact: don’t touch our guys and we won’t destabilize yours…. After all, prominent ARENA
and FMLN politicians who had faced off during the war were now participating in the same system with all its advantages...

The Supreme Court’s Constitutional bench finally decided in2014 to rule on an old lawsuit aagainst the the National Reconciliation Law, the amnesty decree‘s formal name, declaring it unconstitutional. Cases began to be reopened on Army massacres, including at El Mozote (Morazán), one of the most famous. As it had protected various people who were now political leaders. accusations against FMLN leaders began to be brandished.

At that time, with the FMLN in the presidency, there was a tremendous opportunity to begin a process for justice that would promote true reconciliation. Creative alternatives were standing by for just such a process, which ultimately depended on the legislative branch, under the Supreme Court’s order to act. The FMLN, however, let five years go by, waiting for the amnesty’s annulment to be forgotten.

Debt 5: Justice and integrity


One of the first symbolic changes of the FMLN’s term in 2009 was to change the name of the Ministry of Security and Justice to the Ministry of Justice and Security, highlighting that justice would be prioritized over security. In every government office a process was started to uncover various corruption schemes, from bonuses paid to certain officials to generous commissions given for awarding certain contracts.

Images of the Ministry of Public Works unloading boxes overflowing with documents that would prove corruption charges in the courts became an icon of the fight against corruption, begun by the FMLN.

Then at the end of the first term, one of the FMLN’s most beloved officials, Health Minister Isabel Rodríguez, confirmed that she, too, had received monthly bonuses. “I felt uncomfortable,” she said, “but I assumed it was part of my salary.” As far as we know, many of the practices seen under ARENA governments—bonuses, use of secret appropriations, handsome salaries, perks and representation expenses in varying amounts—continued to operate during the FMLN’s ten years in government.

An emblematic case was that of Sigfrido Reyes, who after stepping down as president of the legislative branch was named to an export promotions organization with a salary of US$7,000 a month, while trailing an investigation for illicit enrichment. Another case was that of José Luis Merino, head of the questionable operations of Alba Petróleos in El Salvador, who was named a vice minister with diplomatic status to protect him from various investigations then underway.In the end, as journalist Giovanni Galeas put it, “FMLN officials became fat and hypertensive, like cats who can’t hunt anymore.”

An image etched in memory:
The booing of the FMLN


On March 19, 2019, the Legislative Assembly commission charged with handling debate on the water bill granted pre-approval to an article authorizing private sector participation on the board of directors for the future supervisory body of this basic service.

Demands and protests against the privatization of water reawakened with force. A large group of students from the National University marched to the legislative headquarters. National Civilian Police units detained their march with a wall of anti-riot police. Historic FMLN leaders—now legislative representatives—appeared to face the protesters, including Nidia Díaz (well known for her story “I was never alone”), Schafik Handal (son of the famous leader), and Damián Alegría. They wanted to explain to the students what was happening in the Assembly and whose side they were on. But the young people ended up booing them, with an emblematic cry: “You didn’t do anything for ten years, what are you going to do now?!”

The transition begins:
Meet Nayib Bukele


With the FMLN about to leave the presidency, an electoral campaign constant now continues as routine: the persistent and controversial presence of Nayib Bukele in the social media.

Once the euphoria of Bukele’s victory died down, some doubts lingered about the new government’s profile. These were fueled by anxiety provoked by moves playing out as if on a chessboard, including bullying and threats of master plays by diverse groups seeking to position themselves favorably on the new political map.

The different political groups bet on becoming part of the new government coalition. Bukele announced that new officials would be judged not on their original party affiliation but on their integrity and fitness for the position. There were also wagers on possible alliances, both in the legislative sphere, where Bukele would have limited representation, and in support for projects and contracts with the new government. Not just the short term has been contemplated. The diverse political groups have also acted with an eye on the next legislative elections, knowing that how they are positioned over
the next two years will determine the correlation—favorable or otherwise—that will characterize the new government.

The basic demand on Bukele in the weeks following his election was for his presence, not just in the media but at key transition steps. The incoming governing commission charged with coordinating the transfer of power was not made public, although there was news of teams evaluating the various ministerial agencies.

The company you keep...


It wasn’t all absence and passivity. Several diplomatic and international meetings were seen. Nayib Bukele met with the US Ambassador in a meeting that aroused the normal suspicions.

He also met with European Union representatives. There were sector-based meetings common in any transfer of power, which did not always include Bukele in person. In the last weeks of April, business groups from the National Agency for Assessment and Forecasting confessed to having met with Bukele’s emissaries.

In the international sphere, Bukele made a quick trip to Mexico in mid-March, where he met with President López Obrador. He also visited the US, where he met with State Department and Inter-American Development Bank officials and gave a speech at the Heritage Foundation. The visit to this foundation, one of the most conservative in the US and a provider of critical support to President Trump in “draining the swamp,” did not go unnoticed. The Foundation has found common ground with Bukele in phrases like “When nobody steals, there’s enough to go around,” although with different meanings in realities as distinct as those of the US and El Salvador. With his visit to Heritage, Bukele saw an opportunity to calm mistrust from the most extreme sectors.

Bukele was asked to tone down the stardom of a presidential candidate and adopt a more balanced tone, more fitting for a future head of state. He tried to achieve this balance by bridging differences with the US and reconciling opportunities with López Obrador’s Mexico.

China or Taiwan?


In his speech to Heritage and then following El Salvador’s break with Taiwan to establish diplomatic relations with China, Bukele seemed to place doubt on maintaining those relations should China disrespect our country. This message was read as a response to pressure from both the United States and sectors in El Salvador interested in restoring relations with Taiwan. (The Supreme Court has agreed to hear a suit filed by the powerful sugar lobby against the end of the free trade agreement with Taiwan.)

China’s Embassy in El Salvador has set in motion a process of understanding with the new government, not only inviting legislative officials to China, but also visiting several local institutions and meeting with people close to Bukele.

Disagreements that
come with transition


There were two fronts of open struggle in the transfer of power: in the executive branch and in the legislature. In the former, despite promises by the outgoing and the incoming Presidents of a transparent and orderly transition, claims of varying intensity circulated concerning inappropriate decisions—some charged by Bukele himself in the social media. While outgoing government officials and the FMLN denied the accusations, many assumed that where there’s smoke...

The claims referred to the transfer of trusted staff from the outgoing government—who can be removed during the transition—to positions covered by the official budget from which it would be difficult, if not impossible, to remove them except through resignation. One of these cases was that of Erlinda Handal, the vice minister of science and technology, named interim vice minister (from March to May), while two technical posts were combined to increase her salary as a “technical specialist.” Without calling the scientific capabilities of the historic FMLN leader’s daughter into question, the criticism was aimed fundamentally at the process. In the end, Handal announced May 31 as the date of her final exit from government. In all, this case confirmed rumors of other similar configurations of this type of posting.

A revealing skirmishMuscle flexing also started in the Legislative Assembly. It had approved a two-percentage point increase in the budget contribution to municipalities, against the recommendations of the outgoing minister of finance, who feared the instability this would introduce into the 2020 budget. Although the Association of Municipalities declared victory over the increase, the incoming government only saw this measure as a power play aimed at generating financial instability for the new government.

There had also been a conflict with the legislative president who had begun to accelerate processes for spending the US$32 million granted years ago by the Central American Bank of Economic Integration (CABEI) for the construction of a new legislative building. The old one had been damaged by successive earthquakes, but still functioned.

Bukele proposed using half of the loan for that construction and the other half for school infrastructure. Although the debate centered on whether or not the loan terms could be modified, both sides came out looking foolish: Bukele for his ignorance of institutional procedures, and the others for resisting investment in education. In the end, it was just a brief skirmish signaling what is to come over the next two years, until legislative elections clarify the new political scenario. The result of this first conflict contributed to the appearance of cracks in both the FMLN and ARENA.

Bukele’s main pitfall is the budget


During the transition months, the production of legislative budget proposals reached a rhythm exceeding all that had been done before. The new legislative alliance between ARENA and the FMLN, which will continue at least until 2021, when the new legislative elections will be held, raises many questions.

A proposed increase in the budget for the Attorney General’s Office was preceded by an expansion in Social Security Institute coverage to children of contributing members up to the age of 18; the increase from 8% to 10% of the budget received by municipalities from the executive branch; and the expansion of benefits to children of ex-combatants of both the FMLN and the Armed Forces.

President-elect Bukele received these decisions by stating that the FMLN and ARENA were passing legislation designed to complicate his government’s mandate, as he will have to deal with these approved budget commitments. Public finances in El Salvador are the biggest pitfall in the field he’ll be playing on, and were even prior to these budget decisions. The government that begins on June 1 will face many commitments, all priority, and few resources with which to respond... but he’ll have to fulfill his promise that “when no one steals... there’s enough to go around.”

El Salvador’s public debt is estimated at 45% of its gross domestic product. Debt servicing rose from 16.6% of the budget in 2015 to 27.2% in that approved for 2019. When provisional debt servicing is added, indebtedness reaches 64% of the GDP, a component that by its origin and very nature tends to increase and persist over time. This pitfall is as large as a crater. And El Salvador’s economy has not grown at more than an average of 2% annually in the last two decades; the country is dollarized and tax evasion is estimated at between $1.2 and $1.6 billion annually. There is not much from which to grab to fill this crater.

Bukele’s priority


The events during the transition point to a forecast of 23 months of confrontation between the executive branch and the legislature, even greater than that seen when either ARENA or the FMLN were in the opposition. Now, both are.

Paradoxically, Bukele has some margin for action precisely because of this. He has the independence necessary for undertaking the fiscal overhaul that the two preceding governments were unable to shepherd through. And, contrary to what the International Monetary Fund has proposed, he could modify the Value Added Tax toward a differentiated application and also include property taxation. This fiscal reform is precisely his term’s priority. Achieving it will determine how his term ends in 2024.

Renewal and rupture in ARENA...


After the defeat of both ARENA and the FMLN in the February 3 elections, which both parties had harbored big expectations of winning, the need to renew top party leadership quickly became a demand from militants in both parties. The respective leaders’ initial silence was followed by an offer to bring forward internal elections, thus assuming the costs of failure.

In ARENA there is a demand to take the party back from the hands of the business leaders that Callejas had imposed as a candidate. There is also a demand to democratize key decisions. A new statute reform would allow active officials to compete for leadership positions, a reform demanded by some representatives, in particular Alejandro Muyshondt, mayor of San Salvador. And while ARENA has tried to maintain unity despite the defeat, some representatives have not only shown their discontent with the leadership and its decisions, they have also begun to dissent. Moreover, four of them have even appeared open to Bukele’s proposal to redirect funds earmarked for the construction of the new legislative building to education. What is on the horizon is very probably a split within ARENA.

...and in the FMLN


In the FMLN, Secretary General Medardo González’s silence lasted a little longer than ARENA’s. Finally, he accepted the defeat and announced early internal elections, while counseling the current political commission members to refrain from rimmomg as candidates for leadership roles. This recommendation included outgoing Vice President Oscar Ortiz, who had already announced his interest in directing the party’s retooling. Voices of dissent were not long in making themselves heard, such as that of Miguel Pereira, mayor of the eastern city of San Miguel. It’s still not clear who the new FMLN leaders might be.

In both defeated parties, militants’ biggest fear is that there will finally be renewal... but with the same faces as always.

What style will the new
government adopt?


In the midst of conflicts and alliance building, doubts persist about the new government’s profile and spirit. The lack of information during the weeks following elections only increased anxieties and intensified frustration and expectations. Two events that can be taken as examples of the governing style were particularly polemical.

The first came as a result of the student protests during debate around the Water Law. That day the police arrested two young protesters. On Twitter, Nayib Bukele opposed the arrest and demanded that the police free them, declaring a deadline of two hours to do so. Finally, the students were released, but the case generated controversy. On one side, some saw the arrogant side of a President-elect and his interference with another institution (How dare he demand that the police suspend their process...?). On the other, some saw a positive novelty (Finally someone who cares about police arrests and abuses...).

The other controversial case happened on an unusual battle field. On March 16 the vice chancellor of Social Projection at the Central American University, Omar Serrano, published an opinion piece on the university’s institutional web site, which he then shared on Facebook. The text, titled “What can we expect from the new government?” highlighted several critical points in Bukele’s communications and transition team. Using the reporting mechanism that Facebook provides to remove offensive publications after they receive a certain number of reports, a significant number of users (or trolls?) complained about the text, alleging that its content was harmful. In the end, Facebook removed it.

Vital questions on
the eve of June 1st


Will social networks now become the political battlefield? Will it be citizens or trolls who monitor the new government? Will criticism of the new government and its President be on trial in the networks? Will it really propose new ideas, or will it offer more of the same?

Are we heading toward a period of openness and transparency, or will the age-old blockade on public information persist? Will the government serve a new elite, or the traditional one, now dressed up in populist drag? Will we witness significant political, social and economic changes beyond media hype and demagoguery? These are vital questions.

Luis Antonio Monterrosa is a professor in the Sociology and Political Science Department of the José Simeón Cañas Central American University in El Salvador.

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