Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 207 | Octubre 1998


El Salvador

Double-Edged Presidential Ticket

The only adversary of the FMLN is now the right, which is re-concentrating its economic power in fewer hands and causing misery to prevail in the rest of the country. “Let us join hands and assure ourselves of a resounding victory on March 7th, 1999, so that we will celebrate on June 1st in the gardens of the presidential residence.” -- Facundo Guardado, September 28th.

Ismael Moreno, SJ

In a society that is in constant ferment, El Salvador's Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) is still the most promising left expression in Central America—even with all its ups and downs. At a time when old models are slipping through our hands and disappearing from the books as a result of the collapse of old structures, the FMLN has more possibilities of contributing to the search for and formulation of political proposals that would bring us closer to a new societal model.

This expectation is felt more forcefully at election time. While the right is organizing its campaigns knowing that at times it is obliged to sleep with an enemy it would like to eliminate, the FMLN is involved in internal struggle and debate. The possibility open to the FMLN of winning control of the government has precisely coincided with the moment in which it is obliged to debate what the left's role and identity should be in these times of great uncertainty. Neither the alternatives nor the desired alliances are clear, and there are no new theoretical or methodological tools to aid the search. The left must keep feeling its way at the same time that it is writing its own new book. And it must do this beneath the avalanche of the socioeconomic model that has declared itself the winner, a model in which the vast majority of people don't count; in fact, they don't even exist in its plans. This is the fundamental framework of El Salvador's political ferment.

The end of a bitter episode

On Sunday afternoon the 27th of September, amid raised fists, embraces and tears of both triumph and defeat, Facundo Guardado and Marta Valladares became the FMLN's presidential ticket for El Salvador's 1999 national elections. Valladares is the charismatic Comandante Nidia Díaz, who was savagely tortured by the Salvadoran military during the war. These two candidates represent the ticket that the FMLN, after negotiating with its allies in the Christian Social Union (USC), is betting on to win the upcoming election for the Constitutional President of El Salvador. The campaign officially begins on November 7th. The nomination of these candidates culminated one of the most difficult stages in the life of the FMLN since it won its right to participate as a legal political party in the 1992 peace accords that ended over a decade of bloody political-military conflict.
The ticket was to have been agreed on by mid-August, but bitter disputes among diverse internal currents of the FMLN delayed the process. Even in June, it was quietly expected within the ranks of one faction— the former FPL—that its leader, Facundo Guardado, together with Marina Victoria de Avilés, would share the FMLN ticket. Avilés has formidable qualifications due to her valiant struggle as Human Rights Ombudswoman. The Guardado-Avilés ticket was viewed as more balanced than Avilés and economist Salvador Arias. Both Avilés and Arias had supported Shafik Handal, leader of the Communist Party's traditional nucleus, and Salvador Sánchez Ceren, known during the war as Comandante Leonel González. González took charge of the FPL in April 1983, after the death of Salvador Cayetano Carpio, the legendary Comandante Marcial, and continued to lead the party until it was dissolved to avoid further factions within the FMLN. Once the FMLN was recognized as a legal political party, Leonel González was elected party coordinator until 1997, when he was replaced by Facundo Guardado during the Sixth National Convention.

The "secret card"

Guardado's backers were left with no one to fill the vice- presidential slot when Héctor Silva declined the nomination at the August 15 convention, after Héctor Dada was rejected as his running mate in a bitter session. It seemed then that the ticket would end up being Avilés and Arias. In fact, that was to have been the only ticket presented at the September 27 continuation of the convention—the FMLN's deadline to name its candidates. Nevertheless, just five days before the convention, what four months earlier had been foreseen as the "secret card" surfaced: Facundo Guardado was heading the ticket. For many, what was new and unexpected was that instead of running with Avilés on a conciliatory ticket, Marta Valladares was proposed as his running mate. This new turn of events created an extremely confrontational situation, putting Guardado's power with adverse party factions to the test. The media called the new ticket the "purebred" ticket, contrasted with the "upstart" ticket of Avilés and Arias.

The lid is off the conflict

The 1997 Sixth FMLN Convention was what set this new outcome in motion. The grassroots party militants had been convened to elect their own leaders, as well as the members of the National Council and the Political Commission. Days before, the party statutes had been reformed to permit Leonel González a third term as general coordinator, but the convention didn't reelect González; it also didn't reelect Shafik Handal (then head of the FMLN bench in the Legislative Assembly) to either the Council or the Political Commission. Other names, some old and some new, got the top party leadership posts. One notable characteristic of these newly elected people was that they were loyal to Facundo Guardado, who was voted in as the new general coordinator— relegating Leonel González to a subordinate post.

This took the lid off an internal struggle that had been coming to a boil since the war years. González's backers began attacking Guardado for emphasizing negotiations with the right and for subordinating party interests and revolutionary goals to his own personal interests. They characterized him as a "social democrat," "allied with the right," "distanced from the principles of the revolution," "corrupt," etc. This sector quickly aligned itself with the original nucleus of Handal's Communist Party (PC), and later the dissident PC current headed by Dagoberto Gutiérrez. At one point, it was also supported by the Democratic Tendency, a faction of the ERP headed by dissident Raúl Mijando, which opposes the direction Joaquín Villalobos is taking the party.

So many visions and conceptions of the FMLN's future finally resulted in a split into two main blocs: The "radical" bloc headed by Shafik Handal and Leonel González, and the "moderate" bloc led by Facundo Guardado and Nidia Díaz. This internal struggle became public in May when an unsigned document titled, "About the Direction of the FMLN," was released. This paper identified with the "radical bloc" positions by severely criticizing Guardado and his group for orienting the FMLN toward a "social democratic" position, putting negotiation over the revolutionary struggle and adopting a political practice that negates its original option for socialism.

Once elected general coordinator, Guardado put all his energy into securing his position in the party apparatus and placing the party at the total service of his own political candidacy for the presidency. His conversations with discontented sectors of the economic right did not go unnoticed. The representatives of these sectors lost no time publicly praising the possibility of an FMLN candidacy headed by Guardado.
The political blow that unleashed the extreme internal struggle in the FMLN came at the end of March, when ARENA decided to name Francisco Flores as its presidential candidate. Flores is a relatively inexperienced young professional of the Salvadoran right who was chosen to appeal to modernizing aspirations; he is not tainted with the image of the war.

Peñate: FMLN irresponsibility

Between May and September 27, ARENA's opposition to the FMLN practically disappeared from the horizon and some of the FMLN's own members became its worst enemy. While the party's infighting worsened, the ARENA candidate traveled throughout the nation projecting a conciliatory and proactive image. Meanwhile, the Legislative Assembly was forced to deal with a lot of challenges and the municipalities governed by the FMLN—starting with San Salvador, the capital— had to demonstrate that they were breaking away from the nation's immemorial history of corruption and favoritism.

The FMLN was still embroiled in its infighting when the Legislative Assembly had to name a new human rights ombudsperson, which is a key post in the democratizing process opened by the peace accords. Avilés had completed her term and her foray into the struggle for the FMLN candidacy had led her to decline reelection. She had given personality to the Office of Human Rights and her excellent work demanded a successor with her same professional ability and high ethical standards. Nevertheless, the legislators demonstrated to Salvadorans yet again that party interests are more important than national interests. In the decision over the post, the FMLN played one of the most irresponsible roles in its history, already criticized in other lands and by various social sectors. At the end of July, after months without being able to reach consensus, the parties agreed to name Eduardo Peñate as the new human rights ombudsman. It was made public immediately thereafter that Peñate had pending legal accounts with justice to settle for dozens of crimes, which even included the theft of kitchen utensils. The FMLN, trapped in its internecine struggle, had backed the election of a man who today shocks the Salvadoran people with his fits of rage, his incompetence and his mediocrity. Nidia Díaz admitted to envío that her participation in Peñate's election was her worst error as a representative.

For its part, San Salvador's mayoral office was having to follow through on campaign promises made to the capital's citizens. Héctor Silva, elected mayor on the FMLN ticket, had promised among other things to show the Chamber of Commerce that he was someone who could get things done. When he put into effect a plan to reorder the downtown district, he was playing two cards at once. He offered the street vendors viable alternatives and provided for downtown parks, while assuring big merchants in the Chamber a well-planned, clean, safe and decongested city.

While the FMLN was busy debating its contradictions, the mayor was busy looking for ways to win some points for his urban campaign. But he neglected to notice that, while the big shop owners benefited from the urban restructuring, they were also using the changes to adversely effect the FMLN. The day the street vendors were expelled from one of the city's central plazas, two very suggestive photographic mages appeared along one of the cities' most highly trafficked thoroughfares: one was of a poor woman trampled by police and the other was of the First Lady holding a poor, sick little girl in her arms.

Guardado's political turnaround

The fact that that Facundo Guardado was planning to enter the race for the FMLN presidential candidacy had already been known in certain circles by the end of April and it only increased the internal tensions. The issues that the left should be debating were many, including the political conception of the party itself, governmental programs, the societal model it was fighting for, the character of its alliances and the mission and work of the left in general. Nonetheless, quarrels and the setting of snares whose only objective was to weaken opponents were substituting these issues.

Facundo Guardado is perceived as a power seeker, a man who fights to maintain power in whatever manner and at whatever cost. Four months ago, we said in these pages that Guardado was the card up the "moderate" bloc's sleeve. But Guardado and his following took a swerve at the end of June—a political turnaround, some would say—to assure maximum control in the party and achieve major political objectives. The "moderate" current leader and FMLN general coordinator began to run his own campaign in favor of the "Héctors"—Héctor Silva and Héctor Dada—both members of San Salvador's Municipal Council with whom Guardado, also a councilor, had teamed up.

There was no doubt that Guardado preferred Silva, who had said dozens of times— including to envío in a 1997 interview—that he would not accept the candidacy for president while holding the post of mayor, to which he had been elected. He had insisted that doing so would be irresponsible. But political logic imposed itself and, at the end of July, Silva accepted the pre-candidacy.

Why did Guardado keep out of the race when many expected he would launch himself directly? He was already supporting Silva's presidential candidacy in 1997. Some analysts are of the opinion that Guardado was looking for greater quotas of power, in both the party and public administration. With Silva running for President, the mayor's chair in the capital would be standing empty. Who would occupy it? Facundo Guardado. This way, the FMLN general coordinator would transform himself into San Salvador's mayor, a position that in Salvadoran history has always served as a trampoline to the presidency. It was a matter of timing and calculation.

But nothing is written in concrete in politics. The controversy increased because Guardado is a very political person, even more so now that he is directly involved in Salvadoran politics.

To secure the capital's mayoral office, the FMLN had established alliances with two other parties—the Democratic Convergence and the Unity Movement—based on an agreement that an independent candidate would be selected. Héctor Silva was independent at the time, and he was elected mayor. If Silva resigned as mayor, the allied parties would insist that his substitute respect the terms of the alliance. And if the FMLN launched a candidate like Silva, it opened up the possibility for alliances with a broad spectrum of small political parties. One such party was the Democratic Convergence, to which Silva belonged and which he had represented in the 1994 legislative elections. Those small parties—called centrist— had been looking to form a center bloc that could either become a new option or be used to establish alliances with one or the other of the major parties.

The FMLN should be interested in maintaining stable relations with these parties, if only to increase its electoral base in opposition to ARENA. If the FMLN fails to follow through with its agreements with them, it runs the risk of going it alone. And by itself, it will most certainly lose against ARENA. Guardado's political calculations hit a dead-end with this dilemma of respecting and nurturing the alliances.

Silva: a false step Dada: case closed

With Héctor Silva as presidential candidate, Guardado would keep his position as party leader, permitting him to continue opening avenues to consolidate himself as a powerful national figure. And that, according to some analysts, is Facundo Guardado's real goal. But the level of the FMLN's internal confrontations was perhaps not sufficiently calculated.

The party emerged from the August events much more internally divided. After refusing to be a candidate in the face of this turmoil, Hector Silva returned embarrassed and dejected to the mayor's office, which he probably should never have left. As serious critics had foreseen, he had made the worst move of his political career, and if he did not turn it around by building a bold administration in the time he had left in office, he could be sealing his political tomb.
Guardado's "moderate" bloc continued its fight. First it proposed that the FMLN National Council decide the ticket—to prevent democratic space in the Convention for grassroots representatives, even though it had already been demonstrated that this would polarize existing conflicts even further. The Handal/González current could not accept this position, knowing that the "moderate" bloc had the majority in the National Council and convinced that defining the ticket without the base meant a step backward in the democratizing process that the party had put in motion.

Next the Guardado bloc urged that the Avilés/Arias ticket be rejected because it represented only one political current and because it could not guarantee electoral success in March 1999. It then turned once more to Héctor Dada, who had remained outside the competition in July when the FMLN rejected his conditions: he would run only if he were candidate of a coalition without party affiliation— maintaining his own independence of the FMLN. Meanwhile, the "radical" Handal/González faction stuck with its ticket, sure it would be the triumphant one.

By the middle of September, it seemed that there had been a solid step toward a Dada/Avilés ticket. But, as the expression of an embittered party sector, the radical bloc, which had never wanted to negotiate its original Avilés/Arias ticket, dedicated itself to a frontal attack on Dada. Dada, wisely, knew enough to get out of the ferment—letting it be known that his pre-candidacy was a closed case. Eight days before the September 27 Convention, it appeared that the Avilés/Arias ticket was the only one that would reach the convention floor. Convention representatives who backed Guardado made it clear that unless an alternative ticket to that of the "radicals" was presented, they would not attend the convention. On September 21st, the country learned of the general coordinator's decision to launch his own candidacy, coupled with Valladares (Comandante Nidia Díaz) on a ticket representing only his own current.

Two Faces of the War

The Guardado-Valladares ticket was presented at the convention and triumphed on the argument that Salvadoran society recognizes its history of struggle. That argument may prove to be very valid for an important sector of the leftist party's membership, but it is double-edged. Guardado and Valladares are historically linked with the harshest face of the war. The Salvadoran society of today tends to forget those years and to look optimistically at the realities that guarantee that those days will not return. In the 1997 municipal and legislative elections, ARENA's principal propaganda strategy was to accuse the FMLN of being responsible for the war's worst disasters and crimes. The television bombarded the country with images of the blood and destruction of the war years.
The propaganda didn't work. Joaquín Villalobo's party was reduced to practically nothing but the FMLN increased its number of representatives until it could contend for control of the Legislative Assembly and won mayoral races in the country's main urban centers—precisely where the heaviest barrage of media images had hit. There is no doubt that these results were caused by diverse factors, the most noticeable being a significant increase in voter absenteeism. But there is also no doubt that the recourse to propaganda about the war years boomeranged against ARENA for having reminded everybody of it. The same thing could happen to the FMLN by resorting to leaders unequivocally linked to the war scenario.

ARENA seems to have better understood the demand in Salvadoran society for new faces, but ARENA is going through its own internal crisis. The fact that Francisco Flores got ARENA's presidential candidacy expresses the height of the contradictions in which the Salvadoran oligarchy finds itself, but ARENA has also learned to read society's demands for modernization, at least in its proposals and its leaders. Its image makeover has been able to rob the left party of its thunder.

Arena's adversary

Some analysts are of the opinion that, despite the FMLN's internal confrontations, its elections did not produce the disastrous results that some had foreseen or wanted. Shafik Handal was the first to embrace and congratulate Guardado and Valladares on their triumph. Leonel González, Salvador Arias and other leaders of the opposing bloc did the same. Handal pronounced the appropriate words for the moment: "We have now concluded the internal elections, and have in our sights the adversary outside our ranks. We must defeat the ARENA machine. We have had harsh debates, confrontations that have served to throw light on the diversity of ideas within our party. At one time it appeared that we would not recover, but we have learned to grow in democracy. It has been our first democratizing experience. There were errors, but we have learned the lesson."
Handal believes that two kinds of alliances are needed to successfully confront the ARENA project. On the one hand, they must attempt a programmatic political alliance that would be difficult to establish among the majority of existing parties in the country. "The majority of parties are defined by the neoliberal project and we must confront this project," he says.

The FMLN must therefore mainly seek its programmatic alliances with the various social sectors instead. "With the exception of the USC, the FMLN would have trouble uniting programmatically with other parties, even including the Democratic Convergence."
On the other hand, there is the electoral political alliance, which could be established among diverse political and social groups. Handal believes it is possible to establish such alliances with other parties, trading some positions on which the FMLN could agree at a given moment for others on which it can't go very far, since the programmatic content of nearly all of the parties contains points that strategically contradict those of the FMLN.

All analysts are in agreement today in stating that the FMLN presidential ticket leaves no room for doubt. Even though Marina Victoria de Avilés and Salvador Arias militated in the ranks of the FMLN, no one can remove from them the stigma of outside spoilers. Had that failed compromise ticket prospered, the blame for any political error in whatever circumstance could have been put on one side or another, which meant that one could have foreseen major confrontations and divisions in the different currents of the FMLN in the future. Now, with the ticket of "historical" militants, everything is clear; there is no more mediation between people and sectors of the FMLN.

Successes and limits of an experiment

The FMLN's internal elections were a democratic experiment that produced these successes:
• Greater participation by grassroots militants in the election of their leaders.

• An opening for internal debate and for a movement of ideas that could fashion party lines, thus replacing the tradition so characteristic of the left of deciding the line at the top levels and imposing it.

• A contribution to the democratization of Salvadoran political life. Political parties need not be merely the expression of an elite societal sector or of structures that are a conveyor belt for the top party leadership. Parties should be conveyor belts for the feelings and thoughts of the diverse sectors of Salvadoran society.

• The possibility for greater participation and ongoing renewal of leadership, avoiding a situation in which party leaders remain eternally in their posts.

• Advances toward greater transparency in conducting party business.

• There were also limits to the FMLN's democratic experiment:
• The internal debate was virtually replaced by infighting and by individual and small group ambitions.

• One man was able to set in motion a process aimed at assuring himself the largest quota of power, contaminating the democratic process.
• The FMLN, as a political party, is still wet behind the ears in comparison to its years of war experience. The leaders and the grassroots militants were about clandestinity, underground survival, orders, commands and compartmentalization appropriate to military structures. In the last three months, both leaders and the grassroots militants found themselves caught between two logics: between the vertical and the horizontal, and between orders or commands and participatory democracy.

• The bulk of the FMLN's leaders are still the same ones who directed the war. They are accustomed to procedures appropriate to underground maneuvers and to securing their own positions of power—a requisite for survival. In this framework, politics is converted into scenarios for mere personal confrontations instead of amplifying and enriching ideas and political concepts.

The ticket's appeal

• The appeal of the Guardado- Valladares ticket is as follows:
• It is an unmediated ticket of the FSLN and now the current it represents should come to an understanding with the various other currents inside the party. That is the first order of business if they all truly want a united front against ARENA.

• Once this unity is established, the ticket will ensure the hardcore vote of the militants, and can count on an active and militant campaign formed by party discipline, though with limited resources.

• The ticket permits a definition of leftist strategies, which presupposes a lack of alliances and thus can allow it to define proposals that can channel and express the interests of diverse social sectors.

Limits of the Ticket

There are also limits to that ticket:
• It is linked to the memory of the war. Its faces are identified with a conflict that, even though it may wake nostalgia in the ex-combatants, generates no enthusiasm in the new generation and could alienate up to 60% of the undecided vote.

• It is a ticket capable of political maneuvers, but lacks technical and professional know-how.

• The middle-class urban sectors, who make up the voting bloc that most decides the elections, look for leaders with a history of honesty and professionalism.

The seduction of the media

A good government is one born of leadership skills and a party able to propose a political program that takes into account the needs and concerns of the majority of the people. To make its program a reality, this government should be able to identify and bring together the most capable people from the various camps, independent of their political affiliation.

Unfortunately, the candidate's political program is not what motivates a whole lot of people. It is rather the candidate's image that sells via the media, especially television. The FMLN finds itself in a very limited position in media terms; its history is more one of agitation than of seduction, and the media are closely linked to the interests of the right. The FMLN's ticket, consisting of two people formed by struggle and hardships will come face to face with ARENA. The ARENA ticket presents voters with two people who have high levels of academic formation and faces that have nothing to do with the war. In addition to the many other problems facing the FMLN, the party needs to learn to project an attractive media image. It is an uphill assignment for which it seems to be insufficiently prepared.

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