Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 155 | Junio 1994


El Salvador

New, Complex Challenges Every Day

El Salvador begins a new stage. Will it be more of the same? Will the FMLN split? What will happen with local government? Will democracy consolidate?

Roberto Cañas

The May 1 Labor Day celebrations this year coincided with the inauguration of El Salvador's new Legislative Assembly. That same day, 262 new mayors took office and the US Army initiated the second phase of its Strong Roads operations.

May 1: Two Blows

Salvadoran workers celebrated May 1 with their now traditional demonstration on the streets of San Salvador. This year was characterized by a relatively scant presence of union members, as well as weak protests against a government that within the previous nine days had delivered two harsh blows to the working class.
The first blow was the last minute approval by the outgoing Legislative Assembly of a Labor Code that does not take into account the consensus of those who participated in the Social Economic Concertación Forum, representing the government, private enterprise and labor. By ignoring the national agreements coming out of this forum, which is the fruit of the peace accords, as well as the International Labor Organization's recommendations for freedom of organization, the new code is a step backward in labor legislation.

"The proceedings used to approve these Labor Code reforms," declared the United National Workers Unions (UNTS), "shows the impossibility of implementing negotiated agreements in our country, given that the government and capital interests ultimately impose measures that protect their own political and economic interests, not caring if this causes new social conflicts, instability and ungovernability in our country."
The second blow to the workers was that the constitutional reform package that emerged from the peace process, approved on April 29, did not include the change in articles restricting state workers' rights to strike and freedom of association.
Salvadoran workers are facing new and greater challenges. They must develop a far reaching strategy that contains concrete proposals to effectively deal with the impact of globalizing the economy, the privatization policy promoted by Calderón Sol's government, the regulation of salaried workers' participation in production and the advance of the solidarismo "union formula," among many other problems.

Two things are clear in this country's new stage. Workers must participate in the economy and in the project to modernize the state; they are the ones who actually make the system produce. It is also necessary for the business sector and the government to understand that an economy based solely on producing more wealth more rapidly, without taking a national project into account, is untenable over the long term and will only generate injustice, inequalities and poverty, with their inseparable partners: social conflict, instability and ungovernability.

Assembly: More Austerity

The new Legislative Assembly elected on March 20 took office to both applause and catcalls from FMLN and ARENA followers. In an unprecedented event, 21 FMLN representatives until two years ago clandestine guerrilla leaders took their oaths. The balance of Assembly forces clearly favors ARENA, which with its 39 representatives and 4 from the PCN, will win all votes with a simple majority. Even so, expectations are high about what the FMLN members can accomplish as representatives.
The start was encouraging. On April 29 the FMLN representatives presented their first official correspondence. It was a motion to abolish the exemption that gives representatives the right to import up to $16,000 in tax free products during their term in office. They justified this request saying that the exemption "contrasts with the great poverty suffered by the majority," and reminded the Assembly that "it is the duty of representatives to work without expecting material rewards."
ARENA's response was voiced by Raul Somoza Alfaro, who announced that his party will request a modification to the current exemption, limiting it to the right to import one vehicle per representative. He pointed out that if the exemption were totally eliminated, a salary increase for representatives would have to be considered.

ARENA wanted to go even farther. Its representatives said they would present a proposal to eliminate the secret spending of the legislative and judicial branch presidents in this new governmental period. The objective, they said, is to seek mechanisms that establish greater austerity in public spending and greater control over state income.

FMLN: Divisions Emerge

Serious internal differences within the FMLN broke out during the election of the new parliamentary leaders. On the evening of April 29, in the final session of the outgoing legislature, ARENA surprisingly approved a reform to the internal rules governing the legislature. The reform established that the legislature's Executive Council would have 10 members and gave a double vote to the Council president. This guaranteed ARENA that the opposition can never make decisions in the Council without its approval.
Most of the FMLN representatives chose to respond to this maneuver by not voting in the Council elections and not nominating any of their bench members to posts in the new Council. But the surprises continued; seven FMLN representatives all from the ERP and the RN voted in the election, and two of them, Ana Guadalupe Martínez and Eduardo Sancho (Ferman Cienfuegos), accepted the positions of Council vice president and secretary.
Since party discipline in the FMLN had broken down, no high level declarations were expected. Francisco Jovel, one of the 14 representatives who refused to vote (which included all those from the PRTC, FPL and PCS), declared on television that "it has been outrageous we must use the exact word how these people from the ERP and the RN 'ascend' to the Coordinating Council. They formally move up, but in terms of their party conduct they move down, because they are showing what they are really capable of doing. This introduces a debate in the FMLN which cannot be only internal. It will be public, and will clearly demonstrate the conduct of these compañeros in the legislature. We have to know what to rely on; we have to know when they are part of the FMLN bloc and when they act apart from the FMLN structure, when they negotiate outside of FMLN forces."
Ana Guadalupe Martínez sees it differently: "I don't think the situation is so serious," she said. "On the contrary, I think it is a sign of democracy within the FMLN that different positions can be taken while sharing a common long term goal. When this type of situation has occurred previously there has always been talk of divisions, of the impossibility of continuing to work together. I think that the FMLN will demonstrate that it is a force with a democratic vocation and that this is a new experience for it."
For the moment, FMLN general coordinator Shafick Handal had the last word, "It should be clear to everyone that these representatives, Ana Guadalupe Martínez and Eduardo Sancho, do not represent the other FMLN representatives or the FMLN itself in the Legislative Council and that we are not obliged to go along with any of their actions, opinions or commitments."
In the next three years the FMLN may wear itself out in the Legislative Assembly, debating between impotence and ineffectualness. Impotence because it lacks the votes needed to reach its objectives, and ineffectualness because of the self destructive powers of the internal struggles. It may, however, also be able to capitalize positively on its experiences. Ana Guadalupe Martínez recognizes that "it is a great personal challenge, first because our personal experience was in another sphere and not precisely in the institutional one. We have a lot to learn about institutional management, but are willing to learn. With its two years of experience in negotiations, the Frente may be able to face its most difficult problems with a spirit of concertación." History will have the very last word.

Political Realignment

There are clearly serious questions behind these events. El Salvador still has a strongly presidentialist regime, historically shaped by the authoritarian and almost absolutist executive branch, which in effect implements decisions made by the country's economic elites.
The task of evolving toward a semi parliamentary regime relatively independent of the judicial and legislative bodies is a pending one if Salvadoran democracy is to be strengthened. The new Supreme Court of Justice to be sworn in on July 1, which will be elected by a parliament with a clear ARENA majority, leaves little room for surprises.

The FMLN's "division" is part of a larger scene. A clear realignment process has begun among all the Salvadoran political forces. Fidel Chávez Mena has announced his retirement as leader of the Christian Democratic Party to give new people a chance. The National Conciliation Party, the party of past military dictatorships, "is facing the worst crisis in its history," according to the former head of the PCN's legislative faction, who added that "if it does not change leadership, it will cause its own total destruction."

The Challenge of Local Power

On May 1, 262 mayors took office. With 211 ARENA mayors and only 14 from the FMLN, the right has almost total power in local government. Debate has quickly opened about decentralizing the state, a concept understood differently depending on the interests being defended. To the ARENA government, it means transferring instruments and institutions of social, educational and health policy to the municipalities, but without adequate resources or the necessary technical training.

Decentralization should, above all, be the nerve center and motor force of state modernization. It is an effective mechanism for integrating broad excluded social sectors and regions into a development process in which the population's real control in decision making and access to employment and income are fundamental factors.

The closest relationship between governor and governed exists at the local level. That is where the ability and prestige to win not only more municipalities, but even the Presidency of the Republic, lies, and it is where ARENA's political clientelism has had the greatest impact. Elections have been won with programs such as Municipalities in Action, created with social investment funds and resources from the National Reconstruction Office, an organization created through the peace accords to involve all sectors, but which ended up dependent on the government.
All of these state organizations resolve some kind of need: roads, schools, wells. The majority of the population does not see these projects as part of the state's obligation to its citizens, but as gifts that should be reciprocated by voting for the government party in the elections.
El Salvador is an increasingly urban country and the role of San Salvador's mayor is key to national life. Bishop Arturo Rivera y Damas expressed this clearly in his responses to the press following his May 1 Sunday homily: "The capital is the capital. We have the greatest number of parishes in San Salvador. We are going to walk side by side with the mayor, not arm in arm, but at a distance that allows us to observe and criticize the good and the bad. We accept the municipal government and will work with it when we can, but with this note; when there is something bad we will criticize it."

Astonishing Events

The first contingent of soldiers from the US Army Corps of Engineers arrived in the country on May 1 to initiate phase II of its Strong Roads operation. The announcement of its arrival was made by the head of the Southern Command from the Salvadoran defense minister's office. The US troops will carry out what they call "civic military" operations building schools, digging wells and working on other projects. "With these cooperation projects, the friendship between the El Salvador armed forces and the US Army is made clear," he said.

What does the presence of foreign troops on national territory mean in national sovereignty terms? General Humberto Corado easily answered that when he said that when the operation's first phase had been approved by the Legislature in 1993, it implied the implementation of a later phase, so there was no need to request any kind of permission.
In El Salvador one never loses the ability to be astonished. When it was revealed that the electoral ballots were printed by a company belonging to the President's sister, for example, no one said a thing.

Another astonishing event: When the Spanish language CNN correspondent questioned President Cristiani in incisive US media style about issues of impunity and the Truth Commission's unfulfilled recommendations, the correspondent's questions were considered disrespectful and an insult to the nation by the Association of Public Media and the Salvadoran Radiobroadcasters Association. Astonishing.


In the second round of presidential elections, held on April 24, Armando Calderón Sol ratified his victory with a 2 to 1 margin. The abstention rate was 55%. The round was preceded by a totally lackluster campaign, despite heavy spending for television airtime, which for Salvadorans was like listening to the rain. The silver lining to the cloud may have been that many of the serious irregularities in the first round of the electoral process were corrected, although only in relative terms. The electoral system still needs thoroughgoing reforms that will have to be addressed in coming years so the right of every citizen to vote is guaranteed.

ARENA put its electoral machinery to work once again. When those who had decided to vote looked for their polling place, they
found that each one had four or five ARENA "guides" dressed in the ARENA party colors, offering help to voters. This time the Supreme Electoral Tribunal quickly declared Calderón Sol the victor, and Rubén Zamora conceded defeat the same night. The President elect's supporters began noisy celebrations headed by outgoing President Cristiani, who in his euphoria shouted out the party slogan so commonly heard these days: "Country yes, Communism no."

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