Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 160 | Noviembre 1994


El Salvador

Rubén Zamora on the Political Crisis

It’s a state that accepts ever more the transnational limits on its power. There’s an opposition that makes no alternative proposals. They strip politics of its greatest appeal and throw it into the arms of the other allure: enrichment. And along with that, corruption. No country saves itself – not even the country of “The Savior”.

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

The Christian Democratic Party's special convention, held in mid September to restructure its provisional political commission, ended ignominiously, with violence between close supporters of Fidel Chávez Mena and Abraham Rodríguez. The former retrieved the reins of the party, further discrediting it. It is not a unique case; all of El Salvador's parties are experiencing turbulent realignments, upheavals and general problems.

FMLN Split Irreversible?

While President Calderón Sol was making his first appearance at the United Nations General Assembly, former members of the now abolished Civil Defense, National Guard and Canton Patrol occupied the National Assembly in the name of the Association of Demobilized Armed Forces (ADEFAES). The parliamentarians they took hostage were released after four days of mediation by ONUSAL, the UN oversight mission.

Joaquín Villalobos, an FMLN leader and head of the ERP, one of the FMLN's five parties, accused both the ultra right and the FPL, another FMLN party, of organizing the takeover. He charges that the FPL, which he considers "ultra left," is disinterested in the country's institutions. Villalobos showed up at ARENA headquarters to receive its released hostages, causing one of them to remark, "Joaquín's here to stay."
The RN's Eduardo Sancho, another FMLN leader and secretary of the National Assembly, agreed with Villalobos. The FPL, PC and PRTC, in contrast, were outraged. The FMLN's split seems irreversible if its current leaders continue to wield real power in their organizations.

Is Even ARENA Coming Unstuck?

The ongoing crisis in the National Conciliation Party (PCN) became more evident with the resignation of one of its most important leaders, former parliamentarian Rafael Morán Orellana. The crux of the PCN's problem seems to be an inability to act on its own behalf and shake its image as a simple appendage of ARENA.

Only ARENA appeared to be governing from some throne in the political heavens where the passions of disunity are absent or at least fully under control. But then Kyrio Waldo Salgado, who directs an ARENA think tank called the Liberty and Democracy Institute, announced an assembly for October in which his associates will analyze whether or not to form a new party that "does not betray the longings" of Salvadorans.

The declaration caused astonishment, since Salgado and his institute unconditionally supported Rafael Calderón Sol, ARENA's victorious presidential candidate. This grim personality of the Salvadoran right first poised his cannons at top ARENA government figures in September, firing accusations of corrupt conduct at them which he accompanied by confidential documented proof.

An ARENA convention is also coming up to elect a new National Executive Committee and replace Calderón Sol as its president, since he cannot hold both that post and his new one as President of the Republic. The divisions could get deeper.

Last but not least, the Democratic Convergence (CD) is also in disarray following the failure of its independent candidates to win more than a single seat in the National Assembly. One sign of this is the observable distance between CD leader Rubén Zamora, the left coalition's presidential candidate, and his own party in the CD. The fact that his office is not in the party headquarters highlights his independence as a political figure.

Zamora offered envío his interpretation of El Salvador's current political events, particularly of the fact that all its parties are more preoccupied with their own tensions and fragmentation than with developing proposals for governing the country better. He sees the 1994 elections as closing the book on the era of war sparked politically by the fraud that overrode Napoleón Duarte's first electoral victory of 22 years ago. As runner up in this year's elections, Zamora considers them "legitimate enough," since fraud only explains part of the two to one spread between Calderón and himself. Totally clean elections would have been too much to expect.

The country now finds itself with a politically unenthusiastic population and a profound crisis in civil society's normal political instruments: political parties and social movements. They are lagging behind the opportunity history has offered them in El Salvador. History seems to have outstripped them.

"Creatures of War"

What is happening, in Zamora's view, is that neither the parties nor the movements have shaken free of war. In addition, parties are constitutionally "the only channels to state power." Adapting to the counterinsurgency plan meant removing any interpretation the Constitution could possibly confer on war as a legitimate channel to power. In so doing, legitimacy was strictly circumscribed to what parties win in an electoral race. Community associations, citizens' movements and even independent candidates thus have no direct access to power.

In this sense, the political parties are pulling apart because they are "creatures of war," unable to adapt to ways of acting consistent with peacetime. Zamora would exempt no party from this analysis.

ARENA's divisions are the most recent to become public and are seemingly as hard to control as any others. The party represents the right's first response to the war, and its tensions are surfacing now because its cadres are not being given space in its second round in office. President Cristiani had filled high government posts with business executives, but it was assumed that, with Calderón Sol in office, the waters would again run through party channels. More than half of his top officials, however, were also in Cristiani's administration, and they have clear primacy over the others.

The FMLN is an even more direct creature of the war. If ARENA was born as a political organization to rule in wartime, the FMLN was born as one to make war.
The divergent conceptions of the organizations making it up coexisted during the war, subordinated to a complementary and convergent military strategy. But those conceptions seem too far apart to coexist in peacetime. The organizations are trying to stay together now based on something similar to the "mystery of the Holy Trinity." But Christians cross themselves in the name of the Trinity upon awakening, then live their day as if God were only one, because they make no pretense of grasping the mystery. The FMLN is trying to live the unity of the "holy quintuplicity," but in daily life this fictional unity loses out to the real political division, which is no mystery whatever. Zamora thinks the fight is also about who will inherit the FMLN and that it can be solved only one of two ways: "either the five parties disappear so the FMLN is the only organization left, or the FMLN disappears."
Zamora believes that the division in the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) is the price it is paying for governing longest during the war, with no compensating credit for leading the country to peace, as both ARENA and the FMLN got. He also sees it as a squabble between "phantom leaders," since "no one ever sees Fidel Chávez and Rodríguez says he doesn't identify with those who brandish his name."
Zamora is less incisive about the PCN and his own Convergence. He underscores the obvious about the PCN: its character as ARENA's shadow. With regard to the CD, he says simply that it has not yet recovered from the tremendous blow it suffered in the elections.

Four Needed Changes

On the other hand, he thinks that the leftist grassroots organizations are paying the price of their close links to the FMLN's political military structures during the war. By being their political cover, the various grassroots groups lost their real connection with the most urgent needs of their base, and are having a hard time recovering the trust they mortgaged in the process.

Zamora thinks the task is huge, since it involves "a refounding based on politics." From a left or grassroots perspective, he concludes that this must be done through a four part renovation.

The first involves a change of language. It is of no use for a left candidate to speak of a new politics, in which no one feels excluded, or of new instruments of reconciliation and agreement making, if the same red flags still wave behind the speaker or the same clannish slogans are chanted behind the radio message.

The second implies a change of proposals. A new left party should be put forth that sheds old names, offers new enrolment, and pulls forces together without demanding quotas of power. Something like Chile's current Socialist Party, or even the US Democratic Party, which is capable of including a spectrum of diverse tendencies. In any case, it should function like a party, with organic structures and discipline.

The third would be a change in the relationship between political society and civil society, in which the social movements and groups have their autonomy and are not used as a transmission belt for party politics. Fourth but not least would be the internal democratization of the parties themselves.

The Corruption Crisis

The sluggishness of the war clearly encouraged corruption, but that alone does not explain El Salvador's political crisis or the corruption into which it is now falling. In Zamora's interpretation, that initial link is now the weakest in the chain.
The 1994 elections did not return full legitimacy to the political system. The electoral rolls were not totally cleaned up, and the structural violence and climate of fear it engendered did not permit the freedom that voting requires. In addition, none the platforms sparked interest in the half of the population that abstained from voting.

Unfortunately, the war offered a real possibility of transforming national conditions through the use of arms. Now, in peacetime, the state is showing its limited ability to change anything, and the opposition cannot find any alternative proposals to pressure for corrections in the limited areas left open by transnational economic power. If the power of war created conditions favoring corruption, the impotence of peace does as well.

Napoleón Duarte's Christian Democratic government in the 1980s was accused of tolerating the corruption of the party in office. ARENA came to power under the banner of administrative honesty, but in Cristiani's last two years in office, after the war ended, he was forced to form a commission to investigate corruption in his own administration. He never published its findings.

Puppets Losing their Heads

Calderón Sol has said that one of his most important objectives is the fight against corruption. Yet Kyrio Waldo Salgado's accusations emerged only a few months after Calderón took office. Salgado accuses his agricultural minister of manipulating tariffs against rice importers who compete with companies in which the minister himself has interests. This charge is perhaps the most damaging to Calderón Sol's own judgment, since the Minister of Agriculture is directly after the Vice President on the list of succession to the Presidency of the Republic; the accused minister also appears to be Calderón's favorite to succeed him as ARENA president. But Salgado does not stop there. He accuses the treasury minister of harassing an auto import company with an audit for unpaid taxes to benefit competitors closer to the government.
He accuses that minister's brother of massive tax evasion during the past administration, when the accused treasury minister was second in charge of the same ministry. He accuses the state telecommunications company president, a prominent ARENA member and supermarket chain owner, of tax evasion. He even accuses President Cristiani of having diverted medicine shipments assigned to the armed forces to his own pharmacies.

The Court of Accounts, which is auditing municipal governments and autonomous state institutions, is finding that funds are missing in many of them. In some cases, millions in local currency are unaccounted for, such as in the Compañía Electrónica del Río Lempa (CEL), whose former president, retired colonel Sigifredo Ochoa Pérez, is the only one of them being processed. But all the puppets are losing their heads.

Fight the Problem or Join It?

The extent of the crisis is best explained by the structural tendency that is aggravating corruption. A state that can do ever less, that increasingly accepts the transnational limits to its power, and an opposition offering neither alternative proposals nor corrective ones to this situation, strips politics of its most important attraction, hurling it into the arms of a lesser attraction that always accompanies it: economic corruption. This creates the basis for the failure of politics: the government does it and the opposition does not correct it.

Zamora would say that history in El Salvador got away from the politicians. But, in reality, even given the difficult historic possibilities, it is still people who make history. They can either rebel against the conditions that favor corruption more than ever or they can join them. In El Salvador, for now, too many politicians are choosing the second option.

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