Pact of the Nation Or Pact of the Ruins?
“Development: the new name for peace” is the solemn title of the agreement signed between the ARENA party and the new Democratic Party of ex-guerrilla and ex-FMLN leader Joaquin Villalobos. One of the reasons Villalobos signed the agreement is to keep El Salvador from going the way of Nicaragua.
Juan Hernández Pico, SJ
The second ARENA administration, under the baton of Armando Calderón Sol, is now a year old. That year ended with a heated debate over the government proposal to increase the value added tax (IVA) from 10% to 14%. The legislative opposition's solid rejection, which lasted weeks, was finally broken by a pact between the government and the newly formed Democratic Party (PD) of former guerrilla leader Joaquín Villalobos.
On Sunday, May 28, Calderón Sol announced on national television that he had received a proposed "pact of the nation" from "some" political parties. It rapidly became clear that the "some" were ARENA and the PD. The other parties were offered the option to adhere unconditionally to the pact but not to discuss or improve it in any search for consensus around a national agenda.
The next day, the presidency's Secretariat of Information announced that the pact would be signed on May 31 at the San Andrés archeological site. The opposition responded by dubbing it "the pact of the ruins," not only because of the location but also because, they explain, this pact will ruin the political fortunes of ARENA and the PD. The PD called the pact a "new Chapultepec" (site of the peace accords), but others analyze it as the latest publicity stunt to reanimate a presidency wallowing in confusion and paralysis after its first year. Still others think it is the master stroke of a consummate politician Joaquín Villalobos to show the country how the opposition should function in the future.
The "Black Shadow," Taxes and the New ArchbishopMay began with a dramatic growth of clandestine groups dedicated to "cleansing" the country of crime through assassinations. "Black Shadow," the best known group and a shadow of the "death squads" that once threatened the country, threatened several judges. The tremendous concern sparked by the government proposal to increase the IVA drew attention away from these ominous forms of "justice," and debate over the death penalty ceased.
Meanwhile, the agenda of pending peace accord points began to focus on purging and improving the National Civil Police. Two of its high level officials were suspended during investigation of an accusation that they were negligent in carrying out orders to detain another policeman, accused of assassinating FMLN leader Francisco Véliz in 1993. The accused is currently a fugitive.
The serious potential for labor conflict was fed by plans to privatize state institutions providing basic services and the failure to resolve the assembly plant, or maquiladora, issue. In the midst of this explosive situation, the new Archbishop of San Salvador took possession of his new headquarters.
The media, which had already noted the contrast between him and Romero and Rivera, his immediate predecessors, sent journalists to try to pull out his opinions on the national reality. The archbishop insisted that his role is purely religious.
In what was perhaps his most famous error, President Calderón Sol included the archbishop in his salutations at the signing of the San Andrés Pact, even though he was not present. The archbishop did, however, attend the reading of the President's report to the legislature on his first year of government.
Plans, Plans, PlansA year later, President Calderón Sol still seems to be inaugurating his presidency. Signing the "pact of the nation" the last day of his first year was the climax in image terms: a huge apotheosis set on a base of deficiencies. His message was that, from now on, he would be able to govern, as if the previous year did not count and he was beginning again.
The triumphant Cristiani had gotten the longest applause at the inauguration a year ago, a man bold in the peace negotiations and accords, the one who had assured ARENA's new term. Calderón Sol was opaque that day. "He who is born poor is not doomed to die poor" was his inaugural theme a rehashing of Cristiani's campaign slogan, "governing for the poorest of the poor." But this proclamation never went anywhere. El Salvador does not have the resources to make changes in all areas and improve opportunities for the impoverished majorities at the same time. A government that truly intends to attack poverty must prioritize sectors or activities, assign budgets indicating financial sources, establish implementation deadlines and accounting mechanisms and evaluate results. None of this was done.
For over six months, the government appeared to be continuing the previous economic policies: structural adjustment, national reconstruction with political or party priorities through the National Reconstruction Secretariat, and social compensation through the Social Investment Fund. At that time, the President reacted strongly to growing rumors of an IVA increase, and appealed to the defense of grassroots interests.
In January, Calderón Sol unveiled his project to make El Salvador a "huge tax free zone." Then in early February he presented his four point economic plan: exchange rate parity and dollarization; trade openings by lowering duties toward zero; modernization of the state, of which privatization was a part; and policies to fight tax evasion. In April he presented his social project, the goal of which was to assign half the national budget to social spending by the end of his term. All this was part of the "globalization" strategy, his ambitious plan for the country's development.
What Will We Achieve Together?The presentation of each of these projects tried to give an image of a creative, energetic, pioneering presidency, one who is even promoting the development of all Central America. Each plan was surrounded by radio and TV publicity that painted the dawn of a country with a promising future. "We will achieve it together" was repeated over and over, using images and slogans from Calderón Sol's electoral campaign.
The problem was the gap between image and reality. The President always ended his presentation of the plans by announcing that his ministers would explain the details, but they never did, and even gave the impression they weren't sure what the details were. Private enterprise questioned them and so did the universities. The media pulled together a broad debate, concluding with critical views. According to a February survey by the Central American University (UCA), the majority of those familiar with the economic plan did not trust it. To this must be added a drop in the value of the dollar and an increase in overall interest rates, as well as the negative responses of other Central American governments to Calderón's plan, all of which put the real possibility of dollarizing the economy in doubt.
The proposal to raise the IVA tax from 10% to 14% was recently put forward again, and the President had to swallow the strong opposition to it he had expressed in October. Surprisingly, ARENA could not get enough votes in the Legislative Assembly to approve the hike. Many could not see why this additional income was needed to fulfill the Peace Accords nor which social investment areas demanded it. The population almost unanimously rejects the pretext of increasing the IVA to finance the peace accords the UCA's May survey showed 91.3% against. Naturally, the parties recognized the tremendous political cost of backing the increase.
What Else the Polls SayOther results of the UCA poll are no more flattering. Out of a 10 point maximum, President Calderón got a 4.96 popularity rating, and 63% of those polled see no positive changes with the new government while 77% see negative ones. These negative changes are economic for 50%, while the other 25% note the rise in crime. Almost 57% feel the economy has worsened during Calderón's first year of government.
More than 67% consider that the government is not keeping its promises, although close to 50% think the evaluation period is too short and the government needs more time to work. Of the 77% who think the country needs a change of course, nearly 60% think it should be economic (employment, prices, poverty, the IVA tax, public services, etc.) while 16% think it should focus on crime. The only question that showed the population equally divided referred to fulfillment of the peace accords: 44% think the government is complying and 43% think it is not. Finally, the percentage of those who express preference for ARENA and would vote today (the "solid vote") has dropped from about 28 to 14. The solid vote remains at 12% for the FMLN and does not hit 5% for the PDC. Another 28% would not vote for any party, 15% don't know and 20% responded that the vote is secret.
President Calderón, his government and ARENA probably predicted results similar to these. A significant number of high level government officials resigned in this first year: 5 ministers, 8 vice ministers, all the Social Investment Fund directors and 2 presidential secretaries. Given this and the impasse created by the IVA debate, the government needed a spectacular leap forward. This need linked up with Joaquín Villalobos' political style to issue forth the "pact of the nation."
A Danger of "Nicaraguanizing"For Villalobos and his Democratic Party, the "pact of the nation" will renew the relevance and transcendence of the peace accords, and move the country into a new period. Villalobos said in an interview appearing in the May 31 La Prensa Gráfica that "the President's first speech was one of intention" but the pact is "a program." Comparing the pact with the peace accords, Villalobos claimed that "the evolution can be seen, because [the pact] addresses themes that were not part of the [Chapultepec] agenda" some of which he calls revolutionary. As examples, he points to "fiscal discipline" issues, "with the Law against Contraband, the Fiscal Crime Penalty Law and the reforms to the income tax law," as well as to the campaign against corruption "to convert the Accounting Court into the General Comptroller of the nation..., control of NGOs and the requirement that political parties be formally accountable."
Villalobos and the PD say they have considered the possibility that the government could fail, which would move the country towards "new polarization and a new confrontation en route to the risk of Nicaraguanization."
While clear that "the government was vetoed" by the votes against the IVA increase, the PD still saw "signs of a possibility to negotiate." Villalobos appears to be imagining something like the stalemate with the military forces that led to the peace negotiations. For Villalobos, to go on simply being an opposition would mean "maintaining the old political concept that 'I win if the government goes bad.' During the times of polarization," he adds, "this made certain sense, but in today's conditions, the political field is dominated by those offering solutions."
Some people think deals underlie this proposition, such as assuring Villalobos that the Supreme Electoral Tribunal will accept the PD as a political party despite the opposition of the Christian Democratic Party, which alleges name repetition. Other sorts of concessions? Villalobos could be thinking like he did on May 1, 1994, when the new legislature began and he distanced himself from the rest of the FMLN by claiming that having former guerrillas on the National Assembly board would give them more opportunities for responsible action. He took that position even though it made it easier for ARENA to dominate the board in critical legislative moments. He could be gambling, as he did then, on winning a front page position in the political scene. Behind this is still the goal of winning over the center bloc of voters. If he and his party must pay a price for approaching ARENA, what better price than to shed the "old left's" confrontational image? Villalobos says that the PD has gained "neither posts nor money" with the pact.
Indignant PartiesThe way the "pact of the nation" emerged offers clues toward one or another interpretation. When the President spoke about the pact on national TV, he emphasized an emerging consensus and the confluence of many, if not all, political parties. Why did he not clearly tell the country that only ARENA and the PD had made the offer to open a dialogue about the pact with other political forces and organizations?
The pact's text often mentions "transparency," but calling a pact exclusively between two parties "national" was anything but transparent. On May 29 and 30, government spokespeople convoked the other parties but did not even give them a copy of the pact. They just read it aloud, then asked for support. Rubén Zamora, the left's 1994 presidential candidate, wrote on June 5, "Surprise became indignation when the other parties were given three days to sign a pact they were not familiar with. President Calderón's political crudeness was inexcusable and appeared to be more a tactic to win approval for the IVA than a serious attempt to govern through a national pact."
Villalobos made clear in the Prensa Gráfica interview that "we see an opportunity to create conditions to take advantage of the situation." He repeated the "sense of opportunity" three times. Is this the kind of political genius, bold and revolutionary innovation that, as in the negotiations leading to Chapultepec, can open a new era for the country? Only future events will answer this. If the PD uses its political strength to publicly pressure the government to fulfill those clauses of the pact that favor grassroots interests and there are such clauses in the pact this would demonstrate that Villalobos knew how to pull the country out of an impasse and transform the crisis into national change.
PD: Romantic OriginsEven before the IVA increase was debated in legislative committee, the government announced significant rate increases for electricity and other basic services. The PD expressed its opposition, warning that "the pact is not a blank check." It finally supported an IVA increase from 10% to 13%. Given this, what lever will it use to push its viewpoints? This will challenge Villalobos' ostentatious creativity.
Does this mean co government? Villalobos says no. "If we proposed that, we'd be responsible for the failures. As long as we don't co govern, we can share successes, but any failures are the government's fault.... We want a share of responsibility for positive results, but not for negative ones." Villalobos is evidently not happy that the PD initiative done behind the back of the rest of the opposition is being termed opportunist or Machiavellian. To him it is an "almost patriotic" decision "because we belong to a current with idealistic roots. We don't come from politics, we come from a war, from romantic origins that affect how we act." These romantic origins, however, do not appear to have kept the party from heading up an elitist negotiation, not one with the people. The participation the pact demands for civil society was not put in practice.
Some analysts, among them Rubén Zamora, called the pact "a re issuing of the President's inaugural speech with some ultra neoliberal amplifications that criticize the Treasury Minister, and other minor additions that can be attributed to PD acumen, such as control over NGOs."
No Priority SettingTo some degree, Villalobos is right when he says the pact is a program, not just a discourse of intention. It is a text with commitments and deadlines that require new legislation to make some of the proposals viable. The problem is that these promises seem excessive and once again lack a reasoned justification to have selected some over others. The lack of priorities means a lack of credibility.
Three examples suffice. How will it be possible to increase the Civil National Police from 7,000 to 20,000 in 1996 and improve the "quality of work" of the Police Academy at the same time? Why is it so vital for the state to control the NGOs before resolving or building effective bases to resolve the corruption in government institutions? It would be hard to find a need more urgent than a serious reforestation program to fight the country's terrible ecological deterioration. Why, then, doesn't this section have deadlines and why is its viability conditioned to budget limitations and loan availability?
Pure Image?All sectors of the country appear to agree on the need for a new national consensus that goes beyond the peace accords. And, as in all Central American countries, stability is lacking to reap the fruits of productive labor assuming that this "pact of the nation" favors production and productivity.
It is also evident that the opposition has to make proposals. In the case of the IVA proposal, the parties offered no counter proposals for obtaining the tax income that few would deny is necessary. The secretiveness and speed with which the government accepted as a "national pact" what was merely an agreement between two does not build its image as the dialoguing government the country needs. If the pact lacks mechanisms for precise and demanding follow up, not much can be expected of it.
It would be terrible if the government, in need of an image, has wasted the value of true negotiation that would allow it to bring an end to the fatalism in El Salvador that "those who are born poor will die poor."