Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 171 | Octubre 1995


El Salvador

Toward Democracy Or Authoritarianism?

The Salvadoran economy is becoming globalized. This may produce “economic growth”, but does not create social wealth for the majority of people, or even guarantee them the most basic welfare; in fact it excludes them from the system. Such an economy inevitably requires repressive policing procedures.

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

After the short vacations afforded by the August celebration honoring El Salvador's patron saint, the long heralded modernization of the state has finally begun. The Ministry of Economic Coordination, created some months ago to replace the Ministry of Planning, has itself disappeared, with its functions transferred to the Foreign Ministry. The idea is to put the country's diplomacy at the service of the globalizing orientation of its economy, though many things are yet to be defined. At the end of September, ARENA elects its new National Executive Committee, a fact that hangs over the country like a shadow. Many things will turn on the results of that election.

Calderón Sol Got a Year's Reprieve

In 1994, after Armando Calderón Sol's inauguration as President, his impending resignation as president of ARENA and the election of the party's new National Executive Committee (COENA) upset the governing team's victorious feeling. Calderón Sol did not assure ARENA's cohesion or an equilibrium between its traditional ultra rightists and its centrist modernizing tendencies, and he lacked Cristiani's strength and skill in leading both the party and the government. At that time, the solution was made easier by the fact that the committee Calderón headed still had a year to go. The new committee elected in September 1994 was thus elected for only a year and, given its temporary nature, was able to incorporate all of ARENA's existing ideological tendencies. The president of this provisional committee has been Juan José Domenech, owner of a flourishing supermarket chain.

For a year, then, Calderón Sol had some breathing space and was able to postpone his fight for leadership of ARENA. But that year is now up. ARENA will go into the 1997 municipal and legislative elections, as well as the 1999 presidential ones, under the executive administration of the COENA soon to be elected.

These internal elections have turned ARENA's house upside down. The 1994 national elections opened a new era of realignment for all of El Salvador's political parties, pushed primarily by the need to function in unprecedented historical circumstances: attempts at national reconciliation, the transition to democracy and the new demands for political tolerance toward contradictory visions of the nation's reality. Embracing the negotiated road to peace led to fissures in ARENA between its intransigents who wanted a military victory over its "communist enemies," at any cost and its more pragmatic members, who understood that the military situation was stalemated and thus accepted transferring the military confrontation to the political arena.

It is likely that ARENA's economic underpinnings also divide the party, between those firmly rooted in traditional medium and large agricultural holdings and those who, now diversified, prefer leadership to come from the country's business and financial sectors. It is customary to group the first sector with Calderón Sol and the second with Cristiani. The differences are real, if perhaps presented somewhat schematically. Analyzing the complexity of these differences today also requires considering the possibility that the potential benefits of state privatization are creating even more discord within ARENA.

At the beginning of September, the names of four potential candidates for the presidency of COENA were being tossed around. Two of those names would seem to have the backing of Calderón Sol's government Gloria Salguero Gross, President of the National Assembly, and Mejía Alférez, the President's representative to the San Andrés Pact follow up commission. Mejía was also the first designate to the Presidency of the Republic and former Minister of Agriculture. He lost both posts due to accusations of corruption, charges he was cleared of in court. In 1994, Mejía seemed to be Calderón Sol's favorite for the COENA presidency.

The other two candidates are National Assembly first vice president Julio Gamero, a hard figure to pin down ideologically, and the current acting president, Juan José Domenech. Domenech is also somewhat difficult to characterize, although his government post as head of ANTEL, one of the most lucrative state entities and a key piece in the privatization puzzle, clearly gives him a number of levers with which to negotiate the interests of the different groups around him. The interests of former President Alfredo Cristiani and his economic group are surely represented by some of these four candidates.

Pilgrimage To a Tomb

The anniversary of ARENA founder and charismatic leader Roberto D'Aubisson's death in late August was marked by a pilgrimage of ARENA leaders to his grave, in which each ARENA faction jockeyed for position. Cristiani was at the grave, as was Calderón Sol and all four candidates for the COENA presidency. All were trying to wrap themselves in the virulently anti Communist mantle of D'Aubisson, and thus come off as the most authentic representative of his party.
What stood out about the pilgrimage were the public statements of Juan José Domenech, who declared that his party would never again pact with "communists in camouflage," using as an example the San Andrés pact, which ARENA signed three months ago with the party of former guerrilla commander Joaquín Villalobos.

The different ARENA factions are indisputably fighting for the party's soul and, even though D'Aubisson died defending negotiations, the pilgrimage to his grave was colored by a strident ultra rightism. Today, at least in terms of image, nobody, not even Cristiani, wants to risk putting more value on the party's democratic skin than on its authoritarian heart.

PNC: The Crux of the Problem

The serious problem with Calderón Sol's government, ARENA and in large measure Salvadoran society itself, is that recourse to authoritarian solutions is extremely deep rooted. The country indisputably faces a grave problem with public security. It is lamentable, however, that, based on simplistic assessments, the problem will be dealt with by using authoritarian solutions that could well lead to new forms of militarism.

The crux of the problem is the structure and conduct of the National Civilian Police (PNC), the key instrument of public security. In the wake of growing social agitation, the PNC has acted with an excessively repressive hand, using the riot police at the slightest provocation, without first exhausting options of dialogue and negotiation.

There were no new protests in August. The demobilized former combatants especially those of the Salvadoran armed forces organized in ADEFAES, who were the last to organize protests in July did not carry out their threat of violent protests throughout the capital and the entire country. The Human Rights Ombudsman Office issued an "urgent call for reflection" so that a "climate of ongoing social order of dialogue and peace" prevails in the country. It declared that "the solution to the serious national problems" would be possible only if Salvadorans promote a "culture of peace with social justice".

The Central American University (UCA) continually insists that civil society cannot leave the public security issue exclusively in the hands of the state, without risking a new descent into authoritarianism. But both the state and civil society have problems channeling public security humanely and efficiently.

In the first place, there is a serious lack of coordination among the PNC, the Attorney General's Office and the legal system. That leads to procedural problems in the detention of presumed criminals, which in turn lead the judges to free them before trial due to a violation of due process. The result voluntary or not is an increasing lack of prestige in the whole system of due process and pressure to just do away with what was a hard fought human rights gain.

The Cancer of Impunity

That lack of coordination irrespective of isolated sectoral advances in these institutions allows for the suspicion that either complicity with crime or outright cover ups exist. The most recent and notorious case was that of the former Social Security director, suspected of involvement in the embezzlement of up to $5 million. His arrest order was held up for a month by the District Attorney's Office, which had requested it, obviously facilitating the flight of the accused.

"We live in a society eaten away by the cancer of corruption and impunity," declared Gregorio Rosa Chávez, auxiliary Bishop of San Salvador, in his September 3 homily. He was referring to both this case and to the proliferation of gangs, the bitter fruit of a society whose values are in an open state of decomposition.

Minister Barrera

A recent order to shift the posts of some top officers in the PNC has produced an earthquake of sorts. The PNC's most important divisions are now directed by commissioners from the dissolved National Police, while commissioners who come from the FMLN ranks have been left overseeing less important areas finances, border patrol, etc., or sent out of the capital. Among the transfers, one of particular concern is the appointment of a former National Police commissioner to head the Division Against Organized Crime. This is of such concern that the UN's Salvador mission, MINUSAL, seems poised to intervene, even though its role in public security is formally about to end. Even the members of Villalobos' new Democratic Party asked MINUSAL to intervene and made their protest official to the San Andrés Pact follow up commission.

Many people are also concerned about Minister of Public Security Hugo Barrera's general unwillingness to dialogue, as well as the fact that he generally turns to his trusted associates to head up important command positions in the PNC, thus going over the head of PNC director Rodrigo Ayala. The most serious accusation made against Barrera is that he has used the PNC to create an intelligence unit that will answer to him. The constitutional reforms resulting from the 1992 peace accords clearly state that any intelligence body must answer to the country's President. All these realities have led to an unfortunate division among PNC commanders.

On the other hand, the Minister of Security's proposal to undertake "Neighborhood Social Welfare Boards" has already gotten off the ground in the department of Ahuachapán, despite many protests. Conceived of with the goal of forming a network of "informants," and invested with the authority to detain people even though they are unarmed, they inevitably evoke the memory of the nefarious Democratic Nationalistic Organization (ORDEN), created in the 1960s by General Medrano, head of the now extinct National Guard. ORDEN was guilty of innumerable human rights violations and of causing considerable insecurity among the population. Barrera has often expressed his belief that abolishing the National Guard and Treasury Police was, if not completely mistaken, at least premature.

A Police Caste?

Other measures are more structural. For example, the Minister of Security has obtained a presidential decree saying that he be provided with an Assistant General Inspector of the National Police, to assist the General Inspector, who functions as something of an internal watchdog. As spelled out in the peace accords, the executive branch must nominate an Inspector to the District Attorney and the Human Rights Office, whose approval is required for the appointment to take effect. But, by virtue of this new presidential decree, prepared with no consultative process, the assistant inspector can be named by the Minister of Security without the oversight or approval of any other state entity. This decree is obviously aimed at undermining the General Inspector's independence.

Following this presidential decree and five months after the Human Rights Office refused to accept a candidate for the PNC's General Inspector, Minister Barrera nominated Victor Valle for the position. Valle is a former secretary general of the MNR, a party founded and led for years by Guillermo Ungo. Barrera paid no attention to the Human Rights Office's reasonable request that he nominate at least two candidates. In addition, he put forth the name of Rudy Medina Contreras, legal adviser to various National Assembly commissions, as assistant general inspector. Valle's nomination has not met with opposition, but Medina's faces a general lack of confidence from the political opposition and human rights organizations.

Even more serious are the problems presented by a bill to regulate police careers. The most crucial fact here is that the police career is designed along the lines of a military career, with the same segregated curriculum and the same separation from civilian disciplines that has been a longstanding problem in the education of police officers. The design, solidly objected to by the FMLN as a negotiating party to the peace accords as well as by MINUSAL, essentially paves the way for creating a police caste wholly isolated from society. If this design is actually implemented, the possibility of a police force born out of society and maintaining ongoing contact with that society will be lost.

Operation Guardian

And, finally, to these grave concerns must be added the proposal to extend to urban zones the so called Operation Guardian, which consists of using the army under PNC direction as a dissuasive element to fight both common and organized crime in rural areas. At bottom, it is a step forward in the army's return to carrying out security functions, which was constitutionally prohibited by the peace accords except on those occasions in which the President judges that a national emergency exists and is backed up by the National Assembly in that opinion.

The Ministers of Defense and Public Security have declared that the crime rate in the countryside has dropped by 70% in the five months since Operation Guardian began. The UCA's Human Rights Institute, however, reports that its monitoring of daily media indicate that 582 violent deaths chalked up to common crime were recorded between October 1994 and February 1995, a number that increased to 635 between March and July 1995, with the majority of both statistics corresponding to the country's rural areas. At the same time, the UCA's Public Opinion Institute said that 61.6% of the population polled at a national level in March 1995 felt that the army patrols could be effective in reducing crime.

There is a great danger today that the character of the PNC conceived of by the peace accords as an instrument to take the country along a democratic path could be significantly altered. If this happens, the new political spaces opened to offer participation to diverse views and visions and to seek peaceful solutions to conflicts within a culture of tolerance will be seriously threatened.

ARENA's Shadow

The Salvadoran government's economic plans are based on emphasizing globalization and a tertiary economy i.e., commercial, tourist, financial and publicity services, among others. In analyzing the exclusive character of these services, which can create "economic growth" without creating social wealth for the great majority of the country or even assuring that their most basic needs will be met, a suspicion understandably emerges that the policy of public security currently being consolidated is aimed at providing the state with the necessary means by which to repress the growing discontent of excluded Salvadorans.

Privatizing ANTEL, the state telecommunications enterprise, in accord with a business state plan that didn't even minimally consult ANTEL workers, will almost inevitably lead to a conflict that the government will try to resolve with repression. This is only one of many examples on the horizon today. Though the government was elected with a majority of votes, it still must take the opposition into account, planning the country's economy in consultation with diverse sectors throughout the country. But the government doesn't do this.

Minority leaders of business unions and large national and transnational capital simply don't take the majority into account. This attitude is even more serious as the INS sword hangs ever more ominously over the heads of the undocumented Salvadorans residing in the United States whose hard work maintains so many working class families through monthly remittances.

ARENA's internal election of COENA may more clearly define the unstable Salvadoran situation. The open and hidden conflicts between forces supporting the democratization process and those who want a return to authoritarianism cast their shadow over the entire country. For example, the reforms to the electoral law, reached by consensus between party leaders and President Calderón, are sidelined in the National Assembly until the governing party's path is more clearly defined. In a recent interview, former President Cristiani declared that FUNDAPAZ an institution bringing together FMLM members with those of other political and social groups is sponsoring an "El Salvador 2010" program to seek national consensus and agreement on critical problems: "eradicating poverty" and "learning to live in democracy and a state of law."
It is important for this orientation to win out in ARENA and other political institutions, if El Salvador is to be saved from authoritarianism.


Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


How Hummingbirds Are Raised

Sustainable Agriculture: The Way Out?

The Death Throes of Liberalism

Premature Election Campaigning Overshadows All

El Salvador
Toward Democracy Or Authoritarianism?

The Bishops Speak of True Peace

The Elections: Now We're Adults

Alarming Signs of a Dirty War

Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development