Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 219 | Octubre 1999


El Salvador

Absent Government and Opposition

On balance, Francisco Flores' first 100 days of government could not have been worse. He has proven to be an “absent” President, locked behind the same doors that kept him hidden away before he took office. His management of a variety of problems--including a series of demands by striking veterans—has been clumsy and he has bored the country with persistent speeches loaded with rhetoric quite out of keeping with the real situation.

Ismael Moreno, SJ

A “switched off” performance

According to recent surveys, Flores is supported by just 5.3% of the population, and even the archbishop of San Salvador, Fernando Saénz Lacalle, a member of the ultra-conservative Opus Dei group, has described his performance as “switched off.” Before taking office, Flores had been hailed as the country's first truly enlightened governor, but he has quickly been cut down to the size of any average Salvadoran.

In addition to his inability to manage problems, Flores is further limited by the legacy of the two previous ARENA administrations. What's more, the party leadership structure, headed by former President Alfredo Cristiani, appears less interested in supporting him than in exploiting its control of the state to win a majority in the Legislative Assembly elections in 2000 and win back municipal governments currently run by the FMLN.

Meanwhile, the enormous gulf between state policies and the interests of most Salvadorans has grown even wider. According to surveys by various national organizations, over half of the population believes that Flores has not accomplished anything yet. In one survey, 86.9% feels that the economic crisis is the same or worse now than under the former government and that same survey also reveals massive discontent with the performance of the country's parliamentarians.

Although Flores has been labeled “absent,” the term is really a way of expressing the fact that his rhetoric fails to convince people, and that they sense he is incapable of dealing with the important issues facing the country. In fact, the President has been anything but absent in the mass media, holding at least 23 press conferences in his first 100 days. The feeling in Salvadoran society is rather that the President has talked a lot without communicating with anyone.

More “absence” ahead

The government has failed its first test, and Salvadoran society's severely negative assessment of its performance appears to have shaken up some members of his administration. On September 17, government spokesperson Ricardo Rivas, a dentist by profession, was the first to abandon ship. Rivas was part of Flores' strategy to introduce new faces into politics, a strategy that now appears to have been little more than an image gimmick. It never tackled the real problem politicians and public officials have: they are incapable of telling the truth to society and of recognizing the real worries and concerns affecting the majorities in society, always favoring the big bankers and businesspeople rather than focusing equally on all sectors.

Flores has tried to deflect the mounting criticism by appearing in the papers and on television alongside those affected by the recent flooding and together with other Salvadorans in “everyday” situations. But it has been to little effect. He refuses to accept any real criticism and has made some major blunders, such as stating that if 5.3% of the population qualified his performance as positive, his popularity had risen from 51%, when he was elected, to 53%. In the light of such statements, it appears that the lack of communication and the “absence” will only continue to grow.

Flores’ poor performance in his first hundred days has undermined not only his own position but also that of the ruling ARENA party, which has dropped 11% in voter preference. Though the country has received over a billion dollars a year from family remittances during the past three ARENA governments and the country's GDP has risen by 28% over the last decade, salaries have been frozen since 1989 and the population's buying power has fallen dramatically. It is thus no surprise that 35% of Salvadorans over the age of 18 want to leave the country any way they can.

The former Civil Patrol guards

Since taking office, the Flores government has had to deal with four main issues. The first is a growing social mobilization that has so far been ignored. One of the most important protests is being waged by the association of former Civil Patrol guards, which represents the thousands of men—some claim as many as 300,000—the government hailed as defenders of democracy during the civil war, but now accuse of being a destabilizing force and dangerous enemies of democracy. The government originally recruited them to patrol rural areas and gave them a free hand to murder, torture and commit other atrocities against any civilians suspected of collaborating with the guerrillas and other “subversive” activities.

Today these people are insisting that the government and the ARENA party leadership must honor their campaign promises of social benefits and demand that the government provide them compensation, pensions, land, housing, training and medical attention for their families. As one ex-patrolman stated, “They assured us that we would only continue to be favored if ARENA won, and now we might as well not exist.” Their struggle has been violent and the government is showing no real interest in dealing with their demands. In August these vacillations led to outbreaks of violence that left 2 people dead, 15 injured and around 50 arrested.

Ineffective, incoherent and corrupt

The second problem has been a serious cooking gas shortage, which has highlighted the inefficiency of the institutional structure designed to protect consumers from transnational monopolies; and the third, the public sector teacher and health worker strikes, which reflect the lack of a coherent wage policy.

The fourth main problem has been a series of government scandals over the past three months or so. For example, the equivalent of over a million dollars dished out to the former patrol guards by the last government to guarantee around 200,000 votes turns out to have come from funds earmarked for Hurricane Mitch victims. Other breaking scandals recently were the diversion by top national football federation officials of more than US$11 million worth of bribes to journalists, and the scandalously huge padding of public works budget allocations, particularly for highway construction. Such revelations only confirm public doubts that any state resources are used transparently.

A disarticulated economy

According to the Information and Documentation Center of El Salvador's Central American University, five main features characterize Flores' government. The first of these is a disjointed national economy, with a financial sector whose growth is out of proportion to other areas of the economy and which defines the country's power and direction. This financial growth is in stark contrast to the country's stagnant industrial sector and an agricultural sector in growing crisis. Many of the confrontations within the different economic groups, which are reflected in ARENA's internal struggles, have their roots in this lack of linkages in the economy.
As a result, two distinguished businessmen linked to the more traditional economic and political powers—Orlando de Sola and Herman Brusch—have decided to challenge the Cristiani-controlled ARENA leadership and run for parliament as independent candidates. Their decision has sparked debates within the political parties and the Legislative Assembly over whether or not it is necessary to reform the constitutional articles governing the electoral law, which do not contemplate independent candidates.

Anti-Cristiani sentiments

Although one of the pioneers of ARENA, Orlando de Sola has turned his back on the party because he feels betrayed by his comrades, particularly the controlling Cristiani group. De Sola accuses Cristiani of taking over the party and the state for his own benefit. Given the disproportional growth of the bankers, whom he accuses of “mercantilism,” de Sola believes that El Salvador will only take off economically if a series of “structural” changes are made to a system inherited from colonial days when a few small sectors of society sought the protection of the state for their own personal gain. De Sola sees the Cristiani group as the present-day version of those opportunist sectors, and believes that the whole of society should join forces to put an end to their control of the state. He goes even further, suggesting that the Cristiani group is proving to be a much worse enemy than many of his friends believed the FMLN and communism to be during the cruel years of the Salvadoran civil war.

Economic and social issues divorced

The second important feature is the continuation of the Cristiani group's version of neoliberal policies, which inevitably involves the optimum privatization of profits and the socialization of the losses among the poor. The financial scandals of two years ago and the bankruptcy of a financial institution more recently have amply demonstrated this. The telecommunications industry has already been privatized, and the planned privatization of health and education services shows that the Flores administration is fully committed to the process, despite its punishing effect on the country.

Meanwhile, as the third feature, the government's social policies continue to be limited or non-existent, thus having no effect on the country's poverty and social marginalization. In short, there is a total lack of coordination between economic and social policies.
The fourth feature, violence, has been rising ever since the signing of the peace accords, finding fertile ground in the institutional weakness that has made it impossible to achieve the democratic objectives proposed when the war came to an end. If it is true that democracy can only be supported by and move forward with strong institutions, then what is being built in El Salvador is clearly not democracy.

Finally, the fifth feature is the political and economic support to the Cristiani group, which implicates the ARENA party in the state's dynamics. This group is out to achieve even greater control over public decisions, to further exclude other political parties and to increase corruption among the various state organs and institutions. One clear example of the latter was the case of Credisa, a private home financing institution that declared bankruptcy, owing millions of dollars to the country's most powerful financial creditors. The government did not hesitate to lend Credisa’s liquidation commission over $130 million at an annual interest rate of just 1% to cover its obligations with the creditors, of which the most powerful were, of course, the Cuscatlán Bank and the Commercial Agricultural Bank, owned by the Cristiani group. To make matters worse, even as this loan was being made, the legal adviser to one of the prominent directors of the liquidation commission was elected by his colleagues as the FMLN's new general coordinator.

Three future scenarios

People are becoming more and more convinced that any possible scenario in the next five years will be increasingly determined, both indirectly and directly, by ARENA's performance and the answers it provides, since the FMLN itself seems to have ever less influence on the country's future. In this context, the near future will probably by conditioned by one of the three following scenarios.

The most optimistic scenario sees ARENA redefining itself, modernizing and opening up its political apparatus. Should this happen, it will mean that ARENA would give the state more breathing room to make decisions autonomous of strict party needs. If, in addition, state institutions are strengthened, social policies could be better coordinated with economic ones.

In the most pessimistic scenario we would see the state growing even weaker and losing its capacity to respond to social demands altogether, while at the same continuing with “business as usual”: neoliberal programs that disconnect economic and social policies at a blow. In short, the state would end up depending even more on decisions made by ARENA's national executive council (COENA), currently dominated by the Cristiani group.

In the more realistic third scenario, the results of the March 2000 elections would force ARENA to reform itself so that COENA would not decide everything, either internally or within the state. Social policies would also be introduced, albeit within a fundamentally neoliberal context, due to the more open way that ARENA would be run and to a more pluralistic Legislative Assembly that would guarantee the participation of other political parties.

The FMLN: An absent opposition

The FMLN should be capitalizing on the national feeling of disappointment with President Flores' performance, but it either does not know how, does not want to or cannot do so. While ARENA's popularity has dropped 11% in just three months, the FMLN is only up 2% over the same period. This means that, rather than being attracted to an organized opposition, potential voters who are unhappy with the current government's performance are growing apathetic. There is opposition in El Salvador, but the FMLN is increasingly letting the opportunity to represent it and channel the Salvadoran people's hopes and wishes slip through its fingers. Consequently, while the population expresses its dissatisfaction with the Flores administration, it is not convinced that things would be better under the FMLN. The leftist party is not only losing its capacity to represent Salvadorans, but is perceived by many to be just another breeding ground for that all-too familiar brand of politics that relies on maneuvering and blackmail, and to be acquiring interests that have little to do with what is happening in real life to the society it professes to represent.

Gerson Martínez: Another disappointment

Each new moment or event seems to trigger a fresh division within the FMLN, which increases the distance between the party and society and leads to the desertion of yet more historic leaders who refuse to become enmeshed in the infighting. A few months ago there appeared to be a light at the end of the tunnel as party members led by Gerson Martínez sought to introduce internal reflection and consensus-building based on real commitments that did not revolve around power struggles and group interests. Gerson Martínez and his followers, however, were not up to the challenge and fell prey to the temptation of securing their own quota of power. Today, instead of building the party up, they are further undermining it by forming yet another political current grabbing for its share of power.

Municipal and departmental conventions were held in September to elect FMLN candidates for municipal and legislative posts, as well as the members of the party's municipal leadership bodies. Three different currents put up slates of candidates: the renovators, the socialist revolutionaries—or orthodox members—and Gerson Martínez’s “FMLNists”, illustrating that the power struggle is far from over.

Héctor Silva: The only consensus point

Amid all of this uncertainty, perhaps the only point of consensus within the FMLN is San Salvador's mayor, Héctor Silva, who was nominated to stand again by all three of the party's tendencies. He is also by far the most popular politician in the country, so much so that ARENA put off announcing its own candidate in San Salvador as long as possible because it proved so difficult to come up with anyone capable of taking him on.

Silva's success lies in the fact that he has managed to remain mayor while at the same time implementing a series of long-term projects. One of these was a pioneer landfill project developed, despite enormous obstacles, in what is considered the dirtiest capital city in the region; its environmental treatment of rubbish is breaking new ground in Central America. Another project is aimed at recovering the city's historic center, relocating mobile venders to increasingly viable alternative spaces.

Silva managed to neutralize negative media campaigns by organizations interested in undermining his administration in favor of the ruling party and proved able to deal with and overcome the protests of the mobile venders. Perhaps most impressively, he managed to steer a clear course through the divisions within city government resulting from the FMLN's internal power struggle.

Biding his time

Nonetheless, Silva had sailed dangerously close to the wind when he got caught up in the unfortunate process to select the FMLN's presidential candidate in mid-1998. Having rashly accepted an invitation to run on the slate of one of the party's tendencies, he soon showed his astuteness by realizing that the time was not yet right for his national candidacy. He withdrew just in time.

Had he allowed himself to remain in the middle of the FMLN's conflicts, Silva would probably now be a spent force as mayor and washed up as a politician. He would have left himself open to accusations from ARENA and other anti-FMLN parties that, dazzled by the idea of becoming President, he was acting irresponsibly, as he had promised to concentrate on governing San Salvador but was now leaving all his important projects half finished.

Silva was able to take a long view towards the future and rectify his initial miscalculation. Few politicians know how to correct mistakes or implement long-term projects, but Silva did both. Almost politically buried at one point, Héctor Silva is now firmly back on his feet. His timely withdrawal freed him from the internal crisis that has since irremediably weakened the FMLN and its work, and has allowed him to bide his time from the San Salvador mayor's office, waiting for a more opportune moment to offer his services to the country. He has retaken control of the capital city's main projects, guiding them to widely recognized success, and is currently one of the country's most influential politicians.

Dilemmas for the FMLN

Battered by their recurring divisions, the various FMLN tendencies are gathering what energy they have left to organize the party structures for the 2000 electoral campaign. These short-term activities, however, cannot mask three of the great dilemmas currently facing the party:
Conservatism versus renovation. The FMLN can either continue with its ongoing erosion, adopting the style of traditional political parties, or it can renew itself. Renovation implies breaking with the logic of power quotas, negotiations and the calculations designed to pull in voters. It implies going back to its roots and reassessing its very raison d'être. In short, it would amount to an internal revolution.

Distance versus reconciliation. Either the FMLN continues to distance itself from the grassroots sectors and thus contributes to the distancing of politics and politicians from society at the cost of its own erosion as a party, or it sticks with the grassroots sectors. The former implies viewing power as an end in itself, and the latter providing the population with growing opportunities for empowerment.
Power versus service. Either the FMLN bases its strategies around seeking power for its party cadres, which implies further intensification of the internal confrontations and divisions, or it defines its work and identity in a way that transcends party structures, enabling it to channel the interests of the majorities and act in the interests of their demands.

The need for an opposition

In such an uninspiring context, envío has obtained a document titled “Preliminary Reflections on the Opposition We Need,” which the various sectors of the left that are increasingly worried about the national situation are using as a basis for their discussions. Its contents, summarized below, offer a refreshing and encouraging vision of leftist opposition.

* Opposition is the organized answer of the left, but just when El Salvador needs it most there has been little growth in this area. The social and political left are organized sectors clearly identified by their work, which is a forward-looking struggle to achieve greater justice and a more shared society, and is dedicated to transforming the present and opposing anyone and anything that represents and perpetuates injustice and oppression and excludes the majority of the population from a dignified life. They also offer signs of the values of the future society they dream of creating.

* The left has to identify itself with a struggle that goes beyond trying to get into government or gaining access to state power and goes far beyond the goal of guaranteeing public posts for its leaders. These are not ends, but merely means. The left must concentrate on ensuring the increasing empowerment of the different sectors of society, particularly those submerged in injustice and oppression. In any circumstances, but particularly in times of social and political frustration when justice tends to be lost from view, one of the organized left's essential missions is to communicate hope and mobilize the oppressed sectors so they can regain the dignity that has been stolen from them.

Reducing distances

* The organized left has to be more than just a political party, though it may express itself through party structures. The leaders of a leftwing party have to prioritize the struggle to ensure respect for the rights of the oppressed and greater participation and decision-making capacity for the majority of the population. The leaders of the left have to be linked to the people, to listen to their complaints and constantly reduce the distance between power and the real situation of the people.

* A left party cannot confuse itself with rightwing parties in its methods, its proposals, the formation of its people, its objectives or the life-style of its leaders and party members. A leftist party cannot lose itself in the sea of democratic formalities. Above all, a party that expresses the interests of the left must be an instrument of popular mobilization, a channel through which the population's main problems can be negotiated and resolved. Ideally, the interests of the majority of the population should end up coinciding with the interests of the party.

* When the efforts and energies of a party that claims to be of the left are concentrated too much on election campaigns, there is an enormous risk that it will lose its identity and credibility. Election campaigns are important, but only if they are firmly set within the framework of the objectives of the grassroots sectors. An opposition cannot just operate around election campaigns, as this only helps legitimize the game of formal democracy.

The municipal space

* One of the great challenges facing the left is to encourage grassroots participation and empowerment so they can generate their own opposition and resistance. The municipal level is an ideal arena for this as the municipalities are still the best space in which to reduce the distances between leaders and grass roots and to define a vision of the left for the next century and how it should help solve the most important national issues, such as land, environment, employment, recreation and citizens' security. Experiments in alternative forms of society with new values could start to be explored from the local and municipal levels with a vision of structural change, organizing the grassroots sectors around focal points of the nation's main problems.

The ethic of closeness

* It is essential to guarantee a leftwing political option really linked to the people, instead of just aiming its declarations, analysis or projects at “the poor” or using them as its main justification. At this point it is vital to be in close touch with what is happening in real life, and the necessary ethic of closeness can be brought about by eliminating all of the obstacles that separate us from the people and establishing bridges that really physically link us to them.

* It is important to reverse the culture of distrust sown by neoliberalism. For various reasons, relations between the left and the population tend to be characterized by this distrust, and as poverty and unemployment grow increasingly generalized, this distrust grows even deeper. It finds one of its expressions in the protection that leaders seek for their own houses and their own lives, and as a result the leftwing leadership ends up defending itself from the poor. The guidelines that define its relationships and activities in public life sometimes betray an attitude of suspicion towards the poor. This attitude, based on objective figures related to the increase in street crime among other things, is an expression of the profound dehumanization process that has been generated by both increasing inequalities between rich and poor and the wealth openly flaunted by the wealthy who control the country's economic plans.

* These attitudes of suspicion and distrust close us off from the everyday lessons to be learned from the lives of the poor, who still have an impressive capacity to resist the system. Although many succumb to desperation, the majority resists constructively. It is the poor and impoverished population that teaches the rest of society the value of plain hard work, that has enormous reserves of goodwill and honesty and that sustains hope despite the great difficulties facing it and the sometimes inhuman conditions in which it lives.

* Experience shows that politicians invariably end up prostrated before the altars of wealth and power while the majority of poor people tend to live honest lives. Directing their energy and resources into eternal promises or into parties that claim to represent the demands of the majorities is just a way for the politicians to mask their distrust of the poor and their trust in power and those who exercise and flaunt it.

It is vitally important that they turn their eyes and hearts towards the people and establish relations with them based on trust. That attitude is essential if were are to build an authentic opposition capable of leading the struggle for a country that is more shared and has greater solidarity, a country with room enough for everyone.

Ismael Moreno, sj, is the envío correspondent in El Salvador.

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