Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 333 | Abril 2009


El Salvador

A Grassroots Drive Pushes ARENA out of Government

The Salvadoran people achieved a heroic feat: they removed ARENA from the executive branch, following a long succession of rightwing governments that had unconditionally backed US government policies. Yes, they could, thanks to an enormous collective effort; it was an exemplary electoral insurrection. After this qualitative leap, what’s next? While the challenges are huge, there’s much to celebrate.

Elaine Freedman

On Sunday, March 15, 50,000 Salvadorans poured into the streets surrounding the Alberto Masferrer Plaza of San Salvador to celebrate the electoral triumph of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). In Lower Lempa, south of Usulután, a spontaneous celebration got organized. In the northern department of Chalatenango, dancing in the Guarjila settlement went on for two nights in a row. And thousands and thousands of people spent the entire week congratulating each other as if it were the new year or one big collective birthday.

What were they celebrating? Why did all the congratulatory greetings end with “thank you for your work”? More than a victory of a political party, the FMLN’s win in the recent presidential elections was a triumph for all those who dreamed of change, and of ousting the National Republic Alliance (ARENA) from government.

With 51.32% of the 2,638,588 valid votes, Mauricio Funes and Salvador Sánchez Cerén —the FMLN’s presidential ticket—were elected President and Vice President of the nation. Polling places around the country had closed at 5:00 pm and two and a half hours later Walter Araujo, president of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and former chair of ARENA’s National Executive Board (COENA), reluctantly announced the preliminary results that already signaled a victory for the FMLN.

A history of fraud
in 1972 and 1977

Starting in 2008, a range of social organizations, election observers, FMLN representatives and eventual candidate Mauricio Funes himself had insistently denounced the possibility of electoral fraud. These warnings weren’t idle speculation, they were warnings based on historical logic because fraud is nothing new in El Salvador. The Salvadoran elections of 1972 and 1977 were two of the most documented cases of electoral fraud in Latin American history. Key in both cases was the extensive distribution of “extra” identity cards and interference with the privacy of voting.

Despite this, the National Opposition Coalition (UNO) actually won in 1972, but the Central Electoral Council announced that Colonel Arturo Armando Molina of the National Conciliation Party (PCN) had won by a 9,884-vote margin. In 1977, UNO’s candidate was a former member of the military. Many thought this would insure that the popular will would be respected but, as usual, the regime used some of the most blatant forms of fraud to maintain its hold on power.

On February 20th of that year, the Salvadoran population went out to vote. Some 80% of the opposition coalition’s representatives were arrested or expelled from polling places, and only the results from 920 out of 3,540 polling stations were inspected in the presence of UNO representatives. Despite intimidation, ballot-box stuffing and the fictitious vote count, the UNO pulled 157,574 votes at these 920 polling places while the government only received 120,972.

The UNO was better prepared to document fraud that second time around. It monitored and recorded communications by Colonel Benedicto Rodriguez, coordinator of the paramilitary Democratic Nationalist Organization (ORDEN), who right from the presidential office building used the code name “Angel 1” to direct the death squads to intimidate and to implement the electoral fraud. Once again, the PCN candidate, General Carlos Humberto Romero, was declared the winner.

Grassroots groups met in Freedom Park to demonstrate against this blatantly open fraud. The protest lasted until February 28, when it ended in a massacre. With that, one more chapter in El Salvador’s national political process came to a close and the door slammed shut on any peaceful option for bringing justice and democracy to the country.

Learning to fight fraud

The 2003 municipal and legislative elections were no exception. A report from the delegation of international election observers from GVOM, a Swiss nongovernmental organization stated: “As is now the custom, the electoral voter rolls were replete with irregularities,” mentioning votes by Guatemalan citizens, the appearance of election tallies in municipal garbage dumps, and electoral violence on voting day itself, apparently perpetrated by members of the official governing party.

In the municipal elections held in January 2006, the FMLN almost lost the municipal government of San Salvador due to fraud. On the night of March 12, both FMLN candidate Violeta Menjivar and ARENA candidate Rodrigo Samayoa declared themselves the winner. The country’s outgoing President, Elias Antonio Saca, proclaimed his party’s victory on national radio and television even before the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) had issued a single preliminary result.

The FMLN didn’t see it as an overzealous decision by the President, but rather as evidence of his willingness to steal the municipal government of San Salvador, so it decided to activate a large-scale political operation to keep him from doing so. The next evening, Eugenio Chicas, the FMLN’s magistrate on the TSE, denounced plans by the TSE president to declare Samayoa the winner.

The FMLN’s top leadership called on its militants to convene indefinitely in the capital’s central plaza so they’d be ready to “defend Violeta Menjivar’s victory.” Thousands of Salvadorans stayed in the plaza day and night for three days, while a group that marched to the TSE was met with tear gas. Twenty people were wounded, and one was shot. As a result, the TSE was obliged to manually count the votes and Menjivar was declared the new mayor. Despite all the political maneuvers and repression during the new era following the Peace Accords, people were learning how to fight fraud.

January’s elections
were full of irregularities

Remembering these experiences, the FMLN thought it would be possible to fight fraud in the January 2009 municipal and legislative elections. However, this electoral event was characterized by irregularities in voter rolls, mobilization of voters from one municipality to another, documented evidence that foreigners (other Central Americans) were in possession of the Salvadoran Identity Document used for voting and an unceasing set of dirty scare tactics during the entire campaign.

Given this familiar history, the accusations by ARENA’s representative to the TSE, Walter Araujo, that “the claims of a possible fraud made by Funes and his party are only meant as a way to mobilize their own political base in case they lose,” were all the more absurd. Analyst Dagoberto Gutierrez put it this way: “If someone were to ask me if there could be fraud, I would no longer be a Salvadoran with the experience I’ve had if I were to answer no. It’s a question of having a historical view.”

The FMLN’S anti-fraud plan

Following the successful results on March 15, Lorena Peña, member of the FMLN’s Political Commission and campaign manager for San Salvador, made this comment: “The FMLN’s defeat in the capital this past January alerted us to the magnitude of ARENA’s fraud. In two months, we had to turn things around in a way that should have taken ten years… If we hadn’t gone through the experience of the San Salvador election, we would have been licking our wounds right now.”

This position was reaffirmed by Ivan Chicas, FMLN campaign manager in the Ayutuxtepeque Municipality: “There was more preparation for the presidential elections in March than there had been in January,” he said. “There was more oversight; more citizens aware of the irregularities. The FMLN mobilized its people and the citizenry also mobilized to control the places where it was suspected fraud had taken place.”

The FMLN put its Anti-Fraud Plan into action in March, targeting places where ARENA was expected to manipulate things. Its actions included impeding the entry into the country of foreigners who would possibly vote fraudulently. During the week prior to the vote, party militants covered the main access routes and blind spots in border areas, with the goal of returning to their respective country any Central Americans trying to enter El Salvador to vote.

Another anti-fraud action was a thorough review of the voter rolls in each municipality, to identify people who had died or no longer lived in the country. In addition, members of the polling ptations were instructed to observe the entire voting process meticulously, questioning anyone whose identity document raised doubts. This helped identify many people from other countries. “There were people who didn’t even know their own birthdays,” stated Chicas.

Support from
organized professionals

The FMLN wasn’t the only one that learned the lessons from so much fraud. Everyone with knowledge of the fraud redoubled their efforts. Jaime Martínez, attorney and candidate for Supreme Court magistrate, explained: “There were people and institutions who, with no prior agreement, took on the task of denouncing a possible electoral fraud in 2009, based on sociological, cultural, legal and historical principles. We’re extremely satisfied to know that these efforts weren’t in vain.” The “Patria Exacta” Movement of Professionals and Technicians and the Forum to Defend the Constitution were two important voices in documenting and trying to prevent fraud. They issued numerous communiqués, organized forums and conferences and kept academics in the United States abreast of the situation so they could exert pressure from abroad.

The media as anti-fraud alternatives

“We, the alternative media, are more than just a mechanism for communicating about the people’s struggle. We’re part of this people and this struggle,” explained Kenni Bolaños, of the Mi Gente Radio Chain. His work was to educate the public about ways to identify fraud and how and where to denounce it, and how to defend the vote. “We also spoke to the undecided population to create awareness about the existence of a sophisticated fraudulent set up and the need for real changes in the electoral system and the direction of this country.”

This was done through educational programs such as “Legal Consultation,” as well as in editorials and cultural and music programs. During the three days prior to the election, all alternative radio stations had an “open mike” program so people could call in and denounce anomalies, irregularities and the presence of foreigners in unusual places. All these reports helped dissuade and undermine the fraud. In the days leading up to the election, the Jhonny Jets were heard over the radio waves clearly alluding to the elections. “Finally I’m happy, finally I have the love I dreamed of, in my heart…”

The social movement
pushed things along

The Salvadoran social movement, which includes many different viewpoints about how to engage in struggle and is plagued by numerous internal rivalries, was able to bring together the main multi-sector movements, trade unions and NGO networks into the Popular Concertation for Change, a joint effort to “make a difference in the electoral process to refound the nation.”

It should be clarified that most of the organizations making up the Concertation were autonomous and many had had conflicts or differences with the FMLN. But the effort to remove ARENA from the presidency unified them more than any of their differences could keep them apart. They organized marches, vigils and caravans, distributed leaflets and broadcast messages in favor of “change,” while denouncing ARENA’s anti-grassroots economic policies, its unfulfilled promises and its imminent fraud.

Every vote was
defended tooth and nail

Ricardo Ayala of the Popular Youth Bloc described the collective effort this way: “The response of El Salvador’s poor was truly inspiring. Every vote was defended tooth and nail.”

One concrete example took place in Villa Centroamericana, a sports complex located in the municipality of Mejicanos built to house athletes participating in the Central American and Caribbean Games of 2002. According to a report in the electronic newspaper El Faro, they began getting phone calls from neighbors in the San Pedro tract at around 9 pm, claiming that buses “full of Nicaraguans” had been seen entering the Villa installations.

According to the newspaper report, “At 10 pm, Villa Centroamericana was surrounded by a mix of neighbors and FMLN militants and sympathizers who congregated outside the installations to prevent the hundreds of people inside—supposedly Nicaraguans—from coming out to vote the next morning. A small group of policemen [from the Public Order Unit] were posted at the installations and a helicopter patrolled from the darkened skies.”

“An hour later, ARENA deputy Guillermo Gallegos arrived to confirm that the people inside were in fact collaborators with his party. He was accompanied by the human rights ombudsman, who came to determine what was happening inside and calm people down. International observers and journalists also showed up to confirm the claims made by neighbors.”

Similar situations occurred in the Cuscatlán Stadium and the Merliot Sports Complex. Tension abounded.

An electoral insurrection

According to Lorena Peña, “It was a sort of electoral insurrection. All night long, hundreds and thousands of people surrounded the Cuscatlán Stadium, Villa Olimpica and even five star hotels, all the places where foreign voters were gathered with their false ID cards that were listed on the voter rolls. They were followed and captured at the polling places.

“This took place in the capital, in Guarjila and Arcatao (Chalatenango), in Corinto and Sociedad (Morazán), in Carolina (San Miguel), and in all those little forgotten border towns. The peasants set up roadblocks, put chains across the roads and did everything possible to stop the buses coming from Honduras and send people back who had come to vote.”

The United States is
weighing its options

Forty years ago Salvadoran revolutionary poet Roque Dalton wrote that the US President was more El Salvador’s President than his own country’s actual President. That view still pretty much sums up the efficacious workings of US imperialism in El Salvador. It’s impossible to get a clear reading of any Salvadoran electoral process without taking the position and actions of the United States into account.

For 20 years, the United States gambled on ARENA to insure its interests in El Salvador. And ARENA effectively fulfilled its mandates: the structural adjustment program, the dollarizing of the economy, and the signing of the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA). It was an unconditional US mouthpiece against Venezuela and Cuba, and the only country in Latin America that sent long-term combat troops to Iraq. At a meeting held on June 27, 2008, Charles Glazer, then the US Ambassador to El Salvador, admitted to a delegation of US teachers, students, artists and community activists that the United States had directly intervened on behalf of ARENA in the 2004 presidential elections.

However, ARENA’s weakened position has become apparent both domestically and internationally, raising questions about its ability to continue guaranteeing the interests of international capital, and therefore the US government. Some years ago, the United States began to shift its focus to creating the famed “political center” in El Salvador. It provided political and economic backing to the failed attempts of key players who left the ranks of the FMLN: Facundo Guardado of the Renovation Movement in 2001 and Julio Hernández of the Revolutionary Democratic Front (FDR) in 2005. It also supported the pre-candidacy of businessman Arturo Zablah, who went on to become ARENA’s vice presidential candidate. Before rejoining ARENA in 2008, Zablah flirted with several leftwing sectors (the FMLN and the Democratic Convergence), and with the FDR, whose backing he sought for a presidential candidacy representing a coalition of political parties.

It was a clear signal that ARENA was losing the trust of the United States. Burke Stansbury, executive director of the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) commented: “ARENA represents the type of right wing that the United States no longer wants to support, a party of death squads that has damaged the national economy beyond acceptable limits.”

But the entire “centrist” effort was in vain. The strategy of creating a center or center-left in El Salvador was an ambition with no basis in reality because polarization is simply the political expression of the increasing gap between the living standards of the working class and the bourgeoisie and the inequality index (Gini) is one of the highest in the region, according to the United Nations Development Programmey.

With its “favorite son” now languishing and its centrist alternative a failure, the United States was forced to accept reality and try to support the more moderate elements within the FMLN to make the most out of an unfavorable situation. In this context, the US Embassy warned ARENA’s leaders that it would not support an electoral fraud this time around.

A campaign of solidarity
and a final message

Added to this imperial realism was an intensive campaign by US solidarity groups, whose goal was to separate the United States from the campaign of fear and fraud in El Salvador. Activists were able to convince 33 congressional representatives to sign a letter to President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton, demanding that they abstain from intervening in El Salvador’s elections.

This letter went unnoticed in El Salvador. But the incendiary interventions of five Republicans in Congress who, just four days before the elections and without their party’s endorsement, warned of the dangers of an FMLN-headed government, placed it right on the front pages of the main US newspapers. Paradoxically, these anti-FMLN interventions were the spark needed to ignite the voices of multitudes of US citizens to convince the Obama government to declare its neutrality.

Shortly beforef the elections, the State Department, followed by its Embassy in El Salvador, “reiterated” its official position that it supports no candidate. The implicit message was: “We won’t be part of a fraud.”

White House pragmatism

William Hernández, a member of the FMLN’s Political Commission and representative to the Central American Parliament, explained it like this: “The only rightwing governments left in Latin America are Peru, Colombia and Mexico. The rest are either clearly leftist, or are social democrats, which are also on the left. This political correlation obliges Obama to accept certain realities. Mrs. Clinton says they’re going to be pragmatic in their relations.” But what does this pragmatism mean? “It could mean an interest in minimizing Venezuela’s influence in El Salvador,” admits Hernández. Everyone knows that recent US governments have drawn the line between Venezuela and Brazil with respect to leftwing governments they can “live with” and those they can’t.

At least so far, the economic policies of the Workers Party government in Brazil haven’t threatened the empire’s interests, whereas those of the United Socialist Party government in Venezuela have.

Although there are voices in the Obama administration such as Dan Restrepo, the National Security Council’s Director for Latin American Affairs, who surely would have preferred an FMLN loss, it seems the true strategists of the empire knew they had no other option than to encourage an FMLN government to align itself with the more reformist winds from the south.

One week prior to El Salvador’s elections, President Lula met with Obama regarding the upcoming Summit of the Americas, to be held in April. Stansbury, noting that “Lula was the first head of state Obama met with after meeting with the Canadian and Mexican heads of state, which is the protocol for an entering US president,” called it “an unusual move in international relations.” It’s not strange that the issue of El Salvador would come up during the Lula-Obama meeting, since its electoral results were already on the political agendas of both Brazil and the “monster”—as José Martí referred to the empire.

A first in US diplomacy

Two days after the FMLN won, Secretary of State Clinton’s assistant, Thomas Shannon, flew to San Salvador to meet with President-elect Mauricio Funes. A visit from such a high level US dignitary so soon after an election was a first in US diplomatic history.

“What I see is that, whether or not it was calculated to send a direct signal to the FMLN and declare a preference for the more reformist elements of this party, it seems they’ve decided to do what they can to foster a close relationship with the new government and work to strengthen the most moderate elements, so they move closer to Lula’s bloc and not to governments that are really seeking structural reforms and challenging neoliberalism,” speculated Stansbury. “Obviously they have many financial instruments available for engaging in this effort, and the new FMLN government will need a lot of financing due to the current world crisis.”

The “turn of the offended”

Some of the overtones of the so-called Lula-Chávez “clash” are based on reality, while others are pure fiction. The real differences have to do with the political vision and project being built by a leftwing party to support its actions. The fiction begins when judgments are made about the scope of this project, without considering the real correlation of forces that allow it to move forward or not.

The FMLN won the Presidency, but has only 35 legislative seats in the Assembly, which is short of even a simple majority; only 3 sympathetic justices sitting on the Supreme Court; and the entire mass media in the hands of the Right. In this context, expectations are that it will assume the posture it stressed throughout the campaign: guarantor of a rule of law, with a political project framed by the Constitution. It’s unrealistic to think that any larger leaps are in the cards in the coming stage, given that this cumulative power signifies a qualitative but limited leap for the FMLN.

As long as the FMLN continues to strengthen its commitment to the grassroots sectors that gave it this victory and are willing to defend it, generating conditions for greater levels of organization, bigger and bigger leaps will become possible. And as long as the FMLN remains unified, it may be able to withstand the danger of being co-opted by the Right and the United States, which would like it to renounce its “democratic, revolutionary and socialist” character (FMLN Statutes, Article 1).

For now, ARENA has been unseated. The slogan of the grassroots sectors that supported the FMLN’s campaign and defended the vote was “Remove ARENA from the Presidency.” That chant represented the common denominator for the social movement. Although there’s a long way to go before the dreams of liberation of so many heroes and martyrs will be fulfilled, the door is open. There’s a lot to celebrate. Roque Dalton would be happy to know that his verse is now on everyone’s lips in the “Tom Thumb” country of the Americas: “Ahora es la hora de mi turno / el turno del ofendido por años silenciosos / a pesar de los gritos / Callad / callad / Oíd.” [“Now it’s my turn / turn of the offended after years of silence / in spite of the screams / Be quiet / be quiet / Listen.”]

Elaine Freedman is a grassroots educator and envío correspondent in El Salvador.

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