Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 339 | Octubre 2009


El Salvador

The First 100 Days: Successes, Silences, Threats, Blackmail… and Challenges

The Funes government has led to adjustments in all the country’s political, social and economic forces. We can’t possibly evaluate Mauricio Funes’ first 100 days in office, without assessing these forces’ initial behavior in the new context.

Elaine Freedman

They say that the tradition of analyzing a new President’s first 100 days in office began—like many traditions—in the United States, with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s administration. The tradition was brought to El Salvador under the auspices of the University of Central America (UCA) during Alfredo Cristiani’s administration in 1989, and had become routine until the change of government on June 1 of this year. That date marked the end of the National Republican Alliance (ARENA) party’s 20 years in presidential office, an upset that was not at all routine.

The taking of power by Mauricio Funes’ FMLN government has triggered a needed readjustment of all the political, social and economic forces. Therefore, rather than focusing exclusively on the President’s first 100 days, we find it more useful to assess these forces so far in the new context.

The new government priority: Alleviate the economic crisis

The new government’s first task in its “100 trial days” was to initiate an anti-crisis plan: a series of mainly welfare-type stop-gap measures that were urgently needed to improve the living conditions of those most affected by the crisis, i.e. the “poorest of the poor.” These people have become ever poorer because of 20 years of the ARENA government’s economic policies and now the international crisis.

According to the Multiple-purpose Household surveys conducted between 2006 and 2008, the percentage of people living in poverty in El Salvador rose 10% during that two-year period, a 461,000 increase. Of the total number of poor people, 1.5 million live in what’s called “relative” poverty and another 697,000 in extreme poverty. In December, 2008, the “Basic Food Basket,” which measures the average monthly needs of an urban family of four, cost $177 and the extended basket $354. At the same time, the average minimum urban wage came to $182 a month. For rural families that same month, the Basic Food Basket cost $108, the extended basket $216 and the minimum rural wage was only $97.

Days after the elections in March, Casey Reckman, associate director of Fitch’s Latin American Sovereign Group, which touts itself as “providing the world’s credit markets with independent, timely and prospective credit opinions,” commented that the Salvadoran economy is being impacted by a low level of foreign demand for exports and decreasing levels of family remittances, while the new government’s public policy response options are limited in an economy pegged to the US dollar and in the light of financial difficulties. In that same period, the outgoing Elías Antonio Saca government admitted that the economic growth projections—announced months before—were inaccurate and the economy was backsliding.

A good beginning:
100 days of popular measures

The measures taken—such as elimination of so-called voluntary payments in the public health system and the provision of medicines and other supplies in state hospitals—have been key elements in gaining sympathy for the new government. Similarly, providing uniforms and school supplies and extending the school food program to 1,310, 286 students were well received. The uniforms weren’t supplied through the usual bidding process with a national or international sweatshop but rather by a rigorous process of orders placed with small textile businesses in each locale.

Also in the first 100 days 3,000 property titles were given to farm families, and the “Rural Communities” project was started, providing a $40 supplement to heads of households in the poorest areas if they send their children to school. Still in the planning process is a $50 pension for the elderly who don’t have social security coverage and a “Secure House” plan that promises to build 25,000 homes for needy families.

All these anti-crisis measures have earned the Funes government a very positive showing in the opinion polls: between 7.1 (IUDOP/UCA) and 8.5 (Mitofsky) on a scale of 10.

The social movement’s 100 days:
Silence in the streets

The Salvadoran social movement played an important role in the FMLN’s victory. The opportunity to finally have a friend in the executive office mobilized all the progressive forces.

Only four months before those historic elections, the participating organizations at the Third Forum to Build Grassroots Power, state wrote in a communiqué that “with an FMLN government we will be able to have a constructively critical and pro-active relationship, while maintaining the identity and autonomy of both the social movements and the political party, and advocating the creation of a formal arena for an ongoing exchange of ideas and proposals. We’ll maintain a watchful stance, monitoring fulfillment of the grassroots political project’s goals and ensuring administrative transparency. We will show our willingness to support the government and at the same time hold it accountable.¨ Ten months later and after three months in office, it’s apparent that it’s easier to express this view on paper than to translate it into reality.

The positions of the various social movement organizations haven’t been uniform in these 100 days. They have, however, had certain subtle commonalities, the main one of which has been to opt for withdrawing from public arenas to take government jobs or participate in negotiation spaces or collaborate with the government.

“It’s important that we’re here”

To be part of the new government or participate in its different arenas is a legitimate aspiration for those sectors that want to contribute and hope to convert their ideas and proposals into national policies for change. Rosa Centeno, president of the major community organization in the country, explains: “We’re readjusting our plans. Our struggle now has to be of a different sort. We have to carry our pennants for battle another way.”

According to Centeno, this means “revising our demands and seeing how to channel them through the spaces that have opened up in the government. We’re arranging meetings with government officials whose responsibilities are to help the communities with their problems.” Although not the only arena Rosa is referring to, the main one is the Social Economic Council, recently formed by the President’s Technical Secretariat, which brings together 64 leaders from the business sector, the broad labor and social movements, the University of El Salvador and several private universities to debate economic policies.

While not all social movement organizations have opted to participate in the Social Economic Council, those who have are doing so because they consider it, as Centeno says, “an important venue. Here they’ll be discussing the country’s problems, and based on these discussions they’ll be looking for solutions. It’s important for us to be there in order to funnel the demands of the communities we represent. We see that it will be difficult to find agreement with the National Association of Private Businesses, but if we’re not there they’ll be the only ones pushing their agenda.”

Why this silence?

Few social movement organizations have held massive demonstrations during these 100 days, even though they have been the movement’s method of struggle par excellence in El Salvador, for both their objective value and the subjective value of raising consciousness among the participants and viewing public. Only those who will be affected by the building of El Chaparral dam and victims of apparent death squad repression against members of the social movement in the northern department of Cabañas have taken to the streets to demand a coherent response from the government. In both cases their demands fell on deaf ears.

What has happened to the strategy of social mobilization? Doesn’t it have a role in this new government? Rosa Centeno’s answer is this: “We haven’t assessed whether we’re going to demonstrate because we have to mobilize against those blocking change, and we’re not referring to Mauricio Funes’ government.” The distorted election process of the prosecutor general was a clear manipulation by the Right that happened almost without opposition. In referring to this, Centeno says: “Perhaps because we’re in this readjustment phase we’ve remained silent as a social movement. They invite you on this side and on that side and you have to choose priorities in order to stay on your movement path.”

The first 100 days have been so quiet for the social movement because it’s carefully playing its cards in this new government arena.

Who’s in the street?

In the absence of a popular social movement, the Right, with some new faces and some not so new, has taken to the streets in protest against Mauricio Funes’ government.

The clearest example was the protest over farm packets conducted by the National Peasant Confederation on various highways the last week of August,. The Confederation demanded a 40% increase in the number of packets. The Confederation’s top leader is Orlando Arévalo, a legislator considered “independent” after his recent expulsion from the National Conciliation Party (PCN) for differences regarding the banning and subsequent expulsion of PCN’s presidential candidate Tomás Chévez over an election-related agreement with ARENA. Months later, Arévalo, who has been an activist in all the country’s rightwing parties (ARENA, PCN and PCD), created the Independent Civic Movement for Liberty and Democracy (MOCILYD) with other members in the ranks of ARENA, PDC and PAN. The latter, made up of former paramilitaries in the nineties, is already defunct. It’s difficult to read the demands of the National Peasant Confederation without seeing the face of Orlando Arévalo, its director, and without considering his desire to be the center of attention in the MOCILYD.

Although failing to meet the demands of the more than 600,000 farmers, the new government increased the number of farm packets by two thirds over last year. Miguel Alemán, director of the Confederation for Agrarian Reform Federations (CONFRAS), noted that “these organizations have received quantities of packets previously and there were no problems. But now that the distribution is more equitable, they are receiving fewer than before, so they’re protesting.” “You’re going to see unrest among people to the extent that they lose privileges,” added Mateo Rendón, from the Agricultural Ministry’s social comptroller’s office.

New sectors have also been taking to the streets and closing them: owners of the “mototaxis” or “yellow buses,” protesting against the Deputy Transportation Minister owith support from ARENA both inside the Legislative Assembly and out.

Against gay marriage

A sizeable mobilization of the most conservative elements of various churches in favor of ratifying a constitutional amendment to prohibit marriage between members of the same sex was of major significance for its ideological charge. This reform, opportunely introduced by the Christian Democratic Party during the acrid discussion about the Prosecutor General’s office and the Supreme Court, currently has the support of all parties in the Legislative Assembly except the FMLN.

The reform bill easily captured the support of the mass media and the churches, reinforcing the most backward elements of our culture and making intolerance a predominant hallmark in our society. The street demonstrations and the legislative work by the rightwing parties enjoyed the “moral” support of Archbishop Luis Escobar Alas. In what could be taken as incitement to political blackmail, the archbishop suggested that “if one of the parties refuses to give its votes for the reform and the others are convinced it’s for the good of the nation, they could force this faction by denying it votes on something it might want; loans or the budget come to mind.”

Is ARENA in the “opposition”?

Though many analysts have commented on ARENA’s move to an “opposition” role, the use of this term is questionable for a party that still controls the Legislative Assembly, Supreme Court, Prosecutor General’s Office and a significant part of both the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and even the Executive branch.

The power ARENA maintains in the executive branch is due to its own legislative initiative, the Law of Economic Compensation for Services Rendered in the Public Sector, pushed through weeks after its electoral defeat. Prescribing extraordinarily lucrative severance packages for public officials in high and intermediate ministry posts who were let go, this law makes removing them from office too costly for the new government.

Although ARENA complains that the FMLN has carried out massive layoffs in the central government, there actually have only been 300 (0.3% of public employees). By comparison, the new mayor of San Salvador, ARENA party leader Norman Quijano, has fired 2% of the capital city’s employees.

100 days of ARENA:
Threats and more threats

ARENA had a lot of work and many worries in the first 100 days of the new government. Its priority was to readjust the party’s serious unresolved internal problems, heightened by the electoral loss. Alfredo Cristiani, who has declared that ARENA “must return to its roots,” is heading up the readjustment process.

ARENA has waged two successful battles to keep control of the Supreme Court and Prosecutor General’s Office. It has maintained supportive ties with the de facto Micheletti regime in Honduras and dedicated itself to forming new labor unions and federations that can monopolize the labor representation in the government to block the growth of unions that truly represent the working class. It has also conducted media campaigns to distort the crime statistics, giving a false picture of rising crime under the Funes government. One focus of this campaign is to oppose the new penal system director, who has taken positive measures to reverse some of the human rights violations committed in the prisons.

ARENA’s work is giving life to Alfredo Cristiani’s threats, when, as President of ARENA’s National Executive Council (COENA), he said in a press release that “I can be destructive and right now we have to stop the President of the Republic so he can’t do anything.” COENA’s vice president has also warned Mauricio Funes that if he acts like Zelaya, “the same thing can happen here that happened in Honduras.”

Cristiani’s now-famous statement when faced with the possibility of more layoffs in the executive branch—“We’re going to arm Troy”—made every Salvadoran analyst an expert on the exegesis of Greek history and turned the present-day national scene into an Homeric epic. These types of threats have characterized ARENA’s actions in these first 100 days.

100 days of private business:
Constant blackmail

Ever since Mauricio Funes won the elections, the tone of private business towards the new President has been constant. They reiterate their openness to collaborate with a National Unity government such as the new President announced in his victory speech on March 15, but equally repeat that “trust isn’t built overnight.” They consistently warn the President that they—not he—have the power to give or withhold their vote of confidence and will give it based on the loyalty he shows them.

According to economist Walter Rivas, a representative of the FMLN Professional Sector, private business has little reason to mistrust the Funes government. “The rightwing economy seems comfortably installed because no actions on the government’s part can affect them. The government has chosen to not clash with the Right. It can design an administrative tax reform that allows for the collection of another $6 million without seriously affecting big business. It has formed the Social Economic Council to discuss economic and social policies, and put everyone in the world on it. And what concession has the Right made? To sit at the same table with union and social movement leaders. But even that’s merely a Consulting Council for reaching agreement on certain things. Moreover, it appears to be a mechanism for venting more than for making decisions, which suits the economic Right just fine, because it’s keeping its privileges so far. The problem will come when someone proposes lowering the cost of electricity or flour or breaking the monopoly on sugar or the airlines or lowering gas prices.”

The major businesses in ANEP, the umbrella organization of business chambers, opened their analysis of the first 100 days by expressing concern over an announced tax reform. Chamber of Commerce and Industry President Juan José Daboub identified as a bad sign the decision to eliminate the 6% rebate to exporters starting in 2010. They mentioned other decisions that also sparked mistrust of the government: its plan to take over administration of La Unión Port and the opposing positions by the Superintendence of Electricity and Telecommunications and the Río Lempa Hydroelectric Executive Commission concerning the construction of El Chaparral dam.

Other points of business
sector disapproval

Private business also disapproved of the National Police Director’s removal of the head of the Elite Division against Organized Crime (DECO). Many approved of this move because DECO’s involvement in the impunity of organized crime is an open secret. According to the Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Office, the former head of DECO—appointed by ARENA—was responsible for torture, fraudulent legal proceedings and coercion of witnesses and defendants. However, ANEP condemned his removal and questioned the motivations and even abilities of the National Police. Business’ strong defense of the indefensible was clear.

In addition, the business associations united against the government when it supported the closing of Central American trade to pressure for Mel Zelaya’s restitution as Honduras’ President. On this occasion they went beyond declarations and twisted President Funes’ arm until they extracted an agreement of understanding, an offer of economic compensation and a commitment to consult them the next time a similar situation arose.

In view of this behavior, it wouldn’t be unfair to characterize the private business sector’s first 100 days as “a blackmail period.”

A government of national unity
or of broad participation?

The private business sector’s advantage over the new government is what makes many sectors of the Salvadoran Left uncomfortable. The Left is concerned that, out of a desire to maintain “political stability,” so threatened by the Right, the government’s main priority may be the interests of business. In this vein they are very concerned about the predominance on the economic Cabinet of bourgeois class members on the center and center-left of the political spectrum.

On the night of March 15, after a long day of hard work in all voting centers, people poured into the Redondel Masrerrer to celebrate Mauricio Funes’ victory. There the President-elect declared, “I want to form a national unity government, but a union based on change.” On September 15 he said again that he’s “a firm supporter of national unity.”

“This is a very sui generis government, ” assesses Walter Rivas. “It’s not really a national unity government because such a government assumes the participation of all the country’s main players. Big money has no place in such a government. However, this government goes beyond the Left. The FMLN, for example, heads only 25% of the ministries. To be on a government team with this kind of a salad has to be hard.”

The reality is further complicated by the Right’s favorable situation in the Legislative Assembly. Every change that could possibly dismantle the economic privileges must come about by reforming laws in the Legislative Assembly, which is not controlled by either the FMLN or Funes’ government. Is it worth the trouble to wear oneself out proposing initiatives that have no chance of being passed by this legislative body? On the other hand, Funes’ silence on issues related to structural societal transformation and justice causes distances and disapproval from the sectors of society that have historically felt abandoned.

An historical perspective

On December 31, 1984, in the middle of the war, the FMLN-FDR proposed a strategic programmatic shift from a revolutionary democratic government program to one of a government of broad participation. During this turning point, the fruit of much discussion and intense internal struggle, the Salvadoran Left’s dialogue and negotiations with sectors of the bourgeoisie moved from being a mere tactic to complementing the guerrilla forces’ military strategy. Out of that came a dual strategy: on the one hand the military effort and on the other a struggle through negotiations to overthrow the military dictatorship.

At that time the major political questioning of the theory of governments of broad participation focused on its detractors’ disagreement with the idea that a broad alliance between the grassroots sectors and a part of the bourgeoisie, or capitalist class, would be able to make viable the societal transformations that people needed to forge a new society. This questioning was based on a real fear that the capitalist class would always maintain a correlation of forces favorable to its interests in an alliance of this type, at the expense of a deteriorating situation for the working class, and thus would distort the grassroots revolutionary project.

Magic for a true change

With the arrival on June1 of Mauricio Funes as President, El Salvador is for the first time in history experiencing a government of broad participation, very similar to the one the FMLN-FDR had proposed for the 1984 elections. The contradictions we’re experiencing now are again bringing up the discussions of the past. There’s now talk about a “transition government,” but for this government to be it or to open the way for a subsequent FMLN government
to become it, the FMLN would have to continue developing the balance of power much more fully in its favor.

The magic will be in how to create this balance from the various spheres in which the grassroots sectors exercise their power: within Funes’ government, within the FMLN and within the social movement. Obviously society’s transformation won’t come as the gift of a new progressive government, but from the efforts of an organized people if they can increasingly accumulate more energy and proposals that move towards the transformations Salvadoran society needs.

In this regard, only a people that takes advantage of the advances offered by the new government to organize better and develop more will be able to take a real project of change forward. In this project, democratic electoral politics and occupying formal political spaces will only be complementary elements of a far longer-range strategy.

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

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