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  Number 341 | Diciembre 2009
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El Salvador

GANA’s Birth Is ARENA’s Loss

Losing the executive branch has been both symbolically and materially significant For ARENA. It’s the end of an era, not just of 20 years of consecutive rule, and has put an end to 150 years of total control by the Right. Materially speaking, ARENA lost access to public resources to benefit the party and to arenas from which to siphon off millions from the public coffers. Its exhausted rightwing formula is being challenged by a new one in the form of the new GANA party. Is the dominant bloc’s hegemony in a genuine crisis?

Elaine Freedman

The problems inside the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) were already quite evident in its widely publicized presidential candidate selection process in January 2008. But they could no longer be contained after ARENA lost the presidency to FMLN candidate Mauricio Funes in March of this year. Ever since then, different political movements could be seen trying to control the visible erosion of ARENA’s unity, but none succeeded and a new instrument of the Salvadoran Right has now emerged from the party’s ranks.

What happened resembled a reworking of the 18th Brumaire of King Luis Bonaparte. All that’s missing is someone to play the king, although there is no shortage of candidates. In his famous work on the subject, Karl Marx described what’s known as a hegemonic crisis of the ruling class, expressed when its social groups split from their traditional parties and their leaders and structures lose recognition as an expression of their class as the result of a political failure. Could it be that ARENA’s political failure in the March elections served to accelerate a rupture between the dominant class and its political representation par excellence?

The PCN is dead, long live ARENA…

The coup d’état in El Salvador on October 15, 1979, put an end to the period of hegemony enjoyed by the National Conciliation Party (PCN), which had established itself as a unifying force for the Right over almost two decades. Two monumental electoral frauds, the policy of growing repression—both massive and selective—throughout the seventies, the organizing work of the mass movements and the proliferation and consolidation of four leftist political-military forces—a move the Communist Party was yet to take—were all factors that helped erode the PCN. The coup “closed the circle” on the party. In short order the contradiction between the reformist counterinsurgency project born of the coup and the escalating repression decided on by the most intransigent sectors of the military became irreconcilable. ARENA was born in the heat of this contradiction, as the United States gave the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) its blessing to administer the post-revolutionary junta period.

Unthinkable without D’Aubuisson

An ARENA party website tells the following story: “In the middle of that chaos (post-October 15, 1979), which not only presaged a tragic future for El Salvador, a voice of hope was raised, manifested in a man with acute political intuition, disciplined by a career in the armed services and by a profound knowledge of the actions that international communism sought to conduct against his country. That young retired military man was named Roberto d’Aubuisson Arrieta and carried within him the flame of nationalism, which he soon began to pass on to everyone who wanted to listen to him on radio or television.” The history of ARENA is unthinkable and would never have been possible without the figure of D’Aubuisson.

Legally registered on December 4, 1981, ARENA grew in strength throughout that decade of war. The PDC’s inability to defeat the FMLN fed the flames that energized ARENA until by 1989 it became the governing party, with hegemony in the executive branch, the National Assembly and the Supreme Court. What started out as the expression of a small faction of the Salvadoran bourgeoisie came to be the maximum expression of that class, encapsulating the interests ARENA members express in their ideology: “The state must guarantee work, the wellbeing of the homeland and an economic system oriented to increasing productivity through free enterprise.” Another principle claims “the individual right to the acquisition, retention and use of property as a projection of the human person.”

Passing with flying colors

For 20 years, ARENA worked effectively based on this ideology and with its slogan of “Homeland, yes, communism, no” represented the interests of the big Salvadoran bourgeoisie, complying at the same time with the US will in El Salvador. ARENA passed with flying colors in carrying out all the imperial orders, effectively fulfilling the structural adjustment program, the country’s dollarization, the privatization of state assets and the signing of the Central American Free Trade Agreement. It was also an unconditional voice against Venezuela and Cuba and was the only Latin American country that sent fighting troops in the war against Iraq.

But despite everything, ARENA’s erosion became increasingly evident internationally as well as nationally, casting doubt on its capacity to continue guaranteeing the interests of international capital and big national capital.

Power struggles and desertions

Like any other party, there was never a shortage of power struggles among the different ARENA sectors. But ARENA had a notable capacity throughout its history to keep its internal conflicts out of the public spotlight. In this respect the political sympathies of most of the country’s mass media helped it wash its dirty laundry in private, but we shouldn’t underestimate the dominant class’ own capacity to put its common interests over its differences, at least in the political sphere.

ARENA’s unity has been questioned on only a few occasions during the last three decades. But there have been certain exceptions in this history of monolithic unity. The first came in 1996, when D’Aubuisson’s historical friend Víctor Antonio Cornejo Arango led an attack on Juan Jose Domenech, then president of ARENA’s National Executive Council (COENA) and owner of “La Despensa de Don Juan” supermarket chain. It was said that the “Menequista” tendency, dubbed that in honor of Arango’s nickname—”el meneque”—was the most “traditionalist” sector and most loyal to D’Aubuisson’s dogmas, while the “Conejista” tendency—named for the rabbit (conejo in Spanish) that’s an identifying symbol of Domenech’s supermarkets, although the tendency followed Alfredo Cristiani’s leadership more than that of the COENA president—represented the more “modernizing” sector.

Several “Meneque” members went over to the PCN the following year, then founded the National Action Party (PAN) for the 2000 elections, although it disappeared after failing to pull the minimum number of votes in the 2003 elections and many of its figures later reappeared in ARENA’s ranks. In the wake of the “Meneque” members’ departure from ARENA, a convention was held to elect the candidates on the party slates for municipal government. The most notorious thing about the event was that prominent party members weren’t considered for the candidacies, which provoked new desertions, including Colonel Ochoa Pérez, Mauricio Gutiérrez Castro and former Vice-President Francisco Merino, later sworn in as PCN members. These were group desertions, not individual ones, as in the previous case.

The departure from ARENA of Gloria Salguero Gross’ group to form the Popular Republican Party (PPR) in 2002 caused a crisis, but it was less serious than the previous one. Salguero took a few leaders with her, such as Julio Valdivieso, but attracted no other members of ARENA’s top leadership. The PPR, formed in reaction to the incorporation of new personalities from private enterprise, was short-lived. As with the PAN, its limited electoral support sounded its death knell and Salguero Gross, who accused ARENA of having been privatized, later returned to its ranks and leadership structures.

The controversial
2008 candidate selection

A strong internal jostling for position could already be discerned within ARENA when it came time to select the 2009 presidential candidate, 12 months before the elections. What Antonio Saca, then President of El Salvador and of ARENA, called a “festival of freedom and democracy” appeared more like an arm wrestling contest among the different internal groups.

At that time the groups were identified as “the dominant group,” with Saca as COENA president and powerful businesspeople from the banking sector and the import trade; “the Torogoces,” including the owners of Telecorporación Salvadoreña and El Diario de Hoy, together with big agricultural and agroindustrial business people who in 2007 had asked Saca to resign from COENA; “the Generals,” consisting of former presidents of the National Association of Private Enterprise (ANEP), the main business umbrella group; and “the Apostles,” made up of business people, politicians and intellectuals who joined industrialist and banker Roberto Murray Meza. The latter included former Foreign Minister María Eugenia Brizuela; former La Prensa Gráfica director Cecilia Gallardo de Cano; and FUSADES president Antonio Cabrales.

Eighteen candidates were initially signed up in the selection process. The list was whittled down using different mechanisms until Rodrigo Ávila, the candidate from Saca’s “dominant group,” imposed himself over figures of greater stature such as Ana Vilma Escobar, who is linked to the Cristiani and Poma families; former ANEP president Francisco Laínez; and Eduardo Barrientos, one of ARENA’s founders. Despite the fact that René Figueroa, César Funes and Saca all vouched for the transparency of the process, rumors started to circulate in the eastern part of the country that COENA had used the departmental representatives to order municipal leaders to vote for Ávila.

Whether this was true or not, the media were already naming Ávila as the winner of the internal selection process by midday on Saturday March 15. At 3pm that same afternoon, the final consolidated results revealed that Ávila had achieved a clean sweep of the electoral sub-colleges, obtaining all 15 votes, although with a 25% abstention rate.

The end of 150 years
and the return of old ghosts

After all this, ARENA achieved a fragile, reticent unity around Ávila’s candidacy. It was therefore no surprise that heads had to roll when the party lost the elections. The fact that Ávila was not a consensus candidate exacerbated the wound represented by the party losing control of the executive branch after 20 years.

Losing the presidency has both real and symbolic implications for the powerful Salvadoran class. In symbolic terms, it means the end of an era, and a very prolonged one at that. Beyond the 20 years of ARENA governments, it also marks the end of practically 150 years of absolute political domination by an oligarchy that has controlled the country’s entire political apparatus ever since the creation of this “Coffee Republic.” It brings a whole army of ghosts to the minds of the bourgeoisie, which had not questioned the safety of its realm since the end of the war.

The end of the “Pocketocracy”

Concretely speaking, losing the executive branch means that ARENA lost access to public resources, including real jobs and imaginary posts, vehicles and infrastructure for carrying out party work. For the dominant business class it has also meant the loss of important business with the government. The Social Security Institute recently began replacing the pharmaceutical tenders Cristiani had monopolized, giving other suppliers a shot. December 2009 marked the end of the contracts through which the D’Aubuisson and Llach-Cristiani families supplied all the food the government purchases for hospitals, penitentiaries and child shelters, and these tenders will probably change along similar lines to the pharmaceutical ones.

Finally, the dominant class lost the position it had used to siphon off millions and millions of dollars from the public coffers through acts of corruption committed over a 20-year period. A quick summary of only the most notorious cases includes the $705 million spirited away through the bank “cleansing”; the $9 million that went missing from the CEL electricity company; the embezzlement in the sugar refineries to the tune of $15 million; the $2.4 million fraud in the Salvadoran Social Security Institute (ISSS); the fraud in the Agricultural Development Bank (BFA) amounting to $16 million; the $138 million Crediclub swindle; the fraud committed against the public economy by FINSEPRO and INSEPRO to the tune of $80.5 million; the $142.5 million embezzlement of resources in the Real Estate Credit Bank (CREDISA); the influence peddling favor of an economy minister that cost the state economy $40.2 million; the $100 million embezzlement and fraud in ANDA; and the $38 million in rigged Public Works tenders.

The real tally of all the cases of this endemic corruption would be very hard to calculate. This kind of crime, exaggerated during the last administration, earned Saca’s government the description of a “pocketocracy.”

The saca group pays the price

Following the triumph of Funes and the FMLN, accusations from within ARENA were soon aimed at the Saca group. The first victim was Adolfo “El Chele” Tórrez, ARENA’s departmental director in San Salvador, who mysteriously committed suicide after having been dismissed from his post due to a scandal that linked him to a blackmail case related to the PCN’s “narco-representative,” Roberto Silva. ARENA announced that it was taking a hard line in the Tórrez case to put an end to any sign of corruption in the party, but Tórrez was obviously neither the most scandalous nor the biggest case. He was quite simply the scapegoat: the most vulnerable figure paying the price for everyone’s misdeeds.

Tórrez was one of the Saca group’s favorites and his sacking was a publicity act aimed at demonstrating concern about the acts of corruption over the 20 years of ARENA government, while at the same time sending a clear threatening signal to the Saca group.

Just three days after the electoral defeat, former Treasury Minister Manuel Enrique Hinds showered Saca with attacks in the newspaper El Diario de Hoy: “Saca divided the party; eliminated all shoots of authentic leadership; promoted the spongers in the party structures over those with their own ideals; imposed a yes-yes COENA that never said a word; named an Assembly bench chief whose only originality was to say that ‘the President would have to be cloned because there’s nobody like him’; and imposed as candidate a good man who did what he could but never managed to convince the population of his independence from Tony Saca.”

The piece ended up condemning the former COENA president, who was still President of El Salvador at the time, as follows: “By eliminating all those who could have their own criteria, spurning the advice of so many people inside and outside the party, President Saca and his allies took total responsibility for the victory or defeat that might occur in the national elections. They must now accept the defeat they so stubbornly sought and resign from all party posts so that ARENA can renew itself…”

Soon after, a three-person Political Commission was formed, consisting of former Presidents Alfredo Cristiani, Armando Calderón Sol and Francisco Flores. Its mission was to make the party’s most important decisions, supplanting COENA until Cristiani was announced as its president on May 1. In his first speech, Cristiani promised “to return to the party’s roots” and “do nothing that could prejudice the great alliance of the Right.” He replaced the recently-named legislative bench chief, Alberto Romero, with Donato Vaquerano. Three weeks later, he named the other members of COENA. Although the Saca group managed to sneak in four members, including Julio Rank Jr. and Mónica de O’Byrne, it lost its hegemony in the party’s executive body. The creation of the Political Commission, subsequent naming of Alfredo Cristiani and naming of the new COENA marked Saca’s first real loss of power in ARENA, beyond the mere loss of prestige.

ARENA Assembly
in apparent harmony

September 30 is ARENA’s anniversary and it tends to be commemorated with an Ordinary General Assembly. This year, the Ordinary Assembly had to ratify the new Cristiani-named COENA, but it was postponed for 11 days, which many interpreted as a sign of internal difficulties.

Between May and August steps had already been taken to restructure the party, with the incorporation of eight sector leaders into COENA that would be considered “key posts”. That opportunity was used to reincorporate Ana Vilma Escobar and Mario Acosta Ortel, two of the main critics of Antonio Saca and his “dominant” group, which by this point no longer dominated.

There were already rumors of a rupture in the ARENA legislative bench, to which the new and questioned ARENA vice president of organization, Ruy César Miranda, responded that “If some are going around wanting to shake the tree, our recommendation is that they stay calm and climb on board.” However, they didn’t remain calm. In early September, a letter was published that had been sent to the party leadership by 26 of the 32 ARENA parliamentary representatives. Requesting the bench’s representation on the new COENA, the letter was even signed by the new bench chief, Donato Vaquerano.

It was in this context that the ARENA Assembly was held, and no changes were made to COENA. Francisco Flores was elected honorary ARENA president in a “nationalist festival” and on Sunday, October 11, the media showed the enthusiastic face of a united ARENA that validated his leadership.

Rebel legislators
shatter the harmony

But the very next day the news revealed another face. Twelve ARENA legislators, led by former COENA political affairs secretary Guillermo Gallegos, declared they would no longer follow party lines. They made it clear they were not breaking away from the party, but announced they would vote their conscience in Congress on the different issues concerning the country, as “we’re not going to subject ourselves to a decision made by one or two people. We’re going to do so based on the consensus we see.” Although meetings were immediately announced between the “dissident” group and COENA, they were never held.

Ten days later, the dissidents showed that their announced voting position was no joke. For the first time, they voted with the FMLN in the Legislative Assembly against their party bloc. The vote was of no great importance, being a motion put forward by ARENA to investigate the executive branch for supposed anomalies in the distribution of agricultural packets. But even so, ARENA followers interpreted the rupture as “betrayal.”

GANA is born

In the midst of all the gossip, two ARENA representatives in the Central American Parliament and four party departmental directors followed the example of “the twelve,” as did eight alternate parliamentary representatives. The fissure grew wider until, less than a month after the crisis began, the dissident representatives spoke publicly again, calling themselves the Great National Unity Alliance (GANA).

In negotiations among the different parliamentary benches, in which the only one with anything to lose was ARENA, the Legislative Assembly’s board of directors was increased from 11 to 13 members to make room for GANA, the new political actor. In a great chess move, the FMLN also increased its participation on the board from three to four posts, while the PCN and GANA ended up with three each. ARENA lost a post, leaving it with just two, and the PDC lost one of its original two. GANA may have only just been formed, but it immediately demonstrated its capacity to achieve a correlation that favored its own growth and demonstrated its independence from ARENA.

Troy didn’t burn

When Cristiani uttered his famous phrase that he “would make Troy burn” if the dismissal of his party followers in the executive branch continued, he specified that he could boycott approval of the national budget and loans through the votes of his 32 representatives.

He was unable to do so by the time the actual voting took place, however, as by then his favorable legislative correlation of forces had collapsed. The GANA representatives added their votes to those of the FMLN, the PCN, the PDC and the Democratic Change party, leaving ARENA alone to abstain during the budget voting. It no longer had the power “to make Troy burn.”

Who’s behind GANA?

There’s no doubt that GANA has exploited the time well, taking another step forward almost every week. Cristiani made what appeared to be a gesture to reincorporate it into ARENA, by replacing the COENA members GANA rejected and including Donato Vaquerano, proposed by the legislative bench in its letter prior to the Ordinary Assembly. But it was too late. GANA publicly announced its intention to form a new party, contracted a team of advisers and added former COENA member Silvia Aguilar, three alternates, and former ARENA advisers Juan Miguel Bolaños, Fernando Ávila and Carlos Mixco, the latter a relative of former first lady Ligia de Saca.

The million-dollar question is who’s behind GANA. Accusations were quickly made that outside forces were involved. Vaquerano blamed Orlando Arévalo, a self-declared “independent” legislator after being expelled by the PCN. But it was COENA’s vice-president of ideology, Jorge Velado, who came up with the most novel idea, accusing José Luis Merino (alias “Ramiro Vásquez”) from the FMLN leadership of being the brains behind the dissident movement. More in keeping with the way events were panning out, Velado also attributed responsibility to Herbert Saca, a cousin of the former President and his political collaborator. Although Antonio Saca distanced himself from the dissident faction in his only public declaration, there’s little reason to believe his position is anything other than a smoke screen behind which to calculate better the personal advantages or disadvantages of eventually leaving ARENA.

Not in “the photo”

Divisions and restructuring in the Salvadoran Right have historically represented a clash of interests between different sectors of the traditional oligarchy. A faction of the big bourgeoisie has always been seen in the photos with the “new politicians” to highlight the link between the economic and political sectors.

But the GANA case is an exception. If one reviews the sectors of the dominant class group by group, they all appear to
be represented in the COENA structured by Alfredo Cristiani. The only apparent absentee is the Murray Meza group, although there’s no sign it has any relationship with GANA either.

GANA’s members aren’t poor and, with or without funding from Antonio Saca, surely have a sizable accumulation of capital that would allow them to build a new party thanks to the profits they made during the “pocketocracy” and to possible links with drug traffickers. But unlike previous ARENA breakaways, they also have political structures and social grassroots in all of the country’s departments.

Changes in ANEP as well

During this same crisis period for ARENA, ANEP has also suffered changes that must be taken into account, given that, as part of the historical dominant bloc, its leaders have often come from ARENA and vice versa. When Antonio Saca left the ANEP presidency to run for President of El Salvador, for example, a figure politically close to him—Federico Colorado—was brought into ANEP to replace him.

Colorado worked hand in hand with Saca during his five-year presidential term and has proved faithful during this stage of his decline. The candidate who won ANEP’s latest internal elections is Carlos Enrique Araujo Eserski, ex-COENA member (2001) and former director of both the Agricultural Bank and AFP Crecer, one of the country’s leading pension fund companies. Curiously enough, Araujo has similarly had close links to Alfredo Cristiani’s group. In other words, while the GANA group has been accumulating in the political sphere, the Cristiani group has been accumulating in the business one.

Hegemonic crisis
in the dominant bloc?

All these apparent inconsistencies between the political and the business spheres are symptoms of a crisis in the dominant class. ARENA no longer works for it, having lost what it had no “right” to lose. Their world was shaken on March 15.

Most of these powerful people appear to still be in ARENA, but without the same confidence and conviction as before. Others are seeking closer relations with the new government under the hypothesis that they’ll have to try to squeeze some advantage out of a situation that’s difficult because it’s different. And everyone will surely be viewing GANA through a magnifying glass to see if it can become the new representative of their interests. It’s worth recalling that when ARENA was founded, not all of the bourgeoisie climbed onto its bandwagon before seeing that it was consolidated and gathering pace.

How will the bourgeoisie get out of the crisis? Both ARENA and GANA have to engage in a political rethinking that will allow this class to advance, given that its previous approaches have been exhausted.

The scope of the Right’s recomposition will have a lot to do with the capacity of the grassroots sectors to move forward in this period. And that’s the other great lesson of the 18th Brumaire: the failure of the bourgeoisie’s projects is important when there’s a counter-hegemonic project to harvest the fruits of that failure. So the ball’s now in the court of the oppressed.

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

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