Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 349 | Agosto 2010


El Salvador

Mauricio Funes’ Successful Balancing Act

How has President Mauricio Funes managed to hang on to the presidential chair this whole year with a Right enviously eying the Honduran coup-makers and continually threatening to emulate them? He’s done it with a sure-footed balancing act on the political tightrope.

Elaine Freedman

The country awoke on June 21 to the shocking news that a collective microbus had been doused with gas and set afire in the low-income barrio of Mejicanos in the capital’s metropolitan area. This Dante-esque crime left 16 dead, between those burned and those machine-gunned as they tried to escape. An impassioned debate about the death penalty found its way back into the mass media as collective hysteria reigned on buses and in offices and coffee shops, reaffirming the climate of fear and insecurity people have been feeling for well over a year.

In less than 24 hours, the Police had captured eight suspects, all of them youth gang members. But the grassroots explanation, based on historically constructed and accumulated local and national knowledge, took a different tack, reaching well beyond the participation of those arrested, even those belonging to the mara, gangs with an exaggerated reputation for violence. Many commented that it seemed like the start of an electoral campaign, alluding to the fact that in recent years mutilated bodies begin to appear in different places in the urban centers every time an electoral race rolls around.

Building fear
and insecurity

The construction of fear and insecurity has been used over and over to convince the Salvadoran population that it needs a repressive government whose priority is to maintain social order at all cost. It goes without saying that what that means is the need for a government of the Right.

Although we aren’t in an electoral moment yet, the Right’s main message during the first year of the Funes administration has been that it isn’t guaranteeing physical, financial or political security to Salvadorans and—more importantly—to investors. A few weeks before Funes’ first year ended, the Right as a whole ratcheted up its campaign, characterized mainly by publicity disparaging his government as inept.

National or rightwing insecurity?

Chamber of Commerce president Jorge Daboub called the sense of insecurity “worrying,” adding that “we can see that the measures adopted aren’t giving the results we wanted. That’s affecting the country’s image because foreign and
local investors are holding back, thus complicating the country’s economic development.”

The leaders of the business umbrella organization ANEP argued that the climate of insecurity demonstrated the authorities’ “incapacity” and demanded that “effective” actions be implemented. Given what he calls a “lack of results,” ANEP president Carlos Araujo has asked Funes to look for “adequate officials” to wage the fight against violence, which is averaging 13 homicides a day.

The request isn’t new. Private enterprise’s displeasure with the people in charge of Security and the National Civil Police (PNC) started when the PNC chief removed the head of the Elite Division against Organized Crime (DECO) a year ago, even though much of the population was quite happy with the change.

DECO’s involvement in the impunity of organized crime is an open secret, as sustained in the declarations by the Office of Human Rights Ombudsperson about the former police chief who until recently headed it up, a man responsible for torture, fraudulent trial procedures and the coercion of witnesses and defendants during previous governments. Despite this, ANEP defended the indefensible, condemning his removal and questioning the PCN’s motivations and even its capacity.

“Only a madman would
invest in El Salvador”

Former President Alfredo Cristiani, top leader of the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), went even further, declaring that the country has no direction and “only a madman would invest in El Salvador.” So saying, he crossed the line from crime-based insecurity to economic insecurity.

Economically his argument holds little water, however, given that Salvadoran businesspeople systematically opt to invest abroad. Even under the ARENA governments, capital flight totaled 98% of El Salvador’s income, according to a report by the International Christian Service in Solidarity with the Peoples of Latin America (SICSAL), which uses data from the UN Development Programme’s Human Development Index.

Politically, Cristiani’s declarations are consistent with many others he has made during the Funes government. He began his period as president of COENA, ARENA’s national executive committee, a month before Funes was inaugurated President. He announced then that ARENA “must return to its party roots,” which are fanatic anti-communism; and shortly thereafter he threatened, “We’re going to arm Troy.” True to his pledge, Cristiani has been constant in his anti-communist rhetoric against the Funes government and the FMLN.

Police work data

Responding to public reactions to the crime levels, President Funes emphasized in his speech marking his first year in office that the Police had broken up 115 criminal bands and 203 mara cliques and jailed 61,586 people, including 2,652 for homicide and 2,562 for extortion, with a conviction rate of 98%. In addition, the Police had seized drugs with a street value of more than US$12 million and captured important traffickers, such as Juan Colorado. It also seized 4,709 firearms and merchandise of diverse kinds valued at US$ 19 million, and recovered a daily average of 5 stolen vehicles. And it had confiscated nearly 2,000 illegal cell phones and half as many additional chips in the country’s penal centers.

Thirty-two police officers were fired for bad conduct and bad procedures, including former director Ricardo Meneses. Nearly a thousand uniformed cops have been investigated in an effort to purge an agency whose agents and officials have often facilitated conditions for criminal acts or participated directly in them.

The reaction of the business class to the removal of the DECO director made one wonder if their displeasure with the Security Ministry apparatus was the result of the data provided by the President in his speech or in spite of it, given that the ministry is one of those under FMLN control.

Reality or fiction?

In addition to railing against the FMLN officials in the security apparatus, ARENA’s discourse seeks to create an impression of ungovernability, in the hope of making it come true. ARENA spokespeople use different recourses. The main, although not the only one, is to generate fear. Interestingly, a recent opinion poll by the University Institute of Opinion (IUDOP) of the Central American University (UCA) to evaluate the first year of the Funes government registers a difference of 20.7 points between the level of victimization from crime in the country and the insecurity level. In other words, 45.3% of theose polled answered that insecurity triggered by crime is the main problem in the country, but only 24.6% has been a victim of a crime. We are highlighting this contrast simply to note the difference between the objective phenomenon and the subjective appreciation of it, and not to undervalue the real problem of criminal activity in the country.

Research by Amparo Parducci, a member of the UCA communications department, documented how the mass media portrayed the mara members in the nineties as a far greater threat than they actually were at the time. This helped create fertile ground among the population to support the repressive measures that followed and that, paradoxically, triggered these groups’ increased participation in crime.

Economic instability
or fear of change?

The second variable in the ungovernability discourse has been that of economic instability. Starting in its 2009 electoral campaign, ARENA argued that if the FMLN won the elections it would frighten away all foreign investors and El Salvador would end up with no sources of income and no employment.

In the middle of the economic crisis inherited from the Saca government and in the shadow of the US-centered international financial crisis, the Right is still arguing that the main threat to the Salvadoran economy is not its trade flows, dependence on the United States and dollarization, but rather the insecurity a hypothetical move toward a socialist project generates among businesspeople. Cristiani summed it up this way: “The country has no direction due to the threat that the governing party wants to impose 21st-Century Socialism and its inability to resolve the problems.”

The Right’s caricature

The relationship between the FMLN and President Funes has been another factor used by the Right to feed the perception of a lack of governability. No one is unaware that this relationship is based on an alliance marked as much by contradictions as points of convergence.

Difficult times were inevitable when the FMLN selected a candidate that lacks both a trajectory in the party and a close identification with its ideological vision. The Right has used its media to caricature the relationship between the executive branch and the FMLN party as a marriage on the rocks to create the sensation that the day will come in which there will be “no one to take care of the kids,” an obvious metaphor for the country’s needs.

It’s worth recalling that one argument used in Honduras to legitimize the coup d’état against President Manuel Zelaya was that he was bereft of support not only from the state institutions but also from his own party.

Threats of a coup

The ungovernability discourse is not without effect. ARENA has been the main mouthpiece for the bourgeoisie’s threats to overthrow the Funes government. In June 2009, the day after the Honduran coup, Donato Vaquerano warned Funes that he “must have a mirror to see himself in.” Such declarations, in this particular case from the head of ARENA’s legislative bench, recurred time and again as Micheletti’s coup-imposed government continued for months in the neighboring country.

Several Salvadoran military officers, including former defense ministers René Emilio Ponce and Humberto Corado, also justified the coup, although less explicitly, by arguing that Zelaya’s pre-coup actions and attitudes were provocative and left him in a “vulnerable” position. This is consistent with a series of shows of force in recent years by officers from La Tandona, that infamous Military School class of 1966 that directed the counterinsurgency war. It was their way of reminding the country that without their blessing or at the very least their consent, El Salvador will not be governable.

El Salvador’s big business sector, which initially steered clear of the Honduran coup makers and expressed rejection of such a clear institutional crisis, vacillated later and ended up justifying it: “President Zelaya came with an attitude of not respecting the agreements of the democratic institutions… Zelaya has ended up alone because he is without his party; the democratic institutions have left him on his own and grassroots support is siding with the recently constituted government.” Such sentiments basically summarize all the Salvadoran Right’s arguments about Mauricio Funes. While they don’t represent the most aggressive position on the Right, we can’t lose sight of the fact that it’s a leading one.

All this provides inputs for understanding Alfredo Cristiani’s declarations in El Mundo after the first 100 days of Funes’ administration: “I can be destructive and right now we have a way to stop the President of the Republic so he can’t do anything.”

Micheletti: An uncomfortable guest

With all this as a backdrop, the visit by Honduran coup leader Roberto Micheletti less than 48 hours after the microbus massacre in Mejicanos was like a bucket of cold water. He was the special guest of the Pro Peace and Work Crusade, an extreme rightwing body that usually appears only during electoral campaigns or other special junctures, such as in 1989, the year of the FMLN’s final military offensive and the assassination of six Jesuits. Only a few months before the Jesuits were mowed down at their residence on the UCA campus, the Crusade had taken out a paid ad attacking “a group of satanic brains led by Ellacuría,” “communist dogs” who were “ruining the country.”

Micheletti lunched with the mayor of San Salvador, Norman Quijano, who gave him the keys of the city and the title of Distinguished Visitor. That night he gave a conference in a five-star hotel to a select group of invitees. The upper echelons of ARENA flocked to hear a man whose political transcendence is now a thing of the past, but whose ideological importance is still essential to those attending.

“My most energetic repudiation”

Micheletti’s message aimed to provoke. He alleged that Zelaya was overthrown to “defend democracy through constitutional succession. I am totally sure it wasn’t a coup d’état.” He developed the thesis that the 21st-Century Socialism being pushed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is “a threat to the Central American region.”

The FMLN responded immediately with a communiqué condemning Micheletti’s presence in the country and declaring him persona non grata. The communiqué reminded the “real powers” that “in the last elections the Salvadoran people declared themselves in favor of change and defeated the fear, blackmail and lies of the pro-coup Right in El Salvador.”

President Funes also rejected Micheletti’s presence and Mayor Quijano’s decision to name him a “distinguished visitor. “When I see some among us who recognize and praise someone involved in a coup,” he exclaimed, “all I can do is express my most energetic repudiation.” Although Funes’ position is somewhat ambiguous given his current campaign to encourage world recognition of Pepe Lobo’s government in Honduras, his clarity with respect to the Salvadoran Right was unequivocal.

Staying in office is a major feat

In a setting such as this, merely hanging on to the executive office has been an unannounced goal of this government. Funes has so far succeeded, and even kept the seven FMLN ministers in their posts, although it hasn’t been easy given all the pressure from the Right to replace them.

Keeping himself in the presidential chair has had its costs, but he has achieved it for two basic reasons. The first is the FMLN’s political capital as the main political force in the country, a recognition it has earned both domestically and abroad. In the IUDOP poll mentioned above, the FMLN ranked first in the question on “voting intention” with 42.5%, followed by ARENA with only 12.8%. Only one other party even broke 2%. While the FMLN’s own social base isn’t mobilized on a regular basis, it has shaped the national destiny in the streets at several important moments, the latest of which was the March 2009 national elections.

The second reason is that the Salvadoran Right has so far toed the US line, which is the same one Micheletti defended during his visit. As long as the Funes government doesn’t forge closer relations with anti-imperialist governments, join the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA) or even Petrocaribe, and makes no transcendental changes that modify the underpinnings of the power structures, it won’t represent any serious threat to the national and international powers that be.

So near the United States
and so far from Chávez

Funes has been careful not to step over the line and to position himself as a “favorite” of the United States in the region. In his inaugural speech, he said: “You have been the custodians of the relationship between El Salvador and the United States in recent history… We who are now responsible for watching over that relationship have inherited wealth, emotion, a legacy of trust and friendship, and the major responsibility of following in the footsteps of those who preceded us.”

The first year has been a testimony to his faithfulness to that commitment. He hasn’t strayed in the least from the path of previous Salvadoran heads of state, whose best exponent was President Duarte (1984-1989), a man who kissed the US flag in a symbolic act of extreme submission. Funes has kept his distance from Hugo Chavez and anything that smacks of ALBA, despite criticisms from different grassroots sectors of the social movement that have urged the government to join that alliance. Although he attended the meeting to launch the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC), an effort to create a kind of “alternative Organization of American States” of all sovereign nations in the Americas except the United States and Canada, it remains to be seen how he will react to US pressure to stay out of it. That issue has already cropped up in his meeting with US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in Guatemala in March to prepare for his meeting with President Obama days later.

Funes has also followed up on the agreements with the International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA), a US project in El Salvador to train police officers from different Latin American countries, which is a continuation of the agreements on the US military monitoring base in Comalapa and on FBI and DEA offices in the country.

Finally, he has made a clear commitment not to jeopardize CAFTA and has played a lead role in defense of the Lobo government in Honduras, arguing for its reintegration into Central and Latin American integration arenas. This has earned him the approval of President Obama, who commended his “regional and international leadership” and his “pragmatic attitude” regarding Honduras at the cost of rejection by the grassroots movement and the FMLN. They consider the Lobo government illegitimate because it was elected by a minority of voters in a process headed up by a coup government during a period of repression and human rights violations.

The Right has emerged
unscathed by the changes

The other requisite keeping the Right from overstepping the bounds is that it has seen the Funes government stay out of or even ignore grassroots struggles, defending the interests of the bourgeoisie in some cases and making pacts with its political parties in others. The government has taken sides against local residents in the case of the Chaparral dam construction and has reaffirmed its campaign promise not to revise the Amnesty Law, though the chief of the government’s mission in the United Nations Forum in Geneva had given the impression it would.

Funes has also given a lead role to the Armed Forces in the streets and jails as part of his security plan. He observed the legislative decree eliminating fixed phone charges, negotiating a reduction with the telephone transnationals. And he made a pact with ARENA, the Grand Alliance for National Unity and the Party of National Conciliation to block an FMLN initiative to end the Right’s access to the National Registry of Natural Persons, from which important electoral fraud operations are usually orchestrated.

Time to accumulate

The grassroots sectors shouldn’t be deceived about where the current government is anchored, but they should learn to accumulate during this stage. They don’t need to beat ithemselves up for having supported a government that has no possibility of—and who knows how much interest in—changing things radically for the Salvadoran working class.

The government program Funes offered with FMLN support was one of reforms. Implementing social reforms in a dependent capitalist country is a difficult task at any time, let alone during an economic crisis. Despite this, many Salvadorans feel that these changes are now beginning to translate into reality: 66.2% according to the IUDOP survey. Consistent with this, 68.5% of those polled considered the Funes government’s administration “good or very good.” Although the transcendence of these changes is questionable to those banking on the structural transformation of Salvadoran society, the voting population unquestionably notes a change.

2011 is an electoral year

Legislative and municipal posts are up for election in 2012, but in El Salvador a “de facto” calendar marks the real start of electoral campaigns at least a year before voting day. Next year will therefore be one of electoral campaigning that will undoubtedly involve a head-to-head struggle between the FMLN and the rightwing parties.

The Right has already started out on its chosen path of threatening the President, the FMLN and the people with a coup, either directly or indirectly fomenting insecurity and fear, taking advantage of its fruits and keeping open the door to
the National Registry of Natural Persons. The mobilizing capacity demonstrated by the FMLN, the Salvadoran grassroots movement and even sectors of non-organized sympathizers in the 2009 electoral process will be extremely important to strewing that path with obstacles.

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

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