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  Number 396 | Julio 2014
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El Salvador

The second FMLN government gets off to a good start

In his first month as President of El Salvador, Salvador Sánchez Cerén has won people’s respect and affection. His government has implemented convincing actions that have left the opposition with little comeback. “The Prof” has gotten off to a good start.

Elaine Freedman

Salvador Sánchez Cerén, former teachers’ union leader and guerrilla commander during the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Movement’s war of liberation, was inaugurated President of El Salvador on Sunday, June 1. It had been reported that he would hold the formal inauguration in the morning and a grassroots event in the afternoon, but contrary to the rules of protocol, the morning’s inaugural became a grassroots event as well. Representatives of the social movements, the FMLN ranks and internationalists invited for their trajectory over time were all in the front rows of the ceremony, announcing with banners, slogans and the party’s anthem their joyous conviction that a new stage in the country’s history was being ushered in that day. It was to this close public that Sánchez Cerén directed the first words of his address: “You can feel it, we are here before our hard-working Salvadoran people; this is our people, happy, cheerful. A very good morning to all of you…”

The President’s speech had no detractors. As firm as it was conciliatory, it left even the most recalcitrant opponents of the FMLN and of Sánchez Cerén himself with no comeback. His party comrades and the organized people were delighted and vindicated by his homages to the heroes and martyrs of the liberation struggle, including Roque Dalton, Mélida Anaya Montes and the historical leader Shafik Handal.

Close to the people

Only 30 days after taking office, central points of his address have already started becoming reality. No one can doubt that Salvador Sánchez Cerén is a man energized by his closeness to the people.

The first days of his mandate he broke even more protocols by going out to learn firsthand about the population’s problems. He visited the Rosales Hospital, where he consoled the sick and listened attentively to people’s demands about problems in the public health installations. He also visited the Ojo de Agua Canton Rural School in the municipality of Huizúcar, where he spoke with students, teachers and parents.

And when the outbreak of the new virus called Chikungunya—transmitted by two species of aedes mosquitos—appeared
in El Zapote Canton, municipality of Ayutuxtepeque, the President went out with Health Ministry personnel to meet
the people affected and verify on site the ministry’s comprehensive plan: education, promotion, attention to the already existing cases, clinical and epidemiological investigations, and lab research. Later he sent instructions to the Civil Protection authorities to declare a stratified alert all over the country due to the virus.

This closeness
responds to a demand

The President’s visits make a lot of sense. The daily complaint about the FMLN by both the population and the grassroots militants has been that the leadership doesn’t go where they are. The population perceives that “they only seek us out when they’re campaigning” and that the party has become distanced from the people.

Shafik Handal used to say: “Our greater distancing from the people and their problems is the product of those frequently fouled partisan electoral processes. We’re almost always immersed in one of them for four to six months, during which the militants and their leaders are absorbed in internal squabbles to the glee of the rightwing media. We stop listening to people, drafting proposals, organizing or mobilizing to deal with the problematic the population is suffering.”

“Governing with the people”

The presidency’s new radio and television program, “Governing with the people,” is a novelty the population appreciates. Instead of a radio broadcast from a cabin, the program is done in a community. Sánchez Cerén doesn’t go alone, but arrives with a group of ministers to a Good Living Festival, where, in addition to the exchange between the population and its officials, who listen, ask and offer opinions, there are also free specialized medical consultations and the sale of vegetables, fruits and other foods produced by small local operations. Sánchez Cerén’s explanation is that “we didn’t come to convince you of our viewpoints, we came to listen to yours, because we can say everything’s good, but you, how do you see the situation? That’s why I say this program is called ‘Governing with the people,’ because we want your perceptions, how you feel, how you live.”

Few can interpret those gestures of getting close to the people negatively. Only Paolo Lüers, a small business owner, columnist for El Diario de Hoy and former FMLN militant turned rightwing activist and spokesperson, dared to pin the term “populist” on an act that merited the congratulations and recognition of communicators of all stripes. It hasn’t occurred to anyone else to suggest Sánchez Cerén’s reaching out to people is a publicity stunt. The smile that lights up the new President’s face when he’s walking among the people attests to the authenticity of “the Prof’s” attitude.

A “decree of austerity”

“I will exercise the presidency with honor, austerity, efficiency and transparency. I have said it many times and must make sure it is clear: the people’s resources are sacred and will only be used to favor their development and wellbeing,” said the President in his inaugural address. “We will create the Secretariat of Social Participation and Transparency to raise the status of these fundamental characteristics of a dialoguing and honest government.”

Days earlier, Sánchez Cerén had announced that he wouldn’t move into the presidential residence. That decision will make him the first Salvadoran President to continue living in his own house, in the middle-class Layco neighborhood of San Salvador. Declining to occupy the presidential residence in the exclusive Escalón neighborhood will save money from the national budget. He has also announced that he’ll cut state expenses on per diems and vehicle use, and won’t tolerate obscure management of public finances or any other forms of corruption. He added that he’s in the process of approving an “austerity decree” to make good on his commitment to efficiently manage public finances with greater transparency. He has included regulating the security device for ministers and Presidents among the austerity measures that will be specified in that decree.

A pact for transparency

The Under-Secretariat for Transparency has already become the Secretariat of Citizen’s Participation, Transparency and Anti-corruption under the baton of Marcos Rodríguez. His work in that under-secretariat during the previous government resulted in the passage and initial implementation of the Law of Access to Public Information. He also supported the 113 lawsuits for acts of corruption presented by the Funes government to the Attorney General’s Office.

Rodríguez now hopes to go further, with the development of a pact for transparency in which all social sectors will assume responsibilities. Offices will be opened that can help the citizenry file charges and a “programmatic commitment” will be established with no statute of limitations on corruption cases.

All this is a good omen for the Salvadoran people, although they still need to know more about the decree that will be approved and, even more, how it will be implemented. Austerity is an age-old demand of poor Salvadorans, who have always contrasted their situation with the lavish personal spending by their “public servants.” Equally age-old, however, is the contradiction that while the population is such a keen critic of public officials it says nothing about the abuses of the upper classes.

On the subject of austerity, President Sánchez Cerén has silenced even his most ardent critics with his first decisions and actions. All signs suggest that his proverbial humility and honesty will feature among the new government’s characteristics.

The insignia motto:
“United we will all grow”

In kicking off his term he also said that “we have promoted entities for concertation to achieve major national agreements. We are working on forming civic nuclei, made up of Catholic priests, Evangelical pastors, businesspeople, workers, academics and a list of people who can contribute to this great agreement…. We are confident that the union of government, business people, workers and political forces will generate more investments and jobs. Because united we will all grow.”

The insignia motto of the President’s inaugural address, “United we will all grow,” was and still is the hardest thing for the grassroots sectors attending the event to decode. What does “concertation” among sectors mean when there are two historically opposing social classes? Why the emphasis on growth and not on development? What might the great national agreements be? These questions are still floating around unanswered.

The proposal for “civic nuclei” is an attention grabber, although no one knows exactly how they’ll be formed, what issues they’ll work on and with what methodologies. It is of course totally new to hear a President include workers among the country’s productive forces, because the hegemonic ideology has taught that “productive force” is synonymous with “entrepreneur.” Not only are workers included in the list of sectors the President mentioned, but business people aren’t at the top.

Counting on the private sector

Public conversations between the National Association of Private Enterprise (ANEP) and the new government got underway two months before the inauguration. There was no way around that dialogue for the government, whose goal is 3% annual growth over its five-year term.

The fact that the FMLN has made it to government doesn’t mean El Salvador is no longer a dependent capitalist country. Moreover, the State owns very few income-generating public companies after 20 years of savage neoliberalism, so growth is rooted in the private sector. The new government acknowledged that when the President said in his first speech: “We know that the private sector’s support will allow employment to multiply rapidly, energize the economy and strengthen the business fabric. Our shared dream must be a productive and competitive El Salvador, present in the global markets.”

In his intervention in the Central American Integration System summit in late June, Sánchez Cerén reiterated that “there are arenas in all governments for dialogue and direct talks between the business sector and government.”

Three issues in the
government-ANEP dialogue

What was the content of that dialogue and what are the repercussions so far? According to the press, one of the major issues of the dialogue of April and May was the proposal for fiscal reforms launched by President Funes before leaving government, which the new administration supported. Another issue was the one Sánchez Céren announced the minute he made himself comfortable in the presidential chair: El Salvador will enter Petrocaribe. And a third crucial issue was “the importance of improving the country’s competitiveness.”

Fiscal proposals: Funes’ proposed fiscal reforms are so moderate that the term itself is something of an exaggeration. The tax structure would retain the current regressive model; only some privileges for the country’s wealthiest sectors would be eliminated.

The basic points of his proposals include a tax on sumptuous properties, on bank transactions greater than US$750 and on the earnings of newspaper owners, who have historically been exempt from it. According to Treasury Minister Carlos Cáceres, who held the same post in Funes’ Cabinet, these new taxes would bring in an additional US$200 million annually. It’s a small amount compared to the 2014 national budget, which rounds out at US$4.695 billion, but an important amount from the perspective of the US$73.5 million debt the government currently has with the mainly small and medium local businesses that supply the uniforms, shoes and notebooks of the “school packet” the governments gives out to poor students.

Even with these lukewarm fiscal proposals, ANEP jumped as if it had been branded with a hot iron. It used all the media and dragged out all its habitual arguments to make people believe they would bear the main brunt of the reforms. Despite its protests and repeated discussions with the presidency and vice-presidency, ANEP has shown no capacity for authentic concertation. And given that dialogue is one thing and twisting one’s arm is quite another, the government had the advantage, to the satisfaction of the grassroots organizations.

Entry into Petrocaribe: Private enterprise exhibited a similarly prejudicial dynamic on the issue of Petrocaribe when ANEP made its fears of El Salvador’s entry into a Petrocaribe agreement public.

In a country that has experienced US meddling in support of coups d’état, oligarchic-military tyrannies, and even the financing of a war that lasted 12 long years, the business leaders had the nerve to haul out the rhetoric of defense of national sovereignty to rant against what they consider El Salvador’s first step toward membership in the Latin American Anti-imperialist bloc.

This too was discussed in the dialogue and the opposing viewpoints were laid out on the table. On June 2 El Salvador’s entry into Venezuela’s Petrocaribe agreement was announced, again showing that dialogue with private enterprise must not be mistaken for government submission to the dominant class’ position.

Improving the country’s competitiveness: The media didn’t report much of the content of the dialogue on “how to make
El Salvador a more competitive country.” Not until the National Encounter of Private Enterprise (ENADE) was held in the last week of June was ANEP’s proposal released. It wants to reproduce the Model Cities or Employment and Economic Development Zones (ZEDEs), US economist Paul Michael Romer’s recipe, which was introduced in Honduras after the 2009 coup and made into law in that neighbor country in June of last year.

This model contradicts the very national sovereignty that has ANEP so worried. These zones enjoy functional and administrative autonomy, have their own jurisdiction, are subject to a special tax regime and can contract obligations without requiring either the State’s guarantee or its endorsement.

In Honduras that project required a series of constitutional reforms—including one having to do with the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction—to allow the owners of the Model Cities to issue their own legislation in them, which would override national legislation in case of conflict between the two.

A year after that disastrous law was approved in Honduras, and with the issue put on the front burner of the country’s politics, no experiment of this type has yet been established either there or in any other country of the continent. The closest examples are in Singapore and Hong Kong, where the rules of the game are significantly different than those approved in Honduras.

So… model cities or
just a provocation?

Constructing El Salvador’s economic policy based on the Model Cities approach doesn’t seem good business for either the State or the people. ANEP’s proposal rather seems like a provocation to finally spark a confrontational reaction that would allow them to appear in the media as victims of the FMLN government. Or was it just a feeler to see if they could subject the government to simple blackmail?

None of the above happened. Ever-diplomatic President Sánchez Cerén thanked ANEP for the proposal and said
he would study it.

Vice President Óscar Ortiz, who’s also the special commissioner to attract investments, went a bit further. He said care needed to be taken with the Model Cities proposal and reaffirmed that he believed El Salvador has local resources
to sustain its growth, gently distancing himself from a proposal in which a “more developed” country would take charge of a little piece of national territory to make it productive and competitive.

It was FSLN General Secretary Medardo González who finally spoke more clearly: “We, as FMLN, believe that it wouldn’t be positive, because it would mean creating something like small states within the national State.” And while he left the door open to analyze the proposal, he said it looked “pro-business and anti-labor” to him.

Sánchez Cerén came out of ENADE unscathed and was widely congratulated for both his austerity policy and his conciliatory attitude toward private enterprise. He sidestepped commitments beyond general statements and avoided being tied to any of large business’ proposals. He again showed his capacity to walk on the other side without losing his balance or giving in to anti-people pressures.

Relations with the United States

In his first address the President said that “relations with the United States, where two million compatriots live, are also fundamentally important, and for that reason we are going to deepen them in the economic and social camp. Partnership for Growth represents an effective plan that provides El Salvador more possibilities of making its economy grow, reduce its vulnerabilities, reduce the insecurity and generate greater inclusion. We are also working to formalize the approval of Fomilenio II.” With those words Sánchez Cerén defined a continuation of the existing foreign policy toward the United States. In them one reads how difficult it will be for this country to shake off its bonds with the North one day, given its deep-rooted dependence, the millions of Salvadorans “planting their maize in a foreign jungle” and the transculturation process El Salvador has gone through with the majority of its youth growing up with US music, movies and even food.

Partnership for Growth: This pact between El Salvador and the United States was signed in November 2011 to “accelerate and sustain broad-based economic growth.” It emphasized the “participation of US businesses and banks in financing and/or managing the national public works and public services.” Its lead entity in El Salvador, the National Council for Growth, is made up of five members of the oligarchy: Francisco Callejas, Roberto Murray Meza, Ricardo Poma, Juan Carlos Eserski and Francisco de Sola.

In the May 1 International Workers’ Day March last year, then-candidate Sánchez Cerén said that “with respect to the Partnership, we want to say that the FMLN bench is not backing the project presented to the Legislative Assembly. We’re not backing it.”

He explained that it contains mechanisms for privatizing health, education and the prisons, which would damage the population and the country’s development. A year later, the Partnership would appear to be a bond that can’t be broken in the short run.

FOMILENIO: In 2006, the United Nations Development Program sent out a call for Millennium Funds (FOMILENIO) as an incentive to help middle-income countries meet the Millennium Development Goals. El Salvador’s Antonio Saca government competed with a project to construct the North Longitudinal Highway, which runs east-west along El Salvador’s northern strip. The project was approved as FOMILENIO I and, like FOMILENIO II, was picked up by the US Millennium Challenge Account. It was promoted with the propaganda that it would make it easier for the peasantry to commercialize their grains and improve their families.

The social movement of the northern zone, bordering on Honduras, was the first to reject it, seeing it as a complementary project for mining, as this region has deposits of both gold and silver. Rather than facilitate the movement of peasants’ products for commercialization, which usually goes by secondary roads, they were convinced it was to support the Canadian and US companies so they could get their mining production out in huge trucks. Nonetheless, the proposed project was executed during Mauricio Funes’ administration.

Next came approval of FOMELINIO II, a project valued at US$318 million to expand the coast highway that crosses the country’s southern coastal strip and has been an important lever for US meddling in national decisions. It gave the US Embassy a strong-arm role in the Supreme Court disputes in 2012-2013. “We have been clear that the resolutions of the Constitutional Bench must be respected for the good of the country’s institutionality,” said Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte, coming down on the side of the “Fantastic Four” magistrates, who the grassroots organizations say are backed by certain national and international power groups.

The threat of not approving FOMILENIO II funds also served to pressure the Legislative Assembly to approve the Law
of Public-Private Partners last year, arguing that this legislation would be crucial to guaranteeing a propitious climate for foreign investment. Ambassador Aponte abusively declared to El Diario de Hoy that only once those conditions were in place could there be talk about signing an agreement for FOMILENIO II.

Will Monsanto win?

The capper of this meddling has been to condition the financing of the coast highway project to compliance with the Central American Free Trade Agreement with respect to buying maize seed from foreign companies. “Over the course of three years,” explains Abel Lara, president of the Confederation of Salvadoran Agrarian Reform Federations, “our agricultural cooperatives have succeeded in developing the technique of producing high-quality certified maize and bean
seed with the technical and financial accompaniment of the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock. “We don’t need transgenic seeds that are harmful to human health.”

For these peasant farmers, an important achievement of the Funes government was to promote national seed production for the agricultural packages the Ministry of Agriculture distributes. “We’re out of patience with the US government, through its ambassador, using the Millennium Funds to threaten, says Miguel Alemán, Lara’s partner. “We’re not going to buy maize seed from Monsanto, period.”

But Aponte apparently convinced Sánchez Cerén that he had no other alternative than to fulfill the US government’s wishes, against those of the Salvadoran peasantry. Roberto Lorenzana, the presidency’s technical secretary, recently declared that the dilemma had been resolved, apparently in favor of the embassy. “The possibility is open for future purchases and we would be open to free competition by different companies, both international and national, in the bidding for the sale of seeds.” But he pointed out that it would be impossible to adopt the mechanisms required by the United States for this year because the last agricultural packets are alrady being sent out for delivery.

Many things could happen between now and the second seed tender. Lorenzana’s words suggest there’s no guarantee that Monsanto will win out over the Salvadoran cooperative members. Lorenzana has clarified that “we’re not going to guarantee that the US companies win the bidding; we’re going to protect our own producers.” But seeing is believing. In principle, the agreement doesn’t seem like it’ll have a happy ending for the peasant population.

Less dependent or
diversifying dependency?

Sánchez Cerén emphasized in his first address that “to open new markets we must look toward the whole continent, Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as Europe, Asia… the entire world.” The next day he “looked” toward Petrocaribe and signed on.

His words mean expanding cooperation with Brazil, which already grew a lot during the Funes government. It also implies increasing it with Argentina, Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela and the other countries of the BRICS bloc (the association of five major emerging national economies: Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).

A meeting between Salvadoran and Venezuelan business people “to strengthen economic ties in the region” was attended by 72 Venezuelans and 150 Salvadorans. They ranged from food and beverage processors to manufactures of household articles, cell phones, personal care products and construction materials.

The grassroots organizations see joining Petrocaribe as an important step in expanding more beneficial trade relations for the population and will be fully satisfied when the Salvadoran government also joins the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of America (ALBA). Of course, that step requires passage in the Legislative Assembly so will have wait for the legislative and municipal elections next year in hopes that the FMLN comes out of them with a more favorable correlation.

El Salvador’s close political, cultural and even until a few years ago military subordination to the United States reflects the extreme economic dependence that has tied us to that country. It is obvious that opening other doors will give El Salvador the possibility of leaving behind the days in which “the President of the United States is more my country’s President than the President of my country,” as poet Roque Dalton wrote. Joining the continental anti-imperialist bloc would not only open other doors to us, but would also put us in a group that would challenge what Dalton said in 1969 and still has some validity today.

The first month

One month into the FMLN’s second government there are still more intentions than acts, but the government has undeniably hit the ground running, with actions that are convincing the population and leaving the opposition with little comeback.

In two more months we’ll be at the first 100 days mark, and the obligatory evaluative screening all new governments go through. The reality is that the administration of Sánchez Cerén, “the Prof,” has earned the population’s respect and affection even sooner. The second FMLN government has gotten off to a good start.

Elaine Freedman is a grassroots communicator and envío correspondent in El Salvador

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