Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

El Salvador: rise of the left

1 Comment
Mauricio Funes with Lula da SilvaDuring the 1980s, the small Central American country of El Salvador often made the news as a civil war raged between a brutal US-backed regime and a leftist insurgency headed by the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). Ñ

When Catholic Archbishop Óscar Romero was assassinated in 1980, followed by the murder of three North American nuns and one lay missionary, international attention on the government's poor human rights record began to take place.

The following year, when up to 1000 civilians were slaughtered in the village of Mozote by the army's Atlacatl Battalion, further questions were raised about how the Salvadorian government was fighting the insurgency.

Between 1981 and 1987, Ronald Reagan's administration provided the country with $US 2.7 billion in military and economic aid making El Salvador at the time the key recipient of US aid in Latin America.

During the past week, El Salvador has once again received international media attention as the FMLN's Mauricio Funes won the presidential elections. Defeating his rival Rodrigo Ávila of the ruling Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) by 51.2 to 48.7 per cent of the vote, the FMLN's victory marks a historic occasion.

Since its independence from Spain in 1821, El Salvador has been ruled by right-wing governments — generally all military dictatorships until the early 1990s.

The ARENA party, 'whose leaders were linked to death squads in the 1980s' according to a recent editorial in the Washington Post, has been in power since 1989, and defeated the FMLN in three presidential elections after it became a legal party in 1993.

However, with Funes running as the FMLN's candidate, the 2009 elections saw the party's fortunes turn. A former TV host of the show The Interview with Mauricio Funes, and ex-correspondent for CNN news channel, the 49-year old Funes is 'arguably El Salvador's most respected journalist', according to one observer.

In September 2007, Funes was nominated as the FMLN's preferred presidential candidate and soon joined the party. Funes promised to maintain good relations with the United States, and to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba. He also promised to put a stop to government complacency with big businesses that evade taxes.

Originally a coalition of five left-wing political parties that unified in 1995, the FMLN has so far avoided the type of controversies and divisions surrounding the Sandinistas in neighbouring Nicaragua; in particular, the shameful deals the incumbent President Daniel Ortega made with the political right during the mid-1990s.

On a personal level, Funes has preferred to ideologically ally himself with Brazil's current centre-left President Luiz Inácio 'Lula' da Silva (pictured, right, with Funes) in contrast to Venezuela's Hugo Chávez. While Funes' own wife Vanda Pignato, who is Brazilian, was a founding member of Silva's Workers' Party, it is no secret the FMLN has strong ties to Caracas.

In 2006, FMLN mayors across the country set up ENEPASA, a joint venture energy company designed to provide Salvadorians with cheap fuel. While cities have 90 days to repay 60 per cent of their fuel bills, as noted by Nikolas Kozloff — an observer of Latin America — the remaining debt may be 'paid in barter for agricultural and other locally made products or in cash over a 25-year period'.

The ENEPASA agreement between El Salvador and Venezuela stands in sharp contrast to the neoliberal trade deals Washington and former Salvadorian governments have pursued, including scarping of the national currency in exchange for the US dollar in 2004.

In fact, since the end of the civil war in 1992, the ARENA party has had few accomplishments. Although a 1993 Truth Commission by the United Nations found that 95 per cent of the killings investigated were committed by government-supported death squads, the country's judicial system has been slow to put anyone on trial. During the civil war, a total of 75 thousand people were killed.

On the economic front, in recent years the country has witnessed mass migrations abroad with some $US 4 billion in remittences sent home by Salvadorians living in the US — roughly 17 per cent of the country's GDP.

With cheap US goods flooding local agricultural markets, countless farmers have sold off their lands and become unemployed. According to Raúl Gutiérrez, writing for the Inter Press Service, the last official statistics published in 2006 put unemployment at 6.6 per cent with over 40 per cent of the population classified as poor.

Add to these problems El Salvador's situation with street gangs — more than 14,000 people were killed during the last four years of Antonio Saca's government — and Funes will certainly face huge challenges as president.

A few days before the election, a political storm broke out in El Salvador. Forty six Republican congressmen lobbied US President Barack Obama to enforce restrictions on financial remittances being forwarded home by Salvadoran nationals living in the United States should the FMLN triumph.

To its credit, the Obama administration so far has taken no such actions and in fact congratulated the FMLN on its victory. Time will tell if such good will from Washington will continue.

Rodrigo AcunaRodrigo Acuña is a PhD candidate in International Studies at Macquarie University, Sydney. He writes regularly on Latin American affairs in the Australian press and has been interviewed on ABC Radio, SBS Radio (Spanish) and Radio Adelaide among others. 

Topic tags: El Salvador, presidential election, Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, Mauricio Funes



submit a comment

Existing comments

It is unfortunate that so much of the information regarding Latin American social movements is heavily biased and completely misinformed. Presidents such as Hugo Chavez (Venezuela) and Evo Morales (Bolivia) are working towards actual and real democracy for people who have experienced oppression from their own previous governments. It is good to read an article that is more balanced.

Natalie | 25 March 2009  

Similar Articles

Outsourcing care

  • Michael Mullins
  • 23 March 2009

The Victorian bushfires forced people to think about the costs and values associated with living in the bush. The financial meltdown will in turn make us consider our care for the needy, and how, and indeed whether, we must pay for it.


Eyewitness to Pakistan turmoil

  • Reuben Brand
  • 23 March 2009

The streets of Rawalpindi were now relatively empty, an eerie feeling in a usually bustling city. After slipping past police checkpoints I noticed the city was not completely still. Groups of men roamed the streets, patiently waiting for the call to action.