Power of persuasion

To an Australian, elections in El Salvador have both familiar and strange aspects. The main difference is that the results are entirely predictable. In March, the Presidential election was won by Antonio Saca. Once a sports broadcaster, Saca is a right-wing businessman from the ruling National Republican Alliance (ARENA) party. He is also a strong supporter of the US. His opponent was Shafik Handal, of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) party; the resistance during the civil war. This was the third consecutive Presidential election won by ARENA.

The poll—with ARENA winning 57 per cent of the vote, compared to the FMLN’s 37 per cent—showed how difficult it will be to change government in El Salvador. Economic power in the country is heavily concentrated in ten or so leading families. There is large scale unemployment, and the economy, heavily reliant on now low-priced coffee, is maintained by remittances from relatives in the United States. There is widespread poverty and few health or educational services.

There is also much violence. Shortly after the election, Ismael and Nelson, two young men from rural Arcatao were shot on a bus when returning home from university. Ismael died and Nelson was hospitalised. The two men were on scholarships that bonded them later to work in rural development programmes.

In such climates, fear becomes a powerful force. ARENA claimed the opposition would turn the country into another Cuba, and that foreign investment would dry up. As ARENA’s supporters own most of the media, such unlikely charges can be made to seem plausible. All the more so when  opposition party rallies display red banners and the trappings of a revolutionary past. The irony is that the opposition had already lost touch with the poor they represent.

So, with the nation’s bishops withdrawing from interest in social morality, the committed voters for each party remained faithful, and the undecided voted against change on the grounds that it might make the violence and poverty even worse.

In the meantime, the great social challenges facing a small Central American nation in the shadow of the US remain.

For those working for a more decent and fair society, the immediate challenge is to maintain hope in the political process. Jon Sobrino, the theologian whose six Jesuit brothers and friends were massacred by the army in 1989, offered this take on the elections:

‘Hope is not the same as desire. It is very understandable that the poor should desire. They see life in the FMLN, but this is not life but desire. Hope is not the desire to win power, and it’s not the same as optimism.

‘What is hope? It is the conviction that goodness is possible, and that goodness is there to be found. Whoever has hope will participate in the next elections. Whoever has hope will love again.’

This theological interest in election results may also distinguish elections in El Salvador from those in Australia.




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