El Salvador’s Revolution by Majority

The first Latin American election since Obama took office could see rebels go from freedom fighters to freely elected winners.

Jose CABEZAS/AFP/Getty Images
Jose CABEZAS/AFP/Getty Images

Martin Vigil spent a decade living in the mountains as a guerrilla fighter in El Salvador’s civil war and still considers himself something of a revolutionary. But today he fights his battles on the campaign trail as a supporter of the Farabundo Mart National Liberation Front (FMLN), a coalition of resistance movements formed in 1980 that has now fully converted to a political party. At 68, Vigil is undoubtedly a few steps slower than he was during the war, but when he begins to speak about the upcoming elections, his animated movements and enthusiasm belie his years. After two decades in the opposition, the FMLN has its first real chance at victory in El Salvador’s presidential election on March 15.

Observers might be tempted to write off El Salvador as yet another Latin American country to fall for left-wing populists preaching revolution. But the FMLN claims to be something different, a revolutionary movement more in the mold of Barack Obama than Che Guevara. As the first Latin American election since Obama took office approaches, El Salvador’s polls might offer a clue to the political challenges and opportunities he will find in the region.

At last count, FMLN presidential candidate and former television journalist Mauricio Funes held a significant lead in the polls over ruling-party candidate Rodrigo vila. For Salvadorans such as Vigil — and indeed all those who fought in the bloody civil war that ended in 1992 and killed 75,000 people — political victory would represent a vindication of a long struggle. I think for many FMLN combatants, a victory at the polls will be seen as a successful culmination of the revolution, said Robert White, a former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador.

Named for the 1930s-era Salvadoran revolutionary and communist Farabundo Mart, the FMLN long boasted party platforms and candidates that reflected its Marxist origins. The FMLN got its political start advocating for agrarian reform and increase state ownership, for example, and their 2004 presidential candidate Schafik Handal was a long-time leader of El Salvador’s Communist Party. Today, the party still criticizes neoliberal policies of the 1990s, placing significant emphasis on poverty reduction. But although the FMLN opposed the Central American Free Trade Agreement and the dollarization of the Salvadoran economy at the time, Funes has repeatedly stated that he has no intentions of repealing either measure now. He has taken pains to assure El Salvador’s business class that his administration would do nothing that might jeopardize foreign investment.

With the elections right around the corner, political propaganda blankets the country. For miles along the highways, virtually every flat surface is painted with the colors of one of the two competing parties. Campaign billboards promise to create jobs and reduce El Salvador’s high crime rate — the two top campaign issues this year. The ruling Nationalist Republican Alliance party (Arena) has come under criticism for overseeing a stagnant economy and skyrocketing murder rate. If nothing else, FLMN offers a change from the 20 years of Arena rule.

Despite domestic challenges, however, much of the campaign rhetoric in El Salvador has focused on the political situation outside the country’s borders. Both parties are acutely aware that the election results — no matter the outcome — will come in the context of a political shift to the left across Latin America. Arena warns that a government under the FMLN would be similar to those of Venezuela’s Hugo Chvez and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega. Indeed, one Arena television advertisement features Nicaraguans talking about how they have suffered since the return to power of Ortega and the Sandinistas, another former rebel group that made the transition to civilian politics.

Where an FMLN-led El Salvador would fall on the spectrum of leftist Latin American governments depends on whom you ask. Clearly from their advertisements, Arena believes that, despite the moderate rhetoric, the FMLN is still run by hard-line revolutionaries and will institute a series of radical socialist policies. Meanwhile, the FMLN, and Funes in particular, are trying to convince voters that it will be a government of moderation, more closely aligned with Brazil’s business-friendly Luiz Incio Lula da Silva than the bombastic, enterprise-nationalizing Chvez.

Much of the concern has to do with relations with the United States. The United States accounts for half of the country’s export market, and remittances from Salvadorans living in the United States make up as much as 18 percent of GDP. In 2004, Roger Noriega, then assistant secretary of state for the U.S. Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, told the Salvadoran press that an FMLN victory could jeopardize the relationship. This concern has stymied the FMLN’s political ambitions for years.

But that was before Obama. Under the new U.S. administration, analysts such as White think the tables have turned. The Arena party has identified very closely with the Republican administration … so Obama’s victory is certainly a boost for the FMLN.

Perhaps aware of this, El Salvador’s leftists have fallen hard for Obama-mania. One FMLN television advertisement shows victorious images of Obama, while a voice-over compares the campaign tactics of Arena to those of Obama’s Republican opponents in the United States who, says the announcer, failed in their attempts to portray him as a socialist or a terrorist. The opportunity for the Obama administration is also real: By engaging an ex-guerrilla group that is decidedly pro-United States, the Obama administration could take a first step toward dialogue with other leftist governments — eventually even Cuba or Venezuela.

If FMLN does succeed on March 15, it will depend in part on Funes’s ability to distance himself from the revolutionary past of his party. Funes is a political outsider who only officially became a party member last year — a gamble that risked losing the party’s revolutionary base. But by choosing the pro-business Funes as its presidential candidate, the FMLN hopes to firm up its image among moderate voters, ones who might be put off by the FMLN’s militant origins.

Martin Vigil and his longtime comrades see this election as FMLN’s historic moment. And regardless of the outcome, the party’s role in elections sets a new precedent for achieving revolution in the region. We fought in order to create a new society, one with jobs, more education, and better healthcare, Vigil says. After 12 years of armed conflict, and nearly 18 years of civil struggle, now it’s our time.

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