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The Latin American Revolution (Part 2): El Salvador the Latest Latin American Country to Turn Left

Asad Ismi

Joining the revolutionary wave sweeping Latin America, the people of El Salvador in March elected the first progressive government in the country’s 168-year history, by voting in the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), a former left-wing guerrilla army. Mauricio Funes, the FMLN President-elect, told cheering supporters: “The time has come for the excluded. The opportunity has arrived for genuine democrats, for men and women who believe in social justice and solidarity.”

Funes formally took office on June 1.

The revolutionary FMLN reorganized itself as a political party after 1992 when it signed peace accords ending a 13-year civil war that pitted it against a U.S.-backed right-wing military dictatorship. The dictatorship’s death squads and military were responsible for the killing of 79,000 Salvadorans, according to a United Nations Truth Commission.

The end of the civil war was followed by two decades of rule by the fascist Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party founded by death squad leader Major Roberto d’Aubuisson, who was responsible for many murders, including that of Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero, according to a UN investigation. ARENA “won” elections through extensive fraud.

El Salvador, with a population of six million, is the smallest country in Central America. No other nation in Latin America has been more subject to U.S. domination, with Washington funding a series of brutal military dictatorships that first took power in 1932 with the massacre of 30,000 peasants. This U.S. policy has been motivated by its refusal to tolerate any major redistribution of economic resources in Latin America. Faced with strong movements for social change fed by hunger, poverty and inequality, the U.S has relied on military repression to maintain a stable investment climate for multinational corporations.

Salvadoran death squad leaders, including D’Aubuisson, along with thousands of other military officers, were trained at the notorious U.S. Army School of the Americas in counter-insurgency techniques, including murder, torture, extortion, blackmail and kidnapping, according to seven manuals from the school declassified by the Pentagon in 1996. The FMLN arose in 1979 and fought the military dictatorship to a standstill, in spite of the fact that, by 1987, U.S. annual aid to the Salvadoran government had risen to $558 million.

The FMLN’s electoral victory was met by national jubilation.

“People were so joyful and happy,” said Mercedes Umana, who was a member of the board of FMLN for San Salvador (El Salvador’s capital) and worked with the party there for five years. She now lives in Toronto and has been working with the FMLN here as well. She went back to El Salvador in March to monitor and participate in the elections.

“The people took over the streets with red flags celebrating. I cried and lost my voice from cheering. We have been repressed and brutalized since 1932, but now we have defeated fear and the campaign of terror that came from the right-wing government, as well as the extensive fraud it perpetrated. In El Salvador, dead people vote and people are also offered bribes for their votes, but even then this government lost.”

Susy Alvarez is a progressive Salvadoran activist who came to Canada as a refugee fleeing from official repression and the civil war. Her uncle was killed by a death squad and her family left their country to avoid a similar fate after the army searched their home looking for links to the FMLN.

“I was very happy and excited by the FMLN victory,” said Alvarez, “but at the same time I was shocked because a lot of Salvadorans thought that this was something we would never see happen since the country had gone through so much repression and oppression. The hold of reactionary politics on El Salvador has been so tight that we could not conceive of a day when a revolutionary government would be in power. So for us to actually see this becoming a reality was amazing. It left us speechless.”

A major reason for the FMLN’s victory was worsening economic conditions brought about by ARENA’s policies. Under ARENA’s rule, U.S.-funded death squads were followed by 20 years of U.S.-enforced neoliberalism that destroyed the economy, creating massive poverty, unemployment, official corruption, and criminality. These conditions forced more than two million Salvadorans (one-third of the population) to immigrate mainly to North America.

Between 60% and 70% of Salvadorans live in poverty, and widespread unemployment has forced 43% of the population to seek a living in the informal sector. The conversion of the national currency to the U.S. dollar in 2001 dramatically increased inflation and the cost of living.

Under World Bank-IMF structural adjustment programs, ARENA governments privatized telecommunications, banks, electricity, pension funds, and education. Tariffs on imports and taxation on large incomes were reduced, as were subsidies for basic foods. These policies have shredded the economic and social fabric and made El Salvador the second most violent country in the world (after Iraq), as death squads continue killing and youth gangs proliferate. Organized crime has reached “epidemic proportions.”

Personal remittances from the U.S., foreign-owned sweatshops in El Salvador, and drug-trafficking have become the country’s main sources of income. The agricultural sector, which used to be the country’s major income earner, has been flooded with cheap U.S. imports. Many farmers cannot compete and have been forced to sell their land and send their children to the U.S. to look for employment. Remittances from Salvadorans working in the U.S. are about $4 billion a year (17% of GDP).

“We want peace, yes, but not the peace of exploitation,” Umana explained. “People have become sick of deteriorating economic conditions. For most Salvadorans in the country, daily survival has become excruciating. You have a small élite with so much money that keeps getting richer while the middle class has been wiped out, professionals cannot make ends meet, and young people have been forced to leave the country. What sense does it make to change your national currency to the U.S. dollar? [which ARENA did in at the insistence of the U.S.-dominated World Bank and International Monetary Fund]. This only increased inflation and hardship for people, most of whom get paid little. The basic salary is only $120 a month, and most people don’t even get that. Add to that the massive corruption and fraud that ARENA is notorious for.

“Most of our GDP now comes from remittances sent from Salvadorans working in the U.S. This is the clearest sign of the eradication of our national economy. The country is on life-support, living like a vegetable. The economy is so bad that a few years ago we ran out of beans, our staple food,and so these beans had to be imported. We have such a greedy élite that it does not even give a few scraps of food to its people. We warned against the abandonment of our agricultural sector in the early ‘90s by ARENA governments — a policy that was recommended by the World Bank and the IMF, which also wanted to open up our labour force to extreme exploitation in foreign-owned garment sweatshops.

“At that time, I protested the statement of the ARENA President, Armando Calderon Sol, who unashamedly said that ‘We want El Salvador to become a big sweatshop. We will open our doors to international capital investment for sweatshops.’ We couldn’t believe that he was saying this and thought that his policy was disastrous. But El Salvador did become a big sweatshop under ARENA.”

Another important reason for the FMLN victory was the Latin American Revolution, which provides an answer to El Salvador’s economic problems. Eleven left-wing governments had been elected in South and Central America before the Salvadoran poll, creating a conducive regional environment for the FMLN’s triumph.

“Yes, the Latin American Revolution has supported the victory in El Salvador,” Umana said. “We are tearing down the walls between us and other Latin American peoples, walls created by centuries of imperialism. The Revolution has changed so much. Our points of reference now are Chavez in Venezuela, Morales in Bolivia, Correa in Ecuador, Lula in Brazil, and Castro in Cuba. FMLN leaders have visited Venezuela and Brazil and consider them examples to follow. People have realized that we are being economically strangled by our U.S.-dominated élite, and that we no longer have to tolerate that oppression. Salvadorans can see that now there is an alternative system to U.S. neoliberalism that we can join, with so many left-wing governments being elected in Latin America.”

In cooperation with the Venezuelan government, FMLN-run municipalities in El Salvador have created the Inter-municipal Energy Association for El Salvador (ENEPASA), which imports subsidized diesel and gasoline from Venezuela and sells it to the public. Due to the low price charged by ENEPASA, participating gas stations are unable to keep up with demand.

“Under ARENA, the price of gasoline had been escalating,” said Umana. “Now people saw that the FMLN could provide cheap gasoline to them while ARENA could not. So they knew that economic misery was not something they had to accept. Similarly, Cuban doctors have come to FMLN communities to help implement anti-malaria and anti-dengue fever campaigns, which had a significant positive impact on people before the ARENA government stopped them. For me, it’s always been very powerful to look at the accomplishments of the Cuban Revolution, despite the U.S.-imposed blockade on the country. The Salvadorans can see that.”

Said Alvarez: “I think that the victory of the FMLN is due to the Latin American Revolution. By looking at the examples of Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba, and Brazil, Salvadorans can see that the progressive left in power in these countries has successfully addressed the problems of inequality, injustice, and oppression that have plagued our country for more than a century. From these examples, Salvadorans also know that they don’t have to accept the dictates of Washington. Having successful revolutionary processes happening in other parts of Latin America makes Salvadorans feel that they can push for a revolutionary government also. Look at Cuba, which now has zero illiteracy while El Savador has a lot. My grandmother was illiterate. She didn’t learn how to read and write until she was in her 60s.”

Mauricio Funes, the first FMLN President of El Salvador, is a brave progressive television journalist who actually interviewed FMLN commanders on his show during the civil war.

“Sectors of Salvadoran society that never had access to the media before were given that by Funes,” Umana explained “After the war, he would bring government representatives on his show to debate those of the FMLN, which the government did not like. He would discuss issues of corruption and drug trafficking and who is involved in that dirty business, which otherwise was not talked about.

“My feeling is that there is a lot of laundering of [drug] money going on in El Salvador. After all, where is the élite getting so much money from? Something doesn’t add up. Funes brought an expert on this topic to talk about it. Because of this sort of critical reporting, the ARENA government got Funes fired from his TV job, but he was able to continue his reporting on another channel. This is how Funes became well known for a journalism that was committed to the poor and to social justice.”

Funes has portrayed himself as a “moderate” left-winger who wants good relations with the U.S., but the failure of Washington’s neoliberalism in El Salvador (and in the U.S. itself) compels the FMLN to seek closer ties with countries such as Venezuela and Cuba, which are at the forefront of the Latin American Revolution. The Revolution, not the U.S., now provides the economic model for the region.

“The economic answer for us is integration with the rest of Latin America,” said Umana. “This is the key to creating a productive economy. The FMLN wants to open relations with Cuba, Brazil, and Venezuela. They are now our partners, as are the other progressive governments in Latin America.

“We already have an alliance with these three governments, and this has been beneficial to us. Because U.S. imperialism has destroyed our economy, we now need to look to the South to forge alliances, revive our economy, and pool our resources. Latin American countries can only be independent if they are united; alone they can be easily dominated by the U.S. I hope that El Salvador becomes part of the initiative to further the interests of the poor people and the working class of the region and not that of the élite. It is a priority of the FMLN to build a people’s economy with the South rather than an élite economy with the North. To begin with, we want to reinvigorate our agriculture by supporting the spread of cooperatives and providing credit to small farmers.”

Aside from agriculture, the FMLN’s other priorities are expanding health care and education for the people and enhancing women’s rights. A massive project that combines these three objectives is called “Ciudad Mujer” [Women’s City], which involves setting up clinics, resource centres, and community support infrastructure for women in every city.

“This is revolutionary and beautiful,” said Umana. “Women’s City will provide free and extensive health coverage emphasizing reproductive health care for women. Due to their reproductive role, women have specific vulnerabilities that are heightened by poverty and lack of access to medical facilities. It is ridiculous that, in El Salvador, many women die at a young age from preventable illnesses such as cervical cancer because they have no access to prenatal care. The first thing Funes did after winning the election was seek investment from Brazil to build a hospital. He said that it’s unacceptable that people are dying [because of lack of adequate health care].”

Because of privatization, public education in El Salvador is so expensive that the average child only reaches the fifth grade. Said Umana: “In terms of education, I hope that we can learn from Cuba about how to eliminate illiteracy [about 20% of Salvadorans are illiterate]. That was the first thing Fidel did in the Cuban Revolution. Funes has talked about increasing the number of schools so that they are everywhere, as well as raising the salaries of teachers who have been neglected by ARENA. Funes has also pledged to provide uniforms for all students. It is such a struggle for many parents to give uniforms to their children year after year. As well, the FMLN will provide a financial supplement to poor families.”

The FMLN is also committed to increasing participatory democracy, which is a prominent feature of the Latin American Revolution, especially in Venezuela where community-based “Bolivarian Circles” play a significant role.

“We want to continue to engage people in every neighbourhood,” explained Umana, “so they can contribute ideas and responses to the process of social change. The solutions have to come from the people, because they know what the problems are and also know what has and has not worked.

“Listening to the people and working closely with them is part of the heritage of the FMLN from when it was fighting the dictatorship. The U.S. could not defeat the FMLN in spite of giving one million dollars a day to the military. This was because of the FMLN’s organizing among the people, which has been brought into the post-war era. We are organized by neighbourhood and in each we have base committees. So the people are ready to defend the gains of the revolution.”

For the last 80 years, the massive U.S. empire has been trying in many ways to subjugate small El Salvador. Washington has used the Pentagon, the CIA, the Salvadoran military, death squads, right-wing parties, rigged elections, military and economic aid, the World Bank, the IMF and neoliberalism to massacre, torture, and starve Salvadorans. Yet, despite its vicious strategies and enormous resources, the U.S. has failed to subdue a poor population. The Salvadoran people’s resistance has triumphed against overwhelming odds because they are no mere victims, but the agents of their own destiny. And they realize that their destiny cannot be shaped by them alone, but lies in increasing unity with a progressive Latin America.


Published in the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives Monitor, June 2009

Asad Ismi is the CCPA Monitor’s international affairs correspondent. He is author of the radio documentary The Latin American Revolution ahich has been aired on 40 radio stations in the U.S., Canada and Europe reaching about 33 million people. He is also author of the anthology with the same title which can be ordered from the CCPA. This article is the second in a series on the Latin American Revolution.