El Salvador 2009: A ‘Change’ Year?

January 9, 2009

A bright red tent glows with the penetrating light of San Salvador’s midday sun. Streamers with triangular red-and-black FMLN banners hang from the tent’s every corner, and blaring merengue sets a festive tone. Across the street 22 men and their entourages battle it out on a grassless soccer field.

The tent sits in a public park in Mejicanos, a San Salvador suburb. Inside, 22-year-old Claudia Castillo, a volunteer with the FMLN’s local outreach committee, carefully hands a hot plate of gallo en chicha to her neighbor, Doris, whose eyes light up with anticipation. Doris gives Claudia a light blue ticket and heads home. A dozen more customers anxiously wave tickets to get Claudia’s attention.

The event—akin to a fundraising barbecue in the United States—is a common sight during the Salvadoran campaign season, in which the left-leaning Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front is running charismatic talk show host Mauricio Funes against National Police Director Rodrigo Ávila of the ruling ARENA party.

“Mejicanos is one of the five most important municipalities for us,” Claudia says.

In the congressional and presidential elections that will take place in January and March, respectively, an FMLN victory will rely heavily on stronghold neighborhoods like Mejicanos, where most people live in densely packed cinder block apartment buildings. As the bullet-pocked walls attest, the area was home to brutal fighting during El Salvador’s civil war that scarred the country from 1980 to 1992, and few residents here have forgotten.

Because of the FMLN’s elaborate network of grassroots committees, the party can regularly count on 35% of the vote from its core supporters in national elections. But capturing the more than 50% necessary to win the presidency means employing a parallel strategy aimed at the young, post-war generation, as well as a more pragmatic section of the electorate.

In 2003, the FMLN won a plurality of seats in the Legislative Assembly but was unable to transfer popular support for legislative candidates into votes in the 2004 presidential election. This was largely due to an effective ARENA campaign strategy that painted a victory by the then FMLN candidate, Schafik Handal, as dangerous for the Salvadoran economy and for U.S.-Salvadoran relations.

Bush administration officials backed ARENA’s claims and fomented an atmosphere of uncertainty. Otto Reich, the then assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, hinted that Salvadoran immigrants would face deportation under a Handal presidency. U.S. Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.) was featured in a widely viewed campaign ad on Salvadoran TV saying, “Would [Handal] affect our congressional relations with El Salvador? That’s obvious.”

Such statements sent shock waves through a Salvadoran electorate dependent on remittances from U.S.-based relatives. On Election Day 2004, fear and uncertainty trumped political allegiances, and ARENA’s Antonio Saca triumphed.

In contrast, 2009 so far looks to be a “change” year. Funes has led every published poll held on the upcoming election, and San Salvador is abuzz with rumors of ship-jumping ARENA officials privately declaring their support for Funes. One ARENA mayor from the department of Ahuachapán told this reporter, “I go with the people.” A glint in the mayor’s eye seemed to hint that “the people” he knows support Funes. As he spoke, two sealed packages of ARENA election materials sat on a nearby table.

FMLN supporters argue that Barack Obama’s victory in the United States is evidence that “change” is in the air, but that alone may not be enough to win the 10% of the electorate concerned with bread-and-butter issues like economic development, crime, and relatives abroad.

Funes told NACLA: “The current debate isn’t between socialism and capitalism. It’s between democracy and authoritarianism, which is how the right wing has governed all these years. We need to convince people that the change we are proposing is synonymous with well-being and happiness.”

The presidential election will likely hinge on whether undecided Salvadorans agree with Funes’s assessment.

Jason Wallach is a member of the Upside Down World (upsidedownworld.org) editorial collective and was the national grassroots coordinator for the Mexico Solidarity Network from 1998 to 2004. He lives in Santa Cruz, California.


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