A New Day in El Salvador: The FMLN Victory and the Road Ahead

November 2, 2009

The March election of former journalist Mauricio Funes to the presidency of El Salvador marks a watershed moment for Central American democracy. If the new government enjoys some degree of success, it will ratify the decision of the Salvadoran left more than a decade ago to seek a negotiated solution to the civil war, and its more recent strategy of reaching out to the center left to form an electoral bloc. Failure, in turn, will greatly disappoint those who have long struggled for greater social justice in that troubled land of the Central American isthmus.

Funes’s party, the FMLN, traces its origins to the guerrilla movement that valiantly fought the Salvadoran military to a stalemate during the bloody war of the 1980s and early 1990s. The party’s rise to victory, as Paul D. Almeida describes it herein, was largely made possible by an alliance with social movements during the country’s postwar, neoliberal era of democratization. Yet this new center-left government is populated by the country’s leading intellectuals, not all of whom are affiliated with the FMLN or its constituencies. Maintaining productive relations with the movements identified with the FMLN is just one of the many daunting challenges facing the new government.

Indeed, Funes has assumed office at a particularly difficult time. As Rommel R. Rodríguez explains in his contribution to this Report, the worldwide recession is taking a major toll on Salvadoran manufacturing—already imperiled by low-cost competition from abroad—remittances are falling sharply, and ARENA, the right-wing party whose core constituency in the Salvadoran bourgeoisie refuses to pay reasonable taxes, has bequeathed Funes a yawning fiscal deficit.

Pervasive everyday violence continues unabated, an urgent problem that defies simple solutions. As Donna DeCesare notes in the text accompanying her photo essay on gang violence, Funes may yet introduce prevention and rehabilitation as elements of his anti-crime strategy. Such an approach has the potential to remake years of ARENA’s anti-gang policies, which focused exclusively on violent police crackdowns. Achieving peace may require nothing less than formal negotiations, not unlike those that ended the country’s civil war.

Immigration policy may also get a shot in the arm under Funes. As Leisy J. Abrego explains, the administration has an “opportunity to break with tradition” and rethink immigration from the point of view of transnational families, many of whose difficult lives raise the question of whether “the negative effects of family separation may ultimately outweigh the benefits of remittances.”

Given these multiple challenges facing the new administration, we must ask: What can a progressive government do to bolster manufacturing, make more productive use of those remittances that still arrive, negotiate increased state revenues, deal with endemic crime, and improve the lives of migrants? How can it address all of these challenges while sustaining its pledge to maintain and indeed increase spending on alleviating poverty?

These questions become more urgent in light of the recent military coup in neighboring Honduras—the subject of Benjamín Cuéllar’s contribution to this Report. Ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya is particularly hated by the private sector in his country for having, among other measures, raised the minimum wage. Yet the minimum wage needs to be increased dramatically in El Salvador just as it was in Honduras. What, if anything, can be done to enact such reforms in El Salvador without engendering a repeat of the Honduran nightmare?

While the Obama administration can strengthen the new government’s prospects for success—if it can move beyond the stale argument that CAFTA will fix the economy and security aid will take care of the rest. Now as in the past, solidarity movements in North America have a role to play in articulating and advocating a progressive agenda in support of democracy and social justice in El Salvador and throughout Central America, and in demanding that their governments take on that agenda.


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