International observers have denounced recent activities of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) as designed to overthrow democratically elected presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia and Hugo Chavez of Venezuela. A similar strategy is underway to undermine the electoral process in El Salvador by striking fear and confusion into voters before legislative and presidential elections in 2009.
Since November 2007, El Salvador's leftist party, the FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front), has been consistently polling at a 12-14 point advantage for upcoming legislative, municipal, and presidential elections—ahead of the right-wing ARENA (National Republican Alliance) party's presidential candidate and former national civilian police director, Rodrigo Avila, who has peaked at around 38 percent by conservative estimates. Because an FMLN victory could deal a profound loss to Washington and Wall Street by countering attempts to increase the corporate privatization of land and public services, business media and government officials have stepped up attempts to defeat them in the press and behind the scenes.
In a recent address to the American Enterprise Institute, Salvadoran Foreign Minister Marisol Argueta implored the U.S. government to intervene in the elections on ARENA's behalf. In addition, international press reports have propagated ridiculous claims of a mounting "terrorist conspiracy" between the FMLN, the FARC in Colombia, and Hugo Chavez. Wall Street Journal editor Mary Anastasía O'Grady has complained that if the FMLN wins, foreign investors will suffer. Indeed, several countries that participated in the 18th IBERO-American Summit in October agreed that corporate privatization has failed the majority of people in Latin America. Presidents in Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Paraguay, and Guatemala are proposing increased regulation and oversight of corporate expansion. An FMLN victory in El Salvador promises further movement in this direction.
FMLN candidate Mauricio Funes has said that an FMLN administration would work to oppose biofuel production and the current profit structure for mining projects in favor of spurring agricultural development. "We have to improve agricultural production. Over the past 19 years of ARENA government, the infrastructure for food production has been neglected and dismantled. It is essential and a priority to allot land use for food production and the harvesting of vegetables and staple grains. This is what the people need. We cannot allow ourselves the luxury of allotting areas of land for biofuel production because we are not going to work to feed machines; we have to work to feed human beings."
In its attempt to confuse and ultimately sabotage the FMLN's campaign, right-wing Venezuelan-based pro-U.S. media organization Fuerza Solidaria has released a set of television ads and door-to-door leaflets that assail potential voters with the usual dose of misinformation and scare tactics that accompany every electoral campaign in El Salvador. Designed to suppress votes for the FMLN, one of the ads portrays Funes and the FMLN party as an out-of-touch, antiquated relic rather than a political manifestation of the Salvadoran peoples' historic, and ongoing, broad-based resistance to foreign exploitation. Simplistic "flow chart" arrows on the ad imply that an FMLN-led government would sacrifice remittance money from the U.S. to be a puppet for Chavez's "anti-American expansion project." The intended message is clear and has been the preferred threat of the immigrant-bashing Bush administration to Salvadorans on both sides of the border: those who support the FMLN are against the U.S. If the FMLN wins the election, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) will begin massively deporting Salvadorans and the U.S. will cut off remittances.
USAID, NED, and Fuerza Solidaria—with the help of corporate-owned media and the U.S. government—have been a major motor behind anti-democratic political strategies in Venezuela and Bolivia since 2001. In April 2002, the United States utilized the NED to channel funds to private organizations that were running covert propaganda campaigns in support of a failed coup in Venezuela, which detained President Chavez and recognized the short-lived, pro-U.S. government. According to the New York Times, the NED "funneled more than $877,000 into Venezuelan opposition groups in the weeks and months before the unsuccessful coup attempt."
In the wake of the failed coup, the NED channeled another $53,400 to help create a U.S. backed organization called Sumate, a group designed to unite, strengthen, and mobilize opposition to the popularly elected Chavez government, and which supported Sumate's efforts to disseminate disinformation. In 2004 the group published fake exit polls that claimed Chavez lost the referendum recall vote. While their strategies have mostly failed, the actions of Sumate and NED have effectively cast doubt on the legitimacy and democratic goals of the Chavez government, weakening its image internationally.
In Bolivia, investigative journalists Jeremy Bigwood and Benjamin Dangl's inquiries through the Freedom of Information Act and one-on-one interviews showed that the former U.S. embassy there—through USAID and NED—had maintained close relationships with right-wing opposition groups to "promote democracy" by undermining President Morales as well. Through these connections and a USAID Political Party Reform Project, the U.S. has supported forces that could "serve as a counterweight" to Morales's MAS (Movement Toward Socialism) party. In response, Morales recently kicked the U.S. ambassador out of Bolivia. USAID and Fuerza Solidaria were also exposed for their attempts to influence Bolivia's referendum in August 2008.
In November 2007, another NED recipient, the International Republican Institute (IRI), presented Salvadoran President Tony Saca of the ARENA party with the "Freedom Award" for promoting U.S. values in El Salvador such as "linking economic growth with democratic governance and vigorously defending freedom at home and abroad." Never mind the re-emergence of death squads, unsuccessful attempts to convict protestors and vendors as "terrorists," and an unprecedented post-war increase in Salvadoran migration to, and deportations from, the U.S. during his term. This exercise in elite back-patting not only unveils the biases of the IRI, which is chaired by Republican Senator John McCain, but also underscores the U.S. government's explicit endorsement of the right-wing ARENA party, another act of intervention and electoral manipulation.
In January 2008 U.S.-based CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador) received a familiar warning from the Department of Justice accusing the group of "acting as a foreign agent" of the FMLN party, presumably as backlash for its political connections with the leftist social movement in El Salvador. An identical letter 14 years ago signaled the beginning of a massive three-year FBI infiltration project aimed at destroying the organization. When asked to name CISPES's "conspiratorial allies" past and present, Executive Director Burke Stansbury responded: "People and popular movements organized to challenge U.S. sponsored political, economic, and electoral violence are the ones that get our attention and our commitments. Our government has designed and rewarded the brutal repression of countless uprisings in El Salvador, and is still very active in this way." Is the FMLN a CISPES ally? "Absolutely. We have always maintained political solidarity with the FMLN and will continue to do so. What is more, we are committed in every way to challenging U.S. attempts to deny El Salvador its basic rights as a sovereign country. Elections are only the tip of the iceberg."
In June the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, Charles Glazer, told a CISPES delegation that the U.S. government's days of interfering in El Salvador's elections are over. He said that although they did intervene in the 2004 presidential election, they would not do so again in 2009. His aide then explained that the delegation "wouldn't have to worry about fraud this time because the NDI and IRI will be training [Salvadorans] how to conduct a quick count." One has to wonder what the embassy's definition of intervention is.
To make the U.S. government and ARENA party alliance even more transparent, Ambassador Glazer appeared publicly in early November with the outgoing Salvadoran president at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, DC. President Saca was on the campaign trail again—with Salvadoran taxpayer money—to raise the profile of ARENA with the ironically titled "Peace and Prosperity" conference. Glazer was at his side, ready to field questions and concerns.
There is no doubt that major changes underfoot in the Latin American region have put Washington on edge. Country after country is electing governments who represent the majority of people instead of the financial interests of a few. El Salvador's left appears destined for both an historic victory at the polls and a new phase of struggle against U.S. dominance, as USAID and NED have become the faltering empire's new "diplomatic weapons" of choice.
Erica Thompson works with CISPES in San Salvador. This article was originally published in the January edition of Z Magazine.