El Salvador: Promises, Perils and Reality

Mauricio Funes overcame staggering odds in becoming El Salvador's first left-leaning president. Having just taken office, his administration now faces perhaps the even more difficult task of governing, and expectations among his supporters are hugely inflated. Though presented with an unprecedented opportunity for change, Funes and the Salvadoran people face both perils and promise in the current political moment.

Danny Burridge

On June 1, 2009, Mauricio Funes of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) was sworn in as the first leftist president of El Salvador. Funes rode a wave of popular will for change after 20 years of devastating neoliberal policies implemented by successive Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) governments. His victorious candidacy was also helped along by its novelty: Funes is a widely respected former journalist and a progressive political outsider.

Funes overcame both a ruthless smear campaign engineered by the right wing and the institutionalized fraud endemic to the Salvadoran elections that favor ARENA. Massive voter turnout prevailed over both obstacles, handing him a slight majority at the ballot box – though recent opinion polls show he enjoys the support of around 80 percent of the public.

In his inauguration speech, Funes promised the social and economic reconstruction of El Salvador under a “government of national unity.” He twice invoked the legacy of the martyred bishop Óscar Romero, assuring that the only sector privileged by his government would be the poor. Funes promised to fight corruption and tax evasion, to streamline government institutions, and to maintain an independent foreign policy. In fact, one of his first acts as president was to re-establish diplomatic and commercial relations with Cuba, leaving the United States as the only country in the hemisphere with out formal ties to Havana.

The new President said he would establish a "Socioeconomic Council" made up of both social movement and private sector representatives charged with playing a permanent advisory role within the administration. Funes assured the council would be a genuine space for participatory democracy aimed at the construction of progressive public policies. But the danger remains that powerful business interests could marginalize popular sectors' influence in the new body.

One of Funes' boldest announcements was the creation of an 18-month "Anti-Crisis Plan" to be backed by the creation of a State Development Bank. The new bank would seek to reactivate agriculture and other vital, yet struggling, economic sectors. Other promises include the creation of 100,000 new jobs, the provision of free uniforms and school supplies to a million primary students, the construction of 25,000 low-income homes, and the delivery of necessary medicines to all public hospitals and health clinics.

Funes has not yet devised a concrete plan for strengthening these strategic areas in the long run and funding remains an open question. Only half of the $475 million Anti-Crisis plan is currently funded, although the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) has announced a $500 million loan to help fund the social initiatives.

Funes has generated trust and hope among the public like no other Salvadoran president, the first vital step in “reinventing” El Salvador, as he proposes. Indeed, El Salvador urgently needs radical transformations, but Funes has not specifically promised these types of structural changes and would not be capable of delivering them. Nor will he be able to construct a government of national unity. He will perhaps be able to nominally increase social investment to benefit the poor, but the structural veto power that global capitalism wields over change in El Salvador, along with opposition of the domestic right wing, will make the implementation of meaningful reforms exceedingly difficult.

In assembling a team to carry out these badly needed reforms, Funes has brought together a highly capable and respected cabinet of economists, technocrats, social leaders, and FMLN functionaries. But it is outside of his administration where his plans will face difficulty.

At the national level, the FMLN controls the presidency and little else. The right wing still holds sway in still the legislature at the hands of ARENA in coalition with smaller right-wing parties. The vast majority of Supreme Court judges are all ARENA appointees, while key governmental institutions, such as the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and the Attorney General's office, are still beholden to the right. It's thus likely that progressive policies will be systematically obstructed at every turn.

The mainstream media will still serve as the mouthpiece and propaganda machine for ARENA as well as a crucial weapon for demonizing the FMLN government. In the economic realm, the FMLN has taken on a catastrophe. Twenty years of systematic corruption, which Funes boldly highlighted in his inauguration speech, will weigh heavily on the new government. In its last three months in office, ARENA accelerated its efforts to empty public coffers, leaving Funes with a fiscal deficit of at least $1.2 billion, or nearly six percent of GDP.

The global economic recession has severely intensified the existing domestic crisis brought on by years of ARENA mismanagement. In the past six months, 40,000 jobs have been eliminated. Imports, exports, and tax collection have all faced steep drops, while remittances from Salvadorans abroad have decreased by eight percent. So far this year, the economy has already shrunk by a percentage point. Meanwhile, homicide rates have reached an average of 13 a day and Salvadoran youth are being left with even fewer possibilities for survival – immigrating to the United States is no longer an attractive option.

How the FMLN will deal with a country near collapse is unclear. Analysts have dwelled on the supposed divide between the "radical" FMLN and the "moderate" Funes, claiming that Funes will come under the pressure of the radical leadership that traditionally dominates the party. Although the FMLN has never been a uniform force, Funes is not a former guerrilla or even an FMLN militant, but he now claims the party as his own. His leadership could signal a political moderation within parts of the FMLN, which largely supports Funes' measured path toward reform. Nonetheless, some leftists in El Salvador and beyond have called Funes a neoliberal pawn – an extreme claim, but not completely unfounded.

The new President has made it clear that he won't stand in the way of further neoliberal consolidation in El Salvador, particularly on matters related to trade. A case in point is the "Pathways to Prosperity in the Americas," a pro-free trade economic plan for Latin America devised by the Bush administration. In contrast to traditional FMLN opposition to the U.S.-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), the new Foreign Relations Minister, former FMLN deputy Hugo Martínez, stated the Funes administration's enthusiastic support for the U.S. economic plan. The initiative, which some see as a successor project to the defunct Free Trade Area of the Americas, hails the "benefits of free trade and open investment."

Some left-wing critics point to Funes' support of such initiatives noting the influence of the "Amigos de Mauricio Funes" group. Funes' victory was greatly aided by the Amigos group, a sort of brain trust, which includes heavy representation from business sectors that grew alienated over the years by ARENA's cronyism and disregard for institutional processes. Funes and his team have also cooperated closely with international financial institutions. At the end of April, they held two days of closed-door meetings with representatives from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank, and the IDB to develop strategies against the economic crisis in El Salvador.

All of this has caused concern among certain sectors of the Salvadoran left, but this concern seems at least partly misguided. Amid domestic political constraints and perhaps even stricter global economic limitations, Funes seems set on carrying out a difficult balancing act with overtures to "national unity." Increasing social investment for the poor is clearly a priority, but El Salvador does not enjoy abundant natural resources that have aided such investments in other Latin American countries. Moreover, the country is extremely dependent on global markets, and particularly on the United States.

The right wing at home and abroad will try to use this dependency to influence and moderate Funes’ policies to keep El Salvador from swinging to the left. However, Funes himself has repeatedly promised to follow a moderate path of the kind blazed by Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in prioritizing "macroeconomic stability" alongside social investment. Lula’s administration has not achieved the social transformations originally hoped for by Brazilian social movements, and Funes might face similar shortcomings.

Nevertheless, his administration seems intent on trying to balance its "strategic" closeness to Washington and international financial institutions with more autonomous ties to Latin American neighbors. Lula has offered assistance in energy and development, and he is currently promoting regional trade and energy negotiations between Central America and Mercosur. And on a pre-inaugural visit to Venezuela, Funes and Hugo Chávez agreed to establish a "bilateral commission" to evaluate El Salvador's admission to PetroCaribe, along with energy, economic, and social cooperation between the two countries. While re-established relations with Cuba could provide urgent help in health care and literacy campaigns in the Central American country.

The peaceful and historic transfer of power in El Salvador reflects the consolidation of "formal" democracy, but deep social change and true democracy are still slightly beyond the horizon. Its years as a guerrilla organization and decades as an opposition party have left the FMLN as a largely hierarchical political organization. The party could build on its formidable grassroots network and work towards becoming an institution that facilitates democratic participation in government decision-making.

Funes will be under intense pressure from myriad interests to reduce the influence of El Salvador's diverse social movement and jettison his promised preferential option for the poor. Despite inevitable missteps, and critics' destabilizing discourses, the Salvadoran people will need to provide critical yet massive support to the Funes government in strengthening the paths toward true change.

Even if Funes is able to implement his proposed policies, he runs the danger of simply stabilizing an unjust social order without dismantling the deep-rooted causes of injustice through structural economic reforms and participatory democracy. If the country plods along with the status quo, there is a danger that ARENA could return to power after Funes' term.

Nevertheless, Funes and the FMLN have been given the unprecedented opportunity to construct a genuinely Salvadoran model of social-economic and political relations based on solidarity. For now, this model is a dream, but the Funes government has provided the Salvadoran people with the hope that this dream could one day come true.


Danny Burridge lives and works in San Salvador as the Field Coordinator for the Volunteer Missionary Movement (VMM).
Tags: 

Like this article? Support our work. Donate now.