El Salvador: Left won, but can it govern?

El Salvador: Left won, but can it govern?Monday, 03.23.09 BY JORGE G. CASTAÑEDAWWW.PROJECT-SYNDICATE.ORG MEXICO CITY — In El Salvador, for the first time ever in Latin America, a former political-military organization that tried to gain power through the barrel of a gun has achieved its aims through the ballot box. Although the Sandinista Front in Nicaragua did win a semi-legitimate election in 1984, it had reached power five years earlier by overthrowing the Somoza dictatorship. By 2006, when Daniel Ortega was finally reelected, the old Sandinista Front of 1979 was unrecognizable.El Salvador’s Farabundo Martí Liberation Front (FMLN) was created in 1980, through the fusion of five guerrilla groups supported by Cuba and Nicaragua. The FMLN nominated a presentable and attractive candidate, Mauricio Funes, for last Sunday’s presidential election, and, despite seeing a 10-point lead whittled down to barely two points by election night, squeaked out an uncontested victory.The conservative ARENA party, which has governed El Salvador since the country’s 10-year civil war ended in 1992, did everything possible to prevent an FMLN victory, resorting once again to every red-baiting trick in the book. According to ARENA’s relentlessly negative campaign, a triumph for the left would bring communism, Hugo Chávez and the Castro brothers to San Salvador. But scare tactics did not work this time. There is obviously a lesson here to be learned by other left-wing political movements and guerrilla groups in Latin America. The Socialist Party in Chile, the Workers Party in Brazil, the Broad Front in Uruguay, even Chávez in Venezuela and the PRD and FSLN in Mexico and Nicaragua, respectively, have shown that the left can win elections in Latin America.• First, the difference between these victorious leftists and El Salvador’s FMLN will be revealed when the FMLN’s old characteristics as an armed movement are challenged by the daily facts of governance. For, while Funes is no old guerrilla hack, his vice president, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, and almost the entire FMLN leadership are unreformed Castroist guerrilla leaders and cadres. It is they, not Funes, who control the FMLN organization. The FMLN’s most reform-minded, democratic, modern and brilliant leaders — Facundo Guardado, Joaquín Villalobos, Salvador Samayoa, Ana Guadalupe Martínez and Fermán Cienfuegos — have all left the party.• A second worrying factor is the FMLN’s links to Cuba and Venezuela. As recently as a year ago, anyone who visited FMLN headquarters in San Salvador to interview, for example, Cerén, its secretary general, would be struck by the overwhelming presence of Chávez: red shirts, red berets, pictures of the Venezuelan caudillo, quotations from his teachings and musings.Chávez helped the FMLN by giving free or cheap oil to its mayors in many parts of the country, and probably (though it has not been proven) by channeling funds, if only in small quantities, to the party’s electoral coffers. The Cuban presence also remains strong, although the recent political purges initiated by Raúl Castro make it difficult to know who exactly is working for whom. Ramiro Abréu, who ”ran” El Salvador for Cuba’s Department of the Americas in the 1980s and ’90s, remains active, but now more as a businessman and a senior statesman than as a Cuban operative.But Cuba’s influence on the old FMLN leadership remains intact. Cuban and Venezuelan involvement in political parties in Mexico or Brazil, for example, is undisputable but not necessarily very relevant. These are large countries with huge economies, where conspiring and doling out small perks and favors is not very effective. But El Salvador — like Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador — is another story.• A third factor that weighs in the balance in analyzing what sort of government the FMLN may deliver is the economic crisis that is battering Latin America. For the moment, it is impossible to ascertain whether the recession will provoke a radicalization of the left in the region, which Chávez seems to be promoting, or induce moderation through resignation — that is, a postponement of revolutionary goals owing to inauspicious economic conditions. We will know soon.But the most important consequence of the FMLN’s victory may lie in its effect on the rest of Central America and Mexico. Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, more out of convenience and demagogy than conviction, has moved into the Chávez orbit; Nicaragua’s Ortega was always part of that orbit, as are people close to Alvaro Colóm in Guatemala. If we add El Salvador to this list, only Costa Rica and Panama to the south remain out of the loop, leaving Mexico to the north increasingly exposed.Of course, the Central American nations do not wield huge influence in Mexico; if anything, it is the other way around. But the Mexican left, while no longer as weak as it was after its defeat in 2006, has always needed foreign role models. It sympathizes far more with Chávez, Bolivian President Evo Morales, Cuba, the Sandinistas and now the FMLN than with the moderate left elected in Chile, Brazil, Uruguay and Peru.They will read Funes’ victory as one more notch on the barrel of ”the people’s” rifle and one more hair plucked from Uncle Sam’s beard. To dismiss the FMLN’s historical achievement as simply an act of justice or a foreseeable event in a tiny backwater would be reckless.Jorge G. Castañeda, former foreign minister of Mexico (2000-03), is a global distinguished professor of politics and Latin American studies at New York University.©2009 Project Syndicate

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