Saturday, March 21, 2009

Another One Bites The Dust

The results are in, ballots counted and the news agencies have confirmed it: Another country has turned against the dark side in a democratic election. El Salvador has elected a new president, Mauricio Funes of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (MNLF). No, the blogsphere wasn't alight with the news and it was only an afterthought in the mainstream press where they are too busy reporting the 'news' that the current economic model is simply a tool used by the rich and powerful to maintain their position, or the attempt to rebrand the Obama administration as Socialist instead of Liberal. The El Salvador result isn't simply a victory of the left over the right, it was in fact a victory of democracy over authoritarianism.

The two parties in the presidential election were ARENA and the FMLN. ARENA was formed in 1982 by Major Roberto D'Aubuisson, the man who the UN truth commission concluded ordered the assassination of Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero. A conservative Vatican appointment, Romero's crime was being transformed by the violence he saw directed against reformers, radicals and the poor. He was assassinated in the middle of conducting a mass. At his funeral, in front of the cathedral where his body now lies, army snipers opened fire on a weeping crowd of 100,000, killing 40. Within weeks, all-out war was on. By the end of the decade, 75,000 were dead, 600,000 had been displaced inside the country, and more than a million had gone into exile. A party born of death squads had won the previous four presidential elections since 1989. The FMLN tooks its name from Agustín Farabundo Martí, a member of the first generation of communist leaders in Central America in the 1920s that included Augusto César Sandino of Nicaragua, get it? Sandino - Sandinistas. Farabundo Martí took part in the famous peasant uprising of 1932, sparked off by the global economic crisis that led to a collapse of the coffee price, the country's principal export earner. The crisis was crushed by the US-backed military dictator of the time, General Maximilian Martínez, in what was called "La Matanza", or "slaughtering", in which 30,000 mostly indigenous people were killed. The movement became a political party at the end of the last war in 1992. The opposition ARENA characterized them as being "the former Marxist" party, or, in league with Hugo Chavez. Worse yet, Republican US Congress members Trent Franks of Arizona and Dan Burton of Indiana said Salvadorans living in the US could lose their immigration status and the right to send remittances home if the leftist FMLN party wins the vote.

El Salvador,the smallest country in the Americas, has become completely financially dependent on the US. Remittances back home via Western Union and the likes from those who have fled the country for America now make up the largest part of the economy, almost $4 billion or 17% of GDP. Additionally, the country dollarized in 2001. This is why it was very important that the US State Department clarified the US position of neutrality in the election after the Republican scare tactics of the past month. Five Republican Congressmen had given speeches on the floor of the House of Representatives threatening that Salvadorans living in the U.S. would lose their immigration status and be outlawed from sending money home to their families if voters in El Salvador elect the opposition FMLN party's candidate last Sunday. "Those monies that are coming from here to there I am confident will be cut, and I hope the people of El Salvador are aware of that because it will have a tremendous impact on individuals and their economy,” stated Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN).

Good try losers! It seems that another nation has moved away from “democracy promotion”, code for three guiding principles: neoliberal structural adjustment policies (privatization, trade liberalization, investment deregulation, social spending cuts etc.), propaganda in favor of the existing socio-economic order, and campaigns of terror against alternatives which would threaten the existing order or mano dura (iron fist). This has meant privatization of telecommunications, the national banks, import services, the export of coffee, the distribution of electricity, the administration of pension funds, education for all intensive purposes (public education is so costly among other factors, that the average Salvadoran child only makes it to 5th grade), along with successful attempts to privatize health care and water. Water issues may have been the decisive factor in the change of government, here, as in many other Latin American countries, water is the battle. Beginning in 1989, ARENA began stripping away tariffs on imported goods and taxation on large incomes, as well as controls which kept the prices of basic food stuffs low. In 2001, El Salvador made the dollar its national currency to further facilitate insertion into the globalized economy, giving away its independence. It was the first country of Central America to ratify the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States in 2005, and has since continued to entrench the neoliberal project through infrastructure megaprojects and a “development” model beneficial to the local and transnational elite. Propaganda is even more transparent that 'Faux' News in the US as the ownership of media outlets is highly concentrated. This was apparent when the US congressmen made their threats against Salvadoran remittances from abroad as the news was splashed across every newspaper's frontpage. Dealing with dissenting voices has been facilitated by the Amnesty Law of 1993 which protects those who committed war crimes during the Civil War in which 85% of the atrocities were committed by the state. This means the death squads created by the US have never been disbanded, a powerful tool to maintain obedience.

It is not surprising that El Salvador has become the second most violent nation on Earth after Iraq. With roaming death squads, Salvadorans turned LA gang members being returned home and the constant flow of drugs, weapons and cash through the tiny nation, it is awash in criminality. Extortion and violence touch every sector of the economy, from bus drivers to medical clinics. The nation is on pace to hit 4,500 homicides this year in a nation of about 7 million. On the bright side the troops are all back home from Iraq as of February. The last contingent from El Salvador had been the only Latin American forces their since '05 when the others pulled out with Spain. Saca's (the now former President!) relationship with the US was tight enough to sacrifice lives. More bodies are lost through emigration, mostly stateside. Even with a one-way airline dedicated to flying illegals back home (ABC video here), the flow is overwhelming - it's estimated that 700 leave the country a day, mostly for the US. Of the 20,000 returned last year, over 6,000 had criminal records. Many legally stay through The Temporary Protected Status that was introduced back in 2001 following the devastating (El Salvador tends to have a lot of natural disasters with the word devastating) earthquake. There are 3.2 million Salvadorans — equivalent to about 45 percent of El Salvador's population of 6.6 million - in the US today.

According to conservatives, Obama has driven the US to socialism, so I can no longer trumpet the MNLF victory in El Salvador as another country moving politically left away from America. I am becoming more interested in how the Obama administration deals with the region, but we may have to wait a bit with everything on their plate at the moment. The fact is Funes was the first presidential candidate for the party who didn't participate in the war; he's a former journalist and TV reporter. He's gone to great pains to allay fears of any radical moves. The victory was one over fear, ARENA's slogan was "I will not hand over my country" for crying out loud. Perhaps the saviour, El Salvador, has been saved.