El Salvador: Yet Another Feather in the Cap of Hugo Chavez?

Facing a possible
debacle in March 2009, the Salvadoran right and Washington have gone into
overdrive, trying to tarnish Funes by linking him to Hugo Chávez of
Venezuela.  The governing party ARENA in fact has accused Funes of being a “little Chávez.”

By Nikolas Kozloff - CounterPunch
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An
image flashes across the screen of pretty young women.  They’re dressed
in red T-shirts, wave a red flag, and run towards the camera.  A voice
intones, “Let us all participate in the great party of hope!  Change is
coming!”  The image then shifts to a dapper young man with glasses who
is thronged by enthusiastic crowds.

Meet
Mauricio Funes, bane of the U.S. foreign policy establishment and the
likely next President of El Salvador as of March, 2009.  Funes’ party,
the FMLN (or Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front), is running
television ads such as these in an effort to appeal to the young
generation and roll back the political right which has dominated the
country’s politics for decades.

Funes is a former commentator for CNN International and for years had a popular daily show called The Interview with Mauricio Funes which
wasbroadcast on national television.  Well known amongst his
compatriots, he is arguably El Salvador’s most respected journalist. A
frequent critic of government abuses, Funes quickly developed a
reputation as a political crusader. 

As
the so-called “Pink Tide” sweeps through South America 2009 is fast
sizing up as a momentous political year for El Salvador, a
Massachusetts sized nation of some six 6 million people.  Like Barack
Obama, Funes is poised, youthful and inspiring.  He even has a similar
campaign slogan: “Cambio” or “Change.”  Like the presumptive nominee of
the Democratic Party, Funes is already drawing large crowds.  He is
currently leading in public opinion surveys against his main political
rivals. 

The
U.S. left doesn’t know much about Funes, but that’s hardly surprising
given the political trends of the past fifteen years.  During the
1980s, in the midst of the country’s civil war, the FMLN was a cause
célèbre for the U.S. left.  But once the U.S.-backed counter-insurgency
war ended and FMLN guerrillas demobilized and formed their own
political party, radicals focused their attention elsewhere.  El
Salvador dropped off the media horizon. 

The small Central American nation is about to leap back into the headlines, however. 

A
victory for the FMLN would further embolden Hugo Chávez of Venezuela
and continue Central America’s drift towards the center left, already
underway with the return of Daniel Ortega of the Sandinista Party in
Nicaragua and the election of Álvaro Colom Caballeros in Guatemala.  If
a solid pro-Chávez column of smaller nations emerges in the region this
could prove to be a difficult pill for Washington to swallow.

ARENA: “The Reds Will Die”

When you consider just how entrenched the right wing has become in El Salvador, Funes’ political rise is even more remarkable. 

Ever
since 1992, the year El Salvador’s horrific civil war ended, ARENA (or
Nationalist Republican Alliance) has reigned supreme in election after
election.  The party was founded by right wing death squad leader
Roberto D’Aubuisson, held to be one of the intellectual authors behind
the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980.  Many see ARENA,
whose party colors are red, white and blue, as modeled on the U.S.
Republican party but with even stronger nationalist overtones.

The hymn of the party touts El Salvador as the tomb where “the Reds will die.”

By
the early 1990s, with the international left now ignoring the political
story in El Salvador, ARENA consolidated its control through the ballot
box. 

Remaking the Party

Fearing
relatiation from Washington, Funes has bent over backwards to placate
the U.S.  He has, for example, met with State Department officials as
well as members of Congress and reassured them that he is no radical. 

Meanwhile,
Funes has declared that El Salvador should not scrap use of the dollar
by returning to its previous currency, the colón.  Funes says that
"dollarization" and the adoption of the Central American Free Trade
Agreement in 2006 have had negative effects, such as inflation and
unfavorable competition for small-scale farmers, but that it is too
late to scrap these policies.

The
former media commentator seeks to remake the FMLN into a pragmatic
political party.  At rallies, he doesn't sing the party's anthem or
wear the traditional red colours, preferring to campaign in a crisp
white guayabera shirt.  It’s a symbolic move designed to contrast
himself with many in the party who still wear fatigues and brandish
pictures of Che Guevara and Soviet flags at campaign rallies.

ARENA
President Antonio Saca, whose term ends next year, has questioned the
FMLN's supposed moderation. "If it flies like a duck, swims like a duck
and eats like a duck, it's a duck. The FMLN is a communist party. Its
ideas haven't changed," he has remarked.

Demonizing Funes by Linking Him to Chávez

Despite
such dismissive rhetoric, ARENA is fearful that Funes may not go down
to electoral defeat like his FMLN predecessors.  Facing a possible
debacle in March, the Salvadoran right and Washington have gone into
overdrive, trying to tarnish Funes by linking him to Hugo Chávez of
Venezuela.  ARENA in fact has accused Funes of being a “little Chávez.”

Earlier
this year, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell
warned Congress that he expected Chávez to provide "generous campaign
funding" to Funes.  Similar U.S. national security reports, later
exposed as false and comprised of politically-manipulated intelligence,
were used by the Bush White House to justify its preemptive war against
Iraq in 2003. 

Nevertheless,
ARENA President Antonio Saca pounced on the report, remarking that this
act of “interference” would be “unacceptable.” He even ordered an
investigation into the matter and, in another high profile move,
recalled El Salvador's diplomatic envoy from Caracas. 

On
the other hand, Saca apparently views electoral intervention by the
United States government as not only acceptable, but welcomed. In a
November 2007 press conference with President Bush, Saca stated that
the U.S. "can help out a lot in preventing citizen support for certain
proposals in the upcoming elections."

Funes
has denied any links to the Venezuelan government, and Chávez has
scoffed at McConnell’s accusations.  The Venezuelan leader said the
FMLN needed no extra financial support as it was a "solid" and
"well-organized" party with popular backing. Chávez described the
“gringo” allegations as just another U.S. attempt to discredit him and
cause divisions in the region.  "It's a lie,” Chávez said.  “We don’t
need to do that, and they don’t need it.” 

History Repeating Itself

It’s not the first time that Bush and the Salvadoran right have played the Chávez card.

During
the 2004 presidential election in El Salvador, the Bush administration
was nervous the left might win as Schafik Handal, the FMLN candidate,
opposed the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and was
threatening to withdraw El Salvador's troops from Iraq.  As payback for
U.S. support for the counter-insurgency war of the 1980s, ARENA sent
381 soldiers to Iraq in the early stages of the war.  Salvadoran troops
generally refrained from front-line fighting and were instead delegated
to humanitarian and reconstruction efforts. 

In
March, 2003 Special White House Assistant Otto Reich, an implacable
Chávez foe who met with Dictator-For-a-Day Pedro Carmona in the run-up
to the 2002 coup in Venezuela, declared that the United States would
reevaluate its relationship with "an El Salvador led by a person who is
an admirer of Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez."  The red-baiting tactics
instilled fear in the Salvadoran electorate, which no doubt worried
about a return to combative relations with the United States.  Handal
went down to crushing defeat, winning just 38% of the vote to ARENA
candidate Saca’s 58%.

Entrenched Trade Relationship

With
a more charismatic, media-savvy candidate at the helm, 2009 could be
different for the FMLN.  But if Funes were to actually win, what might
be the future of Salvadoran-U.S. relations?

The
FMLN leader would find it difficult, if not impossible, to take an
antagonistic position towards the United States.  The young politician
would enter office with El Salvador’s trade relations with the United
States already well established: in 2006 the two countries signed a
free trade agreement providing El Salvador with preferential access to
U.S. markets.  

El
Salvador exports everything from textiles to apparel to shoes and
processed foods to the United States, and Funes certainly wouldn’t want
to jeopardize such a vital trade relationship. Indeed, right now the
U.S. is El Salvador’s most important market, purchasing 57.1% of the
Central American nation’s goods.  El Salvador in turn receives more
than 40% of its imports from the U.S. 

The Iraq-El Salvador Connection

Nevertheless,
Funes may take some punitive measures against Washington.  He has
stated for example that one of his first decisions as President would
be to withdraw Salvadoran troops from Iraq.  ARENA is now paying a high
political price for its loyalty to Washington: polls have shown that a
majority of the Salvadoran people oppose their country’s troop presence
in the Middle East. 

While
other Central American countries such as Nicaragua and Honduras have
long since withdrawn their forces, El Salvador is holding firm and is
currently the only Latin American country with forces still deployed in
Iraq.  ARENA’s position is that Salvadoran forces will continue their
service in Iraq until they “finish what [they have] started.”

Were
the Salvadoran troops to leave, such a development would prove
insignificant from a military point of view.  However, Funes would
succeed in making a symbolic and political point: that El Salvador is
no longer Washington’s lackey in Central America.

Chávez and FMLN: Furthering Ties through Oil

In
another worrying development for Washington, Funes has said that he
would seek friendly ties to Venezuela.  For the two Latin American
nations, oil might prove to be highly instrumental in solidifying
ties.  Recently, Chávez has undertaken an alliance with Sandinista
leader Daniel Ortega by agreeing to supply the Central American nation
with discounted oil.  El Salvador is not an oil producer and a Funes
administration would no doubt welcome any Venezuelan assistance to meet
its energy needs.

Indeed,
the FMLN has been steadily building up its relationship with the Chávez
government over the last several years.  At the local level FMLN mayors
set up ENEPASA, a joint venture energy company which signed an energy
deal with Venezuela in 2006.   The initiative is designed to provide
less expensive fuel to El Salvador’s drivers. 

Clearly there was more to the deal than just providing cheap gas.

The
FMLN seeks to rebuff ARENA President Saca and his neo-liberal economic
approach by laying the groundwork for closer integration through ALBA,
the Bolivarian Alternative to the Americas.  The plan, initiated by
Chávez several years ago, seeks to counteract the corporately driven
U.S. Free Trade Area of the Americas and promote barter trade and
solidarity amongst left wing Latin American countries. 

When
FMLN mayors signed the agreement in Caracas, Chávez suggested that
money the Salvadoran municipalities saved on energy could be used to
subsidize public transport and food prices. Under the terms of the
agreement, cities pay 60% of their fuel bill within 90 days.  The rest
may be paid in barter for agricultural and other locally made products
or in cash over a 25-year period.  

Chávez
used the moment to criticize U.S. trade deals like the Central America
Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).  "They're making deals with the devil,
the devil himself," Chávez said, in one of his typical rhetorical
flourishes.

Over
the past two years, Venezuela has exported thousands of barrels of
diesel to El Salvador under the new deal.  The oil is sold by gas
stations bearing a special non-corporate, “white flag” emblem.

The Legacy of Neo-Liberalism: Organized Crime and Maquiladoras

There
is little doubt that under a Funes administration, much of the energy
integration with Venezuela would continue.  But how likely is a Pink
Tide sweep in Central America in the first place and a decisive FMLN
win in 2009? 

Judging
from recent political trends, ARENA’s political monopoly is
jeopardized.  The Salvadoran people are tired of the right’s relentless
charge towards neo-liberal policies including privatization and
shredding of labor protections for public sector workers.  In
particular, ARENA’s recent attempt to privatize the health care system
proved deeply unpopular and was beaten back by the likes of doctors and
nurses supported by the FMLN. 

Poverty
is soaring and organized crime has reached epidemic proportions in the
country.  In response, the police and military have allegedly organized
vigilante groups that orchestrate “social cleansing” of criminals.  In
a move to further emulate the Republican Party in the U.S., ARENA
instituted draconian anti-terror legislation based on the USA Patriot
Act in 2006.  ARENA uses the anti-terror legislation to pick up and
jail political activists who protest unpopular government moves such as
the privatization of water resources.

 The
agricultural sector meanwhile has been flooded by cheap goods from the
U.S. and hasn’t been able to compete; in desperation cooperative
farmers have been selling off the land and sending their children to
the U.S. to look for work.  Remittances from Salvadorans working in the
United States are an important source of income for many families and
total almost $4 billion a year. According to the United Nations
Development Agency, an estimated 22.3% of families receive such
remittances.  

For those who don’t receive money from their loved ones abroad in the U.S., one of the few options left is to seek work in the maquiladora sweat
shops.  These dismal sewing factories employ hundreds of thousands of
workers and pay laborers a scant 80 cents an hour.  Employees have been
exposed to horrible conditions such as unhealthy air and water, large
amounts of forced overtime and frequent dismissals for those who get
the wrong idea and support labor unions. 

The Road to 2009

Because of ARENA’s pursuit of such unpopular policies, the stage seems set for a big left win in March. 

What
might we expect from a Funes administration?  Though Funes has
distanced himself somewhat from the party rank and file, there is a
great ideological affinity between Venezuela and the FMLN.  Funes would
probably seek to put a break on the neo-liberal policies of the past,
and has said that he supports the notion of government-funded social
programs like those backed by Chávez and his allies.

"Up
until now, I haven't been the hunter being hunted," political novice
Funes has said. "But if I myself say that public figures need to be
scrutinized, how can I reject that same scrutiny?"

Expect more than mere scrutiny in the following months. 

Having
fought for twelve long years to defeat the FMLN militarily, Washington
is not about to give up now.  Count on ARENA and its U.S. patrons in
the White House to launch an all out red-baiting assault to prevent the
FMLN from coming to power through the ballot box and thereby halting
the further spread of the Pink Tide which is sweeping through Central
America. 

Nikolas Kozloff is the author of Hugo
Chávez: Oil, Politics, and the Challenge to the U.S.
(Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), and Revolution!
South America and the Rise of the New Left
(Palgrave Macmillan,
April 2008).