COHA: Mixed Results In Salvadoran Elections

  • U.S. Embassy’s historically interventionist role
  • Ambassador Rose Likins, among others, had led campaign to block FMLN from winning the ballot
  • Tony Saca and his predecessors slavishly aspire to be Washington’s best friend in Latin America

A little over a week after polls closed in El Salvador’s municipal and legislative elections, the opposing parties began to prepare for yet another round of campaigning. Although the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) has lost the mayoral ballot in the capital city of San Salvador, it seems likely that, for the first time in twenty years of right-wing rule, the former guerrilla party has a good chance to win the upcoming presidential ballot in March. In the recently staged elections it was able to gain three seats in the legislative assembly, winning a total of 42.5 percent of the votes, trailed by the currently governing Nationalist Republican Alliance Party (ARENA), with 38.4 percent of the tally.

Achieving widespread popularity has been exceptionally difficult for the FMLN, given that in the past years the radical rightist ARENA party has received continuing assistance from kindred governments, in particular the United States. ARENA was founded by Roberto D’Aubuisson in 1981; it was he who organized the death squads that murdered tens of thousands innocent civilians, almost certainly including the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, while he was conducting a mass on March 24, 1980, at the beginning of the Salvadoran Civil War. Monseñor Romero repeatedly had voiced his concerns about the injustices being witnessed throughout his country. For his efforts, he was internationally admired. Shortly before his death, Romero had urged the Carter administration to halt its support for the El Salvadoran government in order to contain the violence, but his request was never answered. The military forces that were responsible for the death squads were trained and financed under programs sponsored by the United States during the Reagan administration, which pursued a radical anti-communist foreign policy in support of the country’s right-wing quasi military dictatorship. Beyond the hundreds of millions of dollars in annual economic and military aid, the assistance went so far as to provide U.S.-citizenship to many senior Salvadoran military officers suspect of sanctioning death squad killings.

Today the ARENA party still idolizes and commemorates their founder D’Aubuisson, and scores of those who committed severe human rights violations in the 1970s and 1980s are still active members of the party, observed human rights lawyer David Morales in an interview with Amnesty International. Despite their agenda of crimes, corruption, fraud and murder, the United States embassy in San Salvador continues until this day to support ARENA and the rightist extremist authorities in El Salvador.

Republicans Help Human Rights Abusers

In the 2004 elections, a few days before Salvadorans were scheduled to cast their votes, three U.S. Republican congressmen went before the Foreign Relations Committee of the House of Representatives to make a prediction about how U.S. policy towards El Salvador would change in the event of a FMLN victory at the polls. They warned that remittances from Salvadorans working in the U.S. would no longer be sent to El Salvador (they obviously could not speak in the advent of what would happen in an Obama victory). They also predicted that the Salvadorans’ temporary protected status (TPS), a visa program that currently allows 229,000 paroled Salvadorans to live and work in the U.S., might not be extended if the FMLN managed to defeat ARENA. The remittances that family members abroad send back to loved ones in El Salvador are essential to the economic survival of relatives back home, as these funds make up more than 17 percent of the country’s GDP. The anxiety caused by the U.S. congressmens’ minatory remarks that the cash flow might dry up spread quickly throughout the country and doubtlessly helped the right-wing ARENA candidate Antonio Saca, to win the presidency. The U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador during that period, Hugh Douglas Barkley, did not bother to clarify the issue until after the election, belatedly maintaining that the statements of the congressmen would not necessarily affect the Sate Department policy.

U.S. Embassy Rules

Although the current chief of mission in El Salvador, Ambassador Charles Glazer, has declared that no U.S. intervention will occur in this round of elections, there already has been direct and indirect interference. This certainly was the case when it came to the behavior one of his predecessors, Rose Likins, who during the Bush presidency openly and dramatically interfered in the internal affairs of El Salvador. Likins basically informed Salvadorans that if the FMLN wins, they lose when it comes to continuing to secure U.S. assistance.

Throughout the past years of participating in El Salvador’s regular elections after demobilizing and becoming part of the country’s electoral process, the FMLN has had to battle brazenly false accusations against it, mainly coming from the U.S. embassy and aimed at providing propagandistic support of ARENA. In 2007 the chairman of the International Republican Institute (IRI), Senator John McCain, presented President Saca with the ‘Freedom Award’ for the ‘dramatic democratic and economic progress’ that his leadership had brought to El Salvador. This collaboration all but ignored the widespread corruption that permeated the country as well as the systematic political assassinations of left wing partisans and FMLN activists that continued to routinely take place under ARENA’s auspices. However, U.S. conservative circles did not limit their influence to smearing the reputation of well-known FMLN personalities; they also have attempted to gloss over ARENA’s well established reputation of tacitly backing death-squad activities.

In February 2008, the United States director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell, without a shred of cited evidence to support his charges, stated in his Annual Threat Assessment to the U.S. Senate, that he expects ‘[Hugo] Chavez to provide generous campaign funding to the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) in El Salvador in its bid to secure the presidency in the 2009 election.’ As if in a carefully choreographed script, President Saca immediately consulted his ambassador to Venezuela and then asked U.S. President Bush to investigate such alleged activities by the FMLN. Mauricio Funes, FMLN presidential candidate in the 2009 elections, and Venezuelan President Chavez renounced these accusations. There was never any proof that was brought forth to support McConnell’s thesis, however the FMLN palpably lost some of its democratic luster in the upcoming election among those sensitive to such charges.

International Meddling – the German Connection

It should be known that it is not only the U.S. that has long meddled in Salvadoran affairs. Sigfrido Reyes Morales, a delegate from the FMLN, who has pinpointed an extensive international network supporting the ARENA party, provided new evidence for such charges in an interview with the German leftist newspaper ‘junge Welt.’ He claimed that assistance comes from rightist groups in the U.S. and Latin America as well as in Asia and Europe.

The Hanns-Seidel-Stiftung, a foundation that is related to the German right wing Christian Social Union party, has recently supported a workshop backed by the ARENA-linked Center of Political Studies on how to prevent the FMLN from gaining power. Along with the German Christian Democratic Adenauer Foundation, the Hanns-Seidel-Stiftung is known for its consistent support for right-wing foreign policy causes, usually sanctioned by the U.S. Republican party. The author and Venezuelan political advisor to the anti-Chavez opposition, Alfredo Keller describes in a 90-page manual how to manipulate surveys and slander the character of Mauricio Funes. He advises his Salvadoran readers how to depict FMLN presidential candidate Funes as a ‘puppet of communist hardliners,’ in order to deter Salvadorans from voting for the FMLN candidates, reports the Berlin newspaper ‘taz.’

In Germany, The Left party, concerned about the meddling of the Hanns-Seidel-Stiftung asked the German federal government to investigate the activities of the foundation, because it had actively intervened in the electoral process in El Salvador, and therefore would seem to have violated German law. Berlin authorities dismissed the case, stating that the Hanns-Seidel-Stiftung had only recommended Keller as a respectable expert and restricted its activities to paying for his travel expenses. The Center for Political Studies has been working together with the German foundation for years, but only the Latin American Center was the originator of the questionable paper. As a result, the German government concluded that the Hanns-Seidel-Stiftung did not interfere with Salvadoran politics. Moreover the German authorities maintained that the study served the research of changes in society and did not necessarily represent a manipulation of material. Few were satisfied by this Byzantine explanation.

Blackballing the FMLN

Meanwhile Saca continues his hard-right campaign in order to raise fear and concerns among the Salvadoran community in the U.S. and at home, that if the FMLN wins, the country will quickly come to live under a ‘communist dictatorship.’ Considering that FMLN candidate Funes is a rather moderate figure, this accusation invites ridicule from the informed. A few days before the legislative and municipal elections – in which the FMLN was defeated – Saca spread the word that he had prepared a report to the United Nations and the Organization of American States (OAS) that would disclose an affiliation between mara, criminal youth gangs, and the FMLN. Knowing that this arrant prevarication could not be put to rest until after the election, he was able to win a few swing votes by this subterfuge. However, the foul play did not end here; reports on vote buying involving both cash and food payments have persisted throughout the electoral process, with Saca engrossed in the thick of it.

Yet another scandal appeared that involved the transportation of voters to the polls provided by ARENA. Government officials not only influenced the voters’ decision by offering them free transportation, but ARENA also provided the extra service of taking voters from an area where the party was strongly represented to a region where their success was at stake and every vote counted. This might have been the determining factor in ARENA’s surprising victory in the mayoral race in San Salvador. According to Latinnews, Funes complained that ‘10,000 people had been shipped in.’ In addition to that contention, CISPES, the pro-FMLN Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, reported an ‘alarming number of foreigners’ in El Salvador on the day of the election. FMLN partisans were convinced that ARENA militants had given Nicaraguans and Guatemalans false Salvadoran papers as well as cash bribes in order to persuade some to vote for ARENA.

Rising Youth Activism

Seeing corruption at work in their country, has prompted many young Salvadorans to take part in a movement aimed at establishing a more transparent and principled electoral process. The numbers of such activist groups are still relatively small but continuously expanding. This is a remarkable process, taking into account that in the past several years dozens of political activists from anti-government factions have been murdered and most of these crimes remain unsolved. The online magazine Upside Down World has reported on the various concerns that young campaigners hold and that they have asked for changes in the voter registry, since the current one was devised in accordance with the 1992 census. One election observer from a youth radio collective has told some journalists that they would ‘find people in the electoral rolls who died up to 16 years ago.’

Despite the doubts voiced by the populace and FMLN party militants about the inaccuracy of the voting procedure, U.S. policy makers remain adamant that fraud is unlikely to take place. In San Salvador, U.S. Ambassador Glazer dismissed such demurrers regarding U.S. pressure on the legislative ballot, claiming that international observers would ensure the integrity of the election. However, there were only approximately 190 observers from the European Union and the OAS in the country, not enough to really do the job. Moreover, the neutrality of some of the other organizations overlooking the voting is questionable. For instance, institutions like the International Republican Institute, a U.S. publically-funded heavy hitter for rightwing foreign policy causes, which previously has given Antonio Saca its ‘Freedom Award,’ also was sending observers to El Salvador. The increasing political activism in the country and the call for fair elections by at least one youth faction might be the most promising way to achieve democratic behavior in practice.

This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Kira Vinke

January 27th, 2009

Word Count: 2000

Source: Council on Hemispheric Affairs

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