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In El Salvador, Cautious Optimism On What a Progressive Win Would Mean for U.S. Relations

Bush-era policies like CAFTA and the Iraq War have turned Salvadorans against the U.S. and its allies in the ARENA government.
 
 
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SAN SALVADOR -- El Salvador’s election on March 15 is an occasion for Salvadorans to consider future relations with the United States and the new Obama Administration. How the new president and his advisers respond to these elections could be an early measure of U.S.-Latin American relations. And it may also be an opportunity for Obama to begin fulfilling his campaign promise to “lead the hemisphere into the 21st Century.”

As much as he appreciates the change of U.S. administrations, philosophy student Carlos Ramirez, 24, who was sitting beneath a tree near the central plaza of his school, the University of El Salvador in San Salvador, expressed concern that the administration has only made a brief statement of neutrality on the widely-watched elections here. Ramirez and others, including more than 33 U.S. congressmembers who sent Obama a dear-colleague letter about the Salvadoran elections, fear a repeat of 2004. Then, Bush Administration officials intervened in the Salvadoran elections, suggesting that a victory by the opposition party would endanger the legal status of Salvadoran immigrants in the United States and would prohibit remittances they send home.

“I want Obama to understand that there are some students here -- a minority, I would say -- who still have the ‘80’s attitude of permanent confrontation with the United States that we see in campus protests against the Iraq war, CAFTA [Central American Free Trade Agreement] and other policies,” said Ramirez. “But most of us are open to re-thinking the relationship with the United States. We all recognize that all of us, including the United States, are in a profound crisis and extremely interdependent, as you can see in issues like immigration, trade and security. We’re open and now it’s up to Obama to define his position, and the elections are a good place to start.”

Ramirez’ open-but-cautious attitude is the product of both political maturity and the Bush era policies toward Latin America that bred alienation from the United States. Viewed from this perspective, Sunday's elections have significance beyond the tiny country of 7 million. How the Obama Administration deals with El Salvador’s hotly contested elections and their aftermath will communicate much about what this country and Latin America can expect from him.

The policies of post-World War II presidents in the United States, both Republican and Democratic, make many Salvadorans wary of Obama, even though they give him high popularity ratings, says Edgardo Herrera, an international relations expert at the university.

“If it is truly committed to improving relations with El Salvador and the rest of Latin America, the Obama Administration should remember what we say about justice here,” said Herrera. “Justice is like a snake. It only bites the barefoot poor, not the rich who have shoes.” He thinks the United States is not in sync with ideas about justice on the Salvadoran street. He cites an annual opinion poll conducted by Central American University since 2003. “Every year Salvadorans are telling the United States they do not like its policies, including the Iraq war, the CAFTA and the dollarization of the country’s currency,” Herrera said. “Rejection of these policies has turned the Salvadoran electorate against the ARENA government-and the United States.”

For Robert White, former ambassador to El Salvador in the Carter Administration and President of the Center for International Policy, the challenge of U.S.-El Salvador policy before and after Sunday’s elections is to foster autonomy and self-determination. “Although the country may be small and its economy heavily dependent on remittances from the United States," White said, "it is still important for that country to demonstrate its policy independence. Many questions have been raised by some of the Salvadoran government’s past actions.”

White, who is in El Salvador as an elections observer, recalled how the Bush Administration influenced El Salvador’s “extraordinary rapid recognition of the 2002 coup regime in Venezuela, which I believe lasted less than 48 hours.” The leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) is leading the right-wing ARENA party, which dominated politics for 20 years. Should the FMLN win, White said the U.S. should “treat it as a normal event in a democracy.”

Ramirez agreed. “The best thing Obama can do is to engage us in this time of transition and expectation,” he said. “If he were to visit us, he would see immediately that what he needs to do is simply help us reconstruct the campus and the country as the Uniteds States did in Europe and Japan after World War II.”