Civil Liberties

From the Bullet to the Ballot

In El Salvador, former guerrillas try to succeed at the polls.
After twelve years of war followed by twelve years of peace, Salvadorans go to the polls on March 21 to elect a new president. A lot is at stake. For the first time in the postwar era, the guerrilla group that laid down its weapons in 1992 and became a political party has a serious chance to take the presidency. And the political elite that has ruled El Salvador for centuries, either directly or indirectly, faces the possibility of losing its grip on the political structures of this tiny Central American nation.

I return to El Salvador in January for the first time in a decade. I was in San Salvador's Plaza Civica on February 1, 1992, when 30,000 Salvadorans celebrated the first day of the ceasefire between the government and the FMLN (the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front). I was also there when the 1994 presidential campaign was just getting under way.

But with the FMLN almost neck and neck in the polls with the ruling, rightwing ARENA (National Republican Alliance) party, I want to find out what had changed since the peace accords were signed. Did the civil war achieve anything but the deaths of tens of thousands? How have people fared under ARENA? And how likely was it that the FMLN could win the presidency?

With his round face and dimples, Tony Saca, who used to head the National Private Business Association, is the youngest presidential candidate ARENA has ever run. The charismatic thirty-seven-year-old former sports announcer knows how to win a crowd over.

I catch up with the Saca campaign during a stop in Quetzaltepeque, a small town an hour northwest of the capital. It is impossible to miss the red, white, and blue stage a block off of the town's main square. A young, handsome ARENA rep warms up the crowd. He sees me with my big camera and asks if I am a journalist. When I say yes, he finds me an escort to assist me to the press area. It takes me some time to figure out that the helpful person is none other than Roberto D'Aubuisson Jr., the son of the notorious founder of the ARENA party.

Major Roberto D'Aubuisson headed the White Warrior Union, an ultra-right death squad that assassinated many people, including Rutilio Grande, one of the first priests to be killed for working with the poor, in 1977. The United Nations Truth Commission found that D'Aubuisson also ordered the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. D'Aubuisson's death squads, run from his office in the Legislative Assembly while he was president of the legislature, had close ties to the Salvadoran and U.S. intelligence services. The Reagan and Bush Administrations condoned D'Aubuisson's activities and lavished funds on El Salvador's military throughout the civil war.

D'Aubuisson died of cancer in 1992. But his political legacy lives on. His image hangs in every ARENA party office I visit, from the headquarters in San Salvador to the local party offices in places like Quetzatepeque. Between a performance by ARENA cheerleaders, dressed in boots and skirts, and Tony Saca's talk, the campaign organizers here play a scratchy recording of an old D'Aubuisson speech.

I speak with D'Aubuisson Jr., now a deputy in the Legislative Assembly. He is tossing out T-shirts, hats, aprons, and sweatbands to throngs of young people. "I'm going skiing tomorrow in Estes Park, Colorado," he tells me in his perfect English, "so why don't you ask me a few questions now?"

I ask him what it is like to be the son of such a significant man in Salvadoran history. "It is a great responsibility, but it also gives me great satisfaction," he tells me. "The great legacy of my father was for Salvadorans to live in a free country. And to his sons, his legacy is this enormous family of nationalists that love liberty and love El Salvador."

Despite his great smile and powerful political name, he says he's not thinking about running for president--yet. We switch to Spanish, and I ask him his thoughts on the FMLN campaign. "When all is said and done, the only thing they will bring is disgrace, poverty, and suffering," he says. "They are the merchants of misery."

Saca picks up on this theme as he addresses the crowd in Quetzaltepeque. "We are going to make a historic decision," he says. "If we want confrontation, class hatred, unemployment, the loss of credibility, a non-Christian country, street fighting, disorder, if we want this for our country, you know what to do. But if you want a country of brotherhood, a united country, a country with jobs, you know what to do. Tony Saca and ARENA are the answer."

To celebrate the twelfth anniversary of the signing of the peace accords, the FMLN throws a party in the downtown Plaza Civica, across the street from the cathedral. One of the biggest changes since the last time I was here is the open support for the FMLN. Its red banners, T-shirts, hats, and flags are available for sale, like any other merchandise. Twelve years ago, no one would have dared to wear an FMLN shirt. Even during the 1994 election campaign, few people wore Frente paraphernalia. But now you can buy an FMLN beret, a bunch of bananas, toothpaste, and a watch, all at the same intersection.

The Plaza Civica is plastered with FMLN banners. Young men run around with huge FMLN flags, darting from one corner of the plaza to another. The party starts at 4:00 in the afternoon but the place doesn't get full of people until about 6:30. Every Friday, the FMLN has a public meeting in this park and gives updates about what's going on in the Legislative Assembly. Currently, the FMLN has the most seats in the legislature, though no party holds a majority.

The entertainment includes a variety of musical styles: rock and roll, cumbia, acoustic folk, campesino folk, and a heavy metal band that plays a tribute to the Jesuits who were killed by the armed forces in 1989. At one point, a female impersonator takes the stage and sings a song about Tony Saca. When she leaves the stage, several people in the crowd demand an encore and shout "otra, otra, otra, otra." Other performers make jokes about Saca, the biggest one being a play on his name: "Tony K-Saca," which roughly translates into Tony Bullshit. Tony K-Saca is spray painted on walls, highways, and buildings all over San Salvador.

Schafik Handal, the FMLN's presidential candidate, doesn't take the stage until 9:00 p.m. With his gray beard and black hair, Handal looks like the seventy-three-year-old that he is. A hard-liner, he has a long history as head of the Communist Party, one of the five groups that made up the FMLN. (The Salvadoran Communist Party began in 1925 and its leader was Augustin Farabundo Marti, who organized an insurrection in 1932 against the military junta of the day. The ferocious repression that followed, in which the military and oligarchy killed 30,000 people in a month, marked the beginning of six decades of brutality.)

Handal takes the stage after a stirring version of "El Pueblo Unido Jamas Sera Vencido" ("The People United Will Never Be Defeated," a Chilean song from the time of the Pinochet coup) and a minute of applause for those who had fallen in the war.

"ARENA thought that the peace accords would be a long period of disarmament of the FMLN, not just of guns but also of ideas. And they were wrong," Handal says. "The FMLN, supported by the Salvadoran people, have been gaining strength. And now we are about to triumph."

Handal becomes energized as he talks. He doesn't speak long, though, and teasingly admonishes a bunch of young people in front to calm down while he finishes.

"They've been lying about us," he says. "They say that the FMLN is going to threaten people, that we are going to take away cars, that we are going to take away people's homes, that we are going to remove children from their homes and are going to kill old people. Look, the first old person here is me."

January polls show that the FMLN is gaining strength while ARENA's is diminishing, though the rightwing party is still in front by a few points. ARENA's numbers are greater in the rural areas, while the FMLN--which has the mayoralties of the larger cities, including San Salvador--is leading in the urban areas.

To win the presidency, a party has to have 50 percent plus one vote. Two other parties, the National Conciliation Party, which represents military interests, and the Christian Democratic Party/Center Democratic Union, are running at less than 8 percent each. More than likely, there will be a runoff election between the FMLN and ARENA on May 2.

Regardless of the outcome, no one expects the rampant fraud that marked the elections of the 1970s and 1980s. The military has been staying out of politics since the peace accords were signed. And human rights violations have dropped dramatically. International election observers will be present in March and May to monitor the voting.

The new U.S. ambassador, Hugh Barclay, said that the U.S. will support whoever wins the race, as long as the elections are fair and free. His predecessor, Rose Likins, said last summer that the prospect of an FMLN victory was worrisome. Her remarks caused an uproar, but Schafik Handal refuses to speculate on the statements of one official. "They are going to respect the result of the elections," he says, after his meeting with the ambassador.

The peace accords did not end the economic and political dominance of the elite, nor did it guarantee a new social and economic order. During its fifteen years in power, ARENA has pursued neoliberal economic policies. In 2000, the government made the U.S. dollar official currency. I did not see one colon during my time in El Salvador, not even in the countryside. ARENA legislative deputy Guillermo Gallegos points out that if El Salvador hadn't dollarized, there would have been a massive devaluation of the currency after the devastating 2001 earthquake. But some people in the informal economy don't think the dollarization was such a good idea.

"The dollarization brought us more misery. It was convenient for the investors because they can buy dollars, but for us small businesses, it was a fatal blow to the head," says Siena, a woman who lost her job four years ago and now works in the informal economy as a vendor at the San Jacinto market. "Now we pay a dollar for what used to cost sixty cents."

"If ARENA wins, it will be brutal," says Beatriz Barrios, another vendor at the San Jacinto market. "There's a lot of corruption. There aren't any jobs. People go illegally [to other countries]. The government is maintaining the country on remittances." Most Salvadorans I meet have a family member who is living abroad. Nearly one-third of the population lives outside the country. Statistics on remittances vary, but money sent back to El Salvador is a crucial part of the economy.

Privatization is another big issue. El Salvador is currently negotiating a free trade agreement with the U.S. The government already has privatized pensions, telephone service, and electricity. In 2002 and 2003, the government tried to privatize the public health care system. Doctors went on strike, and people protested in the streets in numbers not seen since the war.

The ARENA vice presidential candidate, Ana Vilma de Escobar, was the director of one of the country's major public hospitals when the government tried to privatize it. The FMLN supported the successful strike and has gained support for its anti-privatization stance. And the FMLN's vice presidential candidate, Dr. Guillermo Mata Bennett, was the spokesperson of the movement against the privatization.

Adolfo Torres is the director of the San Salvador ARENA headquarters and a member of the party's high command. He has blue eyes and short, brown hair, and like many other ARENA folks I meet, he is charming. He sings to the young woman sitting next to me who is also waiting to see him.

I ask Torres about privatization. "Privatization is a word the left uses to scare people," he tells me.

The war was worthwhile, but it wasn't enough," says Antonio Alvarez. Alvarez is the director of FUNDESA (National Foundation for Development), a nongovernmental organization that has been tracking the land transference program that came out of the peace accords.

"Was the war worth it to gain democratic political space? Was the pain and the suffering of thousands of people who lost their families, their mothers, their fathers, their children worth it? After twelve years, I can say yes, the war was worth it," Alvarez explains. "We no longer live in conditions of total political repression, of torture, of kidnapping, of assassination, like we did during the more than fifty years of military dictatorship. Armed conflict opened up the political space. But the peace process is not yet finished."

He has glasses, thick dark hair, a mustache, and wears a white shirt with gray slacks. A Che Guevara poster hangs from the wall in his office, along with a child's drawing. He dashes around the office, handing me papers he has written about the state of the peace process.

"The problem is that only the political reforms of the peace accords have been implemented but without the accompaniment of social and economic reforms," he says.

"Structural adjustment programs that happened throughout Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s couldn't happen in El Salvador because we were at war. Those in power realized that if the country was not pacified, economic reform would be impossible," Alvarez says. "They had to negotiate. But the negotiations were strictly political. There were no economic negotiations. Twelve years later you see the results of these reforms: a great concentration of wealth in the hands of the few and increased levels of poverty and marginalization."

ARENA's Alfredo Cristiani, president from 1989 to 1994, began structural adjustment programs before the peace accords were signed. In fact, it was the need for these neoliberal economic reforms, combined with a stalemate in the armed conflict, that pushed ARENA to the negotiating table, Alvarez says.

Peace is indescribably better than war," Maria Chichilco (Maria Serrano) tells me over coffee and tamales in her San Salvador apartment near the national university. The ex-combatant from Chalatenango, whose life as a guerrilla was chronicled in the film Maria's Story, recently graduated from the University of El Salvador with a degree in teaching. Her cinder block apartment is sparse and clean, and the red curtains create a rosy hue in the morning sunlight. A poem by Cuban writer Nicolas Guillen adorns the wall, in addition to a few plaques commemorating her time as an FMLN combatant.

The noisy buses outside remind me that we are miles away from the mountainous countryside of Chalatenango. Chichilco prefers her small town of Guarjila, but she lives in San Salvador with her daughter and granddaughter out of necessity. Like any other Salvadoran, she doesn't face good employment prospects. "I'm old," she tells me, "I may not get a job."

Chichilco, who served one term in the Legislative Assembly, tells me that the peace accords were undeniably valuable for the construction of democracy in the country. And though the progress toward democracy is astounding, she says, it isn't enough. "We want to go toward a participatory democracy," she adds. "Representative democracy is easy."


Elizabeth DiNovella is Culture Editor forThe Progressive.