Salvador: From the Bullet
to the Ballot
by Elizabeth DiNovella
The Progressive magazine,
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
I return to E1 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 Quetzalteperque, 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
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
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 Jamds Serd 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 Iying 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
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 1 970s 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 Hindal 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
"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
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 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
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,"
"Representative democracy is easy."
Elizabeth DiNovella is Culture Editor
for The Progressive. If you are interested in the upcoming elections
in El 5alvador, contact the Center for Exchange and Solidarity,
which is organizing election observer missions for the elections.
For more information, check out its website at www.cis-elsalvador.org.