Salvadoran Presidential Elections
by Daniella Ponet
Z magazine, May 2004
As I watched the votes being counted in
San Miguel, El Salvador, and listened to the arrogant cheers of
the ARENA supporters, one question loomed large for me as a U.S.
citizen what would the March 21 elections have looked like without
the "U.S. factor"?
U.S. State Department intervention in
the Salvadoran campaign started in June 2003 and escalated in
February when Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega went
to El Salvador to denounce the leftist FMLN party and to call
on people to vote for someone who "shares our [U.S.] vision
and values." Less than a week before the elections, White
House envoy Otto Reich linked the FMLN to various terrorist groups
and reiterated the Administration's threats that an FMLN triumph
could severely impact the trade, economic, and migratory relations
between the U.S. and El Salvador.
The clincher came three days before the
elections when Representative Thomas Tancredo (R-Colorado) threatened
to introduce legislation that would control the flow of remittances
(money sent home from Salvadorans working in the U.S.) should
the FMLN win.
Why was the U. S. watching these elections
so closely? In part, because of CAFTA, the proposed U.S.-Central
American Free Trade Agreement that Bush hopes to sign into law
this year. The FMLN, the party of the former guerrillas that holds
the most seats in the Salvadoran National Assembly, publicly opposes
the trade deal and has pledged to fight it. For several months
this winter, and for the first time in the history of El Salvador,
the FMLN was in a statistical tie with the right-wing ARENA party.
For a while it seemed as if El Salvador would follow in the footsteps
of Venezuela, Brazil, and Argentina by electing a leftist government
that would oppose U.S. policies of "free" trade and
A week before the elections, I was detained
for 23 hours in the migration police headquarters at the airport
30 minutes south of El Salvador's capitol city, San Salvador.
I was told that they were protecting the people of El Salvador
from people like me, arrogant internationals butting into the
happy and nearly perfect political system. Bitter underpaid guards
complained that discrimination takes place in my country not in
El Salvador. "Your country deported 70 Salvadorans today,
that's discrimination, why should I help you get into El Salvador?
What does your country ever do to help us enter?"
"I swear to you," I repeated
to every guard who made the same tired argument, "if I had
your job in the U.S. I would let you all in. You can do the same,
there's no reason to follow these kinds of orders." The guards
had to spend the night at the airport with us and none of them
got paid overtime for it. They joked that if Schafik wins then
I could enter the country without a problem. "Well, who are
you going to vote for?" I stupidly asked not realizing that
guards, police, soldiers, and other government emergency employees
are all considered "on call" and therefore not allowed
to vote. Many of the disenfranchised government employees making
as little as $155 a month (an approximation of the Salvadoran
minimum wage) would probably vote for a change in government.
The FMLN tried to pass legislation that would allow them that
opportunity, but were called desperate by the ARENA government
who quickly vetoed the request.
Instead the police spent March 21 intimidating
the masses in low-flying helicopters and marching through polling
sites in riot gear. The airport guards detained Salvadorans coming
home to vote because they were wearing red FMLN T-shirts.
Though U.S. power and influence is obvious
in Iraq, the impacts are more subtle, yet no less pervasive, in
a place like El Salvador. Many U.S. citizens know that the U.S.
funded a horrifically bloody 12-year civil war that left over
75,000 Salvadoran people dead. But the war ended, the world's
attention shifted to other regions, and most people in the U.
S. rarely thought about El Salvador again. Yet, the U.S. did not
pack up and leave. It has remained intimately involved in every
step of El Salvador's political and economic development since
the civil war ended in 1992.
In order to understand the right-wing
electoral fear campaign, it is important to know that one quarter
of the Salvadoran population lives in the U.S. and that the $2
billion they send home to their families in El Salvador represents
over half of El Salvador's total budget. The threat that the U.S.
government would deport these workers or prohibit them from sending
money home sent a shiver through El Salvador. These comments were
part of a larger dirty campaign waged by the right wing that focused
on U.S. relations and the issue of national security. The ARENA
party reportedly spent over $50 million spreading fear and misinformation
and the FMLN could not begin to counter the propaganda. The U.
S. government, for its part, refused to deny the bogus claims
relating to immigration and remittances until after the election
Thanks to activists mobilizing both in
the U.S. and in El Salvador, I was able to stay and witness the
electric energy that was El Salvador the week before the elections.
People were high on the possibility of change and their optimism
was contagious. The closing FMLN rally was twice as big as the
closing ARENA rally. The Bloque, a coalition of unions and farmer
organizations shut down the borders to keep Nicaraguans and Guatemalans
out. Foreign neighbors manage to vote in every election in El
Salvador. People had spent the whole last year rallying for this
moment and everything was leading them to believe that the time
for change had finally arrived.
But I couldn't help but feel the intensity
of the other side as well. Three internationals were held up at
gunpoint at an Internet cafe and their "international observer"
badges were stolen. Over 200 internationals were detained at the
airport and at least 14 of them were deported. ARENA supporters
in red shirts threw a firebomb at the STISSS (pro-FMLN healthcare
workers union) headquarters while we were meeting with them. A
forensic expert who is now forced to sell ice cream from a cart
told me that an FMLN victory would lead to a horrible recession
that they would never get out of. On the Friday before the elections
over $100 million was withdrawn from the banks in fear of the
immediate devaluation of their dollars should the left win.
Why did the average U.S. citizen never
hear about the Salvadoran elections? The first reason is that
the U.S. press underestimates the central role El Salvador plays
in the U.S.'s Latin American policy. These election results could
have kept El Salvador out of CAFTA and impacted Bush's free trade
agenda in the region. To Bush and the State Department, these
elections represented a key battle in a strategic part of the
Trying to imagine what the Salvadoran
political reality would look like without U.S. intervention would
be like trying to picture New York City without a single Starbucks
coffee shop: it's almost too integrated to contemplate. Still,
the Salvadoran elections could have been about economic recovery,
local development, and the environment-themes that the FMLN focused
on during its door-to-door campaign. If the people had an opportunity
to hear from their leaders and understand the platforms and the
visions without fear, intimidation, and outside influence, these
election results would have been radically different. In five
years, when Salvadorans take to the polls to elect a new president,
we must work to ensure that the intervention of the U. S. government
is not a factor in their decision.
Daniella Ponet is national program organizer
for the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador