Another Bonfire in America's Backyard

[El Salvador]

by Mahir Ali, March 24, 2009


On the face of it, the result of last week's presidential election in El Salvador is yet another serious setback for the United States in its Central American "backyard". Back in the 1980s, the Reagan administration treated the tiny nation as a Cold War crucible, lending all manner of support to the right-wing military junta in San Salvador and portraying the insurgents of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) as yet another tentacle of the voracious communist octopus.

A great deal of US attention was directed towards Central America during that decade. The 1979 Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua was considered completely unacceptable, and efforts to undermine it included the millions of dollars spent on training and equipping the so-called contras, who were infiltrated into the country via Honduras. Through a policy of economic disruption and mass murder, they succeeded in undermining the radical agenda of the revolutionaries, and the Sandinistas eventually lost power electorally. (Not surprisingly, the US was assisted in its endeavors by the very same countries that were eagerly supportive of its agenda in Afghanistan in that period, namely Saudi Arabia and Israel.)

Anyhow, the recent resurrection of Daniel Ortega - who, as president, was effectively the public face of the Sandinistas through much of the 1980s - caused a certain amount of consternation among surviving Cold Warriors in the Bush administration. Washington did not overreact, however, when Ortega was re-elected head of state a couple of years ago. Perhaps wiser heads in the State Department realized that considerable disappointment lay in store for any Nicaraguans who had voted for Ortega under the impression that he was still the radical firebrand of yore who would naturally be drawn to such kindred Latin American spirits as Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales.

That is indeed how it has turned out. It does not necessarily follow that a similar scenario will unfold in nearby El Salvador, which was also a left-wing cause célèbre in the 1980s, but for rather different reasons than Nicaragua. The Sandinistas were lionized by progressive forces across the world, and not without cause. The government in El Salvador, on the other hand, was reviled with equal vehemence. And not without reason. Up to 75,000 Salvadorans died in the civil war that continued for the remainder of the decade: the vast majority of them were victims of military-sponsored death squads that slaughtered perceived and potential adversaries with abandon, eliciting nary a frown from Washington.

Their most prominent target was Archbishop Oscar Romero, a liberation theologist who took seriously the Christian message of deliverance for the downtrodden but did not believe it should be exclusively a posthumous phenomenon. His elimination in March 1980 was followed nine months later by the rape and murder of four American nuns. In both cases, Washington effectively sided with the killers.

Intriguingly, for a crucial two years during that period, the US ambassador to El Salvador was Deane R. Hinton, whose next posting was to Islamabad. His counterpart in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras - which had death squads of its own, apart from serving as a conduit and as a training ground for the contras - was none other than John Negroponte. (Coincidentally, the present US ambassador in Islamabad, Anne Patterson, is also a veteran of the American embassy in San Salvador, having headed the diplomatic mission there for three years from 1997 - during a considerably less violent period.)

The Salvadoran civil war ended in the early 1990s, not with a military victory for the US-equipped government forces but in an agreement whereby the FMLN agreed to transform itself from a guerrilla force into a political coalition. It wasn't, on the face of it, a bad outcome. Yet in the years that followed one could have been excused for assuming that the death squads had, effectively, triumphed. In every election since then, the FMLN's chief rival has been the far-right National Republican Alliance, better known by its Spanish acronym Arena, which was founded in 1981 by Major Roberto D'Aubuisson, a graduate of the infamous School of the Americas - a US-based training academy whose graduates have included many of Latin America's most egregious human rights violators. D'Aubuisson also had the distinction of heading the death squads.

Until this year, the US has made little pretence of neutrality. In 2004, when Arena's Antonio Saca faced FMLN's legendary commander and former Communist Party chief Schafik Handal (both candidates traced their ancestry to Palestine, incidentally), representatives of the Bush administration made it abundantly clear that the latter's victory would have serious consequences for relations between the two countries. Given that El Salvador's economy is very closely aligned with that of the US, it's hardly a stretch to assume that the warning served as a deterrent.

This year, the Obama administration signaled that it would be happy to work with whoever emerged victorious. That blunted the edge of Arena's efforts to demonize the FMLN candidate, Mauricio Funes, as an unreconstructed communist. The 49-year-old Funes is a television journalist, not an ex-guerrilla: the former CNN employee leaned to the left, but only moderately, borrowing his imagery and slogans not from Chavez or Che Guevara, but from the Obama campaign, which made it harder to portray him as anti-American.

Funes has promised not to rock the boat too hard, but it would be disappointing if the change in El Salvador turned out to be more symbolic than substantial. Over the past decade or so, the Washington Consensus has steadily been stripped away across the length and breadth of Latin America. Salvadorans were late in coming to the party, but they have done so at a time when neoliberalism is under siege even in the most highly developed capitalist economies.

Augustin Farabundo Marti, the communist revolutionary after whom the FMLN named itself, was executed in 1932 for his role in leading a rural rebellion. The military dictatorship of the time responded with a bloodbath: more than 30,000 indigenous peasants were killed in what Salvadorans remember as La Matanza, or the massacre. (Farabundo Marti was a contemporary - and briefly a comrade - of Augusto Cesar Sandino, the Nicaraguan revolutionary who inspired the Sandinistas.)

The uprising occurred in the context of the Great Depression, while the FMLN's electoral success comes at the dawn of what could be an action replay - and at the end, hopefully, of the retrograde conservative era ushered in by the advent of Ronald Reagan. The victory of Mauricio Funes may not be a revolutionary moment, but it undoubtedly signifies change - amid the likelihood that a violent response from Arena to deviations from the status quo would elicit neither sympathy nor support from Washington.

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