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 neoliberalism.

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 was over.

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 world.

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 (CISPES).

Central America page

Index of Website

Home Page