El Salvador’s long march

Victor Valle
20 March 2009

The victory of Mauricio Funes in El Salvador's presidential election on 15 March 2009 completes the settlement of the armed conflict that devastated the country in the 1980s. The triumph of this candidate of the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front / FMLN) is an echoing tribute to the peace accords of January 1992 that ended this conflict, and a litmus-test for the democracy-building process that the accords began.

Victor Valle is the Dean for the Latin America and the Caribbean programme, and professor of human security, at the University for Peace, Costa Rica.

Also by Victor Valle in openDemocracy:
"El Salvador's long walk to democracy" (25 May 2006)

The military confrontation between the armed state and the FMLN guerrillas in the 1970s and 1980s, fuelled by the cold war, inflicted around 75,000 deaths on the country. The massacres, tortures, and assassinations that escalated throughout the 1980s reached a political-military stalemate by the end of the decade; this was finally overcome through the United Nations-mediated negotiations that led to the historic agreement signed at Chapultepec, Mexico on 16 January 1992. Salvadorian politics and society changed thanks to the peace accords; but the roots of the conflict were not properly addressed.

The peace accords foresaw that the end of armed confrontation must also be a new beginning: to a process of democracy-building, full respect for human rights, and the reconciliation of a polarised Salvadorian society. Indeed, the influence of the agreement was felt in the improvements in politics and society that were consolidated in the following years; among them freedom of speech and association, and the separation of military and public-security forces.

These in turn have helped ensure that public affairs in El Salvador are now free of the gross violations of basic human rights that had become routine in the country during the first nine decades of the 20th century. The peace accords are crucial to this historic achievement. 

The roots of division

The rightwing political bloc of Salvadorian society won four successive elections after 1992, and was responsible for overseeing many of these positive changes. At the same time, this period saw the major stakeholders in Salvadorian society begin the arduous work of rethinking their ideas and agency in a new context of political struggle. The assurance of power helped dull the conservative side's awareness of the society around it: it continued to project itself as the bastion of an anti-communist crusade in a world where Soviet communism as a political model no longer existed.

The main rightist party Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (Arena) has dominated Salvadorian politics since 1992. It can be described as the inheritor of those sectors that expropriated the communal lands and the ejidos in the last quarter of the 19th century, and handed them to the increasingly powerful group of coffee-planters and exporters. In the ensuing decades, this elite worked hard to accumulate wealth with little concern for the lower classes that provided low-cost, forced labor; it established primitive security forces; and, through repressive methods of social control, it made violence a routine practice. In doing all this, the elite instilled a form of politics in El Salvador in which violence became accepted as an accepted way of achieving objectives and settling disputes.

Also in openDemocracy on politics in central America:

Marielos Monzón, " Guatemala: journalism under pressure" (25 September 2005)

Mark Joyce, " The wager of Panama" (31 May 2006)

Sergio Ramirez, " Daniel Ortega's second coming" (7 November 2006)

Sergio Aguayo Quezada, " Mexico: on the volcano" (24 November 2006)

Sergio Ramirez, " Nicaragua: through the abyss" (3 September 2007)

Ivan Briscoe, " Guatemala: a good place to kill" (17 October 2007)

Sergio Ramirez, " Nicaragua: heartbeat of protest" (1 September 2008)

Sergio Aguayo Quezada, " Mexico: a state of failure" (17 February 2009) 

The FMLN in historical terms represents those who were defeated by this historical process of expropriation and consolidation of new forms of power. The movement has the support of the country's workers and poor farmers, and is committed to a social-democratic programme of progressive reform. It also includes within it several currents that are committed to social change via revolutionary means. These can be regarded as the inheritors of Agustín Farabundo Martí, the social activist and leftist fighter who was active in the movement identified with international communism in the 1920s; after an uprising of peasants and workers in 1932 this movement was drowned in blood in the matanza (massacre) of around 30,000 Salvadoreans.

The road to repair

The electoral outcome in El Salvador is the result of an evolution begun by the peace accords. The political left has increased its share of power incrementally since 1994. Now, the remaining issue in question - control of the executive branch - has been settled. At the same time, Mauricio Funes's victory was narrow as well as clear: he won 51.3% of the vote against 48.7% for the Arena candidate, Rodrigo Ávila.

Here, the presidential election echoed the parliamentary one of 18 January 2009 in which the FMLN also won by a small majority (thirty-five of its members were elected against Arena's thirty-two in the eighty-four-member parliament; two other parties have eleven and five seats, and one small centre-left party has a single member). Together, the results reveal a fine political balance in the country - including in municipal government - which could lead to a near-deadlock in parliament. No party is able to secure a simple majority of votes; in order to secure a qualified majority (two-thirds of the vote, i.e. fifty-six MPs), the two major parties must work together and build agreements.

The conflict has undergone a transformation from within. It is no longer an armed one, but a political one. The two major political parties must now find ways to address the fundamental and recurrent problems in El Salvador: violence, inequality, poverty, and underdevelopment. It is time to build bridges in politics and economics; it is time for democratic dialogue.

These presidential elections have demonstrated that the Salvadorian people are ready to move beyond the era of civil war and create a better future by democratic means. The country's leaderships in all sectors - politics, business, social movements, churches, universities - should be able to understand the current circumstances and work towards substantial and strategic agreements. It is time to build the peace and prosperity that the Salvadorian people deserve. Mauricio Funes has the potential to lead the country to better times. His first speeches as president-elect are a beacon of hope.

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