El Salvador After the Election

Against the Current, No. 20, May/June 1989

David Finkel

THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION of March 19 in El Salvador produced the result most observers anticipated. With a very low 40% voter turnout — about 900,000, even less than the one million who voted in last year’s legislative assembly election — Alfredo Cristiani of the ARENA (Republican Nationalist Alliance) party swept to first-round victory with a 54% majority. Fidel Chavez Mena of the splintered Christian Democrats, the once-dominant center-right party, limped in with 35%.

Some reports indicate the real vote total may have been even lower. Victor Rubio, a supporter of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) living in Detroit, has spoken with sources in Mexican news agencies who believe as few as 600,000 Salvadorans may have voted.

While these figures cannot be confirmed, those who did vote had to deposit their ballots in transparent plastic boxes through which their choice could easily be read. Many polling places were actually taken over by squads of ARENA party members, who supervised the voting and took custody of the ballots for the vote count.

The revolutionary forces of the FMLN demonstrated their political-military strength with actions in forty-three towns throughout all fourteen departments (provinces) of the country, a highly effective four-day transportation ban and attacks that knocked out most electricity. The FMLN claimed to have inflicted 119 casualties on the army between March 4 and 19.

The FMLN won great popular support in the run-up to the election with its dramatic proposal for a six-month postponement to allow for a vote in an atmosphere free of repression with an authentic democratic choice. “Unlike U.S. congressmen,” says Victor Rubio, “we think democracy means more than voting for candidates that people don’t want in the first place, like ARENA or the Christian Democrat.”

The FMLN proposal would have reopened electoral rolls, which were closed by the Elections Commission once ARENA’s own voting base had been registered, and would have excluded the military and the United States from intervening in the election process.

When the negotiations sparked by the FMLN’s proposal disintegrated, the election was reduced to a demonstration of strength by the extreme right through its control of the electoral machinery for a mobilization of its own voting base. The revolutionary forces in tum demonstrated their impressive capabilities to undercut the credibility of the election, to prevent it from occurring at all in large parts of the countryside, and to make clear that they cannot be ignored in any proposed solution to the war.

The election therefore produced nothing resembling a solution to the revolutionary social and political crisis of the country. It merely demonstrated anew what Marcella Tardy, a Midwest regional organizer for the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), who spent the first two weeks of March in El Salvador, describes as II dual power in the streets of San Salvador.”

Given the degree of polarization and the low voter turnout, the Democratic Convergence-an electoral coalition formed by Ruben Zamora and Guillermo Ungo of the Revolutionary Democratic Front (FDR) with the Social Democratic Party-received only around 3% of the vote (based on the official count) in the face of explicit death threats from the right, as well as the FMLN-imposed transport ban.

Cristiani’s assumption of office on June 1 will leave ARENA controlling the entire government apparatus — legislative, presidential and military. The Salvadoran judiciary effectively stopped functioning years ago, when it became clear that any judge who convicted members of the death squads would rapidly join the ranks of their victims.

The quite predictable outcome of the election leaves an extraordinarily complex and violent political-military situation. The right and the left in El Salvador are facing what FMLN representatives have called “a time of definition” — a fundamental turning point — and the U.S. administration is biting into a very sour policy pickle.

Prospects on the Right

The Salvadoran right’s political victory has been purchased at an interesting price. ARENA, an authentic fascist party run by conscious Nazis like Roberto d’ Aubuisson who have found Cristiani to front for them, won its series of parliamentary, municipal and presidential electoral victories over the past year with promises of significant reforms. To its own party faithful, to the impatient military commanders and to the Salvadoran super-rich, ARENA has vowed a “total war” against the commies and a purging of the menace to the country by a return to the glorious days of the massacres of 1932. But to many Salvadoran peasants, the middle class and U.S. public opinion, ARENA has held out the hope of negotiations, peace and economic change.

ARENA presents itself now not as the party of the antediluvian oligarchy, but of modem businessmen whose own enlightened self-interest demands a healer, better-paid, better-educated, happier and therefore more productive workforce. It picked up at least some rural support by promising the same re­ forms and then some (improved services, peace, land, healthcare, education) that once won votes for the now-discredited Christian Democrats.

The chances of ARENA’s ruling-class backers being willing to pay for any part of these attractive programs is amusingly illustrated by an anecdote reported by the New York Times’ generally uninformed and highly unreliable correspondent Lindsey Gruson, who does however maintain good sources among the powerful and privileged:

“When ARENA won control of San Salvador’s City Hall last year, one of the first acts of the new mayor, Armando Calderon Sol, was to write the wealthiest residents begging them to pay their property tax bills, which they had traditionally discarded. ‘To say that his request was ignored is putting it politely,’ one Salvadoran said.” (March 22, 1989)

As a party of capitalist-reform promises, ARENA has very little chance to succeed where the Christian Democrats failed. Further, given his efforts to appeal to peace sentiment, Cristiani will not be able to simply ignore new demands from the FMLN for political negotiations. He will confront in power the same contradictions that ruined Jose Napoleon Duarte, who won votes with reform promises but did the bidding of the generals — contradictions that are now all the more intense.

I asked Victor Rubio whether he felt a significant part of ARENA’s support might have come from those sectors of the rural population, facing unemployment and overwhelming economic despair, who have not yet been “organized” by the popular movement. In Rubio’s view this is not a significant factor; given total vote may not have exceeded 350,000 (based on the lower estimates of the voter turnout), the base of the extreme right in the privileged urban and rural strata would have been enough to produce the result.

Historically, however, the classic appeal of fascist parties to sections of the oppressed and exploited is a promise — any promise — from above for survival to those who have not yet grasped the potentiality to seize control of their own future, the hope embodied in revolution from below. ARENA’s hope of holding the power it has won must rest in part in developing such an appeal.

Prospects on the Left

El Salvador has been a Jiving laboratory of revolution and counterinsurgency throughout the1980s. With 70,000 dead and over a million refugees created by the U.S.-backed Salvadoran military and its auxiliary death squads, the process has been costly and bloody.

For the past year the FMLN has made clear that it sees events in El Salvador moving toward “an inevitable social explosion” and popular insurrection, in the absence of a fundamental political change through negotiation. In this electoral period the FMLN convincingly demonstrated its ability to fight and talk at the same time, with each of these aspects of the struggle strengthening the other.

Speculative efforts from the outside to guess the timetable for the revolutionary climax have proven to be futile if not downright disorienting. While no such attempt will be made here, there is strong evidence that the urban popular movement is carrying out organizing tasks of a pre-insurrectionist character.

During her pre-election visit, Marcella Tardy witnessed almost daily demonstrations. In the capital city, these typically have a “lightning” character: a couple of hundred participants from a women’s or human rights or labor organization rapidly assemble, march to assert their demands, reach their destination and leave, usually on a bus that has been commandeered for the purpose. They don’t disperse individually or in small groups that might be trailed by death squads.

These street demonstrations are marshalled by the militant Movement for Bread, Land, Work and Liberty (MPTL), whose activists provide unarmed but effective physical protection against state security forces and traffic incursions.

In the suburban barrios of the extremely poor and marginalized, teams from the UNTS (National Unity of Salvadoran Labor) distributed leaflets exposing the election’s fraudulent character and advocating a boycott. Tardy described one impromptu barrio meeting of this kind that dispersed just as the military came sweeping across the adjoining soccer field, the organized leafleters leaving by their bus just in time.

Tardy’s view is that such activities will not let up following the election but can be expected to develop more intensively. The UNTS and MPTL workers are now the targets of systematic death-squad violence.

The UNTS office, subject to regular military encirclements and bombing attacks, is protected by a labyrinth of sandbags that street traffic can only slowly weave through. One union federation, FENASTRAS, has completely blocked off the street where its office is located, refusing to dismantle the barricades so long as the government will not guarantee its security.

The daily heroism of the popular movement is difficult to describe. One regular activity of the movement is the public exhumation of bodies of torture and murder victims, not only for positive identification but for political exposure.

Miguel Angel Lazo from the teachers’ union ANDES and Carlos Rodriguez Domingues from the Unitary Federation of Salvadoran Workers (FUSS), picked up by the air force February 25 and found dead the next day bearing marks of torture, were exhumed March 4 in the presence of North American observers. The murdered activists’ comrades chanted their names and pledged that they would not be forgotten.

The existence of such a movement that embodies the hope for fundamental change is incompatible with ARENA’s assurances to the bourgeoisie that order will be restored. Its survival depends on continuing the momentum that the FMLN’s political and military initiatives have created-a dynamic from which it is almost impossible to tum back.

The U.S. Dilemma

“If President Bush still has doubts about the failure of Reagan Administration policy in Central America, Sunday’s elections in El Salvador make it indisputable,” writes Flora Lewis (New York Times, March 22, 1989).

Lewis reflects a deep crisis of confidence among U.S. political elites as to the wisdom of renewing commitment to a Salvadoran regime in which they know the death squads hold the real power. In all probability, the Bush administration will take the plunge, talking human rights, sending more weapons and advisors and hoping for the best.

Angela Sanbrano, executive director of CISPES, told Against the Current that the next couple of months are critical. The day after the election Sanbrano said:

“We believe protests will grow as people demand the end of support for the death-squad government. The people of El Salvador are not going to allow the government to consolidate or legitimate itself. And here in this country we feel that people really understand what’s at stake and the opportunity we have to pressure the policymakers. It was difficult to do this when the Christian Democrats were in power and the United States supported this so-called democratic center. But with ARENA’s victory there’s a major policy dilemma for Bush and the Congress.”

Of course, the policy debate will take place within the narrowest confines: whether a certain rather small percentage of U.S. military aid should be conditioned on the assurances of a not-too­rapid escalation in the level of murders of civilians by the Salvadoran military.

In this case, however, the debate may be of greater than usual importance, not because of its substance but because what’s at stake is the strength of the vote of confidence that Washington gives to Cristiani. Ultimately, his regime cannot succeed without a contingent promise of open-ended support and intervention from the Bush administration.

This very specter deeply worried a politically sophisticated Chicago cop on duty at a March 19 demonstration of a thousand anti-intervention activists on Michigan Avenue. The cop told a television reporter, “This is the biggest Central America demonstration here in years. It’s been very disruptive, and we’re afraid that if Bush escalates our involvement in El Salvador, it’s going to get much worse.”

May-June 1989, ATC 20

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