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3 July 2008 Edition

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International : FMLN poses new challenge to ruling party

Change possible in El Salvador


BY DARA MacNEILL

FOR a glimpse of what the neo-liberal future might look like, a visit to the tiny Central American country of El Salvador could prove very instructive.
In 1992, El Salvador finally arrived at a negotiated settlement which ended the 14-year war of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), during which it had battled the tiny oligarchy of ruling families that ran El Salvador as a personal fiefdom. They were supported by one of the largest counter-insurgency operations ever mounted by the US. And some $4 billion in military aid.
Indeed, for the duration of the 1980s El Salvador became a de facto laboratory for counter insurgency warfare and, despite claims to the contrary, US military personnel were involved in the fighting, according to a 1993 Truth Commission report.
The 1992 peace accords generated great national and regional optimism that El Salvador could break from its spiral of underdevelopment, inequality and violence. Indeed, its Central American neighbours – Guatemala and Nicaragua – share strikingly similar histories: decades of repression and inequality provoking an armed response from the populace.
Only in Nicaragua did the liberation movement succeed in ousting the old regime, before itself being strangled at birth by Washington’s economic and military muscle. The FMLN never quite reached the dizzy heights of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, but they came remarkably close to emulating that achievement, as testified to by the size and extent of the US aid programmne
However, in 1992, the guerilla movement set about transforming itself into a political party, confident that having come perilously close to winning the war, winning the peace was eminently attainable. Unfortunately, it hasn’t turned out that way.
To date, the FMLN has failed to make the necessary political breakthrough and has fought and lost several presidential elections. As a result, El Salvador has remained in the hands of the far right for the last 15 years, as represented by the ARENA party.
And theirs has been the neoliberal economic and political agenda which has succeeded in reducing El Salvador to little more than an economic and social wasteland.
During the war, some 750,000 people fled El Salvador as political refugees and exiles. This was from a total population of some six million. Today, up to 2.5 million Salvadorans have fled abroad, the majority to the US.
This is equivalent to an estimated 34 per cent of the country’s population. And they continue to leave at a rate of some 100,000 per year. Repeated surveys have shown that some 42 percent of El Salvador’s people would leave if they could.
As all people-exporting nations know too well, it is the young, healthy and productive that go north. Visitors to the country speak of towns and villages where there is no one over the age of 20, or under 55.
In 2006, these economic exiles sent home remittances worth $3.3 billion, approximately 20 percent of the country’s GDP. Quite simply, the country would collapse without these ‘remesas’ this masssive inflow of dollars earned in the low-skill, long hour and dangerous work that is the lot of most Salvadoran migrants to the US.
El Salvador is also plagued with extreme street gang violence, particularly the capital San Salvador. Many attribute this to the virtual disintegration of family and social life caused by wage earners being forced to emigrate, along with an absence of public and support services. The country has the highest murder rate in Latin America and its prisons hold twice their capacity. 
Over the last decade ARENA has signed up to regional free trade agreements with the US, privatised public services and in a move heavy with symbolism, adopted the US dollar as the official currency of El Salvador. ARENA government supported the Bush invasion of Iraq and was a member of his farcical ‘coalition of the willing’. They still have troops stationed in Iraq.
But none of this should be a surprise from the party that was founded by the man who ran El Salvador’s death squads, during the 1980s and who organised the assassination of Archbishop Romero, in 1980.
While the concept of the death squad originated in Argentina during military rule, it was honed and brutally finessed in El Salvador by Roberto D’Aubuisson, a psychopathic murderer with an admiration for Hitler.
Trained in the US military academy known officially as the School of the Americas (and unofficially as the School of the Coups, due to the activities of its graduates), D’Aubuisson was known as ‘Blowtorch Bob’, a nickname that referred to his interrogation techniques. D’Aubuisson founded the Arena party in 1981 and led it until 1985. It was and remains closely tied to the small ruling oligarchy that still runs the country.
But, for the first time in 15 years, the FMLN appears to be mounting a credible political challenge to this hegemony. Although the presidential election will not take place until March 2009, the party’s new candidate has pulled off a first by taking and holding a lead in all polls.
A former journalist Mauricio Funes seems to have struck a chord with the electorate by adopting ‘cambio’ (change) as the theme of his campaign. Already, people are making comparisons with the campaign of Barack Obama, to the north.
His success has already led to ARENA attacks on the ‘communist FMLN’ and allegations from the Director of US National Intelligence that Hugo Chavez is secretly funding the Funes campaign.
To generate that level of anxiety and concern it is clear that Mr Funes is doing something right. 

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