The US whispering campaign against Sánchez Cerén


There’s a segment of the US foreign policy community that simply doesn’t care much for the likely winner of this weekend’s Salvadoran presidential election, Salvador Sánchez Cerén — and it’s making its displeasure loud in the days leading up to Sunday’s runoff vote.el salvador

First, Elliott Abrams, former deputy national security adviser under US president George W. Bush, argued back in early January in The Washington Post that Sánchez Cerén (pictured above) represents a backslide for El Salvador, arguing further that ‘democracy and peace in Central America are again at risk’:

The likely impact of a Sánchez Cerén victory on U.S.-Salvadoran security and counter-narcotics cooperation is dangerous. The United States has a key forward operating location in El Salvador to monitor and deter drug trafficking, and the FBI cooperates with local police against trafficking by Salvadoran gangs. Could such activities continue in light of the FMLN’s ties to the FARC and to the Venezuelan government?

Yesterday, José R. Cárdenas, also a former official in the Bush administration, added his alarm in Foreign Policy, where he echoes the same kind of panic over a Sánchez Cerén victory:

What an FMLN victory means for El Salvador and the region under a Sánchez Cerén presidency is particularly worrisome. Unlike current President Mauricio Funes of the FMLN, with Sánchez Cerén there is no pretense to moderation. Beneath the democratic mask, he still adheres to the hard-line agenda of the FMLN, honed during the dirty war against the Salvadoran state in the 1980s.

Funes, as the candidate of the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN, Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front), the guerrilla group from the 1980s that transformed more than two decades ago into El Salvador’s primary center-left political party, won the presidency for the Salvadoran left for the first time in the country’s postwar history.  Sánchez Cerén is more ideologically motivated than Funes, who came to politics from journalism, unlike Sánchez Cerén, who came to politics directly from the front lines of El Salvador’s 1979-92 civil war.

Sánchez Cerén’s running mate, Óscar Ortiz, is the widely popular mayor of Santa Tecla and a moderate figure within the FMLN, and many Salvadorans believe it always should have been Ortiz leading the FMLN’s 2014 ticket.  His appeal is one of the reasons Sánchez Cerén seems like such a lock to win Sunday’s election (at least as much as the ‘masterful political ads that managed to convert a battle-hardened ideologue into a kindly, old grandfather’ that Cardenás attributes to the FMLN’s success).  Sánchez Cerén, who has served Funes loyally as vice president for five years, and Ortiz, who will want to succeed Sánchez Cerén in 2019, both have an incentive to pursue continuity with the relatively moderate Funes government.  Sánchez Cerén would not be the first Latin American firebrand to govern with a pragmatic approach in office — e.g., Peruvian president Ollanta Humala.

Following the end of the civil war, El Salvador developed a relatively stable trajectory and, until 2009, the center-right Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA, Nationalist Republican Alliance) won every consecutive presidential election.  It’s true that the Funes administration has nudged Salvadoran public policy leftward, especially with respect to social welfare, and that Funes has availed his country of some of the economic benefits of closer ties with Venezuela and other US opponents in Latin America.  But ultimately, his administration hasn’t abandoned the broad Salvadoran consensus toward neoliberal economic policy or the country’s decision a decade ago to abandon its national currency in favor of dollarization.  Funes’s leftism has been more of the pragmatic, business-friendly lulista variety than the populist, dogmatic chavista alternative: 

But as president, Funes has expanded social welfare benefits — abolishing public health care fees, combatting illiteracy, providing food and clothing to schoolchildren, granting title to disputed land claims, introducing monthly stipends and job training for the poorest Salvadorans, and signing legislation to protect women, sexual minorities and indigenous communities.  He’s also oriented El Salvador closer to the Venezuela-led Alianza Bolivariana (ALBA, Bolivarian Alliance) while retaining strong ties with the United States.

By the way, the Salvadoran business community has welcomed Funes’s outreach to Venezuela and ALBA because, as Frederick Mills wrote late last year in a great primer on the Salvadoran race, the private sector is enjoying access to new markets in addition to its long-standing access to US markets.

In the first round of the election on February 2, Sánchez Cerén won 48.92% of the vote, while center-right San Salvador mayor Norman Quijano won 38.95%.  The third-place candidate, former president Elías Antonio ‘Tony’ Saca won just 11.44%.  Saca, notwithstanding his former ties to ARENA, has so far refused to endorse either Quijano or Sánchez Cerén in the runoff — that’s a blow to Quijano, who hopes to consolidate the right-leaning vote to pull off an upset in the March 9 runoff.

But there’s some troubling revisionism in both hit pieces by Cardenás and Abrams that should leave us all skeptical about their narratives of the current election campaign. 

The characterization of the Salvadoran civil war as to a ‘dirty war against the Salvadoran state in the 1980s’ is truly astounding.  Both sides of the civil war were dirty, but US military aid, beginning under Democratic president Jimmy Carter and extending under Republican president Ronald Reagan, contributed significantly to human rights abuses, death squads and other horrors committed by the Salvadoran state in the 1980s.  Abrams, who was also an assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs during the Reagan administration, himself allegedly covered up a now-documented 1982 massacre in El Mozote of 500 civilians at the hands of the US-supported Salvadoran military.  But today, Abrams claims that US policy at the time actually stabilized Central America:  

Reagan faced fierce opposition from some quarters in Washington, but his policies — and the sacrifices of many U.S. friends in the region — helped bring about three decades of relative peace and economic growth in Central America.

Most Central Americans, however, remember the 1980s for how the Reagan administration’s policy turned the region upside down.  US policy exacerbated Guatemala’s civil war (the roots of which lie in the US government’s 1954 decision to oust Jacobo Árbenz, the leftist, popularly elected Guatemalan president) and facilitated the execution of thousands of highland Maya by former president Efraín Ríos Montt, who now faces charges of genocide.  The Reagan administration violated US law in order to arm the Nicaraguan Contras against the Soviet-backed Sandinistas, thereby exacerbating another regional civil war — it’s relevant here that Abrams himself pled guilty to two charges of lying to the US Congress.  In Honduras, long a playground for US political and commercial interference in the region, the Reagan administration supported leaders who openly deployed ‘anti-communist’ paramilitary death squads against its opponents in the 1980s.

That’s all before we even arrive at US policy in El Salvador, where the civil war raged so savagely that up to one million Salvadorans fled their own country (which in 1985 had a population of around 5 million), many of them ending up today in the United States, building a unique Salvadoran-American community.  Ironically, one side effect of the Salvadoran migration was the development of Salvadoran street gangs on the streets of Los Angeles that were subsequently reimported to El Salvador in the 1990s and 2000s, thereby catalyzing much of the country’s crime problem today.

With that kind of ax to grind, it’s clear that neither Cardenás nor Abrams are exactly the kind of even-handed brokers you’d trust to provide analysis about the Salvadoran election, especially as they figuratively throw the kitchen sink at Sánchez Cerén.

They tie Sánchez Cerén to FARC, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), a 50-year-old Colombian guerrilla force, through a to FMLN official, José Luis Merino, who allegedly arranged a meeting between drug dealers and FARC leaders in 2011.  The allegations are troubling for the implications that FMLN is involved in drug-related corruption, not because former Salvadoran leftist guerrillas have ties to former Colombian leftist guerillas. FARC and the Colombian government are currently involved in peace negotiations that would end FARC’s half-century insurgency, a development that seems likely to win Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos a second term in elections later this summer.  Right-wing media tried to tie the FMLN to the FARC in 2009, too — it didn’t work then, and it seems much less likely to work in 2014.

Ultimately, even if the FMLN engaged in illegal activity with regards to campaign finance or corruption, they’ll be in good company.  Allegations of abuse of public funds is one of the reasons Saca eventually left ARENA after his presidency, and even US state department cables implicate Saca in massive corruption while in office.  His ARENA predecessor Francisco Flores is under investigation for misuse of public funds, and Quijano, with close ties to Flores, has also come under a cloud of suspicion.

If the FMLN has a corruption problem, it’s troubling, but no more than ARENA’s own corruption.  Two wrongs, of course, don’t make a right, but the more complete story is that El Salvador, as a relatively poor and underdeveloped country with only nascent democratic institutions, remains very susceptible to corruption, especially when drug traffickers can so easily afford to pay corrupt officials more than the Salvadoran state can.

Cardenás also points to allegations that the FMLN negotiated with Mara Salvatrucha, one of the two chief Salvadoran street gangs, to exchange leniency in exchange for votes.  That, too, is troubling, but as with the sensational allegation of FMLN-FARC drug ties, it’s still not the full story.

Though the Funes administration was slow to acknowledge it, his government brokered a key truce, with the support of the country’s Catholic Church, between Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 two years ago, which led to a sharp decline in the Salvadoran homicide rate.  Though Salvadorans should be troubled by any FMLN-mara vote-fixing scheme, they might be even more troubled by a future under Quijano, who is running on the basis of ARENA’s longstanding iron-fist approach to drug traffickers and criminal gangs, an approach that simply hasn’t worked as well as the Funes truce approach.

Both Cardenás and Abrams point to a Sánchez Cerén victory as something that will embolden drug traffickers in Central America.  But, just as in Honduras, the ultimate problem is that Washington continues to fight the ‘drug war’ in a way that’s outdated and flawed.   Any undergraduate economics student can tell you that North American demand for drugs means that South American suppliers will always find a way to deliver.

In Honduras, US military aid has been responsible for civilian deaths and has undermined the local rule of law and respect for human rights — and that’s assuming, rather graciously, that US policymakers even know that their partners in Honduras aren’t actually corrupted by drug traffickers themselves and aren’t funneling US aid to the very individuals that the US government is supposed to be subduing.

Sunday’s election will be decided by Salvadorans and Salvadorans alone, including, for the first time, Salvadorans living abroad.  It won’t be decided by Reagan-era and Bush-era officials.

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