Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

El Salvadoran President-Elect Mauricio Funes to Travel with VP Biden to Costa Rica (Or why this isn’t El Salvador Retro 1980s)

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On both the left and the right a lot has been made of Mauricio Funes’ victory in the March 15 presidential elections in El Salvador. Those on the left say this is yet another vindication of the failure of the neo-liberal model—another in a string of left-leaning leaders that have come to power through the ballot box. On the right, observers see this as a sign that the 1980s sky is falling—the nemesis of the Reagan administration now occupies the presidential palace.

Truth is, quite frankly, it’s neitherThis isn’t the outsider politics of recent memory. First, let’s take a close look at who the candidate is and the evidence of the FMLN’s evolution. First, Funes. The man, an outsider to his party, is hardly a firebrand revolutionary. The former TV journalist is not the camouflage-wearing, bush-trained guerrilla of the FMLN past. Nor for that matter does he fit the pattern of the other outsider candidates that some want to equate him with. He’s not a former military officer (either official or out of the bush) like President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela; he’s not a political newbie, academic like Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa; he’s not a full-time provocateur/protester like Bolivian President Evo Morales; and he’s not a career, unrepentant revolutionary (and accused child molester) like Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. (And full disclosure, I don’t believe necessarily that Correa or Morales are as radical as the others. While their career trajectory has been unorthodox, they represent the dysfunctionality of the party systems that preceded them, more than a hard ideological turn one way or the other.)

Funes on the other hand is a professional; a polished politician who preaches moderation. Immediately after the election he called for moderation and reconciliation. His slogan. “a safe change,” is positively Obama-esque.

The best example of this is the recent announcement March 25th, that President-elect Funes will travel with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to Costa Rica. The decision to travel goes beyond symbolism (though no small matter itself), but demonstrates his commitment to the moderate, economic and political union of Central America in partnership with the U.S. In deciding to travel to Costa Rica, Funes stiff-armed Nicaraguan President Ortega who was trying to hold a more Bolivarian oriented meeting of Central American presidents.

As the former FMLN guerrilla leader, Joaquin Villalobos, said, El Salvadoran leaders did not vote for a Chavez-type presidency or revolutionary. After 20 years of government by the conservative ARENA, who can blame voters wanting a little change when it’s packaged as a moderate alternative.

But the FMLN is not the Movimiento Quinta Republica (Chavez’s party) the MAS (Morales’s party) or Correa’s party (whatever name it’s going by now). The FMLN has governed a handful of cities responsibly and well, including the capital, San Salvador—in which it just lost and bowed out of power gracefully. In other words, this is a party that is tried and tested as governors. As a former leftist leader once confessed to me, the left in Latin America has made a political career out of opposing everything and even denigrating everything that has to do with managing (budgets, people, responsibilities) as being bourgeois. That has to change if a much-needed moderate left is to present itself as a democratic option that can resolve voters’ legitimate desire for change and social reform and address the very real challenges at hand: crime, violence, poverty, social service delivery. These aren’t matters answered by ideology.

The signs of moderation—rhetorical and practical—though, haven’t been enough to blunt the alarmist tone of ARENA politicians and their friends in the U.S. When asked privately if an FMLN victory could threaten to roll back many of the positive reforms initiated by past presidents including former President Tony Saca, President Saca warned ominously that the FMLN was unlikely to respect many of the gains made in the recent past. This is a shame—not only because of the fear mongering—but primarily because it undervalues the importance and consolidation of the reforms of the past 20 years. Dismissing the sustainability of your own reforms to threaten investors is not only brazen partisanship, it also sells a country, its people and ARENA’s accomplishments short. Former Assistant Secretary of State, Roger Noriega, sounded a similar alarm bell, warning that all could be lost should FMLN win, and rather sanguinely predicting that the popular opinion was trending in ARENA’s favor for the elections. This, of course, was before the election.

Now that the FMLN has won, what can we expect? Should we believe that the country will go to hell in a hand basket? Such grim, paranoid prescriptions are in no one’s interest: not the El Salvadorans who voted in good faith, not the democratic system that provided for and sanctioned the victory, not the Salvadoran immigrants who dutifully send their remittances home to support their families, and even not ARENA which for 20 years has sought to establish a stable, coherent system for democratic governance. What a sad statement it would be if it could all be disarticulated in a few years.

Are there unrepentant and unreformed elements of the party that have a more radical agenda? Sure. The party still comprises the retrograde, unreformed ideologues of the past, the zero-sum warriors that had San Salvador surrounded and looked almost capable—until the fall of the Soviet Union—of toppling the government. And it also has its revolutionaries de jour: the chavista acolytes, who are all too willing to join and walk lock step with the other members of the Bolivarian Revolution. Reining them in and ensuring that the party both draws from its pragmatic, experiential base and remembers the moderate demands of the voters who put it in power will be Funes’s task.

These are the complexities of governing, though they’re made more difficult by the dogmatic, grizzled holdovers in the FMLN. The internal jockeying within the party apparatus, the trips abroad, and the signals to the U.S. are all things we should watch carefully. But let’s not, as a knee jerk reaction, return to the 1980s and the unalloyed suspicions, alliances and rigid ideology that characterized a time when we divided the world south of the border into two: those willing to fight communists and the communists they should be fighting. There’s plenty of space—and indeed a need—for a moderate social democratic alternative in these places. We should try to embrace it and nurture it, but without any illusions. Though, please, let’s not go back to the Manichean, conspiracy laden days of the 1980s. (Plus, I’ve thrown away all my Flock of Seagulls, Wang Chung and Culture Club albums–though I do still have my Clash Sandinista album—but digitally, on my iPod.)



Christopher Sabatini is the former editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly and former senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas. His Twitter account is @ChrisSabatini

Tags: Biden, Chavez, El Salvador, Elections, FMLN, Funes, Obama
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