A New Hope for El Salvador
Sunday, March 15, saw a historic transformation in the polity of El Salvador. Mauricio Funes, leader of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMNL), won the presidential election, ending the two decades rule of US backed right-wing governments. Funes, who had been a video journalist from the age of the notorious Salvadoran Civil War where the FMNL was an important player opposing the then military junta, becomes yet another left-leaning head of the state in the volatile Central American region.
The 49-year old leader won by a narrow margin, securing over 51% of votes as compared to Rodrigo Avila, the candidate of the ruling conservative ARENA party, who got 49% of the votes. Funes rode on a wave of popular discontent with the ARENA party rule that had brought about economic growth, mainly due to its funding from the United States, at the cost of growing social and economic inequalities. Besides tackling these inequalities, the challenges of armed militias of drug mafias, huge US affiliated multinational corporates and the rising prices of food and fuel will be the core issues that the infant Left government would face. “The time has come for the excluded, the opportunity has arrived for genuine democrats, for men and women who believe in social justice and solidarity,” said a triumphant Funes to ecstatic supporters on Monday. The journey for the former rebel group, however, has not been easy.
The emergence of the FMNL has to be understood in the context of the growing political and economic crisis of El Salvador since the beginning of the 20th Century. Successive military dictatorships and conservative governments with their pro-capitalist and anti-people policies turned El Salvador’s economy into shambles. Farabundo Marti, a Communist leader, led a massive uprising of largely indigenous peasants against the corrupt military junta in 1932. The military retaliated with excessive force, resulting in the massacre of over 30000 civilians. Important leaders of the revolutionary movement, including Marti, were killed as well. The event was remembered as La Matanza – the slaughter. The succeeding governments did little to address the core issues raised, and inequalities were perpetuated by state oppression. A political class of compradors emerged, who held their allegiance to the economic interests of the US, ruthlessly suppressing all people’s movements through the state machinery. It was history repeating itself, now as a farce.
Salvadoran Civil War
The assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero on March 1980, just a month after he had asked the US to stop to the Salvadoran military, and the massacre of over 40 mourners at his funeral by death squads marked the beginning of the bloody Salvadoran civil war that raged for over 12 years.
The FMNL was formed on October 1980 by the merger of 4 other rebel organizations, with the guidance of Fidel Castro. Named after Farabundo Marti, they sought to overthrow the existing US backed military junta through armed struggle. In its insurrection against the government, the FMNL adopted a military strategy of economic sabotage and a prolonged guerrilla war, similar to that of the Cuban revolutionaries, with guerillas fighting in the rural sides and urban civil society to back them up.
While the revolutionaries were able to claim many victories, the military, with its superior technology and direct support from the CIA, were able to brutally put down revolts in many parts of the country. One infamous case was that of the village of El Mozote. On December 10 1981, units of the Salvadoran Army arrived at this little village after a clash with guerrillas in the vicinity. The civilians were subject to “interrogation” on suspicion of colluding with the rebels – the men were brutally tortured and the women, even those as young as 12, were raped by the soldiers. The soldiers then massacred the entire population and left the place after setting the buildings on fire. The Ronald Reagan US government, which was strongly supporting the Salvadoran military, dismissed the tragic event as FMNL propaganda.
After a decade of protracted conflict, a truce was concluded on January 1992, brining about the war’s end. This has to be credited to the FMNL capturing large parts of the San Salvador city in 1989, which gave them the bargaining power. The end of the civil war, which caused the deaths of over 75000 people, saw the promulgation of a new constitution, regulation of the armed forces, the creation of a civilian police and the change of the FMNL from a guerilla outfit to a political party.
Shift to democratic politics
In the democratic space again, the FMNL was pitted against the ARENA which was enormously funded by the US, owing to their neo-liberal policies. Despite these handicaps, the FMNL slowly but steadily grew as a political force in the country, winning numerous assembly seats and mayoral and municipal positions in the city. With the global economic crisis affecting El Salvador, the people of the country, greatly upset with the economic policies of the outgoing conservative government, gave their mandate to the FMNL as it promised change. While it remains to be seen whether the FMNL delivers on its promises, its victory does provide great hope to other people’s movements across Latin America and the world.