El Salvador election suggests end of Latin American coups

Friday, March 20, 2009 | 11:30 a.m. CDT; updated 11:36 a.m. CDT, Friday, March 20, 2009

Loory: The 12-year civil war in El Salvador ended 17 years ago, and few remember how tragic and brutal it was. In a country of 6 million, 70,000 were killed, either by soldiers of the right-wing government controlled by the ARENA Party or guerrillas of the left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). El Salvador became the site of the last battle of the Cold War. After a peace agreement was signed, the FMLN was allowed to take part in politics, but from 1992 until last week, ARENA continued to control the government. The FMLN won the presidential election, and so there was a peaceful transfer of power to Mauricio Funes, a former television talk show host and a stringer for CNN. Funes, who had the support of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, has promised to maintain good relations with the United States and govern more like President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil. Many in the U.S. remember how the administration of Ronald Reagan spent billions of dollars to put down the FMLN insurgency. The victory was 51 to 49 percent, comfortable but not exactly a landslide. Is there any possibility of renewed violence in El Salvador because of this election?

Hannah Ramer, election reporter, Voices on the Border, El Salvador: Unlikely. Many people feel the real margin of victory was greater because there were a number of fraud reports to sway it towards ARENA. Funes had many supporters that don’t identify with FMLN and just feel happy that they finally won the presidency after so many years of not being empowered.

Loory: How do you feel about this election?

David Adams, Latin American correspondent, St. Petersburg Times, Washington, D.C.: It is unfortunate they still call themselves the FMLN because many of the former commanders have left the ranks and set up their own rival political organization. The FMLN today bears not much comparison to the 1980s. Many Salvadorans voted for the FMLN completely ignoring the past and voting for what they believe Funes stands for today. Oddly, one big factor is the high cost of living associated with the dollarization of the economy, and many actually believe that voting for the FMLN is a way to change back to a national currency. Funes has said he won’t do that. He is all for economic moderation and continuing the broad economic stability program of ARENA.

Loory: Dollarization means that the government in El Salvador has adopted the American dollar as the currency there?

Adams: Exactly. ARENA did that several years ago, as did other Latin American countries, particularly Ecuador.

Loory: What has happened to the guerrillas of the FMLN?

Adams: I was in San Salvador in 1991, shortly before the finalization of the peace talks. The demilitarization part of the peace process went very well. The guerrillas came into the city, many of them in their uniforms still but not carrying their guns. The tragedy in El Salvador is that the civilian population then went and armed itself. There is a tremendous amount of armed and organized crime. The street gangs have been a nightmare, many of them products of the American jail system. Not just in El Salvador, but in Honduras and Guatemala, too. There has been a “lock them up and throw away the key” approach to the gangs, and it’s not working. It fuels the general level of poverty and desperation in society.

Loory: Salvadorans living and working in the U.S. and remitting their income back home is an important part of the Salvadoran economy isn’t it?

Adams: The remittances that come back are around $2 billion to $4 billion. The economy depends on it, and the economic downturn in the U.S. is a serious factor for the Salvadoran government. The remittances have dropped slightly but could potentially drop even more.

Ramer: Some political analysts say it is the number one concern in terms of the impact on everyday people of the global financial crisis. Estimates are nearly a quarter of Salvadoran families are receiving remittances at some level.

Loory: How was this election received in the Dominican Republic?

Jorge Pineda, editor, Dominican Today, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic: President Leonel Fernandez invited Funes here on two occasions. They seem to share a centrist idealism that Fernandez has successfully applied to this country. Though they have leftist origins, both have adopted capitalist ideas blended with social-based ideas of the left. Fernandez was recently elected to his third term. He was credited for getting the country out of the 2003 crisis, when three of the five major banks failed, the economy went into a tailspin and there was fear of social upheavals. He immediately set out to recover the banks that could be saved, and the executors of those that did fail were brought to justice; several are still doing time.

Loory: What was the reaction in Chile?

Lucy McDonald-Stewart, correspondent, Santiago Times, Santiago, Chile: Chileans tend not to be interested in Latin American politics in general. There is a lot of excitement from the politically active sectors on the left. Chile is also going through its own election process right now. The governing leftist coalition has a similar ideology to how Funes sees his role.

Loory: Tell us what effect this election may have on the stature of Hugo Chavez and the rest of Latin America.

Adams: Funes has made clear he is an admirer of Lula in Brazil. His wife is a Brazilian and a member of Lula’s party. At the same time, the FMLN has close relationships with Chavez in Venezuela. Will Funes fight for a moderate center-left political program or is he going to be pushed by those around him? We don’t know yet.

Loory: For a long time in Latin America, changes came, not by electoral politics, but by coup. Do you think this is a situation that has passed Latin America?

Pineda: Yes, it seemed that the end of the Cold War also brought an end to the stark confrontation between the left and the right in this region. In 1965, there was a revolution in the Dominican Republic that caused President Johnson to send an aircraft carrier to the coast near the capital to quell it, under the guise of protecting U.S. citizens. Since then, there has been stability.

Loory: Is there confidence that electoral politics is here to stay in Chile, which had violent government change in the past?

Stewart: I believe so. Before the military coup of 1973, Chile prided itself on being a stable democratic system. Now, there is a move towards a U.S. style two-party system. The left has been in power since the return to democracy in 1990. However, 80 percent of the population doesn’t feel represented by the political parties, and a large number of people under the age of 30 are not registered to vote. There is a need for new blood in the political system.

Loory: In the past, interference by the U.S. in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala has all been destabilizing rather than stabilizing. Tell us about what the U.S. is doing through Voices on the Border and similar organizations to bring some help to El Salvador.

Ramer: One of our primary projects is to coordinate sister-city communities between the U.S. and El Salvador. We facilitate development projects, working with local partners here in the community to identify needs. The crime problem is complicated, involving the police force and justice system, the economic situation and the availability of weapons left over from the Civil War. Any progress made on those fronts contributes to reducing the level of crime.

Loory: We can see that the election in El Salvador is yet another indication that change of government by coup in Latin America is something of the past. And that is a sign of hope to be desired.

Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Brian Jarvis, Sananda Sahoo, and Melissa Ulbricht. The transcriber is Pat Kelley.

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