My Afternoon with the Commandante


[This was an interview I did with the Secretary General of the FMLN in El Salvador in 2003 during the legislative elections that year. It was conducted at the FMLN headquarters in San Salvador. A version was published in the LatinAmerican Press. It doesn’t seem to be on the site anymore.]

Since El Salvador’s civil war ended in 1992, the country has successfully conducted two presidential elections and four legislative elections, the latest on March 16, 2003.  The post-war miracle of this little country has been the integration into the government of the right-wing ARENA (Republican Nationalist Alliance) party, which ruled the country through the bulk of the civil war, and the FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front), the leftist party that developed out of the guerrilla force that fought against it.

The office of Salvador Sánchez Ceren, the party’s Secretary General, in the FMLN’s San Salvador headquarters, fits the image of a former guerrilla commandante – ascetic, bare, provisional.  On the day after the recent legislative election the building was buzzing with people. Salvadoran, American and European election observers chatted in the halls.  Under the bougainvillea in the garden, working groups of leftists from Bolivia and Ecuador sat in circles on white plastic chairs trading Xeroxed handouts while body guards with bone-handled .38s stuck in their pants smoked cigarettes at the front door.

The day before, the FMLN had captured a clear majority of assembly seats, 31 out of 84, a gain of two from 2000.  ARENA lost two, to capture 27.  The centrist party, CDU (United Democratic Center), gained two for a total of five.  ARENA’s traditional ally, the military-backed PCN (National Reconciliation Party), gained three, for a total of 16.  The ARENA-PCN coalition still remains in control of the Assembly, but the success of FMLN has definitely given the party of the old oligarchy pause.  With such a strong mid-term showing, FMLN may have a chance to win the presidential elections this coming March.  Such a win would make El Salvador the only nation to be led by a popularly elected Communist president.

[This did not happen until 2009. Sánchez Ceren is currently El Salvador’s Vice President.]

Sánchez Ceren has been described as “closed,” “a gray man,” “the perfect bureaucrat.”  One former guerrilla commandante who fought with him, but later resigned from the party in protest at its ideological rigidity, described him as “an organizational genius, but very short-sighted strategically.”  Physically, he is a short, sturdily-built man with graying hair, a large head and Indian features.  He speaks easily but never directly.  Like most Salvadorans, especially politicians, he is involved in a love affair with theory.  Although, perhaps at this point it would be more appropriate to describe it as a marriage – conventional, comfortable, and easy.

I sat down with the Secretary General to talk about post-war El Salvador, Central America and the United States.

What has been El Salvador’s greatest post-war achievement and what has been the greatest failure?
The greatest achievement has been to create mechanisms for citizen participation and institutions that protect the rights of the people, for example, the office of the Human Rights Ombudsman.  The greatest failure has been that the political achievement of the Peace Accords has yet to turn into a better economic and social situation for the people.  In fact, the economic situation for most people has gotten worse since the accords – more unemployment, even more concentration of wealth in the hands of the already wealthy.  Unfortunately there was not an analogous economic reform that went along with the political one that would have distributed wealth in a more equitable fashion.

What is the primary economic concern of the people of El Salvador today?
The principal economic problem in El Salvador is that we are in a recession that can be traced back to 1996.  In 1996 the growth rate of the economy was five to six percent but it has been decreasing since then.  Right now it’s between one and two percent and that’s not enough to help the development of the country or to generate employment.  The question for the political parties is how do we distribute wealth more equitably and how do we restart the economy?  We with the FMLN believe the neo-liberal model, instead of generating a strong, stable economy has concentrated the wealth in a few hands while the society at large experiences extreme poverty.  To reactivate the economy we want to remake the tax structure so that those who make more pay more, which would allow the government to invest in education and health.  Also, we want to reform the financial laws to allow private banks to invest in small and medium businesses more easily.  We also hope to create a national agricultural bank to help the farming sector.  We also have to raise the minimum wage and revise the privatization of telecommunications and electricity distribution in order to lower the price for the consumer.  We also hope to eliminate the sales tax on the basic ‘food basket’ and medicine.

The Central American Free Trade Agreement is currently being negotiated between the United States, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Costa Rica with the goal of signing by the end of the year.  What effect will this agreement have on the people of El Salvador?
The world economy is a globalized economy and we in El Salvador cannot wind up isolated from it.  Given that, we think the process of integration (into CAFTA) must be done for the benefit of the whole country, for national development.  As it stands, such a free trade agreement benefits large, transnational companies.  We believe we should first integrate all of Central America.  CAFTA would currently have a severe negative effect on the agricultural sector in El Salvador.  With American farmers receiving governmental subsidies and no subsidies for Salvadoran farmers such a relationship with the United States would put these people at a serious disadvantage.  The people who would benefit from such an agreement with the United States would be that small, small sector allied to the large transnational companies.

What does the success of the FMLN in the legislative election mean for the presidential race in 2004?
We think of it as the strengthening of the democratic process in El Salvador.  The concentration of power in a small group of rightists is now moving to the left.  We only expected 35% of registered voters to come to the polls, but we got 41%, more than the last election.  There were still irregularities in this one, however.  Reforms that were passed in 1994 have still to be implemented.  For instance, there is supposed to be one identification card, but there are still three.  The voting rolls were also supposed to be updated, to take people off who don’t belong.  That still hasn’t been done.  There was also supposed to be the institution of absentee ballots for Salvadorans living abroad.  That still hasn’t been done because it’s been blocked in the Assembly by the rightist coalition.  But this election augurs well for us in the presidential election.  We captured 36% of the vote while ARENA only had 32%.  All told, FMLN has a clear majority of seats (including mayoral and legislative seats).  We have 20,000 more votes than ARENA and that tells us people are not satisfied with them anymore.

What is the possibility of an FMLN-CDU coalition presidential candidate?
The ideal situation would have been FMLN getting 43 seats (a majority) in the Assembly.  Although we got more than any other single party we didn’t make that and won’t, even with the other small parties like CDU.  So we are going to have to work with the two rightist parties to realize our legislative goals.  We believe the FMLN can’t win alone and can’t govern alone.  The question is, which parties can we unite with to create that change.  Taking Brazil as an example, we have to reach out to, say, the agricultural sector, to the teachers and so on.  We think we can reach out to groups like this and grow our support and achieve victory.  We don’t reject a coalition with other parties, but formerly the contribution in terms of number of votes (from other parties) has been very small.

What can other countries learn from El Salvador’s experience of reform and reconciliation after in the wake of the civil war?
Our experience has its positive and negative lessons.  One thing our process has looked for is reconciliation, creating a culture of peace.  There are still instances of injustice and impunity but the tendency has been to move forward, into tolerance.  The integration of the Assembly provides for representatives of every viewpoint so that there can be debates of ideas, not debates carried out through violence.  This is a reflection of the will of the people.  Also, the new National Police and the Office for the Defense of Human Rights have become new pillars of the society. People ask us, why has the FMLN survived and become the principal political force in El Salvador when so many other parties in other countries that were once guerillas switched their political focus or died off?  Because although the world around us has changed and we have had to reorient ourselves in it, we have never changed our values.  We continue to work for the reforms of the Peace Accords.

How would you characterize the current relationship between El Salvador and America in this post-civil war, post-9/11, post-Iraq world, especially given our long and not always pleasant history?
We have had a relationship with the U.S. in carrying out the provisions of the Peace Accords.  We also have a relationship with the people of the United States due, in part, to the over two million Salvadorans who live there.  They have relatives here and there’s a lot of interchange.  Also people in the U.S. know more about El Salvador due to their being there.  Allowing that, we think the relationship the current administration (of President Francisco Flores) has with the United States is not the best.  It is too submissive a relationship.  For instance, they unconditionally support CAFTA without taking into account whether it is the best thing for our people.  They unconditionally support the war plans for Iraq.  Flores even took a trip to Spain and even offered Salvadoran troops without taking into account public opinion.  The relationship is not based on mutual respect.  The FMLN believes in having a relationship with the U.S., but one based on respect by and for both parties.  We are aware that there are some quarters in the U.S. government who believe the FMLN are a left-wing party and as such, unacceptable.

Photo by Aaron

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