El Salvador prepares for elections: Will the U.S. intervene?

On February 2, there will be a presidential election in El Salvador, to replace outgoing left-center President Mauricio Funes of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). Candidates include the current vice president and minister of education, Salvador Sanchez Ceren (FMLN), Norman Quijano for the right-wing ARENA Party, and former President Antonio Saca of a right-wing coalition  composed of GANA (Grand Alliance for National Unity), PCN (Party of National Conciliation) and PDC (Christian Democratic Party). Polls show Sanchez Ceren slightly ahead, but a lot can happen between now and the election. If nobody gets a majority, there will be a runoff in March.

These elections are haunted by the ghosts of the 80,000 and more people killed under previous right-wing regimes and in the Salvadoran civil war of 1979 to 1992. Sanchez Ceren was a Marxist FMLN comandante during the war. ARENA was founded by the extreme right politician Roberto D'Aubuisson, believed to have ordered the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980, among many bloody crimes. The coalition backing Saca is composed of defectors from ARENA.

The civil war was ended by a negotiated agreement in 1992 but the issues that underlay it have not vanished.  In spite of partly successful efforts by Mr. Funes and his government to fight poverty and illiteracy through funding schools, clinics and other social programs, problems are immense.  On top of the inherited social and economic inequity, El Salvador has become a battleground for Mexican drug gangs and their local allies. This has made security a major issue. A gang truce supported by the government now seems to have fallen apart.

Sanchez Ceran is calling for intensified social reform, and closer relations with the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA). He would join PETROCARIBE, an ALBA sponsored program that will save El Salvador huge amounts of money on fuel costs. Such a proposal sets alarm bells ringing in Washington D.C. and in the mansions of the Salvadoran ruling class. To allay fears that Sanchez Ceren might be too far left, the FMLN has chosen the popular mayor of Santa Tecla, Oscar Ortiz, as its vice presidential candidate.

Pressure is being put on El Salvador to get in line with the U.S. sponsored neo liberal program of "free" trade, privatization and austerity. All the Salvadoran political parties except the FMLN have signed an agreement to support such policies. Both Quijano and Saca have made clear that, though they may continue some of Funes' popular social programs, their main strategy will be to make concessions to "attract more foreign investment."

Under pressure, and in spite of objections from labor and the FMLN base, the Funes administration previously agreed to a bill (P-3) allowing more public-private partnerships. It had excepted from privatization, however, education, health care, water and national security. There is now pressure from the right and the U.S. to expand the range of activities in which private, including foreign, capital can participate.

There are big fights going on between small farmers and foreign, especially Canadian and U.S., mining corporations. The Funes administration has imposed a moratorium on new mining projects which either Saca or Quijano would surely reverse.

Hundreds of thousands of Salvadoran citizens live in the United States, many undocumented. More than 200,000 are allowed to live and work here under "Temporary Protected Status." Salvadoran citizens living abroad can vote in the Feb. 2 election, and they contribute $3.9 billion in remittances to the Salvadoran economy yearly. Some Salvadorans accuse the United States of using the vulnerable position of these immigrants to pressure their government. El Salvador sent a small contingent of troops to support the U.S. invasion of Iraq, as a gesture of submission. There is a worry that if El Salvador antagonizes the U.S., Salvadoran immigrants in the United States could pay a high price.

During the 2009 election, the Obama administration promised, and observed, strict neutrality. However, this time, there are complaints about possible interference. The U.S. ambassador, Mari Carmen Aponte, has warned that if the Salvadoran legislature does not approve more legislation favoring private investment, the country could lose $300,000,000 in U.S. administered Millennium Challenge money.

Congressmen Matt Salmon (R-NJ) and Albio Sires (D-NJ), and right-wing figures connected to previous Republican administrations, such as lobbyist Otto Riech, are pushing hard for a U.S. intervention against the FMLN.

There is an effort to undo, through litigation, an 1993 amnesty for people who committed atrocities during the civil war. But on November 14, armed men broke into the offices of Pro-Busqueda, an organization which has been tracing the fate of children separated from their parents during the war, and destroyed 80 percent of its records.

Shortly before, the Roman Catholic Church abruptly closed Tutela Legal, its own archives of war crimes. Many see these things as tending to protect war criminals should the amnesty be revoked.

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