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"Tough Times for Salvadoran Left"
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Tough times for the Salvadorian left

By Steve Cagan, in CrossRoads, September 1995

In 1989, the government of El Salvador told the world that the guerrilla forces of the FMLN -- the revolutionary left coalition -- had been reduced to small bands of sick and wounded. The November FMLN offensive demonstrated that after a decade of war they were capable of mounting a sustained, high-level, military campaign. It showed an FMLN strong and united enough to deny military victory to the government. And it demonstrated that the guerrillas still had a great deal of popular support.

After Cuba and Nicaragua, the U.S. determined that there would be no more left victories in the Americas. So, high levels of military aid had been provided to the government, allowing them to avoid an early FMLN military victory. The offensive, and the desperation and brutality exhibited by government forces, showed that the war was unwinnable, and the U.S. insisted that the Salvadoran government negotiate with the FMLN. The successful military struggle forcing the government to the negotiating table represented a dramatic victory for the FMLN.

After U.N.-brokered negotiations, the war ended in February, 1992. The FMLN did not win redistribution of economic or political power at the negotiating table -- but they did win an opening for political activity. El Salvador had been an extremely repressive country; indeed, the repression had made the war necessary. The importance of the political liberty won on the battlefield and confirmed at the negotiating table should not be minimized.

In March, 1994 there were elections for a new Legislative Assembly, municipal governments, and President. The left -- the FMLN, the Democratic Convergence, and the small social-democratic MNR -- formed a coalition for a common presidential slate.

Several factors conspired against a left victory. They included: inexperience in campaigning and a shortage of resources comparedto the right, a lingering culture of fear and repression that left many unwilling to participate or even vote, and a series of obstacles to popular participation, collectively referred to as "technical fraud."

Still, even considering these factors, and although the FMLN did emerge as the second-largest political party after the governing right-wing ARENA, things did not go well. The left won only about one-quarter of the seats in the Legislative Assembly. Of 262 municipal governments, the FMLN won only a dozen. And despite a run-off in the presidential voting, the final outcome was a resounding victory for ARENA.


The following period was difficult for the FMLN -- adapting to the status of a recognized party; learning to function in the Assembly and with the media and other institutions; trying to create an alternative legislative program. And throughout this period, they were hobbled by profound internal divisions.

One consequence was that there was no unified left response to important political issues -- a series of prison revolts, an anti-choice and "pro-family" offensive by ARENA, corruption scandals, and a dramatic increase in violent crime. No alternative analysis or program was offered. Except for their sympathies for the poor, FMLN legislators could scarcely be distinguished from old-time politicians.

By the year's end, the FMLN (incorporating five political parties that maintained individual identities) had split into two groups, many grassroots activists had abandoned their parties, the left delegation in the Assembly appeared unable to offer serious opposition to government programs, and generally things looked gloomy for progressive change in El Salvador.

In late spring 1995, the Democratic Party (PD -- still seeking legal status), comprised of the old People's Revolutionary Party (ERP) and National Resistance (RN), the groups that had left the FMLN, formed an alliance, the "San Andrs Pact," with ARENA. This tactical alliance supports specific government projects, most notably raising the Value Added Tax (IVA). The real significance of the pact is the willingness of the new supposedly social-democratic party to work with people who were recently, for important reasons, bitter enemies. Some accuse the PD of shameless opportunism, and there's a good deal of truth in that characterization.

On the other side, the FMLN, led by the Popular Liberation Forces (FPL), the largest FMLN group, has entered a tactical alliance against the new IVA and the San Andrs Pact with the Private Enterprise Association (ANEP) and the right-wing National Conciliation Party (PCN).

Sound confusing? It is -- and it points to a key issue in the development of a democratic, strong left in El Salvador. Old ideological lines are collapsing, partly because there is no alternative strategy for national development offered by the left. It's hard to blame anyone for this; where is the new strategy to come from? But the consequence is that in effect, all political parties now support the main lines of a neoliberal "solution." The argument is tactical-- how to do it, and for the left, how to soften the blow to workers, peasants and the poor.

In many ways, these developments were outside the FMLN's control. For example, the peace accords are an inadequate basis for constructing political or economic democracy in El Salvador. Yet, while some in the U.S. left - and some FMLN grassroots combatants - criticize the FMLN for signing, they had little choice. The leadership was clearly correct in their assessment that continuing the war would only have meant increased suffering. Forcing the government to negotiate was a real victory, the best they could have done militarily. But once at the table, the balance of forces was strongly against them.


Further, El Salvador is a small, dependent country. Two-thirds of the population lives in poverty. The educational level is extremely low. There are very few natural resources. And, the country is experiencing one of the worst environmental crises in the hemisphere, second only to Haiti in deforestation, water pollution and general environmental degradation.

So there is little room for progressive economic projects and programs. Although there has been a modest post-war "boom," it's mostly in areas like luxury housing and retailing directed at more affluent people-- most Salvadorans are untouched, although a small number of jobs have been created.

Sewing co-ops face cheaper clothing imported from Asia. Small shoe-making and egg-producing projects compete with dominant monopolies. Even imported beans and corn sometimes sell for less than domestically-produced grains. So the traditional livelihood of the peasant majority, raising "basic grains" (corn, rice, beans and millet) is increasingly unviable, hit by the decreasing value of these products within the Gross Domestic Product, and the declining productivity of some traditional agricultural areas as a result of erosion, a declining rainy season, (both products of deforestation), and over-planting.

Now people in the countryside have begun to speak of a "Golden Age" before the war, when everyone supposedly made a poor but reliable living from the land. In fact, most peasants were trapped in the classic cycle of increasing marginality, subsistence farming and super-exploitation as agricultural laborers, while the best farm lands were concentrated in export crops like coffee, cotton and beef, producing very little income for people at the grassroots.

Under these conditions, labor union issues offer more to many workers than vaguer revolutionary politics. For example, recently there has been a dramatic struggle in new and not-so-new maquila plants (many owned by Korean companies). But grassroots leaders are not radically rejecting the maquilas; they are simply demanding that management comply with the Salvadoran labor code. Jobs are too scarce for workers to afford a rejectionist stance. In this situation, with people literally scrambling to stay alive, the FMLN and all the left parties have lost prominence, and much of the popular support they enjoyed during the war.


Meanwhile, as old ideologies become increasingly irrelevant for a Salvadoran left unable to produce a new alternative vision, old internal disputes have been maintained. It's not surprising that political leaders who have spent a quarter-century in clandestine activity and war would have problems adapting to a new reality in which internal debate is more important than discipline. Nor should we expect old resentments and unsettled scores to disappear. But these problems are serious obstacles to the development of a new way of thinking and organizing. Probably only a broad change of leadership can address them.

Last fall, I interviewed the leader of the FMLN delegation in the Legislative Assembly. My main question to this personable, bright and dedicated former guerrilla was, What was the adjustment from being a guerrilla force to being a legislative party like? Was it difficult? Humorous?

He agreed that the question was interesting, but all he would talk about was the history of relations among the FMLN parties, and what had led to the split. He could only talk about the past, not the radically changed present, because he and many of his comrades were still focused on that past, unable to both make the paradigm shift the new situation required and maintain their radical opposition to the system.

Later, the election campaign for a new administration for the national university (UES) also indicated the minimal progress of the left. The university has suffered enormous punishment -- occupied and sacked by the military, damaged by the 1986 earthquake, victim of malign government neglect, and over-politicized and wracked by left sectarian struggles. Furthermore, the UES must confront the problematic Latin model of the university. There are numerous questions regarding issues which include both physical and institutional reconstruction, where the educational process should go, and the social role of the university.

Were these issues addressed? Hardly; the main activity was a kind conspiring for institutional power. The struggle in the university, is more than anything a continuation of the intra-left sectarianism of the past. And it's isolating the left from many students.

Among grassroots fighters and organizers there is disillusionment with the FMLN leadership. Many ex-combatants feel, not unreasonably, that they are worse off now than before the war. The central issue of land tenure has not been resolved, and there are no government or left programs that offer hope of real economic development and employment. Grassroots people often feel abandoned by their parties. They complain about some corruption, also not surprising in this difficult economic time, when a lot of reconstruction money is floating around, and few people have the necessary administrative or bookkeeping skills.


And yet in this generally gloomy picture, there are rays of hope. The women's movement has not made the advances predicted at the end of the war, but there are a number of groups that work in programs for economic justice, health, equality in the courts and in employment, equality in the home (and in the left movements) and against domestic violence. There is imaginative work organizing women into small co-ops and promoting women's leadership in all areas of social life.

The labor movement, always very militant, but never very large in El Salvador, seems to be on the verge of potential growth, especially because of organizing in the maquilas. If serious gains are made there, we may see growth in a militant and democratic national labor movement.

Environmentalists offer another hope. Some organizations are active in the defense of green areas -- a struggle to save the remaining green "lung" of the San Salvador metropolitan area has forged an alliance between the environmental movement and the coffee-growing peasants who live there. There are developing programs in appropriate technology, effective and viable farming, and other areas that unite environmental and economic interests of the poor, and look at the connections between development and the environment.

Probably the most important area of organization are numerous decentralized economic and community organizing projects. There are agricultural and animal projects throughout the countryside, co-ops in organized villages, light industrial and commercial co-ops in unorganized urban neighborhoods, a variety of grass-roots organizations, and varied participants. Some projects are run by current or former FMLN activists, some are aided by professionals from the cities, some are promoted by progressive people in the churches.

These projects are not yet providing a living to many people, but they hold promise of doing so. But what is most important about them is that in them numerous concerns come together: the economic future of the Salvadoran poor, regaining a healthful environment, gender equality, and a struggle to develop real grass-roots participation and decision-making and administration of projects.

If a new vision of a path towards true economic, social and political justice and democracy can be forged in El Salvador, it will be done in the cauldron where the communities and the issue-oriented movements come together.

Some people have criticized the old FMLN for jumping "with both feet" into the role of loyal parliamentary opposition. The groups that have formed the new Democratic Party are criticized for unprincipled alliances with the ruling class and opportunism, while they respond that those who remained are stuck in an outmoded vision of socialism. All these criticisms seem appropriate; no one escapes. While a genuine and up-to-date social democratic movement would undoubtedly be a step forward for El Salvador, the PD is not that. And "renewed socialism" of the remaining FMLN has been equally incapable of generating a program that can galvanize large numbers of Salvadorans.

Unfortunately, there is little tradition of alternative approaches in El Salvador. For example, when an organization or community decides it has to participate in the very secure dominant capitalist system, the leadership seems to think it must abandon all their principles to participate. There is virtually no sense that communities can run businesses for profit and still try to put the community interests at the forefront.

It's not merely a question of new organizing techniques, or a better adjustment to working within the existing system. A new vision is needed, a new critical approach to social problems and proposed solutions. Nobody knows yet what that is. It will likely emerge from the intersection of a politicized cooperativism, the struggle for grassroots democracy, the issues movements, and a number of hopeful experiments in a new critical journalism. The Salvadoran left is in a period of darkness right now, but there is reason to hope that it is only night, and that a new sun will rise.