The Blog

Losing El Salvador?

Chavez's friends are poised for victory.

12:00 AM, Jun 18, 2008 • By JAIME DAREMBLUM
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AMERICANS HAVEN'T PAID much attention to El Salvador since the 1980s, when the country was being torn apart by a civil war and the Reagan administration was trying to balance its support for the anti-Communist military regime with a push for free elections. In those days, the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (known by its Spanish acronym, FMLN) was waging a bloody guerrilla campaign. Today, the FMLN is a legitimate political party with heavy representation in the Salvadoran National Assembly. By this time next year, it may control both the Assembly and the presidency--which should alarm anyone who cares about the success of democracy in Latin America.

Indeed, there is a genuine risk that El Salvador could become another satellite of Hugo Chavez, whose radical "Bolivarian Revolution" has eroded political and economic liberties in Venezuela and attracted followers elsewhere. Legislative and municipal elections are due in January; a presidential election will follow in March. Polls show that the FMLN boasts a sizable lead over the ruling National Republican Alliance party (known as ARENA).

The center-right ARENA has held the presidency since 1989. Though the current poll numbers don't reflect it, the party has compiled an impressive record of economic management. Since 1992, El Salvador's economy has been growing at an average annual rate of 3.3 percent--twice the Latin American average. The country enjoys one of the best credit ratings in the region, trailing only Chile and Mexico. Between 1991 and 2006, the percentage of Salvadoran households living in poverty dropped from 60 percent to less than 31 percent. Over that same period, extreme poverty fell by two-thirds, from 28.2 percent to under 10 percent.

And yet, ARENA is now facing a double-digit polling deficit. According to a recent CID-Gallup poll, 33 percent of Salvadorans support the FMLN while only 23 percent back ARENA. Meanwhile, 41 percent of Salvadorans favor FMLN presidential candidate Mauricio Funes, compared to only 20 percent who favor ARENA's Rodrigo Avila.

One explanation for ARENA's troubles is the declining popularity of El Salvador's current president, Antonio Saca. Although Saca has not made any glaring mistakes since his election in 2004, he has not been able to win over the hearts and minds of most Salvadorans. Despite his efforts to boost security, El Salvador remains plagued by widespread violent crime. Salvadoran presidents are limited to a single five-year term, so Saca cannot run for reelection.

But the chief reason for the FMLN's robust standing is clever electioneering. Breaking with tradition, it has chosen a presidential candidate from outside the party. Funes is a former TV anchor who appeals to independents and has been able to parlay his name recognition into broad political support. Most Salvadorans do not view him as a left-wing extremist. The Chicago Tribune reports that Funes "wants to remake the FMLN into a pragmatic party."

Here's the problem: While Funes cuts a relatively moderate figure, he does not have any real sway over the FMLN's structure and ideology, which are inspired by old-fashioned Marxism-Leninism. The FMLN is a party that continues to defend the leftist narcoterrorists in Colombia, and refuses even to call them terrorists. Many analysts question how much its core beliefs have really changed. "If it flies like a duck, swims like a duck, and eats like a duck, it's a duck. The FMLN is a communist party," President Saca said recently.

Of course, Saca is not a disinterested observer. But it is hard to set aside the feeling that Funes is merely being used as a vehicle to win power for the FMLN. Should Funes become president, he still would have little control over the party. He could be made an ineffectual figure, or even pushed aside, by the FMLN's more radical power brokers, such as vice presidential candidate Salvador Sanchez Ceren. Indeed, it is reasonable to think that a Funes victory could lead to a sharp leftward turn in Salvadoran domestic and foreign policy.

Hugo Chavez has been supplying cut-rate oil to Salvadoran municipalities dominated by the FMLN. Curiously enough, however, he has kept quiet about the Salvadoran presidential campaign. Perhaps Chavez was chastened after his preferred candidates lost in the 2006 Peruvian and Mexican elections. He may not want to hinder the FMLN's chances. Meanwhile, we are left wondering--and worrying--about the party's true colors.

Jaime Daremblum is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.