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Mar 18 / Elizabeth DiNovella

A New Day for El Salvador

The scenes are breathtaking: trucks of FMLN supporters, wearing red T-shirts, waving flags, enjoying their victory on the streets of San Salvador.

Although reports of voting irregularities have surfaced, no widespread denunciations of fraud have marred the election. In what appears to be free and fair elections, the FMLN, a leftist party created by formers guerrillas, has won the presidential election in El Salvador.

photo by Norm Stockwell
photo by  Joeff Davis/

I wasn’t sure this day would ever happen. There was a time when people wouldn’t be in the street voicing support for the FMLN, much less wearing its T-shirts.

My first trip to El Salvador was in 1991, by chance coinciding with the signing of the Peace Accords that ended the 12-year civil war. I was there for the huge celebration in a Plaza Cívica in the old downtown of the capital. People clung to statues in the park and listened to the comandantes. Nicaraguan folk singer Carlos Mejia Godoy led the crowd in a sing along to a Sandinista tune; he kept saying FSLN, instead of FMLN.

Even though the war was over, when I returned to El Salvador in 1992, people still seemed fearful of political repression. No one was wearing a red beret in public.

By the end of 1993, things started to improve. The Chicago chapter of the Committee in Solidarity with El Salvador (CISPES) raised enough money to send down a machine that produced silk-screen T-shirts, along with an operator for the machine, who happened to be a friend of mine. It was clear then that propaganda would be critical to success in the 1994 elections.

Slowly, the FMLN made gains. Former guerrilla leaders, such as Maria Serrano, became legislators. But the ARENA party, founded by death squad leader Roberto D’Aubuission, governed the country for twenty years.

Until now.

I would love to be in El Salvador right now, but reporting has taken a back seat to editing. We’re finishing up our commemorative issue celebrating The Progressive’s 100th anniversary. We’ve gone through all of our old issues and culled quotes and articles from each year.

I spent a lot of February combing through the 1980s. I watched the tragic history of U.S. intervention in El Salvador unfold through our pages.

In our February 1981 issue, Carolyn Forché wrote:

El Salvador: The Next Vietnam?
“By the close of 1980, the United States had indeed done what it could to improve the proficiency of Salvadoran forces: The U.S. Army School of the Americas in Panama, in its largest single training effort ever, had graduated some 250 Salvadoran officers and noncoms.

“The streets of El Salvador’s towns are choked with burnt out vehicles, the debris of incendiary bombs, spent ammunition, and corpses. Whole villages have been destroyed. Every labor union meeting place has been blown up, as have opposition newspaper offices, the church radio station YSAX, and the Metropolitan Cathedral, where the bodies of six murdered Democratic Revolutionary Front leaders were dynamited as they lay in state.

“How did the United States come to back such a murderous regime? Despite his official human rights advocacy, Jimmy Carter always sent mixed signals to the Salvadoran right wing.
If Carter’s signals were mixed, Reagan’s are clear.”

In 1984, The Progressive published Allan Nairn’s chilling expose of the U.S. role in death squad activity, alongside Michael Kienitz’s powerful photography.

Behind the Death Squads
By Allan Nairn
May 1984
“Early in the 1960s, during the Kennedy Administration, agents of the U.S. Government in El Salvador set up two official security organizations that killed thousands of peasants and suspected leftists over the next fifteen years. These organizations, guided by American operatives, developed into the paramilitary apparatus that came to be known as the Salvadoran Death Squads.

“Today, even as the Reagan Administration publicly condemns the Death Squads, the CIA—in violation of U.S. law—continues to provide training, support, and intelligence to security forces directly involved in Death Squad activity.

“U.S. complicity in the dark and brutal work of El Salvador’s Death Squads is not an aberration. Rather, it represents a basic, bipartisan, institutional commitment on the part of six American Administrations—a commitment to guard the Salvadoran regime against the prospect that its people might organize in ways unfriendly to that regime or the United States.”

In 2004 The Progressive sent me to El Salvador to cover its election. The FMLN ran Shafik Hándal as its candidate against ARENA’s young and charismatic sportscaster Tony Saca. “With his gray beard and black hair, Hándal looked like the seventy-three-year-old that he is,” I wrote. “A hard-liner, he has a long history as head of the Communist Party, one of the five groups that made up the FMLN.” Tony Saca won the election. While I was there, many people had told me about Mauricio Funés, an investigative reporter. Americans said he was El Salvador’s Bill Moyers.

I didn’t have a chance to look up Funés back then. Which is too bad, since he ran as the FMLN’s Presidential candidate this year.

Twenty-five years after Nairn’s piece, the U.S. continues to intervene in Salvadoran politics.

On March 13, Democracy Now reported: “Two Republican lawmakers have issued threats over the outcome of national elections in El Salvador. Republican Congress members Trent Franks of Arizona and Dan Burton of Indiana said Salvadorans living in the US could lose their immigration status and the right to send remittances home if the leftist FMLN party wins the vote. Polls indicate the FMLN will beat the right-wing ARENA party, which has long had close ties to Washington. Five years ago, the Bush administration was accused of threatening to cut off aid to El Salvador if voters supported the FMLN.”

At the same time, a “Dear Colleague” letter, drafted by Congressman Raúl M. Grijalva (Democrat, Arizona) and Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur (Democrat, Ohio), called for a stance of neutrality in the election and respect for the Salvadoran democratic process. Thirty-three members of Congress signed the letter, addressed to President Obama.

“We need to put the era of intervention and economic coercion behind us,” said Grijalva. “We must fundamentally base our relations on respect for the right of our neighbors to choose their own leaders and their own forms of governments.”

It’ll take a few years before we’ll know the extent of U.S. intervention this time around. The National Endowment for Democracy, USAID, the International Republican Institute and other government agencies have been used to fund rightwing groups in the past.

Last year The Progressive ran a piece about John McCain’s role as chairman of the International Republican Institute (IRI).

Here’s an excerpt: In November 2007, the IRI gave its “Freedom Award” to Tony Saca, the president of El Salvador. In taped remarks, McCain said, “El Salvador’s politics and economy have been transformed. Today, former guerrillas are free to stand peacefully for public office, and economic growth is gradually eroding poverty.” But fifteen years after the civil war ended, economic and political problems linger. Corruption is rampant. San Salvador’s archbishop recently said the social conditions that gave way to the civil war remain. Activists who are organizing against Saca’s neoliberal economic policies face riot cops and charges of terrorism under new laws that criminalize public protest.
IRI board member Richard S. Williamson presented the award to Saca and recalled President Ronald Reagan’s policies in Latin America.

“Back then, the front line in the march to freedom was Central America,” said Williamson. “I remember those close vote counts, in the early ’80s, when Ronald Reagan was going against the majority in Congress who didn’t want to support the freedom fighters in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and elsewhere. Fortunately, he prevailed, and twenty-five years later El Salvador is a beacon of freedom.”

Twenty-five years ago, I bet Reagan never imagined that the FMLN would win the Presidency.

My friend and colleague Roberto Lovato spent election night with Funés. In an election night interview, Funés told Lovato: “We’re going to change the way we make policy. And one of the most significant changes is that we will no longer have a government at the service of a privileged few. And we will no longer have a government that creates an economy of privileges for the privileged. Now, we need a government like the one envisioned by [Archbishop of El Salvador] Óscar Arnulfo Romero, who, in his prophetic message, said that the church should have a preferential option for the poor.”
Talking about the poor was just the sort of thing that could get you killed in El Salvador.

In February 1980, Romero had written a letter to President Carter asking him to halt military aid to the Salvadoran government. But the dollars continued to flow. Romero was assassinated five weeks later while celebrating mass. (March 24 marks the 29th anniversary of Archbishop Romero’s assassination.) A 1993 UN report named Roberto D’Aubuisson, ARENA’s founder, as the person who ordered Romero’s death.

What will President Obama’s policies be vis-à-vis El Salvador? Will he be like Carter and send mixed signals? I certainly hope not.

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