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COHA: Welcome, Mr. Salvadoran President

7 May 2003

For Immediate Release

Memorandum to the Press


Welcome, Mr. Salvadoran President

- Francisco Flores is failing politically and economically as his dependence on Washington grows

- Flores's rush to please Bush over Iraq is in contrast to every major Latin American country, save Colombia, which is also dependent on Washington's funding and goodwill

While you are a proud member of the "Coalition of the Willing", Mr. President, in spite of the opposition of a majority of your compatriots, your political party is dissolving (not that the opposition FMLN is without fault) and the fruits of a near-total dependence on the U.S. are scarcely forthcoming. Indeed, hardly any of the U.S. media has even mentioned your arrival in Washington, underscoring the dearth of benefits attached to joining George Bush's ad hoc Iraq posse. Today, you are realizing that you economy is basically dependent on remittances sent home from Salvadorans residing in the U.S. In order to be granted the economic benefits of the proposed CAFTA, guaranteeing unimpeded access of Salvadoran goods to the vast U.S. market, you are willing to sign any document that the U.S. ambassador places on your desk.

A Commentary on the Recent Salvadoran Elections and factionalism rife within ARENA, President Francisco Flores's political party

The Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) emerged from the March 16 elections with the same number of deputies in the National Assembly that it had after the 2000 elections, while losing five Municipal Councils. Nevertheless, the fact that it led the National Republican Alliance (ARENA) by almost 29,000 votes prompted the FMLN's national coordinator, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, to boast that "We are the first force." Attracting the largest vote, it won 31 Assembly seats to 27 for ARENA, making for a loss of 2 for the president's party. But the FMLN's wins were tempered by the surprising gain of two seats by the right-wing National Conciliation Party (PCN), whose total of 16 seats, supplementing those of ARENA, gives the two parties a bare majority of 43 in the 84-seat National Assembly. The ten remaining seats were divided equally between the conservative Christian Democratic Party (PDC) and the centrist United Democratic Center (CDU). The PDC's deputies have indicated that they will support ARENA, while the CDU's deputies will probably back the FMLN. Thus, the situation will most likely remain much as it was before the election, with the Assembly controlled by a right-wing, ARENA-led coalition, and the FMLN attempting to lure dissenters from the PDC and PCN.

In the 262 separate municipal elections settled by winner-take-all balloting, ARENA won 111 Councils, while the FMLN won 74, compared to its previous 79. The PCN took 53 Councils; the PDC, 18; the CDU, 4; and two small parties, the National Action Party (PAN) and the Republican People's Party (PPR), one each. Nonetheless, the FMLN-controlled councils still govern a majority of the country's population, and their candidate, Rivas Zamora, won the crucial mayorship of San Salvador by almost 50% of the vote, compared to 42% for ARENA.

This year's FMLN victories were doubtless quite surprising to many observers who followed the party's internal disputes over the past decade. Long-standing disagreements within its ranks had led to the development of three factions: the left-wing ortodoxos, led by revolutionary leaders Jorge Schaflik Handal and Sanchez Ceren; the renovodores, or reformers, led by Facundo Guardado, the Party's Presidential candidate in 1999; and the unionistas, headed by Gerson Martinez. The ortodoxos advocate the uncompromising Marxist-Leninist ideology that guided the FMLN during the 1980's war. The renovadores consider themselves to be social democrats who believe the FMLN can remain viable only by being more compromising and democratic, and by attracting a wider spectrum of voters. The unionistas tend to occupy the Party's non-ideological middle ground.

After Guardado backed ARENA's dollarization of the economy in January 2001, the ortodoxos, who were the majority faction, opposed the plan as part of party policy, and sought to have the FMLN's disciplinary committee expel him. The dispute worsened over the next several months, and became particularly bitter after six renovadores, with one unionista, voted with ARENA to support a free trade treaty with Chile in defiance of a party order to abstain. Eventually, after more such disagreements, the six announced that they would no longer obey FMLN directives in the Assembly, but would make up their own minds and vote according to their consciences "in an independent manner."

The FMLN's November 2001 internal elections showed that the ortodoxos were definitely in charge when their candidate, Sanchez Ceren, was elected as the party's secretary-general, along with 35 of the 52 members of the advisory council. Amidst widespread charges of electoral fraud, critics charged that the Party was now controlled by a radical leftist group which did not easily tolerate dissent. As one renovador expressed, "the communists are digging the FMLN's's necessary to look for another alternative, a new hope."

So, in March 2002, five renovadores formally broke from the FMLN and declared themselves to be the Renewal Movement Party (PMR) with Facundo Guardado as its president, thus reducing FMLN Assembly representation to 26. The PMR's founding principles were presented as "equality, liberty, responsibility, and solidarity." But the PMR suffered a setback in March when it failed to attain the 3 percent of the votes required to maintain official political party status.

The FMLN's internal dispute also affected the political fortunes of Dr. Hector Silva, its popular twice-elected mayor of San Salvador and possible FMLN presidential candidate in 2004, who originally had sought a third term as a coalition candidate of the FMLN and the PMR. But the FMLN leadership refused to work with the PMR, and after much negotiation, a coalition of the FMLN, Popular Action (AP), the CDU, and Citizen Action was formed to back Silva. Then, in November, Silva decided to work with ARENA President Francisco Flores to try to mediate an end to a national doctors' strike that had resulted from efforts by the President to privatize the nation's health-care system. Since the FMLN supported the strikers and opposed presidential mediation, Silva's decision cost him the party's endorsement. Eventually, he ran as a CDU candidate for the National Assembly and won.

An October 2002 poll indicated that the FMLN retained the support of only 13 percent of the nation's voters, or about half of the support shown for ARENA, and that much of the public that usually supports the FMLN was disgusted by its ongoing factional conflicts. How then did the FMLN manage to regain its plurality within the National Assembly this year despite its many problems? One reason may well have been ARENA's own internal difficulties, which had led the party to undergo a self-study process after its 2000 losses. In June 2000, the party had selected a new president, Walter Araujo, and its National Executive Council (COENA) underwent a shakeup to bring new leaders into positions of power. However, attempts to democratize the party ended when conservative businessman Roberto Murray Meza was selected as party president in September 2001, after Araujo resigned amidst charges that he was not responsive to the need for "modernization." Although Murray Meza promised that ARENA would "reinvent itself," the party proceeded to install a new COENA dominated by high-powered business leaders. Its critics charged that this was evidence of a marginalization of moderates within ARENA, which had become a "party of only merchants, manufacturers, and bankers." Napoleon Campos, a political analyst, aptly pointed out that while the FMLN used a Stalinist "purge" to clear out dissent, ARENA did it more "elegantly."

It is also true that the FMLN, which for most of its wartime existence was mainly rural-based, now had become solidly established in urban politics. Much support for the FMLN now comes from urban voters, as is shown by the party's successes in the department of San Salvador and other departmental capitals, about half of which remain in the control of FMLN mayors and councils. It is within these areas that the FMLN has been able to prove its ability to run governments. It is also conceivable that the small increase in voting participation-from 38.8 percent in 2000 to 41.6 percent this year-reflects a growth of FMLN urban support.

Despite its potential, it is unfortunate that the FMLN, which has shown itself to be considerably more concerned than ARENA with confronting issues of importance to deprived Salvadorans, has been mired in internal conflict. Most obvious is the poverty that prevails in the country, and which continues to grow, particularly in rural areas. According to 2001 statistics, the national poverty rate had reached 49.7 percent of the population, up from 47.3 percent in 1999. Worse, 22.1 percent were living in extreme poverty, unable to satisfy basic food requirements, while the minimum wage was fixed at only $144 a month. Obviously, some of this increase was due to the devastating earthquakes of early 2001, which were followed by two periods of extreme drought that caused area-wide destruction of food crops, resulting in widespread malnutrition. In the midst of such pervasive social ills, ARENA has shown more concern with dollarization, privatizing public services, and imposing further neo-liberal economic "reforms" on the country.

Demonstrating the current U.S. attitude, President George W. Bush selected El Salvador as his Central American stopover in March 2002. According to El Salvador's Washington ambassador, Rene Leon, Bush's goal was to recognize his country as a model for development, because, in Bush's terms, it is one of the "freest, strongest, and most stable" countries in the hemisphere. In reality, while it is one of the most hospitable to neo-liberal policies, it is also one of the poorest in the hemisphere with some of the greatest disparities in wealth. Hopefully, the country's political parties, especially the FMLN, can overcome their worst internal conflicts so they can more rationally deal with national problems during the coming presidential electoral campaigns.

-This analysis was prepared by Frank Kendrick, Ph.D and Senior Research Fellow, Council on Hemispheric Affairs. Issued 7 May 2003

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being "one of the nation's most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers." For more information, please see our web page at; or contact our Washington offices by phone (202) 216-9261, fax (202) 223-6035, or email

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