El Salvador: The beginning of a new era -- and great challenges
May 31, 2009 -- El Salvador -- On Monday, June 1, 2009 El Salvador will turn a new page in its history with the inauguration of the country´s first left government, joining the ranks of the majority of Latin America. Representing the Farabundo Marti para la Liberacion Nacional (FMLN, Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front) ), Mauricio Funes and Salvador Sanchez Ceren, president and vice-president elect, will face a national assembly in which the FMLN is outnumbered by more than 2:1. Out of a total of 84 seats, the FMLN only have 35. This will make broad sweeping changes difficult, but not impossible, and may force Funes to use the power of the presidential veto as a bargaining chip. It is important that those of us observing from a distance understand the complicated environment within which the new government will be operating.
The new government represents a coalition of interests including the FMLN and its national grassroots system of committees, and a broad cross-section of civil society. More and more information is coming to light that despite the glowing picture painted by the outgoing right-wing ARENA party, the country is bankrupt -- the result of twenty years of failed economic and social policies, and rampant corruption by ARENA and its allies, the PDC and PCN. It is likely that the new government will discover the depth of the corruption and mismanagement after it assumes office.
To further complicate matters, the outgoing ARENA government has been very busy over the last few weeks passing a number of laws and renewing contracts for their allies and supporters to ensure their continued control of the economy. The FMLN won on a platform of priorities created by the people of El Salvador – through a lengthy, inclusive and thorough popular consultation process. The priorities expressed by the people are access to adequate food, medicine/healthcare, jobs, affordable energy and security. The Funes-Sanchez Ceren government will have to be creative in its approach to solving some of El Salvador's many problems, most of which have been exacerbated over the last twenty years.
Anyone who knows the history of El Salvador will not be surprised by ARENA's cynical, desperate and cruel attempts to thwart the new government's response to the needs of the people, particularly the most vulnerable. Information is slowly coming to light of the extent of the damage the outgoing government has done to the nation – and this is only scratching the surface.
For example, a popular health committee in the city of Soyapango caught Department of Health employees red-handed trying to dispose of a warehouse of expired medicines. The medicines carried expiration dates from 2005 to present. What was the motive of the current government in hoarding medicines in a warehouse? To create instability and scarcity in public health institutions to force people (who can hardly afford to buy food) to buy medicine through private means.
The following is just a sample of the current state of chaos being left behind by the outgoing ARENA government.
1. The government subsidises many basic services for the population, such as the distribution of electricity, transportation, gas and water. However, the ARENA government owes months of back payments for those subsidies to the private service providers, and they will leave this debt to the new government. What is the solution for the companies? They can either raise the rates directly to the consumer, or shut off the services. The cost of electricity for the average Salvadorean already increased by 40% last month.
2. El Salvador has been hit hard by the global economic crisis. Currently, the official poverty rate stands at 40% of the population (however, it is believed to be much higher). The response to the crisis has been similar to other neoliberal governments: inject money into the economy by sponsoring huge infrastructure projects. In El Salvador, the benefits of these projects will go directly to the two construction companies that are owned by ARENA. For example, as I drove from San Salvador to the Port of La Libertad earlier in the week, I encountered a major highway twinning project. The new highway is being built to facilitate a proposed (but not confirmed) Boeing parts plant, and to service the slew of million dollar luxury homes trailing up from the highway.
3. The office of outgoing president Antonio Saca has spent millions on publicity during his term – preferring to spread propaganda rather than actually putting the money into services for the public. The Office of the President has paid millions of dollars to public relations companies owned by ARENA party members; however, the source of the money is a ``secret'' presidential fund that is not subject to audit. Surely, this is just the tip of the iceberg.
4. Like other countries, El Salvador collects revenue through personal income and business taxes. This year, income tax returns have not been paid out because the government is bankrupt.
5. Prior to leaving office, the ARENA government renewed the contract for the US Anti-Drug Monitoring Base at Comalapa for another five years.
6. The government has a multimillion dollar debt with government supply and service providers (for example, security, cleaning). While these have not been paid, the contracts with ARENA´s own networked companies that supply these services were hastily renewed before the arrival of the new government.
7. El Salvador has been taking out a number of short-term loans from foreign countries and institutions, and this foreign debt has accumulated because the government has been unable to make the payments.
8. Because of the financial crisis in the US and resulting job losses, approximately 300 undocumented Salvadoreans per day are returning to El Salvador. The outgoing government had no plan or ability to deal with the influx, and this will now become a challenge for the FMLN government.
9. President Saca and his family have made several last-minute trips (purportedly to say ``farewell'') covering almost the entire continent, as well as Israel, and a trip to see the Pope – all at great expense to the public purse.
Prior to leaving office, the right-wing dominated national assembly also passed a number of laws:
1. The citizenship and voters' list has been controlled by the presidency for a number of years (whether or not this is appropriate is another matter). To prevent the FMLN from controlling the list, a law was passed that turns control over to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, which is controlled by the right-wing opposition.
2. The government passed a ``bullet-proof'' law that protects the positions of thousands of state employees who are ARENA supporters.
3. Another law that was passed recently extends and protects the privileges of consular officials abroad. Many consular officials are family members of governing members of the ARENA party (for example, the Consul General in Toronto is related to President Saca). The new law means they can keep their diplomatic passports, continue to receive tax exemptions and discounts on international flights, and most importantly, they will not be required to submit to luggage checks at customs.
These points are just a sample of the corruption and level of political cynicism of the outgoing ARENA government – which is trying to foment chaos and insecurity before the new government even takes office, and make the next five years as difficult as possible.
Despite the cynical moves, Salvadoreans are extremely hopeful and supportive of the new government. Before Mauricio Funes even takes office, his popularity is at 82%. The inauguration on June 1 will be the most highly attended presidential inauguration in the history of the country, and includes the presidents of Central America, many countries in the Caribbean, and allied leaders Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Bolivia's Evo Morales, Ecuador's Rafael Correa, Brazil's Lula da Silva and Paraguay's Fernando Lugo. Also in attendance will be US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Colombia's president Alvaro Uribe and Prince Felipe and Princess Beatriz of Spain.
However, the real celebration will be in the Cuscatlan Stadium, where more than 70,000 Salvadoreans are expected to celebrate the big day with music and speeches by the new president and vice president, with the attendance by hundreds of international delegations. Hugo Chavez, Fernando Lugo, Rafael Correa and Evo Morales have all confirmed they will attend the popular celebration. It is at this celebration that the new government will seek a public pact with the people to support the new government and overcome the obstacles that have been placed in their path by the ARENA government.
[Jay Hartling is an independent journalist and researcher based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.]