Marta Harnecker: El Salvador, a new progressive hope in Latin America

Salvador Sanchez Ceren.

Click HERE for more on El Salvador; for more by Marta Harnecker, click HERE.

Marta Harnecker interviewed by José P. Guerrero[i], translated for Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal by Federico Fuentes

July 22, 2014 -- The new El Salvador government faces the challenge of deepening the pro-majority changes that have occurred, while updating the historic experiences of a fighting and conscious people seeking social transformation, said contemporary critical thinker Marta Harnecker, in an interview with weekly newspaper El Siglo XXI.

The author of books such as Rebuilding the Left and the forthcoming A World to Build: New Paths Towards Twenty-First Century Socialism, political analyst Marta Harnecker was an advisor to the Hugo Chavez government in Venezuela between 2004 and 2011. She was a member of the Chilean Socialist Party at the start of the 1970s and is an intellectual with a commitment to the social struggles and a reference point for the Marxist-Leninist left in Latin America.

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What does the triumph of Salvador Sanchez [Ceren, in the March 9 presidential elections] in El Salvador represent for Latin America?

I see Leonel’s victory – that is what I call him, because remember I first met him back when I interviewed him as a commander of the FPL [Popular Forces for Liberation] in the 1980s – as very significant not only because it further strengthens the progressive current that has been expanding throughout Latin America since the triumph of President Chavez in Venezuela in 1998, but because he has become the first president since Salvador Allende to reach the presidency by putting forward a societal project that he had no qualms in calling socialist, at the same time as explaining what socialism meant to him: a democratic, participatory project that is not decreed from above.

This idea that the president is very clear on is extremely important to me: you cannot build a new society if the people themselves are not involved in its construction. It is not about providing gifts to the people, it is not about resolving peoples’ problems from above. The organised people, together with the government, are what make change possible. The first example of this is the way in which he carried out the election campaign. The fact that in terms of defining his government program he decided to go to the people to discuss it with them, ask their opinions, and open his ears to the voice of the people.

But in his campaign, he preferred to talk about “Living Well” ...

That is not surprising. If you read his book, With Dreams, We Describe Life, you will see that at the same time as he proposes the need to build an alternative to capitalism, which he calls socialism, he also believes – as a good professor – that his party needs to find mechanisms to allow it to communicate with the broad popular majorities. In this sense, I perfectly understand why a people that has faced a constant ideological bombardment against the idea of socialism would be more open to understanding the characteristics of this new societal project being proposed if the term “Living Well” is used to describe it.

Isn’t that opportunism?

I think we need to differentiate between opportune, which is the same as convenient, and opportunism, which implies simply seeking benefits with no regards for how this is done. I think that Leonel saw it was more convenient to use another name for the same project, because by giving it such a name the people would better understand the project. [Bolivia’s vice-president] Alvaro Garcia Linera said that the name of the new society we want to build is not what matters, what matters is its content.

Let’s look at the dream we wanted to share with his people. Here I have this book [shows copy of The Path to Victory, which contains a series of speeches by Salvador Ceren] and he says: a society guided by solidarity and fraternity, in which respect for nature is one of the most important principles. A society in which men and women are educated with responsibility and a critical outlook, where equality exists between men and women, when the legacy of indigenous peoples is preserved, where not only are peoples’ material conditions improved but so too their spiritual wellbeing.

Well, all of these are precisely the characteristics of a socialist society. We could talk all day about this issue that I have more fully developed in my latest book, A World to Build, and which will be published shortly here by the University of El Salvador.

What does this triumph mean for our country?

I think that another battle has been won in El Salvador, but not the war. You have won government, but that is not the same as having taken power. We are dealing with a process of peaceful, institutional transition, with many limitations that have to be understood. A broad national majority is needed in order to advance in a democratic manner towards a new society, and the president is very clear on that. Therefore, not only is the unity of revolutionaries fundamental; we must also be capable of convoking all those who share a common vision for a more just and solidarity-based society. This includes not only the left but also the centre and some business sectors that might be willing to collaborate with a popular project.

You have said that the inherited state apparatus cannot be destroyed overnight. Could you develop this point further?

I believe that in the past, the left always worked off the idea of destroying the bourgeois state, just like what occurred in the revolutions at the start and middle of the 20th century. These were revolutions that grew out of civil wars or imperialist wars, where the armed people conquered power by destroying the inherited state apparatus.

That is why I can understand why some sectors feel disorientated when they see that the situation today is quite different. First, we have to be clear that electorally, we have only won government, the executive power. In many cases we do not have a majority in parliament, that is, the legislative power, or in the judicial power. Furthermore, there are the other powers: money power, media power, military power. We have won a small piece of power. The issue is how do we work towards conquering other spaces of power and how do we continue winning over more people to our project.

How can we win over more people? First, we have to understand that it is not a question of imposition; rather we have to win the hearts and minds of the people. Moreover, I believe we have to put special emphasis on winning over the natural leaders that exist within different social sectors, because if we win them over, they can help us enormously in the task of winning over those people they have influence over.

Can Living Well be build from the inherited state?

These processes can be helped along enormously, as long as revolutionary cadres inhabit the inherited state. From the government, and with political will, you can create conditions that allow the people to be the builders of their own destiny.

For this to occur, we must ask ourselves what are the ideal spaces for peoples’ participation. In Venezuela, Chavez promoted the creation of communal councils: 200 to 400 families in the city, 100 to 200 families in the countryside and less in remote rural areas. The idea is that the people organise themselves and learn to resolve their problems through their own initiatives.

Participation cannot be reduced to voting every once in a while, or mobilising, or debating, it is fundamentally about making decisions on the basis of having received adequate information. But it is not enough to just make decision because they can end up as a dead letter. The people need to organise themselves to watch over these projects and make sure they are carried out, and in the correct manner. That is why social monitoring, over public works as well as the functioning of public services in general, is fundamental.

Given that in order to carry out the required transformations, the government has as its starting point the inherited state apparatus, it is equally true that to succeed it must understand that popular pressure is fundamental to aiding its struggle against this apparatus. At the same time, FMLN members and the Salvadorian people need to understand that this apparatus cannot be destroyed overnight because we do not have the strength to do so, we need to transform it bit by bit, conscious of the fact that along the path of this transformation there exists the dangers of deviations, bureaucratism, etc. Only an organised, alert people, and a government that understands the need for popular organisation, the need for popular criticism to be able to advance, can overcome these negative obstacles.

Furthermore, we have to recognise that nothing is perfect and understand that we have to confront defects in the most constructive manner possible. Criticism should be well received, but it has to be a constructive criticism that helps cure an illness, that offers an alternative solution. It is very easy to criticise for the sake of criticising, but it is much more difficult to propose what to do instead. For example, I know there is a lot of criticism about the military’s involvement in public security issues, but what alternative is being proposed to protect the people if the police are too weak to deal with the issue on their own? The government has to provide a concrete response to this issue. A broad national dialogue on the issue of crime could perhaps suggest concrete proposals that help resolve the most deeply felt problems of the Salvadorian people.

In this day-to-day struggle to build a new society, we have to be capable of detecting with complete precision who the main enemy, that is, who is the main obstacle blocking our advance, in order to concentrate our fire. I understand that in your case, the main obstacle is the fascist Salvadorian elite, represented by the most recalcitrant sectors of [the right-wing opposition party] ARENA. The key task is being capable of convoking all those social sectors that are in contradiction with this ARENA-based oligarchy, no matter how small the contradiction may be.

What is your take on the government of Mauricio Funes?

I believe that the recent triumph cannot be explained without the antecedents of the Mauricio Funes government. With all the limitations it may have had, the advances made under his government cannot be ignored, especially for the most marginalised in society. I admire the noble attitude of solidarity that the FMLN and the new president have had with him. Perhaps, from the tactical/electoral point of view it would have been more convenient to distance yourself from him.

I believe the steps taken by Funes will allow the new FMLN administration to continue advancing down the path of improving the material and spiritual conditions of life of the Salvadorian people.

The political project of the FMLN ties in with the South American experiences of Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador. What is your opinion regarding the peculiarity of El Salvador?

I see differences. You cannot compare Venezuela, a big country with enormous oil wealth – this is the revolutionary process that has been able to count on more resources than any other in the world – with El Salvador, a very small country, without much natural wealth, in a geographical situation that continues to be very complicated, with the continued presence of a strong fascist right.

On the other hand, the big advantage that El Salvador has, in my opinion, is precisely its history, its tradition of struggle, the level of popular organisation that has been achieved and a the presence of a very solid political organisation, things that Venezuela did not have. It did not have strong social organisation, it did not have strong leftist parties, the party was created to run in elections.

The Salvadorian process, as opposed to the other processes that have occurred in South America, has experienced more radical, more heroic struggles, which have cost a lot of blood, but have also helped forge an important organisation, both before and after the war. This represents a historic memory and a learning process that no one can erase.

No doubt the challenges are enormous: the problem of the “maras” [gangs] that control part of the territory, and more generally the issue of crime, the precarious economic situation the country finds itself in and the urgent need to overcome the problem of unemployment, without which there will be no solution for the youth. These are important national problems that need to be confronted.

But we also have to take into consideration that El Salvador today finds itself within a very different global situation to a few years ago. There is a new correlation of forces in the region and at the global level. Just look at the recent agreements between China and Russia. A Russia-China pole has been built, which is very important for a multi-polar world. This is the global context in which El Salvador has a new government; above all because China and Russia are both willing to support Latin America. They have invested in Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela. What this means for each of our governments is that there exists the opportunity to have economic relations with different countries, thereby avoiding the need to depend on just one like in the past.

You mentioned that one of the biggest problems facing El Salvador is that of crime. What experiences could you share with us in terms of finding solutions?

I had first-hand experience in Venezuela of an interesting program for rescuing youth involved in criminal activities. In barrio en Cumana, in the state of Sucre, there were 16 armed gangs that slowly began to disarm thanks to the work of a group of evangelical pastors who got close to these blokes and sought to touch the noble fibre that every human has, even if sometimes it is very hidden.

They were able to encourage them to disarm by involving them in sporting and religious activities, as well as giving them work in local council projects. The negative natural leaders came to play a positive leadership role: some were elected leaders of communal councils, other were invited to speak at schools to explain to children the negative effects of using drugs, etc. I have an article on this experience that can be found on the Rebelion webpage ( and MEPLA, an institution that I headed up for many years in Cuba produced a documentary on the same experience that can be found online (

The new Salvadorian government has decided to become part of Petrocaribe. What is the advantage of doing so?

In my opinion this has a number of big advantages, and perhaps one of President Saca’s biggest errors was to not have understood this. One of the things that most caught my attention in this country is the issue of the ALBA companies. From what I have been told, Schafik Handel was the point of contact between President Chavez and President Saca when an attempt was made to include El Salvador in this project that, in particular, benefits the least developed countries.

Via this agreement, Venezuelan oil is sold cheaply and with a preferential treatment that allows capital to be invested in social projects for the development of the nation because the loans are done on a long-term basis and with a low interest rate.

When Saca refused to enter into the agreement, Schafik saw – with great intuition – that municipal legislation allowed these institutions to sign up to these types of agreements. That is why he promoted this course of action via the various local councils run by the FMLN. This has allowed for the creation not only of ALBA Oil and its 45 petrol stations across the country, but also the creation of various associated companies, such as ALBA Food, ALBA Supermarkets, ALBA Fertilizers, ALBA Gas, that have carried out a number of social activities such as rebuilding schools, providing scholarships, health care, etc.

I am not an economist, but I think without a doubt that reaching a state-to-state agreement will be of even greater benefit for the whole country. I think that one of the biggest debts we have to President Chavez is that he thought up and promoted alternative forms of integration to counter the Free Trade of Americas Agreement that only benefitted the big countries and further increased the gap with lesser-developed ones. The new integration proposed by Chavez is one that is particularly in solidarity with the poorest countries and sectors of our region, and one example of this is Petrocaribe.

What sectors could help breath new life into activism?

Today, it is fundamental that youth are involved; there is no future if they are not involved. A generational renovation is very important and this is very difficult because sometimes we as adults don’t know how to involve youth.

In every country, when we look at the issue of participation, the key missing actor is youth. We face a big challenge to ensure that youth do not only become experts in social networking (internet, Twitter, Facebook) but that they also, at the same time, participate in youth organisations, and in other forms of territorial-based organisations together with other sectors of society. The idea of establishing youth quotas, just as quotas are established for women, to me seems to be a positive idea. I believe that Ecuador’s president [Rafael] Correa is the person that has advanced the most on this issue, giving very young professional, men and women, opportunities to participate in different posts in the government.

Does the idea of a vanguard work?

Even though I have used the word vanguard for a long time, and I have a book titled Vanguard and the current crisis, which I wrote in the 1990s, today I prefer to not use the term because it is associated with top-down behaviour, with feeling as though one is the owner of truth, with looking down on popular initiatives, with not respecting the autonomy of popular movements, etc. In previous decades, we had many vanguards without rear-guard in Latin America.

But rejecting the word vanguard does not mean ignoring the need for a political instrument to orientate and organise the struggle against those forces that oppose the construction of a humanist and solidarity-based society. The mass mobilisations against the dominant system in different parts of the world could end in nought if a political instrument does not exist or is not built.

The rhythm of the government tends to not be the same as the rhythm of the party. In this sense, is it healthy for the party to maintain its autonomy from the government?

The ideal would be for the party to play a guiding role, but historically it has tended to lag behind the government on many occasions. This is due to various objective reasons, among them, that the party aims to be successful in government and therefore, tries to place its best cadres in the most strategic positions within government. This in turn tends to weaken the leadership of the party.

On the other hand, we have the issue of rhythm. The rhythm of the government is much quicker than the rhythm of the party: the government has the pressure of implementing policies as quickly as possible, the party tends to give greater importance to discussing in depth what measures to adopt. What tends to happen is that the government does not receive in time the party’s orientation and has to act according to its own criteria. Furthermore, the president has the responsibility of governing for the whole country and the party needs to understand this.

In my criteria, the party’s main task is being the critical internal conscious of the process, and especially of the government and all the party cadres that take up roles in the government. It has to be the first to demonstrate its absolute transparency, removing from its ranks any functionary that falls prey to the vice of corruption. It has to train its party members to operate as public functionaries imbued with a spirit of service, and able to avoid problems of opportunism, clientalism, political careerism, etc. It has to prepare its cadres to be capable of convincing people of the societal project that we want to build, rather than impose it on them. Its members have to be true popular educators, capable of unleashing popular wisdom and initiative.


1 This interview first appeared in two parts in the June 16 and June 23, 2014, editions of the FMLN’s weekly newspaper, El Siglo XXI.