Friday, June 27, 2014

Election of ex-guerrilla fighter as El Salvador's President - a sign of democratic maturity and inclusiveness

Salvador Sanchez Ceren, a leftist ex-guerilla fighter, was sworn in as President of El Salvador on 1 June 2014. During the civil war in the eighties, Ceren was known as Comandante (commander) Leonel Gonzalez of the leftist revolutionary group FMLN (Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation) which had waged a fierce armed struggle against the US-supported right-wing oligarchic dictatorship regimes of El Salvador. Under the peace agreement signed in 1992, FMLN surrendered weapons, became a legal political party, embraced the democratic process wholeheartedly and came to power in 2009.  Ceren won the elections to the Congress three times in 2000, 2003 and 2006 and was Vice President of the country in 2009-14. In the Presidential elections held in March 2014, Ceren won with 50.11% votes against his conservative ARENA party candidate Norman Quijano who got 49.89%. But in the first round of elections held in February, Ceren had got 48.93% while Quijano secured only 38.96%. Quijano refused to accept the election result and even went to the extent of calling on the army to intervene. But the Minister of defense issued a statement on behalf of the armed forces stating that they respected the electoral outcome. 

This is the second time that the leftist FMLN has defeated the right-wing ARENA party which had been in power continuously from 1989 to 2009.  FMLN candidate Mauricio Funes won the 2009 elections. But Funes was a journalist and did not take up arms.  Oscar Ortiz , sworn in as Vice President under Ceren, is also an ex-guerilla fighter.

The El Salvadorean civil war was fought violently and ruthlessly between the leftist FMLN and the right wing dictatorships supported by US. More than 75,000 people were said to have been killed and a million were displaced out of the total population of about 5.4 million at that time. The armed forces, who were trained by US advisors and the paramilitary death squads massacred thousands of people including peasants,nuns and priests including the famous Archbishop Romero, in the name of anti-insurgency operations. Even after the civil war ended, US continued to interfere politicaly in El Salavador openly opposing FMLN and supporting the conservative ARENA party during elections.

Ceren, who survived the civil war and has won the political battle against the oligarchic dictatorships, now has an even more difficult war to fight as President; this time against crime. El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Criminal gangs traumatize and paralyze the country with gruesome murders, drug trafficking and extortion. The two major gangs  MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha) and Barrio-18 fight with each other for territorial control causing death and destruction for innocent people caught in the crossfire. They attack police and have killed even soccer players. Incidentally El Salvador had a "soccer war" against Honduras in 1969 following the violence between the fans during the qualifying matches between the two countries for the 1970 World Cup.

When the territorial disputes between the MS-13 and Barrio-18 gangs became explosive and extremely violent, the government of El Salavador itself intervened and brokered a truce between them in 2012. The cease-fire, which has brought down the homicide rates, is holding  so far.

Besides polarizing Honduran society by supporting the rightists against the left during the civil war, US has a role also in the crime and violence of El Salvador. The major Salvadorean gangs trace their roots to US. During the civil war, several hundred thousands of Salvadoreans fled the country and emigrated to USA. Today, El Salvadoreans form the second largest Latino community in US with 1.25 million, according to a 2014 report of the Pew Research Centre. Some young Salvadorean immigrants, traumatized by the civil war and separation from their families, became easy targets for recruitment by criminal gangs in the US and formed their own gangs especially in Los Angeles. The US government deported many of these gang members to El Salvador where they have created a new evil empire of crime and violence. This makes more Salvadorean youth to leave the country even now and seek refuge in US, creating a vicious cycle. 

Ceren also needs to wage a war against poverty since El Salavador is one of the poorest countries in Latin America. Farbundo Marti, after whom FMLN has been named, fought for the land rights of the indigenous people in the 1930s. He was assassinated and about 30,000 people were massacred by the armed forces in the notorious incident called as La Matanza in 1932. The right-wing dictatorships and oligarchic Presidents of ARENA had done nothing much to improve the miserable conditions of the poor people. The FNLN government, which came to power in 2009 has started Inclusive Development policies and Ceren has promised to continue and expand them. He has not proposed any radical Chavez-type revolutionary solutions. On the contrary, he has assured that he would govern in a pragmatic and moderate way, allaying fears about his past extremist background. 

During the election campaign, Quijano promised to end the gang violence by deployment of the army. But Ceren did not agree with militarization of the issue and instead has proposed inclusive social policies to improve employment and educational opportunities for the youth. His approach will be compassionate in contrast to the oligarchic ARENA Presidents who practiced ruthless Mano Duro ( Strong Hand) policies, which in any case failed. Having been in the receiving end of state sponsored violence in the past, Ceren has the mindset and understanding  to break the vicious cycle of violence in the country. The only constraint is that he does not have enough time to solve this deep-rooted problems of violence and poverty. Under the Salvadorean constitution, President Ceren has only a single term of five years and cannot stand for reelection. 

In the guise of anti-Communist campaign, US had intervened overtly and covertly supporting right -wing dictatorships to suppress the leftist parties in Latin America during the cold war. The Left, which was excluded from the political process, went underground and resorted to armed struggle. In the last three decades, the Left has come to power through legitimate democratic elections in many Latin American countries. Ceren is the second former Marxist guerrilla fighter elected as President after Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua in Central America. South America has also elected leftist ex–guerrilla fighters Jose Mujica of Uruguay and Dilma Rouseff of Brazil as Presidents in recent years. This is a good sign of the maturity  and inclusiveness of Latin American democracies.

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