From the pages of Z Magazine


El Salvador Elections

Polarization in the
post-peace accord period

By James Petras


The signing of a peace accord between the guerrilla commanders and the right-wing government in 1992 promised a period of freedom, prosperity, and peace. Overseas donors would contribute funds for reconstruction, reinsertion of combatants, and social reform. The regime would dismantle the repressive apparatuses including the paramilitary death squads and encourage popular participation in the political process. The guerrillas would lay down their arms and seek change through the electoral arena and legal social movements. The ensuing stability would encourage new investments, jobs, and rising income.

In the five years since the Peace Accords have been signed the emerging social, economic, and political reality is a great deal more contradictory and the popular movements are far from realizing the goals that they were originally led to believe would emerge from the accords.

In the first instance, the accords have different meaning for different political sectors and social classes of Salvadoran society. What were originally ambiguities in meaning regarding the nature of the economy and society are being resolved in ways unfavorable to the trade unions, peasant organizations, and public employees (teachers, health workers, etc.) who provided the bulk of supporters and most of the victims in the revolutionary struggle. On the other hand, most of the leading commanders seem to be doing well, firmly ensconced in the party apparatus of the FMLN, in private business, or occupying seats in Congress, municipal governments, or in NGOs.

The period since the Peace Accords has brought out the divergent class interests that were held together during the revolutionary struggle by the indiscriminate terror of the pro-U.S. right-wing regime. The same is true on the right: socio-political differentiation has provoked important realignments within the ruling class.

The changes favoring electoral activity over extra-parliamentary politics of social movements is accompanied by a new style of politics in which national and capitalist vertical alliances replace class and socialist horizontal coalitions.

The new politics takes place in the context of a new role for the U.S. No longer directly intervening in the minutiae of financing and directing everyday repressive activity, Washington stands as an overseer. The Embassy and the associated aid agencies and military advisors are consulted by major parties and social movements and are involved in setting forth economic agendas and delimiting the boundaries of "acceptable politics."

Together this ensemble of new-style political activity and alliances and redefinition of roles by the U.S. and its military allies represents a kind of New Order. The New Order is defined by the deepening of neoliberal economic agenda, an increase in the electoral presence of the Left, and the displacement of the popular social movements by NGOs and other professional and middle-class organizations directed toward privatizing public services and depoliticizing their popular constituencies.

Thus, the central paradox: the Peace Accords, by eliminating the threat of revolution, have facilitated the introduction of free-market capitalism and the marginalization of popular actors.

In many ways, the accords are clearly modeled after the so-called "democratic transitions" in the Southern Cone of Latin America. The same process of  "impunity for the military," preservation of the class structure, and the deepening of neoliberal economic agenda forms the framework for the introduction of electoral processes. While the starting point in El Salvador differs (a massive popular revolutionary struggle, an agrarian reform of some consequence), the political direction is similar: a state policy directed toward polarized development; a political process in which electoral parties diverge from social movements; and a re-thinking within the social movements of their relation to the electoral parties and processes.

Ambiguities and Resolution

The Peace Accords have been interpreted by the major political and social forces in different ways. Even within the major blocs on the Left and Right there are different meanings regarding the policies the post-accord regime should pursue.

On the Left, the FMLN has opted for an electoral political party format, is deeply immersed in electoral activity and largely divorced from the day to day struggles of base organizations. Its policies reflect the heavy bias of lower middle class and even national business interests, favoring national industry-protectionism, and state incentives to local enterprise. It is largely a party of the upwardly mobile, lower middle class, ex-combatants set on the new course of finding a niche in the society and in the interstices of the "neoliberal" economy. In large part, the FMLN looks to the Center politically and upward to the national bourgeois for political and social alliances. Its mobilizations are largely confined to electoral campaign marches and meetings, drawing on the urban lower class and rural co-op members threatened by the counter-reform agenda of the regime.

The social movements, the major umbrella peasant organization, the ADC (The Democratic Peasant Alliance-Alianza Democratica Campesina) and the major trade union organization (UNTS) have suffered a series of setbacks, both politically and economically. Politically, the government has put forth agrarian and labor legislation that seriously weakens their capacity to organize and engage in struggle. Land occupations are now illegal, legislation facilitating the sub-division of co-ops is in place, rural debt payments are being enforced forcing peasants off the land, trade union strikes have been broken, free trade production zones banning unions and strikes proliferate, etc.

Equally important, the leaders of the social movements feel abandoned by the FMLN. Their demands and struggles no longer have a privileged place in the FMLN. They carry out their struggle with only a symbolic nod of approval from their ex-commanders.

The most striking divergence between movements and parties, however, is found in the case of two prominent personages, Joaquim Villabobos and Ana Guadalupe Martinez, both ex-commanders in the FMLN. Both have supported right-wing sponsored socio-economic measures and formed congressional alliances with ARENA and conservative Christian Democrats. They have formed a new party, the Democratic Party, which has supported raising the regressive value added tax by 25 percent, supported the privatization and sub-division of the co-ops, and are increasingly linked with the economic program of the "free market" right.

In the five years since the signing of the Accords, the electoral left has achieved legitimacy, but lost its class identity and revolutionary character; gained political office but diluted its program to an inoffensive platform of honest administration, increased social spending and promotion of national capitalist enterprises. The social movements have become fragmented, weakened, and without effective and strong presence in the new political order.

The right-wing split-offs from the FMLN have had some short-term regional impact but have gradually been absorbed by the existing right-wing formations, evolving toward marginal actors on the fringe of the bi-nominal political system.

The Divergence in the Right

The basic social classes on the Right (the business, landlord, financial, manufacturing and real estate groups) secured their basic objective in the Peace Accords: political stability and the preservation of their wealth, property and class position. They also retained control over the state—the Army, police, judiciary and Central Bank. By eliminating the revolutionary popular army and dispersing its social base, they have been able to attract new private financial flows and the expatriation of overseas Salvadorean capital. In this new climate and correlation of forces, the Right has been able to legislate repressive legislation (as opposed to using paramilitary forces and state terror) and measures to dismantle the agrarian reform. The Right held together by its fear of revolution, common opposition to the popular army and by its common purpose in undermining labor unions and co-ops. Today they are deeply divided over which sectors of the elite should benefit from the economic opening and what kind of development strategy should be pursued. Essentially two positions, increasing in conflict, have emerged. The dominant sector proposes an open economy, linked to overseas financial markets, real estate and tourist based growth, and maquiladores run by overseas investors. The other sector represents manufacturing and agricultural producers hit by foreign imports, high interest rates and loss of state subsidies. Thus there is a fissure on the Right between "financial liberals" and "productive nationalists." Their struggle is over who will redirect income away from the working class and peasants toward what kind of capitalist strategy.

The ascendancy of the financial liberal right in ARENA, the governing party has led to defection by the nationalist toward the older right-wing party, the PCN and, in a few cases, toward the FMLN.

The end of the war and the deepening of the neoliberal agenda has produced deep fractures within the upper classes and between the middle and working class. It has led to political realignments on the right and left: nationalist capitalists moving toward the traditional right and some to the center; liberal leftists moving to the center-right. Parallel to the political realignment is the social fragmentation of the social movements. During the war the social movements were unified under the leadership of the FMLN which supported their demands and to which they directed their material and personal support. The relation was reciprocal with extensive family, neighborhood and community bonds linking peasant, neighborhood, trade union and guerrilla organizations. In the post-Accord period most of those social bonds have been fractured: the ex-guerrilla commanders and the FMLN are decidedly oriented to public office holding and exercising power from the seats of government; the social movements have each turned to trying to solve the specific problems confronting their sector; communities have in differing degrees become internally divided as NGO projects depoliticize and concentrate on focus groups; families, especially of the poor, increasingly compete over scarce resources; individual ex-combatants look toward maximizing consumption. For many, the absence of solidarity and collective struggle has led to rampant crime as a means of social mobility. A key element in this social fragmentation is the conscious decision of the FMLN leaders to embrace "pragmatic democratic rhetoric" and to renounce Marxist class analysis and the socialist vision of the future. For many it is a return to the "progressive" capitalist dogma of the 1950s. The capacity to unify and motivate solidarity among the poor is very limited, hence the recourse is to employ vague populist slogans of change and progress. The structural analysis and class relations remain unstated, leaving the way open to cross-class alliances at the top and social fragmentation at the bottom. The electoral appeal is now directed to atomized citizens not to class; the appeal is to "social pacts" not to "class struggle." In the context of the neoliberal offensive by the employers, the pragmatic rhetoric does not resonate with the experiences at the bottom. While the "class struggle from above" continues, the electoral campaigns capture the discontent at the bottom, but without providing a framework from which to confront neoliberalism.

Growth of FMLN, Decline of Social Movements

There is no question that the FMLN is an accepted part of the political class today in El Salvador. While the right-wing media still persists in sporadic efforts to stigmatize them and to discover "subversive plots," by and large the FMLN leaders have access to the print and electronic media. While electoral activists are harassed and on occasion assassinated, the FMLN has been accepted as a valid interlocutor with business, professional, and even military elites.

The legitimacy of the FMLN has been purchased, however, at a political price. It has become an electoral party not a mass party. While individual FMLN activists do engage in mass mobilization and national leaders do consult with social movements, most of their time is spent on their parliamentary and legislative functions and in negotiating and dealing with a variety of social entities, including business and agro-business associations. As a result, the FMLN is a growing electoral force, one which increasingly attracts lower middle- and middle-class support while continuing to draw votes from the rural areas. Most of its lower-class loyalties are drawn from its past political capital, the promise of improved social services, and its campaign against government abuses and corruption. Yet most of its lower class support is passive. It is not activated between elections. During electoral campaigns there is a kind of mobilization and the older solidarity relations are recalled. There is, however, a new discourse that is devoid of class content and full of vacuous "democratic" and "change" rhetoric. Thus far, the FMLN has been able to build from its popular base and reach out to the middle and business class. However, the unattended lower class is up for bids by the vote buying Right which is not adverse to large-sale high impact short-term projects in target neighborhoods.

On the other hand, the social movements that deal not in votes and political deals but in defending the material interests of workers and peasants against factory owners, bankers, and landowners have not been accepted. There is a vast gap between their legal standing and their de facto recognition as social interlocutors. In this regard, the ADC has seen its proposals for debt forgiveness ignored; the trade unions have seen thousands of jobs disappear as privatization moves ahead.

In contrast to the expansion of the FMLN, the social movements have been in retreat and on the defensive. The divergent policies and the different social interests behind them has led to the growing autonomy of the social movements. During the war the social movements channeled money, food, resources and personnel to the popular army. The commanders generally set policy and defined strategies and by and large the social leaders followed. The demands of the war legitimated the vertical relation between the FMLN and the social movements. After the Peace Accords, the FMLN moved toward greater assimilation into the institutional-electoral system and de facto put distance to the movements; the movements in turn felt that the old vertical ties led to a neglect of their class interests. Thus autonomy of the movements meant less pressure on the FMLN leaders and more freedom to maneuver toward the Center; for the movements it meant greater capacity to articulate their struggles and develop their own agenda independent of the deals and agreements formulated by the FMLN within the Congressional arena.

In the short run the growth of movement autonomy and the evolution of the FMLN has yielded uneven results. The FMLN grows numerically by diluting its original revolutionary project. The movements have been weakened organizationally and politically but they have recovered their capacity to deepen their ties to the bases and develop a more coherent class perspective and strategy to confront the neoliberal agenda providing they can overcome their internal divisions.

New Politics on the Left

The Left, basically the FMLN, has clearly shifted its political orientation from its earlier period. The shift began during the mid-1980’s and has deepened with the entry into electoral politics. The basic shift is from class-based politics toward populist-nationalist coalitions up to the end of the war. Since 1992 the nationalist policy has been accompanied by an adaptation to the "modernization" rhetoric that permeates Salvadoran intellectual and political class today. The practical implication can be summed up as attracting sectors of the bourgeoisie by de-mobilizing the social movements. The national front means emphasizing the struggle against neoliberalism at the expense of the class struggle. The focus is on the inter-capitalist struggle and the critique of external enemies.

The "new reformers" of the FMLN are increasingly professionals, technocrats, small business people and a few entrepreneurs. Their interlocutors, include big business and agro-business groups adversely affected by the free trade policies. This conversion of the FMLN to national-capitalist politics is evident in its political language. The bridging of class differences is found in the frequent references to consensus. The political negotiations with the center are directed toward securing "social pacts." The pursuit of essentially an electoral strategy and the negative view of popular mobilization is directed toward "consolidating democracy." Participation in multi-class forums with representatives of big business is described as establishing governability.

The new project of FMLN is coherent from the perspective of a Party seeking to maximize votes and manage the system through incremental reforms. The problem is the contradiction between its new alliances and its traditional social base. Underlying the bid for a multi-class alliance is the idea that the capitalists are willing to share wealth and property, and finance welfare and social programs with their profits amassed through protectionism. The leaders of the FMLN believe that the capitalist class and the welfare state can be made compatible—a nostalgic view—based on the social democratic model of Europe in the 1960s and 1970s. In interviews with FMLN leaders one senses a frustration and even hostility when questioned about the absence of contemporary examples of capitalism financing welfare states. As Shafik Handel put it: "What you’re saying is that nothing can be done. Since socialism is definitely not on the agenda today your are denying that any practical program of reform is feasible! That leaves us with the status quo or with unrealistic proposals that are not politically feasible."

Clearly an electoral alliance is possible between Left and Center. The FMLN has increased its electoral position and influence in local and national government. However, the advance of its "capitalist strategy" increasingly dilutes its welfare program: the party of social democracy increasingly resembles a social-liberal party.

While the FMLN turns toward the Center, the social movements move toward the Left. There is a strong sense of the need to deepen class politics among certain dynamic sectors (ADC, UNTS). The tendency to look upward to the FMLN and outward to NGOs is declining. The radicalization is a reaction against political coalitions that fail to confront the regimes’ neoliberal offensive that is reducing salaries, bankrupting peasants and sending the urban poor into the informal economy. The radicalization reflects a recognition that outside funds are increasingly centralized into NGOs run by manipulative upwardly mobile professionals who serve as transmission belts for the free market agenda of their overseas financial benefactors.

In the short term these realignments create a financial as well as political crises within the movements. But it also forces them toward greater self-reliance and independence. The "new politics of the left" involves building coalitions among the social movements, greater autonomy from the NGOs, and a revival of class analysis. The experience of the social movement since the Peace Accords goes contrary to the social pact and consensual rhetoric of the ex-Commanders.

The renewed class warfare is an extension of the military struggle of the past decade. Firings of workers, breaking of strikes, expulsion of land squatters now take place through the reorganized army and police. The orders are given by legally constituted authorities citing written laws, upheld by the legal system. The result is the same: reinforcement of the rule of the capitalist class and increased exploitation and impoverishment of the peasants. The laws are not applied (the judicial system also reflects its ruling class bias however) when they adversely affect the interests of capital—such as the application of land reform provisions that provide expropriation of excess land holdings.

The class nature of the regime and economic policy directly impacts on the members of the social movements in a way that the political class of the FMLN cushioned by its location in the political system is not affected. Isolated from official power, the movements today focus on developing an economic program for the co-operatives in the countryside and the community-based economies in areas of long-term FMLN influence. These islands of co-operative production operate however, in a sea of free market capitalism—the waves of which are increasingly breaching the walls of social solidarity created during the war. As one community leader in Segundo Monte told us, "Either we extend our economic base to the adjoining regions or else we will end up absorbed by the neoliberal economy. It is difficult or impossible to build a socialist economy in one community."

New Politics of the Right

The Right, basically ARENA, has shifted its tactics in the Post Accord period. Counting on its control of the Executive, Congress, Judiciary, Police and as well as the Central Bank and most municipal governments, it has moved quickly to implement a neoliberal program centered in the privatization of public enterprises, the reversal of the Agrarian Reform and the dismantling of the popular movements. It has reined its para-military groups and mainly relied on legalized repression and selective extra-judiciary violence. While human rights violations have declined in relation to the past, the abuse of the collective rights of organized movements continues to be the norm.

In place of terror ARENA increasingly resorts to the use of public treasury to promote their re-election, and relies heavily on its control of the mass media. The inter-locking power between elite economic interests and the Right insures that ARENA will vastly out-spend its opponents during the election campaigns. It remains to be seen whether ARENA will confine its efforts to retain power by solely relying on vote buying, media blitzes, and occasional thuggery or whether it will return to its former practices of voter fraud and political terror if it perceives an imminent loss of executive power. The basic test of the democratic transition is whether the Right will accept the rules of the electoral game if they lose. Clearly the FMLN’s move to the Center makes losing more politically acceptable.

The other problem facing ARENA does not come from the Left but from its own ranks. The application of free market policies has led to a number of important defections toward other right-wing parties. The division between finance capital and "the productive sectors" that some analysts draw should be taken with a grain of salt—as many of the principal capitalists move their capital across sectors and all share a common interest in curtailing labor rights and keeping wages low. Nonetheless the political divisions exist and have weakened the unified front of ARENA. What is likely is that ARENA will be forced to negotiate coalitions with other right-wing forces, which probably requires sharing the privatization booty with a variety of economic groups, rather than with the narrow financial strata currently controlling the economic opening.

The New Political Culture (NPC) thus is built on wheeling and dealing within the political class, coalition building from the Left and Center and between the liberal and nationalist Right. The NPC involves the demobilization of the social movements, the hegemony of variants of capitalist discourses and a shift from terror to corruption and co-optation as mechanisms for neutralizing the deepening social polarization. The transition to multi-party politics however is still problematical as the authoritarian state institutions are still in place and the Right has not been dislodged from any significant position of power. Significant external actors continue to play a preponderant role in shaping the parameter of El Salvadorean politics.

The Emperor Changes Clothes

The U.S. role continues in El Salvador. The Agency for International Development is very intrusive, defining the do’s and don’ts of development strategy through its direct influence on financing and indirectly through U.S. influence and control of the IFI (International Financial Institutions). U.S. policy is a strong supporter of the privatization and free market policies being imposed by the regime. The U.S. military maintains strong links to the "reformed" Salvadorean military, counseling impunity to the political class and conformity to the neoliberal order.

Washington’s strategic goal of ending the revolutionary threat and incorporating the FMLN into the free market-free election political-economic framework has been successful. The Embassy serves an overseer function, maintaining channels to different sectors while keeping away from the day to day implementation of the free market policies. Washington was successful in spinning off one section of the FMLN in the free market direction (the Villalobos-Martinez clique) and is ever on the look-out for other "centrists" seeking entry into the niches of the neoliberal economy.

U.S. strategy operates at two levels: at the top its economic mission formulates the "macro-economic" adjustment strategies and points to new sectoral activities (maquiladores, tourism, etc.). At the bottom, it finances NGOs and other voluntary groups made up mainly of upwardly mobile professionals who are funded by the World Bank, Private Foundation, and governments intent on dismantling public services in health, education, and social services. The U.S. presence is just as ubiquitous as in the past, only the rationale has changed. In the past, Washington organized the struggle against social revolution, today it is the fight against narco-traffic. With the end of the war, Washington has dropped its populist rhetoric and come out for the "free market," agro-business, highly exploitative free trade zones, and de-regulation of financial markets. Washington has opted for the privatization of the co-ops, a policy that leads the heavily indebted small holder to sell out to large scale farmers and tourist developers.

Washington’s presence is just as intrusive in the past, though it now takes the form of "economic missions," foreign aid functionaries, and Drug Enforcement Officers instead of the military field advisors. Washington’s presence is as much symbolic as it is substantive—a reminder to the Left of the new socio-economic and political parameters of the electoral process.

The Political Culture of the Post Accord

Despite the electoral euphoria and the sense of surface calm that pervades the country, the underlying mood among social activists and the leaders of popular movements is one of retreat and disorientation. From the perspective of the popular organizations this is a period of counter-reform. For some organizations the issue is holding the line, others have experienced a series of reversals, in which the government has chipped away at the reforms initiated to combat the rising tide of popular revolutionary struggle during the 1980s.

One of the paradoxes of El Salvadorean politics is the fact that under the tutelage of U.S. military and political advisors during the 1980s, the regime combined mass terror of genocidal proportions with advanced social legislation (including land redistribution, formation of co-ops, labor reforms, etc.) Since the accords ended the revolutionary war the regime has launched an offensive against the popular class.

Essentially this political offensive is directed toward bringing El Salvador in line with the neoliberal agenda promoted by the Washington Consensus. ARENA’s neoliberal political agenda includes (a)privatization of public enterprises, the sub-division of co-op lands into private plots for individual co-op members; the privatization of social security funds and the transfer of social services from the public sector to privately funded NGOs; (b) the complete opening of the Salvadorean economy to foreign manufacturing and food imports, turning the country into one big maquiladora (or assembly plant) based on low wage non-unionized labor without social benefits; (c) international specialization in a few export products-namely coffee, sugar, maquila products and tourism; (d) de-regulation of the financial sector, unrestricted entry of foreign investment in all sectors previously locally controlled (retail trade, food services, real estate, banking, etc.); (e) continued dependence on overseas remittances for hard currency to cover foreign debt payments; (f) elimination of thousands of public sector employees and elimination of public subsidies of basic food staples, transport, etc.

To date the regime has succeeded in imposing part of the neoliberal program; and as the experience of class war recedes, the Right accelerates implementation of the neoliberal agenda.

The basic underlying factor influencing the rhythm and scope of implementation is the change in the correlation of political and social forces. Prior to the Peace Accords there was a basic stalemate of power. The essential parity of political power was based on the military equation. The Army could not defeat the guerrillas. The latter were in a position to challenge the former’s control over territory and sectors of the economy. The end of the war left the military in sole control of the country—despite some significant changes in its size, internal recruitment, formation and regulations. The shift from a military stalemate to undisputed power was the framework within which Right-wing legislators and Executive could launch their neoliberal offensive. The bourgeois monopoly of force was cloaked in the rhetoric of "democratization" and the "opening of democratic space." The change in state power was the most important factor that enabled the bourgeoisie to pass the counter-reform legislation—despite opposition from the minority of FMLN legislators. The same change in power enabled the regime to use the military and police to enforce its privatization program against trade unions, striking public employees and peasant land squatters. The minority of FMLN representatives in Congress and their ex-combatants incorporated as subordinates in the Army and police clearly were no counter-weight to the political power of ARENA in the legislative-executive branches of government.

The popular movements are no longer threatened with physical extermination by U.S.-backed death-squads but they also lack the back-up support of the guerrilla army. The inter-lock between peasants, workers and the popular army was broken and the popular movement lost a vital source of pressure for reform. In exchange for its arms, the FMLN gained a minority voice in Congress which has had a minimal impact in stemming the neoliberal offensive. The FMLN benefited in the electoral arena from popular discontent increasing the number of mayors from 11 to 54 and congresspeople from 14 to 27 in the 1997 elections. However this is unlikely to change the overall direction of state policy. The Right combined controls two-thirds of Congressional deputies. The optimal scenario will be an increasingly vocal anti-liberal congressional opposition in Congress, local municipalities clamoring for greater resources, and a rise in extra-parliamentary protests, strikes, and land occupations.

Discussions with ADC leaders emphasized the legal and administrative procedures preventing implementation of change. The regime has relied on extended processes of adjudication of a small fraction of land claims. The result is the resolution of only an insignificant number of cases. While the social movements are bogged down in the drawn out legal tangles, social action is paralyzed. Meanwhile the government prepares a new series of laws designed to prevent the peasant movement from resorting to land occupations and to reverse the reform clauses. To the popular social movements the regime holds up the threat of a return to violence or submission to laws that subject them to unemployment, landlessness and/or subsistence wages.

The Accords, by eliminating the threat of revolution makes reform more difficult. Coincidentally they open the door for the consolidation of capitalist political power and the implementation of the neoliberal agenda.

One argument that was repeatedly thrust forward as a justification for the Accords was that they would create political space from which the popular movements could advance taking advantage of the newly won "democratic freedoms."

This argument overlooked the vital political space that the bourgeoisie could accumulate both in terms of institutional power, territory, and legislative and executive prerogatives. The argument also was purely legalist and political. It overlooked the socio-economic context, the privatization logic embedded in the political settlement, which strengthened the NGOs and the capitalist class which signed the agreement. The deep structural ties between the economic power holders and the policy elites quickly moved to diminish the economic space of the popular movements by mass firings, reduction in social benefits and land evictions. The notion of added "political space" was much more relevant to the capitalist class which was in the best position to occupy the space previously contested by the popular army.

The trade-off of guns for ballots was very unequal. While the popular movements secured individual freedoms (speech, assembly, etc.) they did not gain collective rights (of employment, land and social rights). On the contrary insofar as the exercise of individuals’ rights was linked to social struggles for collective economic interests, (wages, land, social benefits) it was legally repressed, according to new labor and rural legislation enacted by the right-wing dominated legislative and executive.

The issue of political space is very problematical—it is an equation which depends on what the letters represent. In the case of El Salvador, the question is political space for whom and for what? The record over the past five years suggests greater capacity for the right-wing to reverse reforms and undermine social organizations.

Paradoxically more elections means more regressive legislation. Obviously the institutional and political context has a lot to do with the legislative outcomes and not merely the elections per se. Nevertheless, the facile assumption propagated by the publicists of the Accords that the popular movements will occupy new positions of power, accumulate support and deepen their social weight in civil society doesn’t accord with reality.

Comparative Historical Perspective

The nature of the political transition in El Salvador is marked by striking similarities to processes in the Southern Cone of Latin America. The first point of similarity is the issue of impunity of the military, police, and paramilitary forces responsible for gross human rights offenses. None of the top officials were ever brought to justice. As best some of the more notorious officials were "retired" from active military service. While the size of the military was reduced and ex-guerrillas were incorporated into the lower echelons, the political role of the military and police as protectors of the neoliberal order was legitimated.

As in the Southern Cone, the socio-economic class structure was left intact, the distribution of wealth and power remained unchanged and even the allocation of state resources and taxes remained skewed toward the upper classes.

In contrast to the Southern Cone where the military regimes destroyed the agrarian reforms prior to the transition, in El Salvador the dismantling of the reform sector has been a more prolonged and gradual process. These differences largely reflect the fact that the military won the class war in the Southern Cone, whereas in El Salvador the war was stalemated. Hence it is with the transition and not before that the full neoliberal agenda is being implemented.

In both El Salvador and the Southern Cone countries, the process of reforming the state has been part of the transition. In both cases, there are massive reductions of social welfare payments and an increase in subsidies, tax exemptions and other incentives for the export, banking and business elites.

While the military remained intact in the Southern Cone, in El Salvador some efforts were made to change its institutional character and social orientation. Changes in curricula at the military academies, the opening of recruitment to all sectors, retiring the most notorious human rights violators, were attempted. The El Salvador case falls between the Chilean experience, where there was virtually no change at any level, and the early Argentine experience where the top Generals were put on trial and even served a short prison sentence.

In El Salvador the transition accelerates and deepens the application of the neoliberal agenda—as was the case in the rest of Latin America. El Salvador started later, partly because of the need to carry out social reforms during the war. The bulk of the privatization and de-regulation will have to take place under civilian rulership. The situation in El Salvador resembles Argentina, Bolivia, and Brazil more than Chile where the most regressive changes were initiated under the military dictatorship. As in the South Cone countries, the transition results in the ascendancy of electoral politicians and the relative marginalization of the mass movements that facilitated the return to electoral politics. In both cases the electoral process legitimates the growth of inequalities, increases the levels of poverty and implementation of structural adjustment programs. As a result, the popular movements became increasingly independent of the electoral parties and act in extra-parliamentary arenas. As in the Southern Cone, the Salvadorean popular movements had great expectations of positive social outcomes from the transition. As the negative return began to accrue, a process of demobilization and disenchantment set in, a questioning of the nature and meaning of the Accords and "democratization." This was manifested in the elections of 1997 where over 60 percent of the electorate abstained and ever higher percentages of the urban and rural lower class.

The Salvadoran case of popular demobilization has, however, particular features because of the immensity of the struggle and the relative parity of military outcome. The bourgeois state was obligated to subsidize the "re-insertion of the combatants" into society, and to provide land and financial resources to facilitate their incorporation. In historical perspective, this was a small price to pay for securing absolute control of the state and ending a severe revolutionary challenge to basic property rights. Moreover, it is a transitory phenomena, as many ex-combatants have found it very difficult to compete with foreign food imports, pay high interest rates, and function without adequate commercial outlets.

In the ideological sphere, as in Latin America, neoliberal dogma has gained ascendancy not only within the Right but also among sectors of the Center-Left and among a faction of ex-guerrillas. The powerful revolutionary current has given way to a reformist impulse which has put socialism on the far back burner. The dominant mood of the Salvadoran Left increasingly resembles that of the Center-Left in the Southern Cone: multi-class alliances that are held together by a modernization discourse that emphasizes selective privatization, poverty alleviation, and honest government.

The abandonment of the class analysis perspective ironically occurs, in both cases, during a period of intense class warfare from above. The attribution of the reactionary and regressive core legislation to neoliberalism obscures the capitalist class roots that directs the rollback of social rights. As in Latin America, the Salvadoran Left attempts to draw a hard and fast distinction between progressive national productive capitalism and neoliberal financial capital. Thus the Salvadoran Left has returned to the politics of sectoral as opposed to class alliances; it has revived a theory of revolution in stages—first democratic capitalism, much later (?) socialism. In any case, the Salvadoran Left, despite its guerrilla background, converges with the Center-Left of the Southern Cone in its pursuit of a neo-structural strategy, that accepts neoliberal fundamentals, but brings the state in to regulate the excesses of the market and to provide funds to alleviate extreme poverty. The loss of a structural critique is expressed among the FMLN leaders who talk of being "realistic," "political" and "pragmatic"—essentially a "possibilist" position, theorized by Argentine intellectuals in the early 1980s in defense of the Alfonsin regime.

As in the Southern Cone, the NGOs have been competing with the public sector employees and the social movements for economic resources and political influence. Largely funded by overseas governments, the World Bank, and other international financial institutions, they have been active in complementing the liberal agenda: concentrating on self-help, micro-enterprises, and other such voluntary projects, they serve to de-mobilize the poor, displace local leaders, and de-politicize the struggles. Their localist, privatizing doctrines complement the regime’s efforts to cut social expenditures and transfer state resources to the wealthy. In effect, the NGOs serve to co-opt upwardly mobile professionals and incorporate them to the dominant class’s neoliberal project.

As in Latin America, foreign aid agencies direct their funds to the professional class as effective barriers to autonomous political-social movements. As one Canadian foreign aid officer told the leadership of the major peasant organization, "You should co-operate with them (the NGO) to formulate alternatives." Thus, the professional classes serve as the transmission belt from the neoliberal funding agencies to the grassroots via co-opted popular leaders.

As in the Southern Cone, there is an emerging crisis of political representation emerging in El Salvador. The upper class, despite internal divisions, moves between two parties, ARENA and the PCN. The upwardly mobile lower middle class and sectors of the professional class are relocating in the new electoral spaces of the FMLN. The popular classes with long-standing ties to the FMLN are being crowded out by the new social alliances, their demands diluted in the non-class discourses of the leadership.

Increasingly social activists either try to carve out electoral posts in the FMLN or turn inward toward revitalizing the social movements. The search for popular representation through class and sectoral movements in El Salvador reflects similar processes in Latin America. The growth of movement autonomy, the emphasis on direct actions organized by leaders from within the movement and the embrace of structural analysis, resonates with the politics of the Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil, the peasant federations in Bolivia and the Zapatistas in Mexico.

The overall effects of the transitions in Salvador and Latin America are quite similar—the deepening of neoliberalism, the decline of the reformist impulse within the electoral left, the emergence of a polarized class struggle that pits the state against the socio-political movements and the re-emergence of authoritarians with a legal face.

The crucial role of Washington in fashioning these transitions in Central and South America is evident in the formula: free elections, free markets and an intact military/police apparatus to sustain the highly exploitative, non-representative system.

Washington today has played a decisive role in shaping the politico-economic-military parameters for the highly exploitative framework: multinational capital’s penetration of economic sectors, and the accumulation of profits, royalty, interest, and rent payments. El Salvador is no exception. The neutralization of the revolutionary threat and the rapid extension of the free market policies in El Salvador culminates a process that began with Washington’s bloody military rulers in the 1970s and now continues under the facade of parliamentary elections that marginalize the interests and needs of the urban poor and the peasants.


The Salvadoran experience since the Peace Accords affords ample material for theoretical reflection on the relation between electoral processes and social change, the process of democratization the conversion of Marxists to post-Marxists and the perspectives for the emergence of a new post-guerrilla revolutionary left.

The Salvadoran experience reinforces observations gathered from other Latin experiences: that elections are not a vehicle for social change benefiting the poor. In the case of El Salvador the Peace Accords only dealt with the re-integration of the ex-combatants—and left the whole range of social issues (landlessness, rural debts, etc.) untouched. When the debt question was finally dealt with, debt forgiveness was directed at large landholders and financial interests. The debt of the peasant co-ops provided for discounting 70 percent but demanded effective payment of the rest in one year—terms which few if any co-op farmers could meet.

The socio-economic power structure shaped the political agenda of democratization and in the process introduced a series of free market measures which substantially reduced the bargaining position of labor and sharply reduced living standards. The demobilization of the popular movements that accompanied the FMLN’s embrace of the electoral process, limited collective resistance. The fundamental practical problem is the confusion of electoral procedures with democracy. While the procedures are necessary, they are insufficient in creating a level playing field for all the social actors. Given the institutional class biases built into the political system, the centralized decision-making structure, and the highly skewed control over campaign finances and the mass media it was inevitable that the electoral process would not only fail to redress the historic social inequalities but lead to a reversal of the few positive social changes implemented during the civil war.

The Salvadoran experience, unlike the Latin transitions, began on a more substantial basis. The popular guerrilla army and allied social movements were able to secure concessions in restructuring the armed forces and to secure some financial concessions to subsidize communities. However, over the time, as the war recedes in the past and as the social movements associated with popular power have been weakened, the transition has veered away from an inclusive democratic solution toward a neo-authoritarian system of class rule. Today only the middle classes have gained a modicum of influence—largely shared with the upper classes. The landless peasants, co-op members, community leaders and urban poor are not the subjects of power, but the periodic objects of electoral campaigns. As a result electoral abstention and political cynicism grows in the urban slums and among the rural poor.

The regime has moved from a ‘military influenced’ power configuration to a corporate business centered elite. That is the real meaning of what academic publicists call democratization. And within the corporate core it is the executives of financial, real estate and multi-national corporations who dictate the free market policies. The transition from a state directed ‘military economy’ to a corporate dominated neoliberal economy has been aided and abetted by U.S. economic advisors, AID and the World Bank. Despite the presence of mass of popular organization and the hopes held out by the rhetoric of the guerrilla commanders, the Salvadorean transition has followed the neo-authoritarian trajectory of the rest of Latin America. As in the rest of Latin America, El Salvador is governed by a regime which rules by decree, promotes policies that favor the export elite and excludes the social movements from any voice or vote on macro-economic decisions. The latter are fashioned by non-elected foreign and domestic "experts" linked to big business.

The Left is increasingly divided between relatively successful electoral party apparatus centered in the FMLN and an increasingly fragmented and weakened trade union and peasant movement. The FMLN’s gradual but perceptible assimilation into the ‘electoral culture’ with its vague slogans ("we are the real change"), its embrace of diffuse classless democratic or nationalist rhetoric and its search for modern business allies, indicates its shift to the Center. The dropping of its socialist vision and its effort to fashion a pragmatic policy attractive to the urban middle class of San Salvador may win it office, but cannot kindle any enthusiasm among those who desperately need a structural shift in power, state investments and property ownership.

The Salvadorean Left, however, is not identical with either the FMLN nor the well publicized ex-guerrilla commanders of the Democratic Party. The social movements and trade unions who have taken the brunt of the neoliberal offensive of the ARENA regime have declared their organizational independence and have embarked on a political course of rebuilding their bases. Their strategy of mass mobilization, land occupations and general strikes resonates with the populace’s deepest felt socio-economic interests.

It would be a mistake to believe that the immense popular movement which withstood almost a decade and a half of a state killing machine sustained by a million dollars a day in U.S. financing will docilely accept free market depredations. The temporary lull in the popular struggle was in part induced by continuous warfare and in part expectations that the Peace Accords would bring about a modicum of social justice. Those expectations are turning to disillusionment. The new aggressiveness from the Right is stirring a renewed call for class solidarity.

Perhaps as in the rest of Latin American, a new generation rising out of the social struggles of the 1990s can once again challenge the institutions of private power and privilege that condemn the immense majority of Salvadorans to languish in poverty.