Between Peace and Populism — Three Tips from El Salvador

In 2015 alone, 61 policemen and 24 soldiers died in direct combat with gangs. With numbers like this, El Salvador is effectively in a state of civil war.

24 July 2018 ·   8 min read

Between Peace and Populism — Three Tips from El Salvador

El Salvador is adjudged the world’s most violent country, with a rate of 81 murders per 100,000 people in 2016, more than three times that of Mexico, for example. San Salvador rivals Venezuela’s Caracas as the most murderous city at 137/100,000. The country is trapped in a vicious cycle. Because there is no security, there is little investment, no growth, few jobs, insufficient resources for security and thus an increase in insecurity. And the populism of the ruling FMLN has offered few answers, only greater problems

“Arena’s problem,” says Ernesto “Neto” Muyshondt, the Mayor of San Salvador of his own political party, “is that did not keep reforming and strengthening our institutions. When it was in government,” adds the lean 42-year old, who holds a Master’s degree from Incae, a leading regional business school, “it was not interested in sharing power, in building consensus.”

The same failure can also be said of the FMLN, the former guerilla movement, which succeeded Arena as the government in 2009, he says.

Muyshondt has inherited, at best, a very difficult situation.

The once grand and now fading facades of the old San Salvador peek from behind lines of informal traders who line the streets in the crowded centre of the city, pivoting around the old Cathedral where Archbishop Oscar Romero once preached. His assassination in March 1980 by extremists sparked a 12-year civil war, costing 75,000 lives and displacing 1.5-million. Stallholders align the road and pavement around the old national telecommunications headquarters and the Antonio Bou building, once upon a time the Home Depot of its era. The traders are gathered cheek-by-jowl in their plastic, canvas and wood stalls, hawking $5 dresses, $3 shoes, gaudily coloured electric fly-swats and backpacks among other tat, and two for $1 DVDs.

Papa frites and grilled chicken stalls smoke and sizzle away, adding aroma to the swirl of people, children, clutter and confusion. Cleaners with Gobierno de San Salvador stitched on the backs of their baby blue overalls steer their dust-carts past the traffic. The security forces patrols move quickly and through the stalls and crowds. Sections of soldiers with M16 assault rifles in jungle camouflage outfits, their faces covered out of fear of recognition, there to protect the single policemen in their ranks distinctive in his sinister black uniform.

Attempts to crack down against the 60,000-strong Maras (Mara is slang for gang), notably the M-18, MS-13 and the Rebels 13, have done little to blunt the surge in violent crime. Originating among the gangs and prisons of Los Angeles, the maras returned south to ply their trade in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. In 2015 alone, 61 policemen and 24 soldiers died in direct combat with gangs. With numbers like this, El Salvador is effectively in a state of civil war.

It’s easy in the circumstances to forget that El Salvador enjoyed a pretty good 1990s. After a decade of civil war pitting a US-backed government against Soviet and Cuban-sponsored FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) guerrillas, the election in 1989 ushered into power businessman Alfredo Cristiani representing the conservative Nationalist Republic Alliance, or Arena.

With business interests in coffee and pharmaceuticals, Cristiani had been drawn into politics in the beginning of the 1980s when the FMLN’s campesino followers, the rural poor dependent on agriculture, began squatting on farms. Under Cristiani’s leadership, a UN-supervised and monitored peace process began in April 1990. On 16 January 1992, the Chapultepec Peace Accords were signed in Mexico, by which the rebel FMLN became an opposition political party.

Ending the civil war had a positive impact on stability and growth. “If we had not had a democratic process, there would be no peace,” reflects Cristiani, a youthful 71. “Our conflict was generated by a lack of political space. We also needed economic reform, in trying to deal with the macro-economic aspects of the conflict.”

As the president of a country “coming out of war with a bad reputation”, Cristiani saw the need to get into high labour-intensive industry, the maquilas, and agro-industry beyond just producing food. Growth improved during the 1990s on the back of this diversification drive centring on textiles but increasingly delving into services, as advised by what Salvadoreans know as the Chilean Boys, a group of Chicago University-educated economists under ArnoldHarberger known as the Chicago-boys when they advocated reform in Pinochet’s Chile.

Not only did he deliver peace and a decent political deal, but Cristiani oversaw a boom in jobs and growth, the economy expanding at nearly five percent during the 1990s. Things started to slow in the 2000s and, since the FMLN took over from Arena in 2009, it has rapidly tapered off, limping along at under 2%, now the slowest in Central America. Poverty fell by half during Arena’s two decades in government to just 30%. It has since risen once more to over 40%, even though the FMLN has spent more, the fiscal deficit reaching 2.8% of GDP, with debt rising from 2009 from 40% to over 60% of GDP.

Muyshondt reckons that San Salvador’s debt could have quadrupled under the populist reign of his FMLN predecessor Nayib Bukele, less because of infrastructure expenditure than long-term contracts.

“One of the first things we will have to do is a detailed audit on where the money went,” he notes.

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The new mayor’s agenda for the city will , however, aim to deal with insecurity, increase opportunities and improve a sense of order, including on the streets of San Salvador.

“It’s not acceptable,” he says pointing east from the terrace of our hotel, “that just 50m is a community living in a corriente, a stream, which puts them at risk several times every year when it floods. And they live side-by-side with $1-million mansions”.

Achieving his agenda will, he admits, need to get the population to engage beyond the headlines.

The political rise of Nayib Bukele hints at the scale of this particular challenge. Once a rising star of the FMLN, Bukele was expelled from the party in 2017 over alleged sexist comments. With 1.2m Facebook followers, 441,000 on Twitter and 277,500 on Instagram, he apparently offers a post-ideological alternative to traditional right-left, Arena-FMLN political divisions, though with seemingly little more than virtual content on pressing issues of growth, jobs and crime. His project, which “prefers advertising to organising,” notes one leftist writer, “is, essentially, himself”.

Still, Bukele’s pulling power can be seen in his call to his former FMLN followers to stay away during the March 2018 legislative elections. They did just that, with a low turnout of just 42% handing a resounding win to Arena, which won nine out of 14 major mayorships, and 37 of 84 seats in the National Assembly. One in 10 voters defaced their ballots or left them blank. Little wonder, given that polls show that Salvadoreans believe that gangs — not government officials — ‘rule’ the country.

Bukele may win the 2019 presidential election unless the two main parties refocus and reset themselves. This is more of a challenge for the FMLN. Of its 31 deputies at the start of 2018, 26 participated in the war. For Arena, just a single one of its 35 deputies did so. Regardless, refreshing the party’s leadership has become Arena’s major preoccupation.

Gerardo Dias is a campaign strategist for Carlos Calleja, 42, who won the election for the Arena leadership in May. Unlike Muyshondt, whose cotton-growing father lost everything in the civil war “save his debts”, the US-educated Calleja’s family is one of the wealthiest in El Salvador, the owners of the Super Selectos chain of some 98 supermarkets. This profile, unfortunately, reinforces stereotypes about the “progressive” FMLN and “oligarchic” Arena, the sort of polemic that the new breed of politicians will have to break if the country is to make progress.

Younger voters, says Dias, are more attracted to the kind of profile enjoyed by (President Emmanuel) Macron in France, those who come from the world from outside politics. He cites recent surveys which show that as many as 70% of Salvadoreans do not identify with any party, the highest such record in El Salvador’s polling history.

“Whereas previously our loyal voting pool, like the FMLN, was 40% of the electorate with 20% as swing voters,” illustrates Dias, “now less than 20% can be considered loyalists. People are tired of old ideologies and more open-minded to change.”

They are more likely, he believes, to challenge politicians.

Winning them over will require going back to basics he says.

“The paradox of the modern environment is that, while social media means you have more friends, relationships dilute – more people know, but they know less. Yet you have to fight harder for their attention.”

Thus he and Calleja have reverted in method to running “Town Hall” meetings with interest groups – so-called Plataforma de Participacion Ciudadana (Civic Participation Platforms) – less to promote the party than to engage with civil society, exchange ideas and build relationships. These include groups of artists, entrepreneurs, fishermen, and factory workers. Similarly, Muyshondt spent a lot of his campaign pounding the streets, going door-to-door in addition to the ubiquitous use of Facebook and other tools, in the process running the cheapest mayoral campaign for San Salvador in recent times, at just $1.6-million.

Success will demand that they are “more than just a wrapper” of slogans says Dias, reaching out to others for good ideas, including the likes of Costa Rica (on tourism), Israel (on agriculture), Colombia (security) and Spain (for low cost housing models). This contrasts with the FMLN, which is accused by civil society of not consulting outside of the party and its inner circle for advice and ideas, remaining less new left, than the old statist, socialist model, saysMuyshondt, like Cuba and Venezuela.

Calleja advocates a three-prong reform strategy focused on building a responsive government, tackling economic growth and seeking ‘unity in leaving behind the continuous fighting of the previous generations, since conflict has retarded our development.

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“We need to focus on the things we agree on like better education, health care and ending violence,” states Dias.

No doubt the new leadership generation will have to shake the stain of corruption which assists the likes of Bukele and his ‘New Ideas’ movement and bedevils both Arena and the FMLN.

In February 2016, the first FMLN president Mauricio Funes, in power from 2009 until 2014, was found guilty of illegal enrichment. By then Nicaragua had granted him political asylum. His Arena presidential predecessor Tony Saca was arrested in October 2016, accused along with others in his administration of syphoning $246-million of public money. He is now in jail awaiting trial. Saca’s predecessor Francisco “Paca” Flores was accused (but never convicted) for having diverted $15-million in funding from the Taiwan government. Flores’ vice president Ana Vilma de Escobar is another under current investigation.

“We have gone off track because of corruption. When Saca – who was a disaster – entered government, corruption started to invest government institutions. Saca paid the president of the Supreme Court, for example, a monthly wage. When any country is corrupted in this way, then nothing works. People are no longer working for the country, but for themselves, to get rich,” says Cristiani.

The impact of Venezuela has not helped. The establishment of the Alba petroleum joint venture between Venezuela’s PDVSA state oil company and FMLN-controlled municipalities has proven a funnel for funding and means of clientalism. Allegedly as much as $1-billion has gone “missing” in the process. The Alba venture is allegedly part of complex money laundering operation involving the Maduro regime in Venezuela and their FARC Colombian ally. They forget, reminds another former Mayor of San Salvador, Norman Quijano, “that when communists (such as the FMLN) get into power, it’s not easy to get them to let go”.

There are other pernicious if unintended aspects which reinforce consumption and lack of ownership. With the share of agriculture to GDP falling to less than ten percent of GDP and its share of employment to under 20%, people have to make a plan. Some 3.5-million Salvadoreans live in the US remitting $5-billion, or nearly 20% of GDP, annually. This has both helped to offset endemic un- and under-employment including ‘informality’, at over 70% of the six-million citizens who remain in the country, but too has reinforced a dependency culture.

Overall the lessons of El Salvador’s transition from war to peace are threefold:

First, there is a constant need for political savvy and comprise, as it was in El Salvador in 1992, in order to achieve the continuity required for economic development. This applies, too, to the role of civil society as both a check and balance and adviser to government, which has all but been cut-off from access to the administration during the FMLN period of government.

Political support has, second, encouragingly reflected the performance of political parties. There is a need for parties to understand what the voters want rather than presume as much, at least as much as an imperative to understand their opponents.

Third, El Salvador’s initially successful transition from war to peace and its subsequent slide towards populism and weakened governance has profound lessons for leadership

Looking back, Cristiani advises that to be a successful leader:

“You have to lead towards things with a high moral goal. You have to use it for something good for the general population. You have to lead by example. You have to listen a lot, and learn from what you hear. But you also have to take risks. You have to understand that that you will not always get the support of everyone. Your actions have always to be in the interests of the majority of people, not just a few, and definitely not just yourself.”

But this has not diminished his faith in democracy. In his darker moments, he thinks that perhaps “we might benefit from a benevolent dictatorship. Then I am reminded that while they might start as benevolent, they usually end up a dictatorship”.

This article was originally published on The Daily Maverick.