On January 16, 1992, representatives of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the right-wing, US-backed government of El Salvador signed a historic peace treaty that brought an end to a bloody twelve-year civil war.
The Salvadoran Civil War is notable among the last century’s liberation struggles in several respects: for one, the sheer brutality of the military regime’s response; for another, the negotiated transition to peace that saw an armed leftist insurgency transform into a successful political party. Unlike the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions, which initially conquered power through military victories, the FMLN won the presidency at the ballot box nearly twenty years after laying down their weapons. Today, the party, defined by its statutes as “democratic, revolutionary and socialist,” is in the midst of its second consecutive presidential term.
The peace accords were essentially a military draw, but they were celebrated as a major victory by the FMLN and its supporters. The war had been long and brutal, and the guerrillas had forced a vicious regime that was sustained by the largest military power on earth to the table.
Twenty-five years have passed since the signing of the accords. Much of the structural inequality that led to the war remains entrenched in Salvadoran society, as the sobering homicide rates and mass northward migration attest. Yet much has changed. As most of the world seems increasingly wrenched to the Right, the quarter-century anniversary of the peace accords offers a unique opportunity to reflect on the victories and challenges of El Salvador’s extraordinarily resilient Left.
Over the years, the FMLN has evolved into a leading political force with a militant grassroots base. But ferocious right-wing opposition and international pressures have curtailed the dramatic revolutionary project that many FMLN supporters envision for the country and threaten the important social reforms achieved under the leftist party’s governance. Today, the FMLN must overcome both internal and external obstacles in order to fight the tide of militarized neoliberalism and advance a democratic socialist program for El Salvador.
The Making of an Army
Like all of Latin America, El Salvador’s history since the Spanish conquest has been one of vast inequality, resource expropriation, racial violence, exploitation, and resistance. A century after local Spanish-descended elites declared their independence from the Crown, sectors of El Salvador’s peasant and indigenous population joined with the Communist Party in a massive 1932 insurrection. The uprising was met with violence not seen since the conquest: the military dictatorship responded by massacring anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 people.
But popular resistance to the inequities and indignities of military dictatorship and the oligarchs that it protected continued. In the 1960s and ’70s, the continent simmered with rebellion. In El Salvador, burgeoning organized social movements, including leftist university students, liberation theology-inspired Christian base communities, organized peasants, and labor unions, sought to achieve reform through protest and electoral politics.
These movements were met with escalating violence and brazen fraud.
On July 30, 1975, state forces massacred a peaceful student protest against the recent military raid of the National University’s western campus, surrounding the march and gunning down dozens of students in the streets of San Salvador. In February 1977, the civilian coalition candidate for president was defeated by the military’s candidate General Humberto Romero in elections widely denounced as fraudulent; the February 28 protest against the contested results turned into a massacre.
In March 1977, Jesuit priest Rutilio Grande was assassinated for his work with Christian base communities in the countryside; over the next two years, at least four more priests were murdered. In February 1979, a civil-military coup supported by the United States ousted the president who had been controversially elected in 1977. The Carter administration hoped that the “centrist” junta would temper the smoldering embers of rebellion in El Salvador that had been inflamed next door in Nicaragua, but economic elites forcefully opposed the junta’s proposed land reform program, and the civilian junta members were soon pressured to resign. On May 9, 1979, a protest by the broad-based Popular Revolutionary Block demanding the release of political prisoners was met with gunfire in front of the National Cathedral.
The military and oligarchy were determined to counter any meager reforms with bloodshed.
The FMLN was officially formed on October 10, 1980, when five leftist organizations — some who had already begun waging guerrilla operations and other political or social groups whose nonviolent organizing had become increasingly futile, if not suicidal — decided to joined forces to form a united armed front against the regime.
This diverse coalition included the Communist Party (PC, by its Spanish initials), which had been the most reticent to take up arms against the government. The PC had a small military operation but gave great attention to political education and strategy, and its international ties in Russia, Cuba, and Vietnam proved crucial for providing training and assistance during the war.
The Farabundo Martí Popular Liberation Forces (FPL), named for a Communist Party leader of the 1932 rebellion, boasted the largest ranks. It was founded by a former PC leader who was frustrated with the party’s refusal to take more radical action; the FPL constituted one of the FMLN’s principal military forces but maintained a strong grassroots presence in Christian base communities and other social movements.
The other principal force was the People’s Revolutionary Army (ERP), which was mainly — almost exclusively — a military operation. The ERP carried out some of the FMLN’s most successful military strikes, but its ideological orientation was rather weak. Finally, there was the smaller National Resistance (RN), which grew out of the ERP and had a more intellectual than military orientation, and the Revolutionary Party of Central American Workers (PRTC), which abandoned electoral politics for armed struggle. As former FMLN combatant and scholar Joaquin Chávez has noted, the insurgency represented a unique marriage of the New Left with the old.
Originally, the FMLN hoped to instigate a popular uprising and sweep the military and the oligarchs they protected out of power as the Sandinistas had just done in 1979. But the guerrillas’ 1981 “final offensive” failed to overthrow the government, and the FMLN was forced to change course.
They settled in for “prolonged popular warfare,” a strategy inspired by the Vietnamese “people’s war” that emphasized building popular support for the struggle across sectors of society. Rural forces operating in the countryside would coordinate with clandestine urban guerrilla structures, providing reciprocal support for a long-term war against the state.
The FMLN’s greatest strength was that it was never a uniquely military operation. Each of the five factions had roots in the country’s robust grassroots popular movements for social and economic justice. Their program, which called for democracy, socialism and self-determination for El Salvador, corresponded to the demands of such organizations.
In war as in peacetime, the FMLN has seen itself as an instrument for the revolutionary aspirations of a broader movement.
In the years of repression preceding the war, the PC had argued that guerrilla warfare would be impossible in El Salvador. Unlike Cuba, Nicaragua, or Vietnam, which host broad expanses of wooded mountains and jungle, El Salvador is a tiny, densely populated and alarmingly deforested territory.
Cayetano Carpio, the former PC leader who founded the FPL, countered that “the people will be our mountain.” With principal fronts in the northern and northeastern mountains and urban commandos in the capital, the FMLN used community organizing and strategic military strikes to claim liberated territory in the countryside, consolidate popular sentiments against the regime, and build international networks of solidarity and support.
In response to the insurgency, the Salvadoran military chose a strategy of “draining the sea to kill the fish,” directly targeting the civilian population with unspeakable violence, the horrors of which are now well chronicled: over eight hundred civilian men, women and children were massacred at El Mozote; hundreds fleeing the armed forces were caught in the Sumpul river that divides El Salvador from Honduras and gunned down by soldiers on both banks; scorched earth operations like those in the northern department of Cabañas swept through towns indiscriminately; and sexual violence, mutilation, and torture were commonplace.
The 1993 UN Truth Commission Report ultimately put the war’s death toll at seventy-five thousand, with thousands more forcibly disappeared; at least 85 percent of the violence was attributed to the regime and only 5 percent to the FMLN.
This sustained force would have been unthinkable without the full weight of the US military behind it. The extravagant cruelty of the Salvadoran Armed Forces and its death squads against civilians and combatants alike scandalized even their US backers at times, but it was never enough to convince Presidents Carter and Reagan to follow through on threats to pull funding.
Without support from the domestic population, the Salvadoran regime’s only mandate was that bestowed by the United States government, which armed, trained, and advised the Salvadoran military to the tune of up to $1 million a day.
The Path to Peace
The FMLN sought negotiations frequently throughout the conflict, starting as early as 1981. But the military and the elites it served were steadfastly, indeed pathologically opposed to anything resembling capitulation to communists, and their US backers seemed happy to keep the money coming. It wasn’t until late 1989 that the embattled regime, exhausted by a decade of counter-insurgency warfare, began to soften towards truce.
In November 1989, the FMLN launched its final “final offensive,” bringing the war from the countryside to the doorsteps of the oligarchy in the capital city of San Salvador for several days. The operation was intended to inspire an urban insurrection but was unsuccessful; as the Salvadoran government began to indiscriminately bomb the city in response, the FMLN decided to withdraw to prevent further civilian casualties. The offensive made clear that without mediation to break the stalemate, both sides were capable of dragging out the conflict indefinitely.
Other events also heightened international pressure for peace. During the offensive, Salvadoran security forces entered the campus of the Central American University and massacred six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter, drawing renewed worldwide attention to the conflict. At the same time, the fall of the Berlin Wall produced a significant change in the Cold War climate and moderated US attitudes towards negotiation.
In addition, the conflict was increasingly becoming an obstacle to advancing the US-backed neoliberal project in the region.
In 1989, Alfredo Cristiani was elected president with the ultra-conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party, which was founded by Roberto D’Aubuisson — the infamous father of death squads named by the Truth Commission as the intellectual author of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero — and was the political home of most of the country’s recalcitrant right. Cristiani, however, was eager to implement free-market reforms in El Salvador and seemed willing to trade peace for the chance to further his economic agenda. By 1990, the US was negotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with Mexico, a key agent in the peace process, which likely figured into the US disposition towards dialogue.
The UN-brokered talks were held in the Chapultepec castle in Mexico City. On January 16, 1992, a treaty was signed by both parties. Representatives of the Cristiani government were present, along with representatives of each of the five factions of the FMLN, among them FPL commander and current president of El Salvador, Salvador Sánchez Cerén.
The peace accords did not achieve the just, equitable society that the FMLN fought for and that so many activists and organizers sacrificed for. The guerrillas were unable to impose their economic vision. Instead, in exchange for — and even with the aid of — political reforms, ARENA was able to continue its neoliberal agenda, advancing a drastic program of privatization and deregulation with the encouragement of the United States and international financial institutions.
By 1992, ARENA had already privatized the national bank in a shady deal that ended with Cristiani himself emerging as a principal shareholder in the new private bank. The public pension system, telecommunications company, and energy distribution were soon to follow. Thus, the peace accords left intact the economic structures of power that created the conditions for the conflict in the first place.
And yet the peace accords achieved a great deal. I spoke with Lorena Peña, a former FMLN commander and feminist leader who recently finished her term as president of the Legislative Assembly, about the significance of the agreement:
What the peace accords achieved was a profound transformation of the political and democratic system; a military dictatorship became a plural and democratic political regime. You have to remember that before, torture was basically legal, and it was illegal to be a leftist or have opinions that were divergent from the oligarchy.
As one FMLN negotiator put it, the principal thrust of the agreement was to allow the FMLN to engage in politics without arms, and to ensure that the armed forces did not engage in politics.
The peace accords essentially demilitarized the state, reforming the constitution to subordinate the military to a civilian executive branch, ending forced conscription, doing away with notorious security forces like the National Guard and the Treasury Police, and constituting a National Civil Police force independent of the military comprised of both demobilized guerrilla combatants and former soldiers.
They also mandated the creation of the autonomous Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office as a watchdog for other government institutions and implemented democratic reforms such as founding the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to regulate political parties and oversee elections. A Truth Commission was established to investigate the crimes committed during the armed conflict, and FMLN combatants were guaranteed demobilization into civilian life, including passage into electoral politics.
The FMLN would transition from an insurgent leftist military operation to a political party.
From the Trenches to the Ballot Box
“Our strategy was to continue working for the democratization of the country and to struggle for social and economic transformations, but in this new context of political and peaceful struggle,” explains Peña. “It was fundamental that the peace accords were fulfilled, because that was our guarantee to be able to continue the struggle without the need for anyone else to die for it.”
But not all of the FMLN was happy with the peace accords and the transition into party politics. In the 1990s, several prominent leaders split with the party. Joaquin Villalobos, for example, who signed the peace accords as a representative of the ERP, broke from the party in 1995 with other ERP members to form a small, short-lived centrist party that cut a deal with ARENA to back further neoliberal reforms in exchange for political support; Villalobos went on to become a political analyst and consultant, advising Colombia’s President Uribe through the peace negotiations with the FARC. Dagoberto Gutiérrez, who signed on behalf of the CP, served briefly as an FMLN legislator; he later split from the party to found his own now-defunct party to the left of the FMLN.
But the FMLN, today as in the war, has consistently shown a remarkable resolve towards unity. The last major internal dispute emerged around the 1999 presidential elections, when a faction of “renovators” urged to take the party in a more moderate direction.
The opposing orthodox faction, termed the “Revolutionary Socialist Current,” was led by the late PC leader Shafik Handal and Salvador Sánchez Cerén. The divisions penetrated all levels of party ranks, and the internal vote to determine the presidential ticket was highly contentious.
Following the FMLN’s defeat at the polls that year, the party leadership changed the process by which candidates were selected. Instead of a party-wide vote, a committee would put forward a proposal to be ratified at the annual convention. This modification essentially made the process less democratic, serving instead to rally the party around a single ticket.
In 2004, Shafik Handal was chosen as the presidential candidate. He lost resoundingly, but the process served to unite the party and consolidate the leadership of the orthodox current. As on the battlefield, the party’s firm emphasis on internal consensus — the flip side of which is a strong loyalty to party leadership among the rank and file — proved effective in the hostile political arena.
The peace accords had made significant reforms towards a democratic electoral system, but the entire state apparatus remained in the hands of ARENA. The party stands firm in its quasi-fascist right-wing ideology — to this day, the party inaugurates every campaign in the town of Izalco, the site of the 1932 slaughter, because “this is where the first communist uprising was defeated,” and the party hymn declares that “El Salvador will be the tomb of the Reds” with a rousing chorus of “Fatherland: Yes! Communism: No!”
ARENA also has a record of brazen corruption and methodically ransacked the treasury for the personal enrichment of its leadership and to fill party coffers, while using state institutions to carry out campaign work throughout its twenty years in power, from 1989 to 2009.
Every organ of government was actively working against an FMLN electoral victory. Fraud was rampant. Phil Josselyn, a longtime activist with the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), was in El Salvador for the 1994 elections as an international monitor. The night before the vote, agents of the National Civil Police (PNC) stole his car: “The car was parked at our office and the PNC came it took it away,” he recalls. “I spent half of election day getting my car back.”
In the small town where he was stationed to observe the vote, the ARENA representatives made no effort to feign an affinity for the new democratic culture: “We visited the ARENA candidate’s house, and his wife said, ‘He’s been so busy these days, he’s never home — he’s just out buying votes!’”
As part of the peace accords’ electoral reforms, volunteer representatives from each major political party were to supervise the entire voting process in each polling station. During that first election, Josselyn remembers, the FMLN base was woefully unprepared to defend their votes.
“They were very, very young. The problem was that all of the FMLN cadre had been fighting the war for the past ten, twelve years. Many of them really didn’t know how to read. So they weren’t that good at observing an election. . . . It was really no contest.”
The FMLN faced a steep learning curve in 1994, but they soon began to adapt.
“Over the years, two things happened,” says Josselyn, who has observed almost every Salvadoran election since the peace accords. “One was that their support grew within the urban middle class.” In 1997, the FMLN candidate won the San Salvador mayoral elections, and the party has largely maintained control of the capital city ever since.
That same year, the FMLN took twenty-seven seats in the legislature, just one less than ARENA. In 2000, they overtook ARENA in the assembly by two seats. The two parties have since alternated as legislative majority, always within a close margin.
The other major development in the FMLN’s electoral maturity, as Joselyn tells it, was that “the organization at the base level really changed.” Over time, as the party’s electoral mobilization and preparation became more sophisticated, local FMLN members were better able to detect and defend against fraud.
The party has maintained a firm base, particularly in the capital and former rural guerrilla bastions. The FMLN’s statutes mandate that a minimum of 35 percent of internal leadership positions and electoral candidacies be filled by women and 25 percent by people under the age of thirty-one. Its structure begins with neighborhood committees devoted to political education and organizing work.
At the national level, secretariats dedicated to particular sectors such as women, youth, and veterans organize to promote the rights, participation, and leadership of those groups within the party and in society at large, while secretariats dedicated to arts and culture, education, and historical memory host events and produce publications that promote political consciousness raising and spotlight the struggles of marginalized communities. During election cycles, these structures are all mobilized toward the campaign.
ARENA was not the FMLN’s only peacetime opposition. The United States, the oligarchy’s steadfast ally, shamelessly interfered in every election cycle, with State Department officials and congressional representatives threatening to cut off remittance flows and deport Salvadorans in the United States should the Left win an election. It wasn’t until 2009, after a strong campaign by US-based solidarity groups, that the United States first released a statement of neutrality regarding the Salvadoran elections. This was, incidentally, the year that the FMLN finally took office.
It did not do so alone. As the political opposition, the FMLN was accompanied by a boisterous social movement in the postwar fight against the ARENA governments’ programs of neoliberalism, resource extraction companies, and militarization.
After the peace accords, a flood of foreign aid for the transition to democracy triggered a tide of NGO-ization that at best sought to institutionalize a less polarized “civil society” and at worst served to undermine radical organizing and supplant public services at a time of neoliberalization. As the ravages of free trade, dollarization, privatization, and deregulation set in, organizers turned to the work of rebuilding the popular blocs.
By the mid 2000s, the movement was formidable. In 2003, ARENA tried to push through the privatization of the national health-care system. Hundreds of thousands of medical workers, hospital unions, and supporters filled the streets in the so-called White Marches that forced the government to back down from the proposal.
Massive opposition was mobilized against ARENA’s negotiations for the NAFTA-inspired Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States, such that the Right was forced to approve the trade deal in a legislature surrounded by anti-riot police at 3:00 a.m. on December 17, 2004, in a highly controversial, constitutionally questionable vote. In 2007, community resistance to the environmental contamination caused by gold mining forced the ARENA administration to declare a nationwide moratorium on metallic mining.
As during the war, the FMLN maintained close relationships with social movement leaders, strategically coordinating their struggles, each in their own “trench.” It was this mass grassroots organizing that finally brought the FMLN into the presidency.
The postwar years saw the FMLN broaden its agenda for democratic socialism, self-determination, and social justice to include an anti-discrimination framework to promote the rights of women and, more recently, LGBTQ Salvadorans, as well as environmental justice and other key issues, thanks to the organizing of progressive sectors both within and outside the party. The 2015 FMLN National Congress collectively affirmed the party’s overarching political mission to “transition towards an authentically Salvadoran socialism,” with the objectives of “eradicating neoliberalism and strengthening the state,” and “substituting the current exclusionary commercial-financial economic model for a model founded on a productive and solidarity-based economy that guarantees food sovereignty and security, basic household needs, and sustainable socioeconomic development to the benefit of the majority.”
For the 2009 presidential elections, the FMLN allied with progressive journalist Mauricio Funes, a party outsider. Funes ran with Salvador Sánchez Cerén as his vice president, and the alliance paid off: On June 1, 2009, the FMLN assumed the presidency, ending twenty consecutive years of ARENA rule and becoming the country’s first-ever progressive government. In 2014, Sánchez Cerén was elected president, becoming the first true FMLN leader and former guerrilla commander to take the office.
The FMLN inherited a bankrupt, neoliberalized state, a devastated, dollarized economy, an entrenched right-wing bureaucracy, and a corrupt judicial system. Even so, the party has been able to implement critical social programs aimed at the country’s most vulnerable and historically neglected populations, as well as to take major steps towards transparent governance and anti-corruption measures.
The Funes administration did away with so-called “voluntary” fees at public hospitals and clinics and launched a sweeping health-care reform that established over 600 community clinics in underserved and remote regions, with health-care promoters bringing preventative care in home visits. Several new hospitals have since been built, including a new state-of the-art National Women’s Hospital to replace the old Maternity Hospital that languished in disrepair for years after funds to repair damage from a 2001 earthquake were embezzled by ARENA officials. Other large infrastructure projects such as major highways were also completed after years of abandonment due to corruption.
The Sánchez Cerén administration has sought to style itself after the South American “pink tide” governments; following the path of Uruguay’s Pepe Mujíca, Sánchez Cerén refused to move into the presidential palace, remaining with his wife in their modest family home in San Salvador, and he has adopted the indigenous concept of buen vivir (roughly, “good living”) employed by Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa as a paradigm for collective well being.
As vice president, Sánchez Cerén, a former school teacher, also served as Minister of Education. He oversaw the creation of a National Literacy Program in which high school students use their community service hours to teach reading, writing, and basic arithmetic to adults, and elderly women in particular, who were robbed of the opportunity as children; sixty-two municipalities have so far been declared free of illiteracy. Sánchez Cerén also oversaw the implementation of a program to provide a yearly packet of school supplies to each elementary school student, along with shoes and uniforms made locally by small-scale producers, the cost for which was previously a burden on families.
Schools also began to serve milk and a small meal of rice and beans, sourced from local agricultural producers, providing much-needed nutrition for children and stimulus for local economies. As president, Sánchez Cerén extended these programs through to the high school level.
In addition, comprehensive “Women’s City” service centers across the country now provide mental and reproductive health care, legal support, childcare, credit, and job training. A family agriculture program distributes locally sourced bean and corn seeds to small farmers.
The party has also overseen major gains against government corruption, drafting and implementing an Access to Public Information Law and launching an Open Government digital portal. In addition, over 150 cases of corruption uncovered from previous ARENA administrations have been sent to the attorney general’s office for investigation.
This January, former president Francisco Flores (1999–2004) died during his trial for the theft of $15 million in aid for earthquake victims, and former president Tony Saca (2004–2009) is currently jailed and awaiting trial for the astounding misappropriation of over $200 million in public funds. Even the FMLN’s Funes is under investigation for illicit enrichment during his term, though he has not been charged and calls the allegations a political ploy by the right-wing dominated judicial branch, which has proven much more eager to prosecute ARENA’s enemies. Flores’ trial was mired in difficulties, and the ex-president enjoyed house arrest in his luxurious San Salvador mansion during the proceedings, while Saca, who broke from ARENA in 2010 to form his own conservative party, was promptly thrown behind bars.
Further reforms have sought to make the democratic process more participatory and accessible. The FMLN implemented a nationwide residential voting system, going from 460 voting centers in 2009 to 1,600 in 2015, adopted measures to ensure the right to vote for disabled and LGBTQ voters, and inaugurated an absentee voting system for Salvadorans living abroad.
The FMLN’s policy progress often goes overlooked in international media coverage of El Salvador, which prefers to sensationalize gang violence and migration with little analysis of the profound structural causes of these crises. The achievements are modest in contrast with the revolutionary socialist doctrine that the party espouses, yet they offer a first response to the staggering inequality that has kept the vast majority of the Salvadoran population in conditions of misery, precarity, and marginalization for decades, if not centuries. In particular, they have countered the devastating consequences of the neoliberal model that the US-backed Right imposed upon the country over the previous twenty years.
The Post-Postwar Fight
These advances have been met with fierce and relentless opposition from the country’s oligarchic elites and their transnational allies. Since Sánchez Cerén took office, the FMLN has sounded the alarm that the Right is implementing a “soft coup” against the government, using its judicial, legislative, economic, and media power to destabilize the administration.
The FMLN controls only the executive branch. In the legislature, ARENA has frequently been able to ally with smaller right-wing parties to obstruct critical policies promoted by social movements and supported by the FMLN to protect natural resources, promote food sovereignty, reform the failing privatized pension system, or defend reproductive rights, while repeatedly holding the national budget hostage for political gain.
The Right maintains a firm hold on the country’s judicial system, and the Supreme Court has become a principal destabilizing force in the country, undermining FMLN governance by blocking access to crucial state income, striking down several progressive tax reforms, and wreaking havoc with the electoral system to the benefit of the FMLN’s opposition.
These efforts mirror a regional trend in which the recalcitrant Latin American right has resorted to parliamentary or “constitutional” maneuvers to unseat democratically elected progressive governments, as seen in Paraguay, Honduras, and, most recently, Brazil.
“The principal danger that we are experiencing right now is the role of the Supreme Court, which puts the democratic achievements at risk by wanting to install a government of judges who seek to override the executive and legislative branches,” says Lorena Peña. “It’s troubling that we have a Supreme Court that is submissive to the oligarchy.” The Court’s hostile actions, Peña warns, “go against the political stability and civil and political rights that the peace accords gave us.”
The country’s major television channels, radio stations, and newspapers remain consolidated in the hands of a few families with deep ties to ARENA, who have launched a full-frontal assault against the government. The Right has taken full and cynical advantage of the deeply entrenched gang-related violence that plagues the country to lambast the government, all the while blocking funding for urgent public safety measures and comprehensive social spending to address the roots of the insecurity — roots that extend, incidentally, into the neoliberal reforms that devastated the social safety net under ARENA in the wake of the civil war.
These efforts have not succeeded in mobilizing popular support for the opposition, but perhaps more poisonously, they served to depoliticize segments of the population. In the midst of a relentless media barrage against the FMLN, in which the corruption trails of ARENA officials are relegated to footnotes, public opinion polls demonstrate a creeping disillusionment with party politics and government institutions.
Nevertheless, the government has respected the opposition’s right to dissent. “Another achievement [of the FMLN] that seems important to me is the absolute freedom of expression in this country without any government repression,” Peña points out. “What we have is unrestricted freedom of association, of expression, and of mobilization, a right that before cost people their lives.”
In addition to these external obstacles, the FMLN’s passage from longtime political opposition to governing party created its own internal challenges for the Left. In particular, it produced a new landscape for radical social movements, who were accustomed to an adversarial relationship with a hostile state. Many of the functionaries in the FMLN government are themselves lifelong activists, like feminist Sandra Guevara who now heads the ministry of labor, or environmentalist Ángel Ibarra who serves as vice minister of the environment.
Social movement organizers have had to navigate a delicate field. As a matter of course, they have a responsibility and obligation to demand deeper, more radical change and hold the party’s feet to the fire. This has proven increasingly challenging in the face of the mounting destabilization that has put the FMLN government on the defensive, threatening the very possibility of further transformations.
At the same time, the FMLN faces a dilemma regarding the renovation of its comandancia. After twenty-five years of peace, the top positions in the party are still occupied by the guerrilla commanders that led insurgency who will soon have to pass the baton to a new generation of postwar leaders. This task, however, has proven complicated.
The rising star of the party is San Salvador mayor Nayib Bukele. Bukele is hardly a revolutionary — he is a progressive young millionaire and publicity guru. He is wildly popular, especially among urban youth, but seems more loyal to his personal brand than to a leftist ideology.
The party leadership has justifiably held Bukele at arm’s length, but with many of the FMLN’s brightest young leaders now working in mid-level posts in government, few appear currently positioned to assume the necessary internal positions of authority.
A Long Way to Go
The challenges that the FMLN faces today are sobering. As the success of the Latin American right emboldens the domestic opposition, the United States is advancing new neoliberal policies for megaprojects, resource extraction, and militarization in Central America under the guise of the “Alliance for Prosperity” plan that threaten to aggravate the insecurity, inequality, and forced migration that afflict the region. And the 2018 midterms and 2019 presidential elections are fast approaching.
And yet the organized struggle of the Salvadoran people has always faced seemingly insurmountable odds. El Salvador has long served as an imperial laboratory both for counterinsurgency warfare and neoliberal restructuring. But it has also served as an inspiration and a model for popular revolutionary struggle and negotiated democratic transitions.
The continuity of the FMLN’s revolutionary project will depend in part on the party’s ability promote the leadership of a new generation of leftists; on social movements’ ability hold the party and the government accountable to their promises and principles; and, without a doubt, on international solidarity in the face of imperial interference and destabilization.
Twenty-five years after the peace accords, Lorena Peña and her colleagues face numerous difficulties ahead. But of course, the FMLN’s strategy has always been long-term. “We still have a long way to go,” she says.