Not Going Back

Lorena Peña and a generation of FMLN militants adjust to the promise and limits of state power.

Portrait of Lorena Peña

Illustration by The Diggers

There’s no doubt that Lorena Peña has devoted her life to the struggle. Like other Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) militants of her generation, she’s fought for a democratic, egalitarian, and free El Salvador.

It’s come at great cost. All three of Peña’s siblings were killed in the war, along with her first husband and countless friends. She abandoned university to join the armed struggle, and even sacrificed raising her children, leaving them with their grandmother so she could return to the front. In her 2009 autobiography, Peña wrote: “I have had to recruit myself a thousand times to our humanist liberation struggle. I have asked myself the question of whether such effort was worth it.” After so much sacrifice, the answer could only be “yes.”

Peña is a formidable figure in Salvadoran politics. As a guerrilla commander during the civil war between the leftist FMLN and the US-backed military dictatorship, she helped negotiate an end to the brutal twelve-year conflict. As the FMLN was beginning its transition from insurgent army to political party in the early 1990s, Peña helped found and lead the Las Mélidas feminist organization and brought the fight against patriarchy into the FMLN itself. “We launched a huge political and ideological offensive in the ranks of the party,” she remembers proudly. “We were able to establish the Women’s Secretariat in that context, and an institutional gender policy.”

Peña recently relinquished the title of president of the Legislative Assembly, where she is serving her third term as a representative of San Salvador for the FMLN. As head of the FMLN Arts and Culture Secretariat she is also a member of the party’s highest internal authority, the Political Commission. Last year, she was elected to preside over the Brazil-based Women’s International Democratic Federation (WIDF).

Peña is just as formidable in person. Personable and frank, she takes up the whole room, rarely allowing a word in edgewise, and pausing only to replenish a constant supply of cigarettes (no one, it seems, has dared to challenge her flagrant disregard for the national indoor smoking ban). Peña’s deft combination of charisma and authority accounts in many ways for her survival and success both as a woman and a leftist in the hostile terrain of Salvadoran political life.

Today, as the FMLN struggles to advance an agenda of democratic social reform in the face of ferocious and unremitting opposition from powerful enemies, Peña balances her duties as a politician, a party bureaucrat, and a feminist champion. With a cigarette in one hand and a smartphone in the other, she is always working.

After disarming, the FMLN spent nearly twenty years opposing the US-backed neoliberal rule of the ultra-conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party, finally consolidating enough political power to unseat the Right for the first time in El Salvador’s history and assume the presidency in 2009 and again in 2014.

It was a historic, unprecedented achievement for a former insurgency to gain power democratically through — or despite — the compromised institutions of the neoliberal state. But declarations of victory would prove premature. Writing in 2008, Peña appeared to presage the looming challenges: “I no longer imagine a final victory, that will be death. Victories are continuous, after one, we need another. Overturning the military dictatorship was a great victory, conquering the government and reorienting the political and economic model will be another, then we will have to continue struggling for more.”

Indeed, exuberant expectations for dramatic change have waned since 2009, giving way to frustration even among FMLN loyalists. Efforts to dismantle the neoliberal economy and redistribute wealth have been stymied by the entrenched right-wing elite and its servants in the legislature, the courts, and the media.

This is not to say that the FMLN has not made gains in the material lives of poor and working Salvadorans. Reforms have removed barriers to free, universal education and health care, resulting in significant advances in maternal health and cutting adult illiteracy nearly in half (it now stands at 10 percent, well below the United States’ 14 percent); the country’s lowest-paid workers have received a 102 percent wage increase; major unfinished infrastructure projects whose funds were brazenly embezzled under ARENA have been completed; important government transparency measures have been enacted, with two former presidents brought up on massive corruption charges; formal mechanisms of recognition and dialogue have been extended to the nation’s long-excluded indigenous and LGBTq communities; and so on. Even in the realm of public safety, despite concerns about abuses by state security forces, homicides have fallen to historic lows after spiking alarmingly in 2015. “We have truly won so many impressive achievements in these seven years,” Peña insists.

Still, transformative, structural change remains elusive. “The most difficult areas [to advance in] are those that have to do with the structures of our public finances,” she concedes. “We have tried several times to continue making the tax system more progressive, but in some cases we haven’t had the votes, [. . .] and in others it’s been the Constitutional Chamber [of the Supreme Court] who has declared some taxes unconstitutional.”

“Today, we have control of the executive branch, but not the Legislative Assembly, and the judicial branch is in the hands of the Right,” Peña explains. Since taking power, the FMLN has enacted measures to encourage the payment of back taxes and approved a minimum income tax, an electricity tax on large-scale consumers to invest in renewable energy, a tax on international telephone calls, and a tax on motor vehicles; all have been overturned by the Supreme Court.

The Court has also been a key actor in a campaign to purge progressives from strategic institutions under the technocratic guise of depoliticizing government. The Constitutional Chamber has used dubious interpretations to oust magistrates from its own ranks and those of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal — the body charged with ensuring free and fair elections — for alleged affiliations with the FMLN. ARENA party donors and advisors on the bench, however, have been spared: “The Supreme Court, and particularly the Chamber, is very much at the service of the oligarchy and ARENA,” Peña says flatly, “and it is dangerously disrupting basic elements of political participation.”

The FMLN’s time in government has made clear that true power in El Salvador lies beyond the state itself, which had been systematically weakened by deregulation, privatization, and rampant theft during two decades of ARENA rule. “The government is an important power, but there are multiple powers. There’s the power of government, the power of the oligarchy, the power of the media, the power of multi-lateral institutions which also have influence due to the debts that we have,” notes Peña, who as chair of the Treasury and Budget Committee in the legislature routinely goes to bat against the IMF’s demands to raise the sales tax and retirement age, lower subsidies, and freeze wages.

“The power of the media is fundamental,” Peña stresses, “because they have a lot more economic resources than the party and the government, really.” El Salvador’s corporate media remains firmly monopolized in the hands of the oligarchic elite. Its relentless barrage of anti-government propaganda has not yet succeeded in drumming up popular support for the Right, but it has had another, perhaps more insidious, effect: that of fomenting disillusionment and disgust for politics in general. This is a particularly dangerous, demobilizing discourse in a country famous for its radical mass movements, organized revolutionary communities, and martyrs for social and economic justice.

The United States has eagerly taken up this mantel of depoliticization; US Ambassador Jean Elizabeth Manes frequently admonishes Salvadoran society for its polarization, all the while encouraging right-wing initiatives disguised as apolitical “civil society” projects. Most recently, the ambassador-inaugurated National Youth Council (NYC) convened to “advise the Embassy on specific issues that concern this important population”; NYC’s president was quickly revealed to be a leader in the ARENA Youth. Peña was one of the first to sound the alarm on social media, writing: “Can they believe in a non-partisan vision for the country with something like this?”

The US-backed campaign to delegitimize partisan politics and ideological struggle was launched precisely at the time that the Left emerged as the dominant political force in El Salvador, and it is deeply disturbing to lifelong militants like Peña. “Changing this situation requires a deeper change in the heart of the people,” she says. The FMLN is faced with “an immense task that involves not just mobilization but also concientization and promoting a cultural change that empowers the Salvadoran people to bring new meaning to politics, to imagine a more just society, and to reject the stereotypes that have been sold to us as values of neoliberal success.”

As the battle for hearts and minds rages in El Salvador, the FMLN and its Pink Tide allies are threatened by an emboldened conservative resurgence in the region: “The Right has launched a counter-offensive in all of Latin America, and now, it looks like, the world,” Peña warns. “In South America, the media and judicial powers have been able to execute ‘soft coups,’ which have been violent, really, dismissing people like Dilma Rouseff [in Brazil] — they couldn’t prove anything, but they got rid of her, right? And that is worrying.”

Yet she remains determined, optimistic even. The only match for the economic and political powers conspiring against the Left, Peña says, “is the power of the people, which we must keep building and manifesting in order to have a context that is definitively in favor of change. [. . .] We need to accelerate this process of consciousness so that we don’t go back to the period when the señores commanded and the people just said ‘yes.’”

“It’s the Left’s time,” Peña argues, “and not because it’s the happiest time. [. . .] I think it’s time for all of us who believe that another world is possible to make it possible.”