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El Salvador’s Backslide

With its loss of the presidency in El Salvador’s recent elections, the gains of the revolutionary project launched by the FMLN in 1980 are in serious jeopardy.

El Salvador's president-elect, Nayib Bukele, speaks in San Salvador on election night. Nayib Bukele / Twitter

El Salvador’s Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) has been ousted from office, unseated in the recent presidential election by an ambitious young millionaire who claims to transcend partisan politics. After two consecutive terms in the presidency, the former Marxist-Leninist guerrilla army won a distant third-place in the vote on February 3, trailing both the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party, which governed from 1989 to 2009, and the election’s insurgent victor, Nayib Bukele.

According to the preliminary results, Bukele swept the election with 1,388,009 votes, 53 percent of the vote. ARENA, in coalition with smaller right-wing parties, took 31.8 percent, and the FMLN a dismal 14.4 percent. The leftist party received even fewer votes than in the recent midterms, and over a million fewer than in the 2014 presidential race. The election saw about 50 percent turnout, significantly lower than previous presidential votes, suggesting that while many former FMLN supporters defected to Bukele, others did not vote at all.

The FMLN’s resounding defeat, though painful, was not unforeseen, coming after massive midterm losses in March 2018 and amid a broader left retreat in Latin America. Since the fall of commodity prices in 2014, left and center-left administrations in Argentina, Chile, and Brazil that depended on extractive rents have been swept out of office, with Venezuela and Nicaragua in the crosshairs: president-elect Bukele has called Nicolas Maduro and Daniel Ortega both dictators, and will likely prove an eager ally in the US’s right-wing crusade in the region.

The FMLN was elected with a firm mandate in 2009 but won with a slim margin in 2014. FMLN power was significantly diminished over the course of its second term, slowing the pace of reform. As I argue in Steve Ellner’s forthcoming book The Pink Tide Experiences: Breakthroughs and Shortcomings in Twenty-First Century Latin America, the increasingly hostile geopolitical climate left the party without crucial international allies and alternative sources of financing, even as right-wing obstruction and destabilization successfully starved the administration of funds and support internally. At the same time, pragmatic alliances further narrowed FMLN political horizons, sometimes with devastating consequences.

In office, the FMLN was not as radical as many of its southern neighbors. But although the party did not fundamentally restructure El Salvador’s economy, it made unprecedented gains in social investment, inclusion, and infrastructure, while forging diplomatic and commercial ties with the Latin American anti-neoliberal bloc. Many of these advances are now in danger, and the future of the Salvadoran left is uncertain.

As the rest of the region reckons with the limits of bourgeois electoral politics and state power, El Salvador’s revolutionaries must decide if the FMLN remains a viable instrument for their struggle.

A Revolutionary History

The FMLN was founded in 1980 at the start of a bloody twelve-year civil war against the US-backed military dictatorship and the landed oligarchs it served. The union of five leftist political-military organizations, the FMLN’s alliance of Old and New Left tendencies built on a revolutionary tradition forged in the 1932 communist and peasant uprising that was met with genocidal repression by the military dictatorship.

The guerrillas fought the anticommunist regime to a draw in 1992. In 1993, the UN Truth Commission Report attributed at least 85 percent of the war’s seventy-five thousand deaths and ten thousand disappearances to US-funded, -armed, and -trained Salvadoran security forces and their associated death squads, and only 5 percent to the insurgency.

The negotiations saw the FMLN lay down arms and begin a fraught transition from guerrilla army to leftist political party. As a party, the FMLN’s statutes defined itself as democratic, revolutionary, peaceful, and socialist. The former insurgency institutionalized its nationwide structures of base committees and secretariats, and cultivated a base among radicalized rural communities, urban intellectuals, labor unions, organized university students, and other social movement groups. Throughout the dark neoliberal decades of the 1990s and the 2000s, the FMLN accompanied popular struggles against structural adjustment and right-wing repression from the legislature and in the streets.

The peace accords demilitarized the Salvadoran state and laid the foundations for a fragile liberal democracy, but failed to address the structural inequities of El Salvador’s economy, which remained firmly in the hands of a small class of elites, as did state power. Even before the war’s close, the ruling class — represented primarily by the quasi-fascist Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party — began to enact sweeping neoliberal reforms. With US support, ARENA zealously privatized the public bank, telecommunications, electric energy, sugar mills, coffee exports, and pension system; imposed the US dollar as the national currency; and signed El Salvador onto the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States.

The results were predictably disastrous for the country’s poor majority.

The low-wage, highly surveilled maquiladora employment that emerged in new deregulated, tax-exempt export processing zones for foreign investment could scarcely replace the tens of thousands of public sector and agricultural jobs lost to structural adjustment. The ranks of the informal sector swelled, and US-bound migration exceeded wartime levels. Income from migrant remittances soon outpaced that of maquila exports. The export of cheap labor fueled the expansion of the precarious service sector in the US, while remittances sustained the fragile Salvadoran economy, further entrenching the asymmetrical relationship of economic dependency and political subordination between the two countries.

Rising violence and organized crime further eroded living conditions for the Salvadoran working class. Racist anti-gang policing in Los Angeles and anti-immigrant legislation in the late 1990s facilitated the mass deportation of US-raised youths to El Salvador, some of whom carried the culture and practices of street gangs formed in US working-class neighborhoods and prisons. These groups flourished amid the unaddressed traumas of the recent armed conflict and the poverty facing many postwar Salvadoran young people.

With steady US support, ARENA responded to the growing crisis with repressive “iron fist” policing that only served to criminalize and alienate poor young men, radicalizing and fortifying gang structures. Gang violence and extortion, concentrated in struggling working-class Salvadoran communities, soon joined economic hardship as a driving force for northward migration.

These were the fraught conditions in which the FMLN assumed El Salvador’s presidency in 2009, aided by a swelling “Pink Tide” to the south and a relative diplomatic opening from the new Obama administration in the north, which offered the US’s first-ever neutrality statement ahead of the elections. The election marked the country’s first peaceful transition of power since the war, and the first time that popular progressive forces would govern in the nation’s history.

FMLN Gains

The FMLN’s 2009 presidential candidate Mauricio Funes was an outspoken progressive journalist and non-FMLN militant, enlisted to broaden the FMLN’s reach. Former guerrilla commander Salvador Sánchez Cerén joined him on the ticket as vice president. Sánchez Cerén, a former schoolteacher and leader in the historic ANDES-21 de Julio teacher’s movement that challenged state repression in the 1970s, also served as education minister under Funes and was elected president in 2014.

These administrations did not alter the structures of El Salvador’s highly concentrated, US-dependent economy. But they enacted unprecedented social reforms and investment aimed at the country’s most vulnerable and historically excluded populations.

The FMLN’s sweeping healthcare reforms abolished so-called “voluntary” fees at public hospitals and, following the Cuban model, established hundreds of community clinics across underserved areas, with prevention-oriented healthcare promoters providing regular home visits. The government built several new hospitals, including a national women’s hospital to replace the maternity hospital that had languished in disrepair after a 2001 earthquake as ARENA officials embezzled reconstruction funds.

New comprehensive “women’s city” centers provided onsite services including mental and reproductive health care, legal support, and job training. Maternal mortality fell from fifty-six deaths per one hundred thousand live births in 2009 to thirty-one by 2018.

Sánchez Cerén’s Education Ministry launched a national literacy program, designed and implemented with Cuban advisors, in which high school students fulfilled community service hours by teaching reading, writing, and basic arithmetic to adults in their communities. By the close of 2018, over 330,000 people, the majority elderly women, had learned to read and write, and one hundred territories were declared free of illiteracy.

In what became a signature FMLN policy, the administration removed barriers to public education by providing annual packets of school supplies to public elementary students, together with shoes and uniforms made by local small-scale producers. Public schools began to serve milk and a small meal of rice and beans, sourced from Salvadoran farmers. The Ministry of Agriculture distributed seasonal packets of native bean and corn seeds to small farmers — a program that was unsuccessfully challenged by the US for favoring local cooperatives over Monsanto. El Salvador had been reduced to importing most of these staples, but by 2012, domestic production was meeting national demand.

The Public Works Ministry was transformed from a notorious source of ARENA graft into an FMLN flagship. When the Funes administration completed an emblematic highway (the funds for which were brazenly stolen under the previous administration), they named it after martyred Archbishop Óscar Romero, now a saint, who was gunned down at mass in 1980 at the orders of ARENA party founder Roberto D’Aubuisson. The international airport was also renamed for Romero, and in 2012 Funes apologized on behalf of the state for the violence waged against civilians during the civil war.

From the legislature, the FMLN advanced key social movement priorities like The Law for a Life Free from Violence Against Women; the Gender Equality, Equity, and Eradication of Discrimination Against Women Law; a constitutional amendment to recognize indigenous peoples; and the National Law Against Metallic Mining, the first of its kind in the world to ban the environmentally destructive industry.

The FMLN also implemented an Access to Public Information Law and launched an open government portal on state websites. For the first time, public entities were mandated to publish yearly reports of their activities and spending. At the helm of the elections authority, the FMLN established a nationwide residential voting system, going from 460 voting centers in 2009 to 1,600 by the 2015 midterms, adopted measures to ensure suffrage for disabled and transgender voters, and inaugurated an international absentee voting system.

Sánchez Cerén modeled his presidency after Uruguay’s Pepe Mujíca. He opened the presidential residence to the public, remaining with his wife in their modest family home. His administration also discursively aligned itself with South American Pink Tide governments by adopting buen vivir, an indigenous notion of collective and sustainable wellbeing employed in Evo Morales’s Bolivia and Rafael Correa’s Ecuador. He also signed El Salvador onto PetroCaribe.

Under Sánchez Cerén, programs providing supplies, uniforms, shoes, and meals were expanded to high school, and several more women’s city centers were established. The University of El Salvador was made tuition-free for public school students, and the administration helped secure a major minimum-wage hike that increased salaries by 102 percent for the country’s lowest-paid workers.

Still, the administration saw fewer innovations than its predecessor. This relative moderation accounts in part for the FMLN’s declining support, and corresponds to both internal and external pressures that increasingly limited the administration’s ambitions.

Shortcomings

While the FMLN oversaw a reduction in poverty and inequality, the party did not transform El Salvador’s prevailing modes of capital accumulation.

FMLN-governed municipalities had partnered with Venezuela since 2006 in the Alba Petroleos initiative, which used proceeds from subsidized Venezuelan fuel at Alba gas stations for community social programs. After the FMLN reached the presidency, former Communist Party militant José Luis Merino led an effort to build alternative capital, founding companies like Alba Alimentos, which sold local Salvadoran staples; Tu Financiera, which provided microcredit; and Veca, a new Alba-financed airline, which offered cheap Central American flights.

The fall of commodity prices at the start of the FMLN’s second term, however, dashed hopes that the anti-neoliberal bloc would provide the solutions to finance broader transformations and offset US influence. By 2018, most Alba gas stations had been shuttered, and Veca airlines had folded.

In addition, the party failed to make qualitative improvements to the country’s entrenched public security crisis.

The 2009 decision to increase military participation in police operations disturbed human rights advocates, who presciently warned that the remilitarization of public security would portend dangerous abuses. In 2013, journalists exposed negotiations between the Funes administration and the country’s top gangs that had sharply reduced homicides; the truce’s subsequent unraveling saw a spike in violence, and the fierce public backlash, together with a Supreme Court decision classifying gang members as “terrorists,” foreclosed on the possibility of future dialogue.

The Sánchez Cerén administration sought to center violence prevention in its security strategy, but right-wing obstruction in the legislature and courts blocked the funds for much of those initiatives. At the same time, the government escalated enforcement, cracking down on prison security and provoking further human rights concerns, even as public opinion in favor of hardline anti-gang policing remained resolute. Homicide rates rose, then fell over the FMLN’s two terms, but gang violence and extortion remain a dark daily reality for the most vulnerable Salvadorans.

More broadly, the party failed to deploy the state’s ideological institutions towards building a left cultural hegemony so as to better defend and radicalize the FMLN project.

The demands of governance took a toll on the party’s relationship with its base and allied social movements, as attention and resources were diverted to affairs of state and increasingly subordinated to electoral logics. At the same time, the aging leadership’s refusal to promote younger militants to top party posts, aversion to critique, and vertical decision-making fostered additional tensions among the FMLN rank and file.

These discontents were heightened after the massive 2018 midterm losses. Despite the clamor from movements and left intellectuals for a decisive affirmation of radical FMLN principles and policy, the government fumbled, waiting weeks to enact an unremarkable cabinet reshuffling. Rather than reassure its increasingly disaffected base, the lackluster response only fostered further alienation.

“The FMLN leadership has not listened to its base, it imposes decisions and has lost its revolutionary mystique,” declared the Social Alliance for Governability and Justice (ASGOJU) coalition in the aftermath, adding that “the discontent is also due to the government’s lack of political direction, weak presidential leadership, the failed strategy of ‘governability,’ neoliberal economic measures, deficient political communication, and the lack of cabinet changes.”

Together with ongoing right-wing destabilization, these shortcomings helped secure Nayib Bukele his share of former FMLN supporters. After ten years in power, the FMLN was no longer the party of change. Reluctant to return to ARENA, most Salvadorans cast their lot with the charismatic newcomer.

Destabilization

From the outset, the FMLN faced fierce obstruction and destabilization by the representatives of Salvadoran and transnational capital. From its bastions in the legislature, the judiciary, and the commercial media, the Right worked to sabotage successful FMLN governance.

No party achieved a forty-three-vote majority in the legislature, but by 2012, ARENA had overtaken the FMLN as the largest voting bloc. Measures requiring a two-thirds majority, like appointments for Supreme Court magistrate, Supreme Elections Tribunal magistrate, attorney general, and human rights ombudsperson, as well as the national budget, usually needed ARENA’s votes to pass, forcing negotiations. The right-wing parties consistently united to block social movement demands for legislation to guarantee equitable, universal access to food and water, and ARENA routinely held international loans and key budgetary measures hostage, seeking to provoke a fiscal crisis.

From the Supreme Court’s Constitutional Chamber, magistrates rejected every FMLN initiative to balance El Salvador’s regressive tax system, abolishing a new 1 percent minimum income tax, a tax on financial transactions over $1,000, an income tax for newspapers, along with anti-tax evasion measures. The chamber also cut off crucial sources of public funding, most notoriously reversing the legislature’s emission of $900 million in government bonds.

The same magistrates adopted a cynical technocratic discourse of non-partisanship to purge leftists from top institutions. These decisions ran counter to the foundations of the Salvadoran political system, which rests on strong political parties. The chamber barred party members from occupying any post determined through legislative vote, ousting dozens of officials, including the FMLN president of the national elections authority (TSE) and his successor (for FMLN sympathies). The chamber ejected its own president for his FMLN membership, but left those with financial and familial ties to ARENA on the bench.

The court also unilaterally remade El Salvador’s electoral system, in brazen disregard for the peace accord’s designation of the TSE as El Salvador’s highest elections authority. The magistrates opened legislative and municipal races to independent candidates, ordered candidates’ photographs on the ballot, and allowed voters to select multiple legislative candidates across competing parties, effectively orienting the system toward charismatic individuals over collective projects.

The court then barred party members from serving as poll station volunteers. These decisions have generated confusion, chaos, and delays in recent elections. They prompted public confidence in the electoral process to plummet and advanced a depoliticizing ideological framework that portrayed collective struggle through partisan politics as passé.

In addition to the court, the Office of the Attorney General assumed a new antagonism towards the central government. Rather than investigating the over 150 cases of corruption against prior ARENA administrations that the FMLN documented and filed after taking office, prosecutors set about attacking ARENA’s enemies with great fanfare.

The recent, highly touted prosecutions of Salvadoran ex-presidents are illustrative. After enormous pressure from President Funes, the attorney general reluctantly brought charges against ex-president Francisco Flores (1999–2004) for the theft of at least $15 million in Taiwanese donations for victims of the 2001 earthquake, much of which was funneled into ARENA party accounts. Even after trying to flee the country, Flores was granted house arrest during his trial, and no co-conspirators were charged. Flores died during the proceedings, and the case was dismissed.

Former president Tony Saca (2004–2009), in contrast, defected to found the conservative GANA party in 2010; he was dramatically arrested during his daughter’s wedding party and jailed to await trial. Saca was convicted of embezzling hundreds of millions in public funds, but cut a plea deal; his relatively light sentence prompted speculation that the attorney general’s office negotiated leniency in exchange for protecting accomplices who remain loyal to ARENA.

After leaving office in 2014, Funes himself became the target of a series of investigations. In 2016, he sought asylum in Nicaragua in 2016 shortly after the attorney general invited the press to a spectacular raid on the former FMLN president’s house, live-tweeting random photos of Funes’s belongings, from permitted firearms to an aquarium. In 2017, he was convicted in absentia for failing to account for $400,000 in an audit; in 2018, he and thirty family members and business associates were charged with laundering and embezzling a staggering $350 million, allegedly used for luxury goods and services.

The attorney general is now seeking the former president’s extradition, though requests for Interpol to issue a warrant have been denied. The case is still unfolding, but the political cost to the FMLN is already incalculable. These selective prosecutions of ARENA’s adversaries won high praise from the US Embassy, but preserved impunity for ARENA and the class it represents.

Indeed, the United States worked hard to constrain the FMLN and impose policies that advanced the interests of US capital. In addition to ongoing restraints on US aid that encourage repressive security measures and private sector–led development, despite Obama’s previous promises of neutrality, the US actively intervened throughout the FMLN’s two administrations.

In 2013, the Obama administration conditioned hundreds of millions in US development aid on the passage of a public-private partnership law; after major social movement opposition led by public sector unions, the FMLN legislative bloc was able to exclude healthcare, education, water, and public security from the project. In 2014, the US again threatened to withhold aid, this time over the FMLN’s family agriculture program. The US ambassador also repeatedly threatened aid if controversial Supreme Court decisions were not respected.

After the FMLN rescinded diplomatic recognition of Taiwan in favor of China in 2018, the Trump administration temporarily recalled the US ambassador, slamming the FMLN and declaring US relations with El Salvador would be “reevaluated.” After the devastating decision to rescind Temporary Protected Status for hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans in the US, the rebuke fueled opposition accusations that the FMLN was jeopardizing US relations.

Together, the political obstruction, the campaign against (leftist) political partisans, and the high-profile corruption prosecutions helped foster a climate of cynicism and rejection not just of the FMLN, but of politics in general. This ideological work was amplified by the monopolized corporate media, which relentlessly railed against the government.

The Salvadoran media projected a constant crisis, amplifying acts of gang violence and portraying the FMLN as inept or corrupt, far outpacing the government’s capacity to publicize any successes. Public opinion of the FMLN and politics in general plummeted over the course of the Sánchez Cerén administration.

Such was the success of this barrage of negativity that a Central American University (UCA) year-end poll found 62.4 percent thought violence had increased in 2017, even as homicides fell significantly that year. In a 2018 UCA poll, 57.5 percent of respondents identified insecurity and gang violence as the country’s principal problem; when asked if they had personally been victim of a crime, 83.5 percent said no.

Despite a decline in poverty and inequality under the FMLN, the 2017 poll found 54.6 percent of respondents thought poverty had increased. The same poll found the top three most trusted institutions in the country were the Catholic Church, evangelical churches, and the armed forces; the least respected were the elections authority, the legislature, and political parties.

Pragmatism

Facing obstruction and antagonism from the opposition, the FMLN’s project was also limited by its own political alliances.

The alliance with journalist Mauricio Funes ushered the FMLN into the presidency with a strong mandate and high expectations in 2009. But relations between the party and its “strategic ally” were tense throughout much of the term.

Funes surrounded himself with centrist, non-FMLN advisors, and he excluded party representatives from the economic cabinet entirely. Héctor Dada, founder of El Salvador’s Christian Democratic Party and representative of the small Democratic Change party that had endorsed the FMLN ticket, resigned from his post as economy minister in 2012 over the administration’s continuity of the neoliberal course, and Funes fired other appointees like the minister of labor and the president of the Salvadoran Institute for Women’s Development for their radicalism. Most damaging, however, was the subsequent Funes corruption investigation, which, however politicized, dealt a devastating blow to FMLN credibility.

The FMLN reached its legislative peak in 2009 with thirty-five seats, retaining thirty-one from 2012 to 2018, then falling to twenty-three. As its legislative share diminished, the FMLN negotiated a pact with the small right-wing GANA party. In exchange for GANA’s votes on key legislative measures, the conservative party was granted posts in the Sánchez Cerén administration, including the vice ministry of trade and industry. The FMLN also agreed to split the presidency of the National Legislative Assembly with GANA from 2015 to 2018, leaving GANA with control of the legislature for the final eighteen months of the term. These concessions further shrank the FMLN’s political horizon.

The FMLN was also constrained from within. In order to unite the party around the 2014 ticket, the popular five-term mayor of the middle-class San Salvador suburb Santa Tecla, Óscar Ortiz, was tapped as vice president. Ortiz represents a latent social-democratic “renovador” faction within the FMLN that challenged the dominant revolutionary socialist current in the 1990s; always cozy with the private sector, Ortiz courted capital under the title of commissioner for public and private investment in addition to his ceremonial duties as vice president.

Following the dramatic 2018 midterm losses, Ortiz executed a sort of bloodless coup, overseeing the ensuring cabinet reorganization and effectively taking over the government. He steered the administration to the right, unveiling a deeply unpopular proposal for a deregulated “Special Economic Zone” on the country’s eastern coast. The initiative earned a scathing editorial from the ARPAS community radio network, a longtime FMLN ally, declaring that the project “is the final neoliberal catastrophe of this ‘leftist government’ that abandoned the progressive project of structural transformations.” After the party’s presidential defeat, Sánchez Cerén announced that Ortiz would lead the transition team.

In electoral terms, however, the party’s most disastrous alliance proved to be its brief and ill-fated romance with president-elect Nayib Bukele.

Bukele

The heir to an unusually progressive wealthy family of Palestinian descent, Bukele was not an FMLN member when he was tapped by the party leadership to run for mayor of the small San Salvador suburb of Nuevo Cuscatlán in 2012 at the age of thirty-one. His charisma and publicity savvy, however, earned him a formidable social media following with middle-class millennial voters, and Bukele consolidated his brand by bathing the city in his signature baby blue rather than the FMLN’s traditional red and white.

In 2015, Bukele was selected as the FMLN candidate to regain the capital city from ARENA, which he did decisively. Bukele styled himself an anti-establishment renegade, and he brought youthful energy to a party whose original guerilla comandancia still occupy the principal posts of power.

Bukele’s administration was far from radical, however; his governing slogan was “There’s enough money when nobody steals.” Bukele’s ambitions increasingly brought him into conflict with the FMLN leadership, all the more so as it became clear that he would not be tapped as the 2019 presidential candidate. In 2017, he was expelled by the party’s ethics tribunal after he called an FMLN city councilwoman a “witch.”

Bukele took thousands of supporters with him. He was ousted too late to run for reelection as an independent in the 2018 midterms, and over two hundred thousand voters heeded his call to turn in blank ballots. Many more stayed home. The FMLN lost the mayor’s seat to ARENA and was reduced to its lowest standing in the legislature since the 1990s.

But Bukele’s true ambition was the presidency. When the right-wing-dominated elections authority rejected his hastily formed “New Ideas” party, he sought an alliance with the tiny center-left CD party. The elections authority then dissolved the CD, and Bukele, even as he cast himself as a radical alternative to a corrupt political establishment, jumped onto the right-wing GANA party’s ticket. He was joined by vice presidential candidate Félix Ulloa, who was part of the FMLN’s diplomatic corps during the war but left the party in the 1990s to join a short-lived social-democratic party that advanced a less radical progressive politics; he later went into academia and consulting.

With GANA, Bukele capitalized on the pervasive cynicism fomented by the Right, honing a messianic, post-ideological populism. He continued to rally supporters against both the FMLN and ARENA, and called the FMLN “ARENA 2.0.” Putting his publicity savvy to work, Bukele addressed his followers via Facebook Live and deployed internet trolls to defame his detractors. He hedged against a potential defeat by claiming that the establishment was preparing electoral fraud.

Bukele refused to participate in a single presidential debate. Much of his platform was plagiarized, including from FMLN government documents. One of the document’s few original turns of phrase declared that Bukele’s administration would be “anti-neoliberal” and “pro-free market.” In the absence of any coherent political ideology or project beyond his own opportunism, Bukele has projected himself as a Bruce Wayne–like savior.

Feminist economist Julia Evelyn Martínez warned in July: “It seems that for Nayib Bukele and the group of people that accompany and advise him, the goal is not to transform politics, instead the goal is to get to the presidency, and if in order to get to the presidency they have to step on [people], make pacts with the devil, with the forces of evil, with corruption, they’ll do it.”

An Uncertain Future

Bukele’s GANA presidency is largely a monster of the FMLN’s own making. Sunday’s outcome is the product of a dangerous electoral pragmatism that, while successful in the short term, seriously weakened the party in the long term. As Pablo Benítez, a voice of a younger generation of Salvadoran leftists, reflected, “that excess of pragmatism is what has the FMLN in a crisis of credibility. . . . It’s because of that frustration that people feel for not having made fundamental, radical changes.”

Support for Bukele, however, confirms that the Salvadoran people are impatient for change. Unlike in Brazil or Argentina, El Salvador’s rebuff of the FMLN was not accompanied by an embrace of the traditional right. The question for the Left is whether it can regain the strength to offer a cogent alternative if and when Bukele disappoints.

With GANA’s meager ten seats in the legislature, Bukele’s administration will have little political support. It is not clear, furthermore, what class of policies his administration will pursue. Bukele was mercurial as ever on the campaign trail, but his sponsor, GANA, has opposed abortion and marriage equality (a position Bukele shares), and supported water privatization and the death penalty. Ten years of gains in public health care, education, and social inclusion may well be reversed, and the current social movement struggles for the decriminalization of abortion and against water privatization may face devastating setbacks. Bukele’s friendliness with the Organization of American States’ right-wing secretary general, Luis Almagro; support for Israel; and denunciations of Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro suggest that he will likely steer El Salvador’s foreign policy to the right, further consolidating the region’s reactionary turn.

Some, like Julia Evelyn Martínez, have suggested it is time to rebuild the Left through a new party. Still, any effort to build a left alternative outside of the FMLN in El Salvador would face serious challenges. Though weakened, the FMLN maintains deep roots across contemporary Salvadoran social movements and an extensive organizational network throughout the country.

The Salvadoran leftist youth collective Progre summarized:

We understand the many obstacles that arise when pushing a progressive agenda from the Executive branch, we know clearly the obstacles that [the FMLN] faced in the Legislative Assembly without a majority and the need to secure votes from the Right; but none of that justifies the tolerance shown in the face of the corruption of some of its members, the timidity with which it pursued deeper economic transformations, [or] the lack of ideological consistency from the Executive initiatives like the Special Economic Zones project. . . . Despite that, we recognize that the FMLN remains the only political party with which we can ally in some of our collective battles, like the struggle against water privatization, improvements in public healthcare, defense of women’s rights, cultural policy, and more. . . . It is the FMLN that must renew itself and rise to the ethical and combative level of the Salvadoran Left’s struggles, of our people, and not we who should conform to their electoral interests.

Within the FMLN, a struggle is brewing for the soul of the party. While some advocate a return to the FMLN’s revolutionary roots, moderates like Ortiz appear to be consolidating political power. Together with fellow former Communist Party militants in the Alba group, Ortiz was rumored to be seeking an alliance with Bukele, foreshadowing a possible rupture.

The FMLN’s more orthodox party leadership, however, appears shaken from its complacency. The party recently announced it will hold its internal elections, scheduled for December 2020, in the coming months. Furthermore, the majority of the Political Commission’s members, including Ortiz, Sánchez Cerén, and Secretary General Medardo González, will abstain from any new positions, effectively excluding an entire generation of the party’s historic comandancia from continuing in internal positions of power. “There is a clamor for greater participation from our base, which is why this process will be carried out in consultation with our party militants. Today, we must promote greater participation of the new generations of revolutionary, capable, and ethical young people who can carry the FMLN forward,” said González.

In his victory speech, Bukele claimed to have “turned the page on the postwar [period],” urging his followers to look to the future, not the past. But El Salvador’s history of repression and resistance still palpably permeates the present. Deep inequality and impunity continue to structure everyday life, and the revolutionary project launched by the FMLN in 1980 is painfully incomplete.

As the region’s right gathers strength, the Salvadoran left demands a political instrument committed to its most radical emancipatory traditions. The FMLN has assumed that responsibility in the past; the coming struggles will determine whether it can do so again.