The apparent victory of leftist candidate Maurico Funes in Sunday's presidential election in El Salvador finally closes out the Cold War in Central America and raises some serious questions about the long term goals of U.S. foreign policy.
With Funes' election, history has come full cycle. Both El Salvador and neighboring Nicaragua will now be governed by two former guerrilla fronts against which the Reagan administration spared no efforts in trying to defeat during the entire course of the 1980's. We will now coexist with those we once branded as the greatest of threats to our national security. Those we branded as "international terrorists" now democratically govern much of Central America.
Funes, once a commentator for CNN's Spanish-language service, comes to power representing the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), a Marxist guerrilla group-turned-political -party, an organization that the U.S. government once described in terms now reserved for Al Qaeda and Hizbollah.
From the late 1970's until a negotiated peace settlement in 1992, the FMLN fought a bloody civil war against a series of U.S.-backed right-wing regimes. Those Salvadoran regimes engaged in horrific massacres and deployed savage death squads, taking a massive human toll. While the FMLN also perpetrated atrocities, all independent analysts agree that the overwhelming majority of the 75,000 who were killed in the war in El Salvador were victims of government-sponsored violence.
This same FMLN which now comes to power in El Salvador was once declared as the primary perpetrator of "international terrorism" by the Reagan administration who deployed hundreds of U.S. military advisors to the tiny Central American country and who quadrupled the size of the Salvadoran Army. In this all-out quest to crush the FLMN, U.S. authorities, at best, turned a blind eye to the bloody excesses of the Salvadoran regime. At worst, it encouraged them.
At the same time in history, the U.S. spent billions creating a "contra" army to destabilize and dislodge the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) which had taken power in Nicaragua in 1979, overthrowing the dynastic and dictatorial rule of the Somoza family - another U.S.-backed ally.
During the entire eight years of the Reagan era, defeating both the FMLN and the FSLN were the absolute top priorities of U.S. foreign policy as the administration argued that the Texas border was a short hop from the fields of Central America and that all must be done to stop the northward march of hemispheric revolution. The sort of inflammatory rhetoric used to describe the Central American guerrilla movements was an eerie precedent for the overheated war of words against "The Axis of Evil" that would emerge earlier this decade.
The Nicaraguan Sandinistas were eventually defeated by an American-backed opposition in elections in 1990 and democratically and peacefully transferred power (something the Reaganites claimed could never happen). But the Sandinistas returned to power last year re-electing its historic leader Daniel Ortega as president. Almost twenty years of rule from the pro-U.S. coalitions that had succeeded the Sandinistas had failed to implement any meaningful social change.
The Salvadoran FMLN, meanwhile, which has acted as a parliamentary opposition party since the 1992 Salvadoran peace accords, now comes to power ending twenty years of uninterrupted rule by the country's ultra-conservative ARENA party - a political organization born directly from the death squads of the 1980's and, yes, a close ally of the U.S.
All of this raises the question of why so many lives were spent and so many billions in U.S. dollars were burned in an attempt to expunge these leftist forces twenty years ago? Wouldn't it have been possible in 1989 to find some sort of accommodation with these radical forces and not postpone the inevitable for twenty years?
In the case of Nicaragua, the year-old reborn and duly elected Sandinista administration--while far from a model of democratic ethics-- hardly poses any threat to U.S. interests. Though President Ortega, saddled with governing one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere, still clothes his actions in revolutionary rhetoric, he has headed up what many think is essentially a conservative regime which recently outlawed all abortion (a move that could warm the deceased Ronald Reagan's heart). Ortega campaigned successfully for the presidency last year by quoting from scripture and has not flinched from pacting with the most conservative of political elements.
In the case of El Salvador, President-elect Funes has pledged to maintain close and cordial relations with the U.S. And while the FMLN--like the Sandinistas - clings to some of its Cold War revolutionary rhetoric, no one expects any radical moves by the incoming government. Fighting widespread poverty aggravated by the global slump and a chilling crime wave, the FMLN will have its hands full just keeping the government on keel. President-elect Funes holds distinctly moderate views and in an American context would be little more than a liberal Democrat. In any case, the FMLN can point to its recent governance of several Salvadoran cities (including until recently the capital of San Salvador) as its democratic bona fides.
The resurrection of the FMLN and the FSLN at this time in history raises a troubling irony regarding U.S. foreign policy. Yesterday we were told they were our greatest enemies. Today, now in power, they hardly garner any U.S. press coverage, let alone much attention from Washington. Likewise, the right-wing forces we bankrolled with blood and treasure and who we were told were a bulwark of Western Civilization, utterly failed in solving the basic existential questions that bedeviled their respective countries. Twenty years from now, we have to ask, what will Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria look like? Might we find ourselves peacefully co-existing with the same undefeated forces who today we proclaim our mortal enemies? Might we be better off using our soft power, our economic and diplomatic clout to force negotiation and moderation with those we perceive as irrational and radical enemies? Or do we only reach that conclusion after the dissipation of prolonged, bloody and ultimately unsuccessful armed intervention and war?