Last Sunday's election in El Salvador, in which the leftist FMLN (Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation) won the presidency, didn't get a lot of attention in the international press. It's a relatively small country (7 million people on land the size of Massachusetts) and fairly poor (per capita income about half the regional average). And left governments have become the norm in Latin America: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Venezuela have all elected left governments over the last decade. South America is now more independent of the United States than Europe is.
But the FMLN's victory in El Salvador has a special significance for this hemisphere.
Central America and the Caribbean have long been the United States' "backyard" more than anywhere else. The people of the region have paid a terrible price - in blood, poverty, and underdevelopment - for their geographical and political proximity to the United States. The list of U.S. interventions in the area would take the rest of this column, stretching from the 19th century (Cuba, in 1898) to the 21st, with the overthrow of Haiti's democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide (for the second time) in 2004.
Those of us who can remember the 1980s can see President Ronald Reagan on television warning that "El Salvador is closer to Texas than Texas is to Massachusetts" as he sent guns and money to the Salvadoran military and its affiliated death squads. Their tens of thousands of targets - for torture, terror, and murder - were overwhelmingly civilians, including Catholic priests, nuns, and the heroic Archbishop Oscar Romero. It seems ridiculous now that Reagan could have convinced the U.S. Congress that the people who won Sunday's election were not only a threat to our national security, but one that justified horrific atrocities. But he did. At the same time millions of Americans - including many church-based activists - joined a movement to stop U.S. support for the terror, as well as what the United Nations later called genocide in Guatemala, and the U.S.-backed insurgency in Nicaragua (which was also a war against civilians).
Now we have come full circle. In 2007, Guatemalans elected a social democratic president for the first time since 1954, when the CIA intervened to overthrow the government. Last September, President Zelaya of Honduras - which served as a U.S. base for U.S. military and paramilitary operations in the 1980s -- joined with Bolivia's Evo Morales and Venezuela's Hugo Chávez when they expelled their U.S. ambassadors: Zelaya defended their actions and postponed the accreditation of the U.S. ambassador to Honduras, saying that "the world powers must treat us fairly and with respect." In 2006 Nicaraguans elected Daniel Ortega of the Sandinistas, the same president that Washington had spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to topple in the 1980s.
El Salvador's election was not only another step toward regional independence but a triumph of hope against fear, much as in the U.S. presidential election of 2008. The ruling ARENA party, which was founded by right-wing death squad leader Roberto D'Aubuisson, made fear their brand: fear of another civil war; fear of bad relations with the United States; fear of a "communist dictatorship." Almost comically, they tried to make the election into a referendum on Hugo Chávez. (Venezuela kept its distance from the election, with no endorsements or statements other than its desire to have good relations with whomever won).
ARENA was joined by Republican Members of Congress from the United States, who tried to promote the idea that Salvadorans - about a quarter of whom live in the U.S. - would face extra-ordinary problems with immigration and sending remittances home if the FMLN won. Although these threats were completely without merit, the right's control over the media made them real for many Salvadorans. In the 2004 election the Bush administration joined this effort to intimidate Salvadoran voters, and it helped the right win.
The right's control over the media, its abuse of government in the elections, and its vast funding advantage (there are no restrictions on foreign funding) led José Antonio de Gabriel, the deputy chief of the European Union's observer mission to comment on "the absence of a level playing field." It's amazing that the FMLN was still able to win, and testimony to the high level of discipline, organization, and self-sacrifice that comes from having a leadership that has survived war and hell on earth.
This time around, the Obama administration, after receiving thousands of phone calls - thanks to the solidarity movement that stems from the 1980s -- issued a statement of neutrality on the Friday before the election. The administration appears divided on El Salvador as with the rest of Latin America's left; at least one of Obama's highest-level advisors on Latin America favored the right-wing ruling party. But the statement of neutrality was a clear break from the Bush administration.
El Salvador's new president Mauricio Funes, a popular former TV journalist, will face many challenges, especially on the economic front. The country exports 10 percent of its GDP to the United States, and receives another 18 percent in remittances from Salvadorans living there. Along with sizeable private investment flows, this makes El Salvador very vulnerable to the deep U.S. recession. El Salvador has also adopted the U.S. dollar as its national currency. This means that it cannot use exchange rate policy and is severely limited in monetary policy to counteract the recession. On top of this, it has recently signed an agreement with the IMF that commits the government to not pursuing a fiscal stimulus for this year. And the FMLN will not have a majority in the Congress.
But the majority of Salvadorans, who are poor or near-poor, decided that the left would be more likely than the right to look out for them in hard times. That's a reasonable conclusion, and one that is shared by most of the hemisphere.
This op-ed was published by The Guardian Unlimited on March 18, 2009. If anyone wants to reprint it, please include a link to the original.