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  March 19, 2009

Historic power shift in El Salvador

Journalist leads former guerrilla army to left's first presidential victory in country's history
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Just over 17 years since the 1992 Peace Accords brought an end to El Salvador's vicious civil war, the country has seen its first peaceful transfer of power. V for victory hand signs and red flags were paraded throughout the country's streets as the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, FMLN, won the presidency; thereby bringing to an end 20 straight years of rule by the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance, ARENA. El Salvador will be governed from the left for the first time since gaining its independence from Spain in 1821. The face of the victory was that of former television journalist Mauricio Funes, a political newcomer and the first FMLN leader to not have fought in the country's horrific 12-year civil war.


Historic power shift in El Salvador

Producer: Jesse Freeston

JESSE FREESTON, TRNN: Just after 9 p.m. Sunday evening, Mauricio Funes declared himself the new president-elect of El Salvador. Funes, a highly respected TV journalist, will become the country's first left-wing leader since it won its independence from Spain in 1821. The election was fought between two parties born out of the country's civil war of the 1980s, with Funes's Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, known as the FMLN, a former guerrilla army turned political party, bettering Rodrigo Álvirez's Nationalist Republican Alliance, or ARENA, a conservative party founded during the war by army major and death squad leader Roberto D'Aubuisson. The ARENA party had been in power for the last 20 years and had closely followed US policy prescriptions, including the introduction of the US dollar as El Salvador's currency, becoming the first country to implement the Central American Free Trade Agreement, and being the only Latin American country with troops in Iraq. Seventeen years after the ARENA government and the FMLN signed peace accords ending the civil war and clearing the way for representative democracy, the election of Funes marks the first time power will change hands in El Salvador by way of a peacetime election, and Funes will be the first ever leader to take over without the support of the country's powerful business elite.

REPORTER (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): They put down their weapons and converted into a political party. For the first time, in their fourth election, after three losses in presidential elections, the FMLN and its candidate, Mauricio Funes, are declaring themselves the winners of these elections.

FREESTON: While the integrity of the electoral process was praised by many, it certainly wasn't without its challenges. In previous elections, the governing ARENA Party had been accused, among other things, of hiring, transporting, and providing false identification cards to Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Nicaraguans in order to increase their vote count. Before the sun rose in the capital city of San Salvador on Sunday, international election observers were following leads on potential foreign voters.

WOMAN: There were 15 buses reported in the area of Mejicanos that had people on them with Guatemalan accents.


MAN (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): There were around 25 buses, more or less.

FREESTON (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): Have you ever seen those specific buses before?

MAN: Well, no.


ELECTION OBSERVER (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): In this area you don't see those kind of buses.

FREESTON (ENGLISH): Over 5,000 international observers oversaw Sunday's election, including Guatemala's illustrious indigenous rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize recipient, Rigoberta Menchú.

RIGOBERTA MENCHÚ, INDIGENOUS RIGHTS LEADER (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): There is a serious battle here between two very strong tendencies. Above all, it's the first time that the FMLN has been close to winning.

FREESTON: Despite all the official oversight, the greatest supervisors of the election were the Salvadoran voters themselves. Local radio stations aired denunciations and testimony of irregularities throughout the day and applied pressure on authorities to act.

UNIFORMED MAN (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): The parking lot of Cuscatlan Stadium was used by one party for the purpose of organizing its resources. Members of the opposition party claimed it was used to organize foreigners that may have come to vote for their party.

Radio 'La Klave'

San Salvador

MAN ON RADIO (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): It's interesting that in the last elections of January 18, there were many denunciations of thse kind of irregularities, but we were unable to collect much proof or detain anyone. But this time it is happening.

FREESTON: During the electoral campaign, one theme that took on great significance was that of the Salvadoran diaspora in the United States. Roughly a third of the Salvadoran population lives in the United States—about three million people. And the money that they send home, known as remittances, accounts for roughly one-fifth of the country's GDP. While a lot of these Salvadorans left during the civil war or the repression of the 1970s that led to that civil war, the majority, according to a recent UN study, have left in recent years due to the faltering domestic economy. According to the UN's 2008 development report for El Salvador, roughly half of El Salvadorans are either unemployed or work in the informal economy. Twenty percent live in extreme poverty, and 81 percent do not earn what the UN refers to as a decent wage. In recent months the economic crisis has only made things worse.

WOMAN (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): There is little opportunity for the poor. This causes the migration; this is why there are so many people outside the country. Costa Rica doesn't have many people abroad. They don't need to go abroad. They have jobs and education at home. Truthfully, that's what we want.

FREESTON: With so many lives being affected, the migration phenomenon is a big issue. Yet come election day, the voice of the diaspora goes largely unheard, since Salvadorans living outside the country do not have the right to participate from abroad. San Salvador's national soccer station served as the central voting center for Salvadorans living outside the country, coming home for the election. They were expecting thousands; only 150 showed up.

OSCAR LUNA, NATIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS OMBUDSMAN (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): Only those who can afford a plane ticket can vote. When we speak of guaranteeing Salvadorans abroad their right to vote, they need to be able to vote in the country they live in. Not coming to vote here, that is no guarantee.


FREESTON: Why do you think it hasn't been extended up till now?

MAN: I think it's not to the interest of a certain group of people. The people that lead this country are people that know that the economic, the political, social system is not the best. They go and look of better opportunities because they can't find it here. So, obviously, those people are not going to tend to be, in its majority, pro-government.


CROWD: You can see it! You can feel it! Mauricio for president!

FREESTON: Funez, seen here struggling to get to his own ballot box, confirmed his intention to extend the vote beyond El Salvador's borders.

MAURICIO FUNEZ, SALVADORAN PRESIDENT (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): It is necessary to give them the right to vote in the United States.

FREESTON: Hours later and 16 months after he announced his candidacy for the presidency, an exhausted Funez was introduced as the new president-elect, and the red sea of FMLN supporters poured into the streets of the capital to celebrate.

FUNEZ: The prophetic message of our martyred bishop, Monsignor Óscar Arnulfo Romero, who declared that the church will always favor the poor. This idea will guide my actions, looking always to side with the poor and excluded. Today the citizens who believed in a new hope have triumphed and have overcome fear.

FREESTON: This "fear" refers to the well-financed media campaign carried out by the country's right wing.

'Yo No Entrego El Salvador'

TV Advertisement

VOICEOVER (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): The FMLN wants to indoctrinate your children to create a fanatical youth brigade that will keep them in power, as happened in Cuba, as is happening in Venezuela, as could happen in El Salvador.

CROWD: Funes! Funes! Funes!

FREESTON: General fears of the FMLN's intentions colored the opinions of many of ARENA's supporters.


WOMAN (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): We need to live in freedom.

FREESTON (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): And you believe that the FMLN is a threat to your freedom?

WOMAN: Of course they are.


WOMAN: Because I don't want the FMLN to win.


MAN (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): Freedom of expression, freedom of mobility, and especially freedom of religion. I'm a Christian and proud of it. I'm a follower of Christ, and I want to continue being one, freely.

FREESTON: And you believe the FMLN won't respect that?

MAN: Let's say that I have my doubts about them, but I am certain about the right-wing bloc, ARENA.


MAN (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): The Salvadoran people aren't looking for insults and fear; they want the truth. The Salvadoran people aren't uninformed; they are misinformed. If they had sat down at a table and made their ideas and proposals available to the Salvadoran people, the people could have voted freely without any kind of ignorance. Unfortunately, the campaign has been full of fear, lies, and lacked in proposals. It was very poor in this sense.

CELEBRATORS (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): We beat the fear! Yes we did! Yes we did!

MAN (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): ARENA had their chance to govern, and the situation is the same, maybe worse.

MAN (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): It's time for the opposition to have its chance to implement its projects. And this country needs to have a social inclination as well.

MAN (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): The rich have hoarded all the benefits of government. They've hijacked the government for their own advantage. So today people are saying that they want a change after 20 years in which they were tricked, excluded, and marginalized. They weren't part of ARENA's interests. Mauricio Funes has been the solution, and that is what they are calling change.

FREESTON (ENGLISH): So what changes are the Salvadoran people expecting [inaudible]?


INTERVIEWER (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): What does he represent to you?

MAN (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): He represents the hope of a better future, of sustainable development for all, equally.


FREESTON (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): What specific changes do you want to see?

WOMAN (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): Lots. To name a few, in the first place, the subject of taxation. We must ensure that the big businessmen, the country's rich, pay their taxes. No more tax evasion. He must control tax evasion and loopholes. These funds can then be invested in social spending, above all in education and health care.


MAN (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): He'll start with all the corruption of the current government and all the robbing they did of the state institutions, all the many millions that they took outside the country without any explanation. But now, with Funes, all that is over.

FREESTON: Given El Salvador's close connection to the US economy, the global economic crisis has made a bad situation worse. Nonetheless, supporters of the FMLN are optimistic that in El Salvador the worst is behind them.

MAN (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): Now it will be us that governs.

CROWD (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): Mauricio! My friend! The people are with you!


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.


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