FMLN: In the Footsteps of the Bolivarian Revolution

Monument to Peace, San Salvador

The Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front in El Salvador brought great hope to the country, but it's in big trouble as it faces presidential elections in 2018. An on-the-ground report from El Salvador by Clifton Ross.

“All arts have produced their marvels; only the art of government has produced nothing but monsters.”
Louis Antoine de Saint-Just, the “Angel of Death”

A Brief History of the late Twentieth Century in Central America

Predictably, only two Central American governments congratulated Nicolas Maduro for the results of the fraudulent elections for the National Constituyent Assembly on July 30, 2017: The Sandinista government of Nicaragua, where “Somoza Lite” caudillo, Daniel Ortega, has perfected the art of fraudulent elections (and could even teach Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro a thing or two about them), and the government of El Salvador under the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front.

The FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front) and the FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) were “companion” guerrilla movements from the beginnings in the late 1920s and early 1930s when the communist Farabundo Martí worked as secretary to the anarcho-mystic revolutionary, Augusto C. Sandino who formed the original FSLN. Eventually Sandino expelled Martí as a suspected spy for the communists and the latter returned to his homeland of El Salvador to form his own revolutionary organization. Martí was shot by the Salvadoran dictator Hernández Martínez in 1932 after a peasant uprising in which 30,000 peasants were slaughtered in what became known as “la Matanza” (the Massacre). Sandino himself was murdered by the future dictator of Nicaragua in February 1934.

In the 1960s the FSLN was reformed by Carlos Fonseca Amador and others as a Marxist-Leninist-Castroist guerrilla that, in July 1979, overthrew the dictator Anastasio Somoza. The Sandinista Revolution immediately disarmed all the independent and civilian non-Sandinista guerrillas and fighters and consolidated a state of national reconstruction. A little over a year later the five Salvadoran guerrilla organizations consolidated as the FMLN, and the USSR began funneling arms through Cuba and Nicaragua to El Salvador in hopes of creating a Marxist-Leninist Communist Central America (even if these plans weren’t publicly acknowledged as such by any but the US government and its supporters at the time).

With the collapse of the Soviet Union the US reasserted control over the region, first with the invasion of Panama in December 1989, then with the electoral victory of the Nicaraguan opposition it had backed a few months later, and finally by forcing the peace accords in El Salvador in 1992. The last of the guerrilla wars ended in Guatemala in 1996 by which time many hoped the Cold War and the Central American killing fields were definitively part of the past. With the end of socialism (which occurred even though a diminished Communist Cuba continued to hang by a thread) and a new US policy of “Democracy Promotion” toward Latin America a diverse array of political forces began to emerge in the region.

At first most governments followed the “Washington Consensus” of neoliberal policies under centrist parties (Left and Right), but after a decade of this “medicine” Latin America began to take a turn to the left that, if not socialist or even in most cases social democratic, was at least “post-neoliberal.” On one hand were democracies with strong institutions and relatively functional economies, such as Chile and Uruguay on the left, and on the right, Colombia, working toward such ends as it attempted to end a half-century-long civil war, Peru and other countries. Alongside these nascent, liberal democratic countries, many still recovering from the right-wing dictatorships of the 1980s, were those left governments considered more “radical” but which could be characterized as populist, with weaker institutions, or institutions under attack by the new crop of leaders who hoped to centralize all branches of government under their command and direct the economy toward populist projects rather than long-term development. Among these were Nicaragua, back under the control of the FSLN by 2006, yet now no longer a Marxist-Leninist party, but rather an eviscerated populist party of the caudillo or strongman, Daniel Ortega. Sandinista Nicaragua of today is what political scientists would qualify as a relatively popular hybrid regime, that is, one with many of the ornaments of democracy, but very little of the reality. Like the dictator Somoza the Sandinistas overthrew in 1979, Ortega has Nicaragua pretty much under control as a family dynasty. And as has historically been the case, El Salvador’s reformed guerrilla FMLN continues to follow in the footsteps of its larger neighbor to the southwest, coming to power through elections three years after the FSLN in 2009 and seeking to establish itself firmly by means of electoral politics.

Both the FSLN and FMLN have long since set aside the ideology, principles, values and commitments of Marxism-Leninism and in the process replaced the Leninist communist model of the USSR or Cuba for that of Venezuela with its “empty signifier” of “the socialism of the 21st century,” its authoritarian personalism, clientelism and mafia-style politics. Yet while Nicaragua has perfected this populist political style and established a stable, if corrupt, populist regime, the FMLN is still caught up in a great struggle to consolidate a “left-wing” populist totalitarian regime. And the prospects for the party doing so are getting worse by the day.

Many solidarity activists from the 1980s, like people in CISPES (Committee In Solidarity with the People of El Salvador), continue to publish and advocate in favor of the FMLN. Unfortunately, their reports continue to be extremely one-sided, criticizing (rightly in my opinion) the right wing Arena party, and saying little or nothing about the crimes, corruption and increasing authoritarianism of the FMLN. This mistaken notion of what constitutes “solidarity” needs to be corrected but it’s rarely even challenged. That’s why I’m writing this.

The FMLN in Gangland

Even before the startling revelations that the FMLN had been collaborating with the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and its rival gang, “18”, buying votes from them to win the 2014 presidential elections, the party was in trouble. In 2009 the FMLN won the presidential elections by putting up as its front man, Mauricio Funes, a popular, moderate tv journalist—who turned out to be a political disaster. Before fleeing to Sandinista (or Orteguista) Nicaragua where he received political asylum, Funes was accused of embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars. As one Salvadoran former FMLN supporter put it in a conversation I had at the poetry festival, “ARENA robbed millions and the FMLN robbed thousands, but they all appear to be thieves.” Journalist and poet William Alfaro, who I met at the festival, says that even before the recent scandal broke, polls showed that 70% of the country’s voters were “ni-nis” (neither-nors), that is, they would support neither the ARENA nor the FMLN in next year’s presidential election.

The most recent scandal broke when video of a meeting between gang-leaders and Minister of Government and National Development, Arístides Valencia, was leaked to the press. The video records negotiations between Valencia and members of two gangs: the Mara Salvatrucha and the (Barrio) 18. According to the Salvadoran investigative news site, El Faro, the negotiations took place between the first and second rounds of voting in the presidential elections of 2014 which FMLN candidate Salvador Sánchez Cerén finally won with just over 6,000 votes. You read that right: a razor-thin margin of six thousand votes.

According to El Faro, over the past few months the FMLN had been roundly denying any such negotiations. At the same time it had “firmly condemned—and also demanded that the Attorney General investigate—similar negotiations [with the gangs] undertaken by the Arena Party.” One government tweet—retweeted by none other than Minster Valencia himself—expressed “our extreme concern” over “pacts between Arena and crime structures that have caused so much mourning” and for the “commitments taken on by delegates of Arena with criminals in exchange for votes.” Arena is the right wing party of the oligarchy—and El Salvador, unlike Venezuela, actually does have an oligarchy. The party was founded by Roberto D’Aubuisson, the intellectual author of the recently beatified Salvadoran martyr, Archbishop Oscar Romero.

The August 11, 2017 edition of San Salvador’s El Diario de Hoy ran headlines reading “FMLN and Arena Paid Maras for Votes.” The article, with a byline of Jaime López, was based in part on the testimony of the gang leader of Barrio 18, “Nalo,” who mentioned having received in those 2014 elections US $150,000 from the FMLN in the first round of voting, and $100,000 in the second round. He also received $100,000 from Arena in the second round. This money was used by the gangs to rearm themselves, as they [rightly] suspected that a truce between arranged in March 2012 by the government wouldn’t hold.

In fact, in recent months the FMLN government has gone on the offensive in a military undertaking that mirrors the “Humanist Liberation of the People Operation” (OLHP) in Venezuela. This involves military invasions of poor neighborhoods where they engage in beatings and executions. Many young men have come to fear the Salvadoran military more than the gangs they claim to be pursuing. Ditto in Venezuela.

“We’ve never known peace here,” William Alfaro told me. “I was born in the beginnings of the Civil War and when that ended in 1992, the gang wars began.” But hopes were raised in 2009 when the FMLN came to power and the streets of San Salvador filled with throngs of celebrating supporters. That moment eight years ago seems so distant now, not only in San Salvador, but also in areas that were once legendary “liberated territory” of the FMLN.

Chalatenango continues to be a stronghold of the former guerrilla-turned-political party. But despite political loyalties to the party, there’s also deep discontentment here. Inez tells me that in this canton of Las Minas where we’re having a cup of ice cream on a cool mountain evening, “100% of us are with the FMLN.” When I ask her what the FMLN has done for her and the people of Las Minas, she admits, “muy poco. But the previous governments had done nothing. At least this government comes through and you get a little bag of corn and a bag of fertilizer,” she says.

A bag of corn and a bag of sh--, I think. Even the Venezuelans are getting more by supporting the Bolivarians than FMLN supporters in El Salvador. But then again, El Salvador isn’t a petro-state.

Inez, like most of the people here in Chalatenango came back to the region from exile as refugees in 1992 with the peace accords. Her son, Carlos, has been deeply involved in community and political work. But along with everyone else, he’s pretty upset with the internal process of the FMLN. I ask him about how well the party has transitioned from a Marxist-Leninist guerrilla organization to a political party promising democracy.
“Not very well at all,” he says. “The party picks its favorite, like it did in the recent primaries for National Assembly members. And even if one of the others running for the National Assembly wins, the party gives the victory to its favorite.”

“The last primaries we had 265 [FMLN] party members vote for deputies,” he continued, “and when they complained about the process the FMLN expelled 260 of them. In other words, the party should be increasing its membership, but instead it’s expelling members.”

The authoritarianism is a growing concern here in El Salvador, as are the increasingly tense relations of the FMLN with other branches of government. When the Supreme Court or the auditor’s office raises questions about the FMLN’s use of public funds, says William Alfaro, the FMLN attacks them as “right wingers.” Certainly, they might well be qualified as “right wing,” but it ignores the real question of whether or not the ruling is correct and whether it is in the long-term interests of the Salvadoran people.

“There’s an increasing sense of populist politics here,” Alfaro says,” and I think we’re about two years away from becoming another Venezuela. Everyone’s disgusted with the FMLN, especially younger people, but most people are too afraid to say so. They fear being called ‘right wingers’ or ‘traitors’ for criticizing the FMLN and so, really, at this point they just want to leave the country.”

Why does all this sound so familiar to me? Probably because the FMLN has not only been a constant bedfellow of the “Bolivarian Revolution,” and in debt to it for the petro-dollars that come its way, but it has, to a great degree, attempted to emulate all things “Bolivarian.” FMLN President Salvador Sánchez Cerén holds Venezuelan “socialism” up as a model and Telesur is the station of choice for FMLN supporters. As El Salvador faces presidential elections in 2018 that most people watching are convinced the FMLN can no longer win, many are concerned that openly and obviously fraudulent elections, like the July 30th election for the ANC in Venezuela, might become the new norm in El Salvador, starting next year. By then the FMLN will doubtlessly have renamed the pandilleros “colectivos” and found new work for them defending the “Revolution” just like Maduro has done in Venezuela with his paramilitary colectivos.

Where does all this leave the social movements? The answer to that depends on the focus of the social movements themselves. In Las Minas, Carlos and many others have come to realize that, as he said to me, “Leftist parties, when they come to power, automatically become far-right wing.” Jose, who was sitting nearby, added, “and they come to power and leave the people abandoned.” Carlos, Jose and others who have passed through the civil war that took over 80,000 lives in the 1980s, and who have returned to Chalatenango to take up their lives again, are rebuilding the autonomous power they lost when the guerrilla vanguard interposed itself between them and a blood-thirsty right-wing government. Those were complicated times, as we who lived through them, and bore witness to them, know. But in this new century the social movements are coming into their own and recognizing their abandonment by both the left and the right. Working with NGOs and any international solidarity organizations willing to help out, Las Minas is bringing in its own water from some 8 kilometers away. On Sunday, August 13 a shipment of used clothes gathered in the US were to arrive and community activists will be selling them cheaply to local residents in an attempt to raise money for the waterlines. None of this has any support from the FMLN.

If there’s any place to look for a living left, especially in Latin America, it’s not to be found in the governments of the Pink Tide that characterize themselves as “socialists of the 21st century.” One by one these “radical” governments are collapsing or turning into what at present are somewhat milder forms of the totalitarian dictatorships of the socialism of the 20th century. In the case of Venezuela the Bolivarians are increasingly resembling fascists like Benito Mussolini, who also started out as a socialist.

Those movements that have hitched their wagons to these "progressive" governments will no doubt go down with them. For the rest, the great challenge will be to maintain independence, autonomy and integrity as they continue their struggles, and they will continue their struggles. Dark as the situation is, they really have no other options.