It’s been a hell of a couple weeks in tiny El Salvador. The both troubling and inspiring events began with the March 9 run-off presidential election that pitted Norman Quijano of the rightist ARENA party against the leftist incumbent FMLN party and its former guerrilla commander Salvador Sánchez Cerén. In the weeks leading up to the vote, polls had predicted an easy win for the Sánchez Cerén given the popularity of their new and ambitious welfare programs in a New Jersey-size country of six million where a third of the population lives in poverty. Yet the vote was extremely close as undecided voters in this socially conservative Central American nation might have feared that Sánchez Cerén would usher in “another Venezuela.”Four days after the vote, the national electoral tribunal announced that Sánchez Cerén had won by the razor-slim margin of 6,364 votes (or 50.11 to 49.89%) out of roughly three million cast and that the outcome was “irreversible.” Claiming that 2,000 FMLN poll workers had voted twice, Quijano called Sánchez Cerén victory “illegitimate” and refused to accept the results without a full recount, “voto por voto.” After the electoral tribunal refused the recount, Quijano then called for the election to be annulled and urged his supporters to be on a “war footing.”In what was incendiary rhetoric that a country still only a little over two decades out from a bloody civil war, he warned, “Our armed forces are keeping an eye on this fraud. They can’t play with the desires of the people, nor can they upend the foundations of our democracy. They can’t steal the legitimate triumph from my nation.” Responding indirectly, Defense Minister David Munguía publicly declared that the armed forces would abide by the official determination, no matter which candidate won. “We promise to wholeheartedly respect the sovereign decision of El Salvador, expressed in the polling booths. In no way, at least on behalf of the armed forces, is a coup being plotted or another conspiracy.”Munguía’s endorsement of the official electoral process might have been the most significant development since the close vote result was first announced. Now a civilian defense minister, Munguía was part of the Salvadoran armed forces (ESAF) that fought the FMLN guerrillas (including the former school teacher cum vaunted insurgent commando, Sánchez Cerén) to a bloody stalemate during the 1980s. Then when the FMLN finally won the presidency in 2009 with its first non-comandante candidate, the young television journalist Mauricio Funes, Munguía was the security minister for the new government. Some fear that the ex-guerrilla Sánchez Cerén as president would unsettle the military, who might hold residual grudges with their erstwhile bitter enemies. Yet Munguía countered these fears: “Don’t ignore the level of professionalism that the armed forces have achieved.”Given that it provoked latent ideological and even class enmities, El Salvador’s disputed electoral result was not the ideal outcome for this country that, despite it being ruled by two war-time and ideologically polarized political parties (ARENA and FMLN), has enjoyed remarkably stable democratic politics in the two decades since a historical peace agreement ended the war that killed upwards of 75,000 Salvadorans and displaced around a million more. The ultra-rightwing anti-communist Roberto D’Aubuisson founded ARENA in the early 1980s as a mano dura alternative to the fledgling U.S.-backed democratic government that itself was fighting the FMLN insurgency. D’Aubuisson was the intellectual mastermind of the assassination of outspoken Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero in 1980 and one of the key masterminds of the country’s shadowy and nefarious network of death squads that targeted thousands of suspected guerrilla sympathizers. With this sort of background and the hysterical climate that defined this Cold War civil war, it is not surprising that ARENA’s party anthem vows that El Salvador will be the “tomb where the Reds meet their end.” What is more disturbing, perhaps, is that ARENA supporters were chanting these same verses at rallies protesting the electoral tribunal’s ruling in favor of Sánchez Cerén. Not to be outdone, FMLN marchers at their own rallies chanted, “The people, united, will never be defeated.”The El Salvador crisis is a reminder of how fragile electoral politics can be in states with weak institutions. Unaffiliated observers acknowledge that the country’s election tribunal does indeed lean pro-FMLN, but it’s not necessarily the case that it has stacked the deck against ARENA in this case. On March 16, the electoral tribunal rejected ARENA’s annulment motion, indicating that there was not enough evidence to maintain fraud charges. And then on March 27, El Salvador’s supreme court rejected ARENA’s latest appeal for a vote-by-vote recount. With the Salvadoran Attorney Generals’ office, its human rights ombudsman, and various international election observer delegations also maintaining the vote was reasonably free and fair, it looks like the election tribunal’s credibility has been sufficiently shored up.ARENA for its part seems to have largely conceded. In a press release written following the March 27 ruling, they announced: “We will be watching the government and making sure it respects the law. But we will be the first ones to applaud their achievements.” The current president Mauricio Funes had already met with Sánchez Cerén to discuss logistics of the scheduled June 1 inauguration. The question will then be whether the erstwhile comandante and now gray-haired politician governs as a reconstructed democratic in the lines of Uruguay’s progressive (and former Tupamaro guerrilla leader) José Mujica or maintains a more orthodox, anti-imperialist line. The success of the outgoing Funes’ pragmatic leftist approach might serve to nudge Sánchez Cerén towards a less polarizing stance. Given what has transpired in the country these past few weeks, a move towards reconciliation and moderation could not come soon enough.However Sánchez Cerén decides to govern, the new president will have his hands full. The country is reeling under generalized citizen insecurity, much of it linked to powerful transnational gangs like MS-13 and Barrio 18. Yet, compared to the dark days of the 1980s when ARENA and the FMLN were killing each other, El Salvador’s democratic gains have been remarkable—a story generally lost now that the American public and punditocracy have again forgotten about Latin America. It is easy to forget that El Salvador was the United States’ largest counterinsurgency and nation-building campaign after Vietnam and before Iraq and Afghanistan. And it just might be the only one of these four countries mentioned where the American effort actually succeeded as desired—warts and all. So maybe a little no news is good news is what we have come to expect from El Salvador. Now we simply have to keep paying attention so that we are not blindsided by events just to the south of us.
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It is easy to forget that El Salvador was the United States’ largest counterinsurgency and nation-building campaign after Vietnam and before Iraq and Afghanistan. And it just might be the only one of these four countries where the American effort actually may be showing some promise, warts and all.