The rise and fall of ARENA

A guest submission from occasional contributor to this blog, Carlos X. Colorado.

When Mauricio Funes won the presidency of El Salvador for the FMLN, the notion that the executive would be held by any party other than the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) was so foreign to analysts, that many wondered aloud if the party that had ruled El Salvador since the Cold War era would hand over power willingly. Today, the idea that President Funes could be troubled by the persistent power of ARENA seems downright laughable. Let us say it: in the political firmament of El Salvador, ARENA is an imploded star.

The once dominant party of the post-Civil War era which produced five consecutive presidents of El Salvador, finds itself in shambles today. Defeat at the polls quickly led to finger pointing and to bitter recriminations that laid bare decades of family feuds. After a dramatic defection of a third of its deputies in the National Assembly, the party that had been feared as a formidable adversary of Mr. Funes was relegated to a noisy -- but puny -- foe. As Mr. Funes pushes though his first major legislative package (fiscal reform), ARENA is isolated in its opposition to the new law. All the other parties are voting against ARENA and with the Funes plan, including the ARENA defectors. Recent reports reveal that the party is deep in debt, and other press stories have let out embarrassing tales of corruption during the ARENA years. Astonishingly, even the fallout from recent flooding was mostly directed restropectively at ARENA and not to the party whose officials were on the job.

How did it get this bad? To many, ARENA was bad news from the start. The party's founder former Major Roberto D'Aubuisson was found by a U.N. Truth Commission to have organized death squads that assassinated tens of thousands of civilians, including Archbishop Oscar Romero. More recently, the party's first president, Alfredo Cristiani, has been accused of participating in the 1989 assassination of six Jesuit priests and their housekeepers at Central American University -- although those accusations have not yet been vetted in a judicial proceeding, nor by independent observers. According to the U.N. Truth Commission Report, the idea of ARENA was a confluence in search for an organizing principle. D'Aubuisson married the oligarchy's fear of losing power with the U.S.' fear that the oligarchy would lose power to international Communism, and -- voilà -- the Alliance was born. But, will the party dissolve now that its raison d'être is gone? If so, it would not be the first time that a major Salvadoran party disintegrated and disappeared from the scene.

When ARENA came to power, it did so by displacing the PDC, which had been the target of a fierce ARENA campaign. Salvadorans who lived through the era will recall the sinister TV spots with Major D'Aubuisson hacking a watermelon in half to compare it to the PDC, whose color was green. But, D'Aubuisson would accuse: only green on the outside, and actually red on the inside. In its heyday, the PDC's grip the everyman was so strong that a well-known campaign slogan was "Duarte aunque no me harte" ("[I would vote for] Duarte even if I should starve"). But after its 1989 loss, the PDC succumbed to a series of internal crises and public perception of widespread corruption within the party -- the situation ARENA finds itself in, today.

In reality, it's too early to declare ARENA's demise. The powerful business and upper class interests behind its machine are strong enough to ride out the current storm. But, they can be scattered by the winds of a new day. Initial indications would suggest that some kind of realignment is already underway.


George Fulmore said…
Interesting stuff. Of course, in the USA, the downfall for George Bush and the Republicans was not so much the stupid Iraq war as it was Katrina, which exposed the conservative federal government for what it was: uncaring and unprepared, full of political appointments and with a political stance that was of the past, not of the future. And, of course, Obama has his day to day struggles. Maybe having multiple parties is a better system after all. In the U.S., the Republican minority stalls things at every turn and there are few in the middle. (There is no formal party for independents, which make up about 30% of the U.S. politically now, I think.)
Pronouncing political parties dead on arrival is folly, of course. Things can turn on a dime. But as in the U.S. with the Democrats, ARENA would appear to have the demographics in its favor. Sarah Palin and others call for the Repu blicans to focus on their conservative base, but that will be a meaningless exercise unless they have more to offer the youth and the minorities. What I saw last year in San Salvador prior to the election was an Arena truck full of young blonde female supporters who appeared to be from another planet. They did not appear to be the future of El Salvador to me. Viva ARENA.
Salvi_Alchemist said…
The internal bickering within ARENA is a result of today's El Salvador. One that does not demand a neo-con right wing authority. What Funes brought was a moderate approach to an extreme party. ARENA still refused to go that route, and what they have now is a shattered and broken party. I doubt ARENA will just dissapear, they have too many powerful people, but if they dont get with the times, it is a plausible outcome.
Unknown said…
"even if I should starve" may be a little strong for "aunque no me harte", which may be more along the lines of "even if food is short", literally meaning that there is not enough food to fully appease my hunger. The idea behind this was presumably that it was better to stick with the PDC though times were hard and to hope for a better future rather than to cast one's lot with the revolutionaries and against what the latter characterized as farcical elections.
Ariel Bonilla said…
Hi Tim,
Thank you very much for your awesome blogs. Although you always have unique insight into the Salvadorean political spectrum, I must take a stance and defended my little party, ARENA. What they're going throught is all part of the political cycle which is: When one party losses it's right to govern, they'll all point fingers and try to cruxify someone - Tony Sacas. Although I'm glad that that alot of dirt is coming out of this party, because it keeps them honest, it's hardly enough to call for it's destruction. Remember, Funes barely won. Salvadoreans like Funes yet hate FMLN. Quite sure ARENA will win the next elections.
Anonymous said…

Sometimes as people we have to come to terms and accept the least of all evil and while I know ARENA wasn't all that of a saint, don't forget that the old FMLN was also a threat to the country. In fact if it hadn't been ARENA in control it could have been worst. I don't like Castro's regime and certainly would not want my country to fall prey such destructive ideology. So far I fear a greater threat. That vice president is definitely a great example of the horror that could happen if he were to be elected, but what surprises me is how much support you give to people with communist ideals.
Carlos X. said…
Just want to add the customary, but appropriate disclaimer, that the views expressed by the guest columnist are not necessarily those of Tim's Blog. In any case, the analysis was not an attempt to "give support" to one party or to "call for the destruction" of ARENA. It was an attempt to assess the state of affairs of the previously ruling party, and a couple of days after Tim ran this story, the Saca expulsion debacle ensued, so I believe that we were on to something. That said, some of the points raised by the ARENA supporters above have merit, and that is why I did not make any definitive pronouncements that ARENA "is" dead or cannot bounce back, etc.