The FMLN legacy
Today is the final day of ten years of the left-wing FMLN in the presidency of El Salvador. And so we take a look back at the legacy of the governments of the party formed by former guerrilla forces turned politicians after the signing of the 1992 Peace Accords.
Unfortunately for the FMLN, the two presidents elected under the party’s banner end up dragging down its legacy. Mauricio Funes enjoyed high popularity ratings and swept the party into the presidency for the first time in 2009. Yet now Funes sits in exile in Nicaragua, with orders for his capture on corruption charges outstanding, and with investigative journalists detailing how he lived a luxury lifestyle fueled by public dollars in a secret account of the presidency. Salvador Sánchez Cerén has not had charges of corruption leveled against him, but that might be the most positive thing one can say about his presidency. As a leader, he has inspired no one and been largely absent from any issue of importance in the country.
Many Salvadorans respond that an accomplishment of the FMLN was government provision of school supply kits, uniforms and shoes for children rather than requiring families to purchase those items. Certainly this has had the benefit of expanding school coverage and the number of years of schooling as more families can afford to keep children in school. What did not occur during the FMLN governments, however, was an improvement in the quality of the education that this expanded number of students was receiving. Nor did the FMLN governments manage to fulfill promises regarding the level of expenditure which would be devoted to education.
The FMLN correctly notes that poverty levels slowly and steadily declined from the beginning to the end of the 10 year period in El Salvador. However, it is very difficult to attribute the reduction in poverty to any specific government policy or action. In fact, I continue to believe the level of poverty in El Salvador is most closely correlated with the level of remittances being received from Salvadorans living abroad, representing a sixth of the country’s economy. Poverty levels went up during the Great Recession in the US when Salvadorans lost jobs and had hours reduced and remittances dropped. When the US economy recovered, remittances grew again and poverty declined again in El Salvador.
The FMLN can say, with some justification, that its ability to accomplish more was thwarted by ARENA and the other conservative parties in the country’s legislature. The FMLN never had a majority in the National Assembly, and its alliance with GANA was a marriage of convenience and not ideological compatibility. El Salvador’s constitution makes several types of legislation subject to super-majority vote requirements and thus the conservative parties were able to prevent movement forward on any larger structural reforms the FMLN might have wanted to make.
Mauricio Funes became the first president of El Salvador to publicly apologize to the people of El Salvador on behalf of the Salvadoran government for crimes against humanity committed by the Salvadoran armed forces during the civil war. Still, neither he nor Sánchez Cerén had the power to get the military to open its archives from that time nor to remove the memorials to war criminals erected by that same military. Sadly, the FMLN ends its time in power with the spectacle of its defense of a draft law which would grant immunity from prison time for war criminals and authors of crimes against humanity.
Security policy under Funes and Sánchez Cerén was changeable and inconsistent. Under Funes, homicides dropped significantly during the so-called tregua or gang truce which began in March 2012, but potentially at the cost of allowing the gangs to use the truce period to strengthen themselves. Sánchez Cerén convened all sectors of society to a security roundtable to develop Plan El Salvador Seguro, a holistic approach to the gang problem including prevention, policing, and rehabilitation. But as the gang truce evaporated the government responded with harsh repressive tactics and a series of “exceptional measures” condemned by human rights advocates. Homicides skyrocketed to a rate over 100 per 100,000 in 2015, and although that level steadily declined in the following years, confrontations between security forces and gangs escalated with extra-judicial executions of suspected gang members and gangs responding with killings of off duty police and soldiers.
Migration continues to have lasting impacts in El Salvador, and the number of Salvadorans feeling forced to flee to the north by violence or poverty has been surging in the final year of Sánchez Cerén’s administration. Migration policy in the past ten years has largely involved begging the United States not to terminate Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for 200,000 Salvadorans. (Only a federal court order prevents Trump’s termination of TPS today). Comprehensive programs to reinsert deported Salvadorans who arrive back in the country by the planeload every week are nonexistent.
Ultimately the legacy of the FMLN has to be measured not by pundits or bloggers or even historians but by the Salvadoran people. In the 2018 and 2019 elections, they delivered their verdict on that legacy as they delivered two punishing defeats to El Salvador’s socialist party which never really accomplished any of it socialist agenda.