El Salvador’s Former Guerrilla – and New Commander in Chief

By Héctor Silva Ávalos

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Salvadoran President Salvador Sanchez Ceren with Secretary of State John Kerry during his visit to Washington, D.C. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

Twenty-two years after participating in the signing ceremony of the UN-brokered peace accord that ended El Salvador’s civil war, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, one of the FMLN’s top guerrilla commanders, was sworn-in as president last Sunday.  The political reforms mandated by the Chapultapec agreement launched the country onto a sometimes tumultuous path toward a new democratic landscape that, at least on paper, included the alternation of power: for 20 years the ARENA party, representing the hard-right, ruled the country; in 2009, moderate Mauricio Funes, a popular TV journalist, and the FMLN established an alliance that took them to the Presidential Palace.  Through the prism of Sánchez Cerén’s recent victory, Funes’s was a transitional government.  El Salvador now begins its first period under the rule of the former guerrilla party that fought an insurrectional war against the allies of Ronald Reagan´s Washington during the last years of the Cold War.

Sánchez Cerén and the FMLN’s challenges are many – a stagnant economy; a private sector not used to a political system that doesn’t respond resolutely to its economic interests; a dysfunctional fiscal system; and one of the worst security situations in the world – with 14 homicides a day, growing gangs, and a reign of impunity inherited from the war years and perpetuated by organized crime’s success infiltrating state and political institutions.

The new leadership will also have to deal with the interests of El Salvador’s most powerful neighbor and ally, the United States.  The Obama administration sent a third-level delegation to Sánchez Cerén’s inauguration, and Secretary of State John Kerry did receive him in Washington before that.  Among the first items on the bilateral agenda is El Salvador’s access to funds in a second compact with the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a $400 million program aimed at bringing fresh money to the underdeveloped and poor coastal areas.  The program is on hold because MCC is not satisfied with the country’s Anti-Money Laundering and Asset Law and because San Salvador has not yet caved to pressure from the U.S. Trade Representative to buy agricultural products – mainly seeds – within the CAFTA region, which would favor U.S. producers.  Washington’s reluctance to work with FMLN officers in law enforcement and security issues is another obstacle.

So far, Sánchez Cerén and his cabinet have tried to play the U.S. relationship smart.  But managing ties is not going to be a walk in the park.  Despite public winks and carefully worded statements, neither side really trusts the other.  But the bilateral connection is important to both.  Roughly one third of all Salvadorans live in the United States, and, in the last several decades, Washington has appreciated El Salvador’s importance in a region where it is losing influence.  The new government has sent a number of signals to Washington by visiting the State Department, engaging in most of the Treasury’s and USTR’s conditions on the MCC compact and launching an early dialogue with the international financial institutions.  But Sánchez Cerén has made it clear that he will also heed El Salvador’s natural allies, albeit for practical rather than ideological reasons.  Just this week, El Salvador requested formal acceptance to Petrocaribe, the Venezuelan economic and financial aid program.  Dealing with violence, insecurity and financial problems will require fresh resources that the government will welcome wherever their origin.  But it also seems possible that the new commander in chief´s patience with Washington’s style of diplomacy – such as pressure tactics to buy American agricultural goods – could be much shorter than that of his predecessors.  

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