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.  

U.S.-China: Competing over Central America and the Caribbean?

President Obama and President Chinchilla in Costa Rica | Photo by: The White House | Public domain

President Obama and President Chinchilla in Costa Rica | Photo by: The White House | Public domain

The recent visits to Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean by Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Obama (and Vice President Biden to Trinidad and Tobago) suggest a handoff from Washington to Beijing of the role as the region’s sugar-daddy, but not a strategic shift in influence.  The presidents’ visits were similar in their innocuous itineraries.  Both got pompous welcomes; met with “real” citizens (Xi ate empanaditas de chiverre with a coffee farmer); and praised the bilateral relationships.  Both held sub-regional summits – Obama in San José and Xi in Port of Spain.  Both repackaged ongoing or recently negotiated projects as new “accords.”  Obama pledged another $150 million a year for funding the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), part of the strategy started under President Bush to counter the drug trade and related threats.  Xi got headlines in Costa Rica for providing more than $1.5 billion for refinery and road projects and to purchase replacement taxis and buses from Chinese manufacturers.  Significantly, China is also building Costa Rica’s new National Police Academy – the sort of project Washington used to thrive on.

President Chinchilla and President Xi Jinping | Photo credit: Presidencia de la República de Costa Rica / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

President Chinchilla and President Xi Jinping | Photo credit: Presidencia de la República de Costa Rica / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Despite the similarities, the visits had different orientations and feel.  Xi’s principal task appeared to be to open his checkbook, while Obama’s main deliverable was a policy shift – the welcome word that Washington was pulling back from making its top regional priority the interdiction of narcotics produced in South America and transiting the isthmus on their way to consumers in the United States.  According to press reports, despite the continued CARSI funding, Obama had absorbed Costa Rican President Chinchilla’s complaint last year at a summit with Biden that it was unfair that Central Americans were dying in efforts to stop narcotics that Americans use.  The media tried to give the two presidents equal coverage, but the disparity became obvious.  The Chinese distributed copies of the China Daily (in English) even into the San José suburbs, whereas Obama didn’t need to do his own publicity.  Despite whiffs of resentment about airport and street closures, the papers covered all of Obama’s events with affectionate quotes from government and common folk alike – and showed people, including a kid dressed as Spider-Man, waving to his motorcade.  La Nación, on the other hand, reported that school children cheering a Chinese speaker couldn’t understand a word he was saying.

The goodies each president brought created little excitement – and no small amount of skepticism.  Important details about China’s offer to help repair the Costa Rican gasoline refinery remain unknown, and Chinese cars already have a bad reputation.  China’s handouts aren’t going to be turned down, of course, and Xi’s pledge to buy more Costa Rican coffee (now about 5 percent of what Japan buys) and to encourage Chinese tourists to travel to the country (now a micro-percentage of visitors) are welcome.  Obama’s CARSI funding looks like bureaucracy on autopilot.  Few Central Americans can cite concrete benefits from the seven-year-old Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States either, and the general impression – reinforced by Secretary Kerry’s recent reference to the region as the U.S. “backyard” – is that Washington is yielding the playing field to China.  But the natural ties and strategic mutual interests between Central America and the United States remain strong and give the United States, should it wish to fill it, ample space to play a positive role in the region’s future beyond programs on autopilot.

Central America on U.S. Elections: A Shy Shadow

Photo by Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the BPL’s | Flickr | Creative Commons

The U.S. election doesn’t seem to matter much for Central America.  Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes – speaking at an event with U.S. Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte – publicly wished the “best of luck” to President Barack Obama, reflecting his close relationship with the American President.  At the Summit of the Americas in Cartagena last spring, Funes – along with Honduran President Porfirio Pepe Lobo – appeared to be Washington’s closest ally in the “war on drugs.”  This came after newly elected Guatemalan President Otto Pérez had raised the idea of legalizing marijuana, which Obama´s State Department has opposed fiercely.  Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla slammed “the international community” – code for the United States – for pushing a policy in which only Central Americans died.  Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, while perhaps Washington’s most effective partner in counternarcotics, has resorted to old-school anti-U.S. rhetoric.  Panama is missing in action as a Central American voice.

The U.S. has two main interests in the subregion.  One is combating the drug trade, and the other, according to informed observers, is blocking the influence of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.  The U.S. Southern Command estimates that roughly 500 tons of cocaine enters the U.S. market through Central America, accounting for some 60 percent of U.S. consumption.  But there are very few clues in the American electoral narrative about either Obama´s or Republican contender Mitt Romney´s views on Latin America, not to mention Central America.  Romney´s Latin America advisors are perceived as the same hawks, with the same close ties to the Miami lobby, who dominated during the Bush administration.  Robert Zoellick, the fixer for the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in Washington some eight years ago, is also close to the GOP campaign and has been mentioned as a potential cabinet member, perhaps suggesting a push for some sort of second chapter of neoliberal reform.  To date there are no signs of fresh faces in the Obama camp, casting doubt as to whether a second-term State Department will be more open to out-of-the-box thinking.

This apparent estrangement comes at a time that the northern triangle of Central America – Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador – is on a very dangerous path towards uncontrolled violence and even more weakened states. Neighboring countries are hardly in a position to help.  President Laura Chinchilla´s tenure in Costa Rica is fading rapidly toward lame-duck status, and Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli is surrounded by corruption allegations.  For a second-term or incoming U.S. President, Nicaragua´s slippage on good-governance, despite the country’s economic tranquility, provides little political space for cooperation.  The next U.S. President will have no easy options in the most violent region of the world, which now faces, as Colombia did 20 years ago, a clear and present danger.  The absence of visible alternatives is probably a consequence of the fact that, since the Salvadoran Peace Accord ended the Cold War in Central America, Washington has not perceived much urgency to grapple with the fundamental political and economic challenges confronting the region.  Only by doing so will a new administration identify opportunities to move forward with a jointly articulated agenda.