They saw an easier way to seize power; so they got shaves, put on suites, and ran for office claiming to be left-leaning pragmatists. But after their election wins, they took advantage of a polarized citizenry and weak institutions to tear the system apart – more or less legally – from inside out.
The stealth approach worked well for Hugo Chávez in Venezuela where Cuban agents and goons are now pitching in to put down anti-government protesters fed up with Venezuela's “21st Century Socialism.” During his first election campaign, Chavez denied he was a socialist and portrayed himself as a moderate despite having led an aborted coup against a democratic government.
Now, El Salvador seems poised to follow that same path after a former Marxist guerrilla leader – 69-year-old Salvador Sánchez Cerén – was elected president by a razor-thin margin and amid allegations of voting irregularities, which included claims that gang members were recruited to intimidate voters who opposed him. Sánchez Cerén had been El Salvador's vice president -- a hardliner in the ruling Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) party, named after a legendary Salvadorian rebel leader, Farabundo Martí, from the 1930s.
Sánchez Cerén had an uneasy relationship with President Mauricio Funes, a 54-year-old former television reporter who had never been a guerrilla but identified with the left.
Five years ago, the two teamed up in a union of political convenience that drew voters from across the political spectrum – and they won. Their election victory ended nearly two decades of conservative rule by the center-right National Republican Alliance (Arena). But President Funes's political strategy was a pact with the devil. During his 5-year-term, his relationship with Sánchez Cerén and other FMLN hard-liners become increasingly strained, according to political observers.
Arena has yet to accept the outcome. But barring unexpected developments, Sánchez Cerén will take office on June 1. He will be the first guerrilla leader to govern the Central American country, where an atrocity-filled civil war raged nearly 13 years, killing at least 75,000 people and sending tens of thousands of refugees to the U.S. A peace accord was signed in 1992 between the military-led government and leftist groups that had fought under the FMLN umbrella. They were subsequently absorbed into the FMLN political party.
Venezuela's turmoil overshadowed El Salvador's bitterly contested election; for 50 percent of Salvadorians deeply fear the ideological left. They doubted Sánchez Cerén was a pragmatist who would work with opposition leaders and uphold El Salvador's constitution. They had good reasons to be afraid: Sánchez Cerén has a long history as a Marxist ideologue. What's more, he had a hand in murder and kidnappings during El Salvador's horrific civil war – a dark past mentioned in a secret U.S. diplomatic cable made public by WikiLeaks. His “commitment to law and order cannot be easily assumed,” observed the missive for then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton dated September 30, 2009, and signed by Deputy Chief of Mission Robert Blau.
Sánchez Cerén, an admirer of Hugo Chavez's Bolivarian revolution, received 50.11% of the vote compared with 49.89% for Norman Quijano of Arena. Quijano was a former mayor of San Salvador, the nation’s capital.
A mere 6,364 votes carried Sánchez Cerén to victory in a run-off election on March 9. Some 3 million ballots were cast in the country of 6.2 million people.
Amid allegations of voter fraud, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal did a partial recount and, four days later, declared Sánchez Cerén the winner. Arena supporters have reason to be suspicious of the tribunal's decision, because as some political analysts pointed out, most of its members have ties to the FMLN. Quijano hinted that the military might intervene, but military leaders said they were keeping out of the bitterly contested election.
Sánchez Cerén grew up in a working-class family -- the ninth of 12 children whom his parents struggled to support. Five years ago, his campaign for the vice presidency was overshadowed by Funes's campaign, but his entrance into the political arena did attract the attention of Washington and the U.S. Embassy in El Salvador. Embassy officials seemed skeptical that Sánchez Cerén had indeed traded the bullet for the ballot. They wondered if he remained a Marxist ideologue who was merely echoing the talking points of FMLN's more moderate presidential candidate.
“We are struck by the irony of Sánchez Cerén commenting on the need for tolerance at the end of a week where media featured his having ordered summary executions of accused infiltrators during the civil war,” observed a confidential diplomatic cable dated September 26, 2008, and signed by then-U.S. Ambassador Charles L. Glazer. “It is still an open question whether he or Funes calls the FMLN shots.” The cable's title: “FMLN VP Candidate Sánchez Cerén: Hard-liner's Soft Sell.” It was sent to then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, among others.
Last week, after the electoral tribune ruled that Sánchez Cerén had won fair and square, the president-elect declared: “We have the people’s sovereign mandate; starting June 1 we will govern for five more years. We are ready for a dialogue to build El Salvador.”
But Diario Latino, a Salvadorian newspaper, summed up the fears of 50 percent of the population with an editorial stating the obvious: Sánchez Cerén had dedicated much of his life to teaching and defending “Marxist-Leninist principles” and thus could be counted on to take El Salvador toward socialism.
Sánchez Cerén, for his part, provided the first indication of where he was heading when naming his transition team – six former guerillas. At least two were mentioned in U.S. diplomatic cables for their unsavory pasts as guerrilla fighters: José Luis Merino was involved in arms trafficking and Manuel Melgar in murder.
Funes was unable to run for reelection because El Salvador limits presidents to 5-year terms. But he had left El Salvador poised for growth.
“The last government has prepared the ground work in many ways for private investment to take off. It’s not for a lack of policy, the issue is political,” said Joydeep Mukherji, a managing director for Standard & Poor's during a conference call with Bloomberg News.
Even so, Sánchez Cerén will lead a country with one of the world's worst murder rates caused by violent gangs. The government has negotiated a truce with them but has yet to rein them in; they control neighborhoods and extort money from residents and businesses. About 35 percent of the population remains in poverty.
If Sánchez Cerén lives up to his reputation, expect to see El Salvador descend into Venezuela-style political chaos and economic decline, and for another wave of Salvadorian refugees to flee to America. President Funes must be regretting his pact with the devil right about now.
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