El Salvador’s presidential election on February 2 will have consequences beyond its borders. In the 1980s, chaos in that small nation cast a large shadow over the neighboring region, causing the U.S. to expend blood and treasure to safeguard democracy in the Americas. El Salvador may be about to cast another dark shadow over Central America.
Twenty-five years ago, U.S. policy consisted of defeating violent extremists on both right and left, enabling democratic Salvadorans to build a political center. In 1992, after a dozen years of bloodshed and about 70,000 dead, Salvadoran democracy achieved an important victory over what had been a Soviet- and Cuban-supported Marxist-Leninist guerrilla force known by its initials, FMLN.
That democracy is again at risk, this time because one of the military leaders of the erstwhile-defeated FMLN, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, the current vice president, is a leading candidate for president. Sánchez Cerén is no ordinary contender. For example, he has admitted to participating in the brutal execution of members of his own guerrilla force, the Popular Liberation Forces, or FPL, who did not comply with his orders and rules.
Witnesses and survivors accuse him of ordering the torture and subsequent murder of hundreds of alleged “traitors” and of guerrilla soldiers accused of desertion. Anywhere else in the world, Sánchez Cerén would be condemned for his record on human rights. In El Salvador, he is at the top of some polls.
Sánchez Cerén is no friend of the U.S. In September of 2001, he enthusiastically participated in an anti-American political rally in the Salvadoran capital shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The event featured the burning of the American flag and the display of handmade signs that justified the carnage at the hands of al-Qaeda.
Sánchez Cerén is currently the vice president of the first-ever FMLN administration. The former-guerrilla-army-turned-political-party won the 2009 elections by making a left-of-center journalist, Mauricio Funes, its standard-bearer. As should have been expected from a government headed by an inexperienced figurehead backed by Marxists, the Funes administration has presided over a period of rapid economic decline.
During his tenure, El Salvador became the second-worst economic performer in Latin America, ahead only of Venezuela. The percentage of households in extreme poverty jumped to 28 percent in 2012. In 2004 that statistic had been reduced to 19 percent. A decade of anti-poverty progress has been wiped out. Both foreign and domestic investment have fallen to near zero, leaving El Salvador as Central America’s least attractive economy, whereas ten years ago it attracted the most investment.
The Funes administration’s gross incompetence is compounded by widespread corruption. Funes named his campaign’s principal financial backer, a businessman named Nicolás Salume, as presidential designate (designado presidencial), an office that according to El Salvador’s constitution allows him to preside over the executive branch in the absence of both the president and vice president.
Mismanagement is so prevalent that last year the U.S. government decided to defer $277 million in development aid from the Millennium Challenge Corporation until El Salvador implements certain anti-corruption reforms and improves public–private cooperation.
Like Funes, Sánchez Cerén paints a rosy picture of reformist, democratic rule. But Sánchez Cerén is being backed by the Venezuelan government through a multimillion-dollar enterprise called ALBA Petroleos. That enterprise was set up with Venezuelan money to provide FMLN mayors and officials exclusively with valuable products such as gasoline and toilet paper, which are scarce in Venezuela, in order to generate political goodwill for the FMLN party. ALBA Petroleos is managed by José Luis Merino, another former FMLN fighter, top official in the Salvadoran Communist party, and one of Sánchez Cerén’s closest advisers.
According to U.S. and Colombian intelligence and counter-narcotics agencies and international press reports, Merino has ties to the Marxist Colombian FARC army, to multinational drug cartels, and even to the Italian Mafia. It is persons like Merino who would staff a Sánchez Cerén government, or else stay outside and continue to manipulate resources that should go to the poor but instead are used to illicitly enrich FMLN party and government officials.
Standing between Sánchez Cerén and the presidency is the challenger from the ARENA party, Norman Quijano, the two-term mayor of El Salvador’s capital, San Salvador. Quijano currently trails Sánchez Cerén closely in the polls and enjoys enough support to deny him a first-round victory, which would force a runoff vote on March 9 to decide the winner.
Should Sánchez Cerén manage to win, the future of El Salvador is clear. It will follow the “21st-century socialist” model of Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Ecuador. As they have in varying degrees in those countries, political repression and food shortages will follow; Castro’s Cubans will arrive, establishing control of national-security agencies, strategic communications, passport control, the electoral registry, and lists of potential enemies.
As in those countries, in El Salvador the president will quickly manage to take over the legislative and judicial branches (by replacing honest judges with party hacks and packing the Supreme Court with government supporters); centralized planning and “socialist” policies will drive private producers out of business; the police and military, by replacing professional officers with party loyalists, will be politicized and placed at the order of the executive; press freedom will be curtailed, with journalists, editors, and publishers persecuted; corruption will become rampant as checks and balances disappear; the economy will collapse, leading to shortages that will cause disturbances, in turn justifying further civil-liberties crackdowns in the name of “public order.” Of course, all the while the leaders will blame “U.S. imperialism,” the CIA, and the usual conspiracies involving domestic businessmen, foreign banks, and other “foreign devils”.
It will not end well. But this time, as opposed to the 1980s, the U.S. will not intervene. It will not repeat the investment of blood and treasure that helped save democracy. We have a totally different government, and we suffer from “compassion fatigue.” Too many lives and too many billions spent in nation-building. Instead, I fear, we will distance ourselves from El Salvador and its people, as we have from Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and others who look to the U.S. for solidarity and support for their basic rights. The millions of Salvadorans living in the U.S. will be the first group to see the difference in attitude. If Sánchez Cerén wins.
— Otto J. Reich is former ambassador of the United States to Venezuela and assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs.