A Government Tough on the Weak And Weak with the Strong
Francisco Flores’ government is providing continuity
with the last two ARENA governments by promoting an
economic model that is increasing the financial sector’s power.
Alfredo Cristiani, the real power behind Flores’ throne,
is thus gaining more and more influence in that sector.
Ismael Moreno, SJ
A poll done in early June by San Salvador’s Central American University (UCA), marking the end of the first year of Francisco Flores’ government, revealed that seven out of ten Salvadorans feel that this third consecutive ARENA administration does not listen to them, while only one in ten feels really listened to. Seven out of ten are also convinced that the government not only has failed to help resolve the country’s problems, but its measures have actually made them worse, while two-thirds believe that Flores’ economic program will only further deteriorate the living conditions of the majority of the population. Those interviewed identify crime and various other situations directly linked to poverty as the country’s biggest problems and reproach the government for failing to address them during its first year. But the worst news for Flores’ government is that the majority of Salvadorans do not believe that the President is the real decision-maker in his administration. They are convinced that other well-known figures are pulling the strings and defining the country’s political and economic course.
Public health: A sick systemPublic health workers, who have waged the biggest conflict the government has yet faced, made it clear that the reason President Flores is not listening is that he has no serious policy for communicating with the population. The Public Health Ministry, they say, has some innovative experiences in health service management and provision, but it is not communicating them or submitting them to public debate, thus limiting the validity of those models.
After a year-long conflict triggered by the unmet demands of both doctor and health worker unions, these sectors feel that "the National Health System is still sick and is resolving neither the lack of access to health care services nor the inequality of their distribution."
The Ministry of Health admitted the extent of the crisis when it argued that "if public investment in health does not improve considerably, the whole system could collapse within two or three years."
The unions concluded their assessment of the Flores government in the following way: " It has no national health plan, leaving too much room for improvisation. Particularly notable is its slow response to disaster prevention. The limited technical and financial support received by the Health Sector Reform Council, created in July 1999, is worrying, indicating that the longed-for reform is receiving neither the stimulus nor the priority it merits and, in the midst of so many vicissitudes, it risks being aborted."
The poor pay the tax increaseOne particularly unpopular measure has been the hike in value added tax, known as the IVA, to 13% on all agricultural products and on medicine. The government explained that the increase was aimed at imposing order and making the agricultural sector profitable. Economic spokespeople from private business and the government have stated that the agricultural sector has been subsidizing the population to the equivalent of nearly US$115 million a year, and final consumers have thus been "living in a fictitious world when it comes to the real out-of-pocket costs of things." Jesuit priest and UCA economist Javier Ibisate believes that since the IVA hike will drastically affect the poor, they will buy smaller amounts of basic grains and vegetables and will thus eat less food of a poorer quality than was previously the case. They will also have to dish out more money for the medicines they will need to treat the illnesses resulting from their poor diet. It is a closed and vicious circle.
Neither during the long health sector strike nor in the critical situation caused by the IVA hike has the government listened to the demands of any social sector or taken any initiative to respond to them. Flores has remained inflexible. UCA rector José María Tojeira defined the first year of this government as "tough on the weak and weak with the strong." He added that "if it carries on like this, we will move toward an increasingly less democratic, authoritarian democracy and will reverse the culture of dialogue that has been one of our most important post-conflict gains."
The golden bridge we all helped destroyWhile inaugurating the reopening of the biggest and most symbolic work in the country—the historical Golden Bridge over the Lempa River—on the eve of his first anniversary as President, Francisco Flores decided to give a sign that he was open to dialogue and willing to listen.
The bridge, which connects the whole coastal zone and the most important regional trade route in El Salvador, has been a symbol of the country’s engineering might since its original inauguration in 1952. Its subsequent destruction by FMLN guerrilla forces in 1981 was in turn a symbol of the power of the insurgents. Reconstructed with financial support from Japan, it was presented this year as a new symbol of the country’s unity and progress.
In his inaugural speech, Flores took advantage of the absence of FMLN representatives to call for the construction of "another bridge." "I am sorry there are no members and representatives of the FMLN in the audience," he said. "Perhaps they thought there would be a note of reproach in my words. Nothing could be further from the truth. Basic courtesy would have stopped me from reproaching our guests, since for historical reasons we must recognize today that the Golden Bridge was destroyed by a violence we all generated: some of us so as not to allow change, others thinking that violence fueled the motor of change, and yet others by indifference. We all created the war, we are all responsible for what happened and we are all responsible for the underdevelopment caused by that stage of violence the country lived through. The real bridge that our homeland needs is a bridge between the Right and the Left."
That very same day, the FMLN took the President at his word. Its congressional bench lifted its blockage of a sizable loan requested by the Ministry of Education from the Inter-American Development Bank. The following day, FMLN leaders accepted the President’s invitation to dialogue and look for consensus.
On May 31, summing up his first year in government, Flores returned to the theme of the Golden Bridge inauguration, this time addressing FMLN leaders present at the act and recognizing the step they had taken by approving the loan. "I know that yesterday’s vote represents a concrete act of political will. It represents a bridge to understanding each other for the benefit of the country. Deputies of the FMLN, I am going to cross that bridge."
Rhetorical bridges of "the Philosopher President"A month after these offers of dialogue, a top-level FMLN leader concluded that Flores’ crossing of the bridge had been yet another of his rhetorical flourishes, since there had been no change in his inflexibility with respect to listening to opposition political and social sectors.
It is a question of image and appearances. Flores has developed a discourse that is full of literary figures of speech designed to impress people outside the country. Ever since the meetings of the Central American Presidents, journalists have dubbed him "the philosopher President." In El Salvador itself, such accomplished speeches ring hollow. No matter how much President Flores tries to appear as if he is embarking on "a new style of politics," his day-to-day actions confirm that he is part of the authoritarian ARENA tendency introduced by Alfredo Cristiani in the last decade. It is simply disguised by fine speeches and masked by new faces in order to maintain an economic system trapped in the financial system’s voracity, the industrial sector’s stagnation and the agricultural sector’s apparently irresolvable crisis.
When Flores called on the FMLN and other opposition sectors to cross the bridge, he did not point out that the only valid movement for his government was from left to right. His "dialogue" is limited: the bridge of consensus will only have been built when all sectors find themselves sheltering under the umbrella of the Right’s interests. This seems to be how the President and his government understand things, thus responding to the opinion poll image of an absent President and a deaf government.
National Civil Police: A criminal institutionCitizen insecurity is one of the most difficult problems facing the government. This is not only because the measures introduced this year by the Ministry of Security and the National Civil Police (PNC) have had no notable results, but also because the PNC itself has been involved in various criminal activities in recent months. This is not a case of isolated events or individual acts or actions limited to members of the police force’s lower ranks. Nor are we talking about common or street crime. There are strong indications that various PNC leadership structures are involved in organized crime: kidnappings, extortion, drug-trafficking and, in recent weeks, phone tapping.
The State Intelligence Organization (OIE) has been linked to the constitutional crime of phone tapping, and until just over a year ago the OIE’s president was none other than current PNC director Mauricio Sandoval. The revelation of lists of people from very diverse environments and occupations who had had their phones tapped surprised no one. What was notable, however, was the disinterest shown by the government and those authorities responsible for upholding the law. Badly informed and sporting his vague and simulated smile, President Flores quickly reacted to the accusations by saying that the information had been taken out of context, because rather than wire tapping this was a simple case of a commercial conflict between telecommunications companies.
Cleanse the PNC and contaminate society?Because of the discontent and suspicions expressed by various social sectors, the government set up an ad hoc PNC Cleansing Commission at the request of the National Public Security Council, which is made up of nationally renowned politicians and intellectuals, including Salvador Samayoa and Francisco Escobar Galindo. The commission recommended that the government fire several hundred police officers linked to criminal activities, but did not touch the institution’s higher echelons, let alone the current PNC director, who has long been suspected of involvement in criminal activities.
Undoubtedly the recommendation to expel police officers involved in criminal acts represents a firm step forward, but it is not enough. This measure should be combined with others related to the judicial procedure that infers criminal liability. If this does not happen, the isolated firings will help cleanse the PNC structures, but will throw onto the streets hundreds of experienced criminals who are all the more dangerous because they know the PNC’s methods and resources, thus guaranteeing them the impunity they previously enjoyed inside the institution.
This cleansing process should reach right up to the PNC’s leadership. Few doubt that institutional corruption and organized crime are really nested there in the highest ranks. And even if this were not the case, the cleansing process should still hold the high-ranking officers accountable for their inability to run a state structure that offers security to the citizenry instead of promoting insecurity.
In the midst of the telephone espionage scandal and the questions raised about his security policy, President Flores slipped up yet again. First he failed to mention the work of his best minister during his declarations about his first year in office. Education minister Evelyn Yacir de Lovo is the most skilled member of his government team and has made laudable efforts to implement an education plan that would reach the most depressed sectors of Salvadoran society, thus disassociating education work from the traditional voracity of government officials and politicians. In sharp contrast, Flores dedicated an entire speech to praising PNC director Mauricio Sandoval, claiming that he was highly respected by the population and presenting him as a model public servant. This excessive praise raised many worrying questions. What does Sandoval know about the government? What secrets does he hold on the "honorable" government officials and leaders of the governing ARENA party? What is his mission within the state machinery? And what image is Flores trying to send out on behalf the current PNC director’s future interests?
Cristiani’s tears Following ARENA’s electoral defeat in the March 12 legislative and municipal elections, the governing party’s behavior gave more reasons for concern than for hope. Some party sectors held the leadership responsible for the electoral debacle and demanded the heads of Cristiani and his followers. This demand came mainly from founding party members who consider it their mission to protect the party’s original roots and uphold the principles established by its founder, Major Roberto D’Aubuisson.
Cristiani responded to their pressure and, amid tears and sobs, offered his resignation as president of the party’s National Executive Committee (COENA) during a party assembly. Accepting his resignation, the assembly heaped him with praise then agreed to form a list of three party notables who would propose a candidate to replace him. The party notables chosen were the country’s three ARENA Presidents: current President Flores, Armando Calderón Sol, who preceded him, and none other than Cristiani himself, who preceded Calderón.
But this decision was not enough to calm the troubled waters. The ARENA founders demanded their own quota of power in the party leadership and were quite willing to use the media to publicize their discontent, thus breaking the party rule of not washing their dirty linen in public.
Araujo: D’Aubuisson’s favorite sonWhat appeared to be a process of internal debate to bring about a real renovation of ARENA’s leadership and thinking turned out to be a fiasco. Led by Cristiani, the party’s decision-making circle decided to choose Walter Araujo as party president. Although a young and new face, Araujo is linked to the most belligerent, ultra-right positions of ARENA.
Araujo was Major D’Aubuisson’s "favorite son" and earned the party’s full confidence as a loyal and combative leader of the ARENA youth. He later stood out for his fierce confrontation with the Left in the National Assembly and his violent and incisive outbursts when attacking, or even barely mentioning, his political adversaries. Araujo’s rise to the ARENA presidency was the result of negotiations between the circle led by Cristiani and the sector made up of party founders, thus confirming the ruling party’s inflexibility. As a result, it wasted the opportunity the post-electoral situation offered to renovate its ideas and attitudes, open itself up to the new challenges that Salvadoran society is increasingly demanding of the political elite and allow access to the party’s leadership structures to generations more open to dialogue. If this regression is allowed to continue, nobody will be able to stop ARENA’s increasing decline.
An anti-democratic vocationAnother worrying sign among ARENA’s post-electoral reactions has been its behavior in the Legislative Assembly. Instead of seriously evaluating what motivated Salvadoran society to withhold its votes, the ARENA leadership dug in around its old positions, desperately seeking to form an alliance with the National Conciliation Party (PDC) and the Democratic Christian Party (PDC) to defend itself from and attack the FMLN.
When it came to electing the new Legislative Assembly directorate, the ARENA-PCN-PDC alliance broke the agreement reached in the former legislature that the party with the most representatives would direct the Assembly. Although the task of directing the Assembly should have gone to the FMLN, the coalition thus elected a directorate led by PCN leader Ciro Cruz Zepeda. He had been expelled from ARENA and from the office of comptroller general—known as the Accounts Court—for proven corruption during Major D’Aubuisson’s time.
Instead of opening itself up to consensus- building in order to move forward in constructing formal democracy, ARENA simply closed ranks against the FMLN to reduce its force, convinced that otherwise the leftwing party might turn its increased projection into future electoral triumphs. Such behavior confirms ARENA’s authoritarian vocation and its inability to dialogue and seek consensus, two ingredients that help build democracy, and one of whose golden rules is the alternation of the exercise of power.
FMLN: Sewn up in advanceThe picture within the FMLN is not much more encouraging. Once the triumphalism over the electoral victories died down, the party held an extraordinary assembly on June 17 to discuss and approve reforms to the statutes related to the election of members to leadership posts and to the terms of members serving as representatives in the Legislative Assembly.
The event was characterized by a lack of enthusiasm and freshness. It was set to start at 8 a.m. but did not actually get underway until 11 a.m. due to the low attendance level. Even by then, none of the 20 delegates from the department of Sonsonate had turned up. The activities that followed demonstrated that the leaders of the different tendencies had everything sewn up in advance. There were no discussions nor the familiar clashes and insults that had characterized similar events since 1997. The lack of grassroots interest in the leaders’ resolutions appears to be linked to a growing lack of credibility surrounding the top FMLN leadership.
FMLN: Grass roots bereft of leadersThe FMLN is undoubtedly moving toward internal positions characterized by political deals and pacts. Real debates about the Left’s responsibilities in this new period are being ignored, as are those on the need to open the party to new generations and to the clamor of the grass roots, who are denouncing their abandonment with increasing force.
It is scandalous to the FMLN grass roots that the same leaders who fulfilled their mission to guide the process toward negotiations representing grassroots interests in the ill-fated war years have ended up negotiating their own interests with the ARENA leadership and big business interests behind people’s backs. As one grassroots militant from a marginalized San Salvador community ironically put it, "With their acts and decisions the FMLN leaders are changing the electoral slogan from ‘All the FMLN at the service of the people’ to the more realistic if shameful slogan, ‘All the FMLN’s leadership at the service of others.’"
Cristiani: The power behind Flores’ throneAfter over a year in power, Francisco Flores’ government has confirmed that it is providing continuity to the two prior ARENA administrations, promoting an economic model that while favoring the financial sector is stagnating the industrial sector and leading the agricultural sector to disaster. The Flores administration is once more confirming that he who controls the financial sector holds the power in El Salvador. The IVA hike on agricultural products and medicines is an erroneous attempt by the government to reactivate the agricultural sector. This measure will consolidate the small rural sector linked to the banks, but will oblige the majority of the population to reduce its already precarious food levels.
Although Flores has honest and capable people in his government team, his main support lies in the not so well-concealed figures of Cristiani’s group and ARENA’s most ultra-right sector, enthroned in the Ministries of the Interior and of Security and in the National Civil Police. When the population says Flores is not the one making the main government decisions, it is because there are palpable signs that Cristiani is still part of the machinery that really decides matters in the country. In addition, he and his group have concentrated enough power in the banking sector, in many public sectors and in shady businesses not to need government posts. "The President’s men" being so well known, it is worth asking how long the honest people in Flores’ government will continue to accompany him.
Education: A non-prioritized priorityIn the UCA survey, the population rewarded the dedication of Minister of Education Evelyn Yacir de Lovo in pressing ahead with education reforms that benefit the most excluded sectors of Salvadoran society, offering them a quality education with skilled teachers. Although she received the highest rating on Flores’ team, the government is not putting a priority on the Ministry of Education, nor are the Legislative Assembly representatives putting it on the problem of education.
It is possible to deduce from the legislators’ actions and behavior when discussing whether or not to support the proposed education loans that areas such as education, health and the environment are just pieces to be traded on the game board for quotas of economic or political power.
A growing abyssThe behavior of the political leaders of both ARENA and the FMLN reveals the same tendency. The idea is to buttress the interests of their own power groups based on past nostalgia, each party with its respective mystique and protecting the memory of its founders or historic deeds. Meanwhile, they offer more of the same with a few new faces and the same rigidity as always.
This behavior betrays the irresponsibility of current party leaders when it comes to evaluating seriously what is happening in the country and their inability to promote changes that ensure answers to national problems. They only seem interested in the mechanisms that could guarantee them victories in the next elections—the legislative and municipal ones in 2003 and the presidential ones in 2004. Both ARENA and the FMLN have abandoned the idea of politics as the exercise of power to serve the people and are busying themselves with consolidating a purely electoral profile.
The different expressions of poverty—employment, lack of health care and cost of living—and of civic insecurity are still the problems that most concern Salvadorans. But these issues do not appear to concern the government too much, nor does the FMLN seem interested in forming an opposition based on defending the violated rights of the poor in these areas.
The distance between the parties and the real problems facing the population has been widening the abyss between politics and society, between the interests of the political elite and those of the poor majorities. One notable exception to this rule is the municipal government of San Salvador, led by Héctor Silva, an enclave of credibility and future hope that we will discuss in our next article.