Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 335 | Junio 2009



El Salvador and Nicaragua: So Near and Yet So Far

The FMLN’s electoral victory and the initiation of President Mauricio Funes’ administration in El Salvador have triggered high expectations in Central America. And, although “all comparisons are detestable,” they at least let us tease out some contrasts with Nicaragua.

Nitlápan-Envío team

President Daniel Ortega made a last-minute decision not to show up at President Mauricio Funes’ inauguration the morning of June 1, despite his announced attendance at the official act. He gave “security reasons” as his excuse, as did President Hugo Chávez, who cited a sinister plan to eliminate him on the flight between Caracas and San Salvador.

Ortega finally appeared in the Salvadoran capital during the afternoon grassroots celebration in the Cuscatlán stadium, which was brimming over with enthusiastic militants of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FLMN). Greeting the multitude, Ortega said that “the FSLN and the FMLN are twins.” While that may have been a fair statement at one time, is it still?

“If Nicaragua won…”

In the eighties, when the Sandinista revolution was making every effort to achieve structural transformations in Nicaragua while fending off a counterrevolutionary war financed by the United States, the FMLN was engaged in a liberation war against El Salvador’s government and army, both of which were also financed by the United States.

Like the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), the FMLN wanted to take power to begin to change the rank structures of an obsolete and unjust system that blocked change through elections. In Managua’s plazas it was common to hear the slogan: “If Nicaragua won, El Salvador will win!”

None of it was to be. The FSLN lost the 1990 general elections, beaten down by an exhausting war and the disasters of a war-affected economy, neither of which offered an end in sight. Two years later, the signing of peace accords put an end to the civil war in El Salvador, which also offered no end in sight. The collapse of Eastern Europe, which ended a much greater war, the Cold War, announced a sea change in a world already undergoing rapid economic changes that were starting to alter the face of Central America.

In the nineties and on into the new millennium, both the FSLN and the FMLN were “opposition” parties during a succession of rightwing governments. In Nicaragua’s case, although all three governments between 1990 and 2006 adopted the neoliberal model, the differences among their administrations were obvious. In El Salvador, in contrast, the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) was elected to four successive terms (1989-2008), maintaining a very similar profile and model throughout. In those years, the “twins” began to go their separate ways.

Did the fact that the Salvadoran Right is the most solid and organized in Central America contribute to the particular lessons the FMLN learned? Did the nearly absolute power the FSLN held in the eighties contribute to the political and ethical decomposition that followed its electoral defeat or did holding power and realizing the limitations of achieving utopia from government turn its idealism to cynicism? Were there still other reasons for their increasing divergence?

Two electoral paths

Today, nearly two decades after the end of the wars that laid waste to the two countries, the slogan of the eighties finally came true: the FSLN won again in 2006 and the FMLN followed just over two years later, although this time both have come to office through electoral rather than armed victories. While some features of their twin origins still remain, the contrasts are significant.

The first is the way each chose to beat the Right at the polls and the respective legitimacy achieved by those different choices. The FSLN won the November 2006 elections after cutting a deal with Arnoldo Alemán, one of Nicaragua’s most corrupt rulers, to lower to 35% the percentage needed to win the presidency on the first round of voting in multi-party elections. It is an unusually low figure in Latin American electoral law.

Ortega won with 38% of the votes against a Right irreparably divided over whether or not to jettison the corrupt Alemán. In addition, Nicaragua’s Supreme Electoral Council, which answers to the decisions of the Ortega-Alemán pact, has yet to account for 8% of the votes cast in those elections, which many reasonably suspect could call into question even Ortega’s spurious victory. Alemán had hedged his bets by adding a rider to the agreement on 35%: it would only count as a victory if the second-place candidate got at least 5% less. Any less than Ortega’s 38% would have meant a run-off between him and Liberal banker Eduardo Montealegre, who almost certainly would have won by uniting the anti-Ortega vote among the FSLN’s right-wing opponents.

The FMLN won El Salvador’s presidential race this March with over 51% of the votes, which translated into 60,000 votes more than the ARENA candidate, even though the entire Right was united in a single bloc. It won despite the filthy political campaign against it and all the maneuvers the Right pulled to impede its victory. El Salvador’s Electoral Tribune, beholden to the Right, had to recognize the results, announcing them rapidly and in their totality.

By hook…

Nicaragua’s November 2008 municipal elections revealed an FSLN determined to continue winning by hook or by crook. With a well-documented bald-faced fraud of the sort we haven’t seen in Latin America for a while, the FSLN altered the results in at least 40 of the 105 municipalities it “won,” among them Managua and various departmental capitals.

Thus, while the FMLN fought for years to build up a democratically legitimate electoral majority, the two most recent Nicaraguan elections—presidential and municipal—demonstrated how the FSLN, an electoral minority, was determined to impose itself on the country as a political majority. As a result, Nicaragua’s electoral system is no longer trustworthy and the future of electoral democracy is at risk due to doubts over the possibility of alternating governments via the polls.

Two candidacies

The FSLN returned to government after three failed attempts in a row (1990, 1996 and 2001), with Daniel Ortega a permanent fixture as its presidential candidate. He is now struggling by all means at his disposal to reform the Constitution so he can run again in 2011.

Over the years, Ortega has sabotaged any possibility of an alternative candidate and any alternative leadership in his party, sometimes using methods beyond the political pale. This has shaped an increasingly personalized power structure in the FSLN, which has grown increasingly family-based in the two years of the current government, leading to what has become known as Danielismo or Orteguismo, a vision far removed from traditional Sandinista values, principles and goals.

While the FMLN bowed to the weight of its historical leaders three times, it learned by experience to open itself up and accept greater pluralism in a society exhausted by war and increasingly pluralist. FMLN presidential candidate Facundo Guardado got only 28% of the votes in 1999 and Shafick Handal increased it to 35% in 2004, but unlike in Nicaragua that wasn’t enough to win. This time around, Mauricio Funes won very respectably.

Funes is a leftist journalist who didn’t fight in the war but gained recognition and respect from the entire population for documenting the ARENA governments’ “economic war,” intelligently and commitedly taking the side of the victims. In these elections he managed to change the image the FMLN had presented in previous electoral races.

Two different

The civic movement called “Friends of Mauricio” effectively contributed to the pluralism and to the change of the FMLN’s image—and hopefully of its reality. To the proven organization of what had once been the FMLN’s political-military structures, it added resources, contacts, experiences and capacities from a wide variety of people in the middle and upper sectors of Salvadoran society who had been profoundly affected by the policies of the four ARENA governments.

Although the future of the alliance between this movement—organized from the bottom up–and the FMLN is only now beginning to be put to the test, it is already very different from the alliance the FSLN dubbed the National Convergence, which it fabricated top down to try to win the government in 2001. Today the Convergence has shrunk to a handful of people with no influence on the course of either the party or the government. What has proved to be a driving force in El Salvador was never more than a facade in Nicaragua. What the government of Nicaragua has presented as the standard of its cosmetic “unity and reconciliation” motto could in El Salvador’s case help the government move genuinely toward both goals.

Two different
state apparatuses

The challenges assumed by the Funes government and the FMLN in 2009 are infinitely more complex than Daniel Ortega and the FSLN faced in January 2007. In the coming months and years that contrast could lead to even more differences between the “twins.”

Ortega inherited an orderly macro-economy and took office after having already gained control of all the other important state institutions and half its branches thanks to nearly 10 years of outmaneuvering Arnoldo Alemán in their ominous pact. The control of the electoral and judicial branches by his unconditional supporters in the FSLN has allowed the party to manipulate the electoral process, judicialize politics and politicize justice on various occasions, in the process further weakening Nicaragua’s already fragile institutionality.

Funes is taking office with El Salvador going through a very complicated fiscal situation, thanks to both the impact of the global crisis and the last ARENA government’s poor management of income and expenditure. He is also opposed by a Right that controls the whole state apparatus, as our correspondent in El Salvador details in this issue’s report on the situation of the institutions that are supposed to impart justice and fight impunity.

Thus, while the FMLN’s electoral victory achieved a historic change of government, it has only just begun to make a dent in the Right’s political power in El Salvador. Meanwhile, the FSLN, in its inimitable authoritarian style, is forcing “a change of state” in Nicaragua in alliance with the most corrupt wing of the Right, associated with Alemán. This change involves an attempt to use vote-buying tactics to impose presidential reelection and a bi-partite parliamentary system structured according to the interests of Ortega and his now junior partner Alemán, all of it without either consulting the populace or changing the rigid electoral law imposed by the pact.

A single crisis,
two different approaches

While in Nicaragua President Ortega is grappling with the growing effects of the international economic crisis without any strategic plan and only incoherent measures that reveal no visible logic, President Funes presented an Anti-Crisis Plan in his inaugural speech that contains an organized series of anti-cyclical measures. Although it isn’t clear how they will be financed, the plan’s formulation alone reveals a genuine project, while Ortega doesn’t go beyond endorsing President Chávez’s petro-generosity as the solution to all Nicaraguan problems.

The international crisis was Funes’ best ally in defeating ARENA, and it appears he will try to make it an ally in his new government as well. In Ortega’s case, the crisis has revealed his team’s improvisational tendencies resulting from the centralization of power in the hands of the governing couple and the selection or demotion of officials based strictly on their unconditional allegiance to it.

In El Salvador the grassroots movement is using its accumulated experience and proposals to prepare for the greatest challenges in its history: the crisis and the opportunities presented by the new government, which is now “multicolor, multiform and multi-voiced,” to use the words of one FMLN leader. Meanwhile, in Nicaragua the FSLN has forged Councils of Civic Participation (CPCs) from above as a new manufactured “grassroots movement,” fitted out with the same Pepto Bismol pink First Lady Rosario Murillo paints everything else, the same old slogans of the past and a single voice—Rosario Murillo’s.

Two different
international referents

Another major contrast is the different international referents chosen by the two parties. The FSLN’s is President Chávez, whom Ortega never tires of lauding opportunely, inopportunely and opportunistically, within and outside of Nicaragua. As he explained in his inaugural speech, President Funes’ is Brazil’s President Lula da Silva, because “he demonstrated that it is possible to have a grassroots democratic government with a strong economy and a fair distribution of wealth.” In that same speech he also mentioned President Barack Obama, because “he proved that it’s possible to reinvent hope.”

The anti-Obama role Ortega has decided to assume in his national and international rhetoric is well-known and the distance between Ortega and Lula is evident. Whereas Lula declared that “I don’t have time to be fighting with anybody or generating ideology because I have to dedicate all my time to governing and generating services,” Ortega lives off confrontation and fiery ideologized discourse.

Two external funding sources

On March 18, three days after the elections, Funes, former guerilla leader and now Vice President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, and other FMLN leaders met with Chávez in Venezuela to sound out the possibility of extending to all of El Salvador the subsidized fuel project that PDVSA, Venezuela’s state oil company, already offered to municipalities governed by the FMLN. At that time, Funes decided not to join ALBA and Chávez only promised to double oil exports to El Salvador to 10,000 barrels a day, which represents just 15% of the total Salvadoran oil bill.

Funes is hoping for various kinds of support from Lula da Silva’s government, among them capital for “the immediate creation of a state productive development bank, which will be responsible for granting timely financing to the different economic sectors, mainly micro, small and medium business men and women.” In Nicaragua, after many promises and unjustified delays, the board for its “twin” bank has only just been approved.

The agricultural
cycle in Nicaragua

Sinforiano Cáceres, president of the Federation of Cooperatives of Nicaragua, has doubts about the Nicaraguan version of this new bank, known as “Produzcamos” (Let’s Produce). In declarations to envío he noted that “each government administers fifteen productive cycles, three in each of the five years of its term. This FSLN government has already gone through six cycles, close to half, so it’s possible for us to evaluate it.”

Cáceres explained that “the instrument promised for promoting financial and non-financial services for production has only just emerged this year and with capital that won’t even cover a tenth of what is needed. And it still has to organize itself: regulations, budget, physical infrastructure, juridical aspects. They say they need at least six months before opening the doors. In other words, we’ll have been without a bank until the ninth cycle administered by this government.”

Other elements also concern Cáceres: “We have the same problems for this agricultural cycle that we had last year: a shortage of seed, credit and technical assistance…. The new and most worrying factors, given that they have to do with people’s head, heart and feelings, are a loss of confidence and credibility in addition to recognition by the minister that they barely have enough seeds to meet 20% of the demand.

“It’s not so much that people have lost confidence in the government, but that they’re even losing confidence in the quality of the seed they’re being given; some producers don’t even want to accept it. There are split and ruined seeds, and more serious is the fact that they come from businesses linked to the ‘decision-makers.’ Another problem is that political patronage and the irresponsibility of business association leaders have sparked opportunism among producers. The association leaders are falling apart because the government is encouraging them to play politics with public resources.”

Two separate discourses

Major contrasts can also be appreciated in the language used by President Ortega and President Funes. Words have the power to construct reality. They are a tool that can move imagination and awareness. Developing this power has special importance in societies such as Nicaragua’s and El Salvador’s, where the imagination and consciousness of broad segments of the population are dormant or collapsed due to the war, the consequences of so much grief and the grinding, unending impoverishment.

Daniel Ortega harangues his party faithful with predictable, repetitive language, locked into the realities of the eighties, portraying himself as the target of attacks and conspiracies. Mauricio Funes, in contrast, created very different messages during his campaign.

This difference can be perceived in the following paragraphs from his inaugural speech where he managed to evoke the war and its consequences, without ever mentioning the word: “We aren’t just a country that has to be helped and favored. We are —and let’s be from today, from this very instant, in our own eyes and those of foreigners—a country, a leadership and a people that struggled for an opportunity, finally got it, and in attaining it, neither squandered nor frustrated it, but rather knew how to bring it into its fullest realization. We need to put an end to what still remains of our victim complex because it feeds hate, self-commiseration, the drive for revenge and easy excuses....

“Together we are going to build a country of human and technological sophistication. A country—and here I beg license of the great poet Gabriela Mistral, who affectionately called us the “Tom Thumb of the Americas”—that isn’t just the kindly Tom Thumb but also the microchip of a new world, full of strength and innovative solutions. A country that, like a microchip, uses its smallness to achieve the absolute concentration of its strength and the maximum condensation of its knowledge to produce happiness for its people and help reconstruct the world from its small space.”

A sharp contrast

Another sharp contrast is that Funes promised “good government,” defining it as “the maximum expression of the commitment to the memory of Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero, my teacher and the nation’s spiritual guide.” These were revolutionary words because he said them in front of the maximum representatives of ARENA, a party founded by the very man who masterminded Romero’s assassination.

These words further distanced him from the FSLN government, whose leaders have foresworn liberation theology, and from the governing couple, which promotes non-liberating religiosity and maintains a close alliance with Cardinal Obando, the antithesis of Monsignor Romero.

European Union:
“We have a good memory”

The new left government in El Salvador is just kicking off, proclaiming it will be innovative and has five years to prove it, while in Nicaragua the FSLN government has already crossed its mid-point, having already revealed all or nearly all its bag of tricks.

At the same time the government has been changing in El Salvador, Nicaragua’s political panorama has continued to be dominated by Daniel Ortega’s determination to push through constitutional reforms before the year ends at all cost. Achieving this depends on how many legislative representatives on the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) bench are vulnerable to Ortega’s cajolery.

November’s electoral fraud still casts a large shadow over the political stage. In mid-May, representatives of the European Union (EU) initiated meetings with the government to assess whether or not to continue financially supporting the government with freely available donations. The aid they froze in response to the fraud has left the budget seriously underfinanced. In his opening declarations at the meetings, the new EU representative for Central America and Panama, Mendel Goldstein, recalled that the EU has aided Nicaragua with 3 billion euros in the past 10 years. He also distanced himself from the government, which hasn’t stopped insisting that the electoral issue must be forgotten and that it will only accept unconditional aid. “We’re not going to issue blank checks,” said Goldstein. “We in the European Union have a good memory.”

European cooperation has the electoral fraud in its sights because it’s hoping for a convincing transformation of the electoral system—reforms to the electoral law and a change of authorities in the electoral branch—in time for the 2011 elections. According to Goldstein, the objective is to ensure there is no repeat in 2011 of what happened in 2008: “a number of elections that cannot be accepted as legitimate in internationally acceptable conditions.”

The IMF wonders:
Why indebt yourself?

The government expects to obtain in technical negotiations with the International Monetary Fund what it is failing to get in political talks with the European Union. It hopes to fill the important budget gap left by the suspension of European aid with IMF funds: the $35 million corresponding to the three-year agreement plus extra funds made available to the IMF after the G-20 meeting.

But the second and third technical reviews of the program that has been in effect since late 2007 haven’t been as easy as the government expected. The Fund isn’t convinced by the Ortega team’s proposal to fill the hole in the budget by issuing Central Bank bonds at 10% interest and its request to access these extra IMF credits.

Does the IMF share the European Community’s “memory”? More likely it has a good technical excuse to align itself with the Europeans: what sense does it make for a member of the HIPC (highly impoverished poor country) initiative like Nicaragua to indebt itself more with bonds or credits if it only has to amend the electoral fraud to access a similar amount of donated resources that won’t generate debt?

This month the Central Bank of Nicaragua had to respond to IMF requirements by publishing the amount of Venezuela’s aid on its web page. It reportedly received US$185 million in 2007, which increased to $457 million in 2008. The official information doesn’t make clear how these funds have been used and strangely the IMF isn’t also requiring that the government incorporate this huge sum into the budget.

Two different oppositions

One can perceive an “armistice” in the Ortega government’s relations with the big private businesses grouped in the umbrella organization called the Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP). Although Nicaragua’s business climate is increasingly negative, both COSEP and the government realize it would be worse if they were enemies, as they were in the eighties. They thus see no other choice than to maintain good relations.

The government promised COSEP it wouldn’t implement a tax reform for the next two years and backed a minimum wage agreement very close to what big private enterprise asked for. The government and the unions, including those close to the FSLN, also signed an emergency labor stability agreement with the free trade zone companies.

Again joined by its allied unions, the government also totally backed the country’s biggest businessman, Carlos Pellas, with respect to an international campaign against his companies in support of workers who claim they got sick from chemicals they were exposed to. This support included ordering the workers evicted from the disputed lands. And the government also ended up a partner of the Barceló group after an international suit threatened to expropriate the Montelimar tourist complex if the enterprise didn’t pay $30 million. As always, the government negotiated on the brink of the abyss.

In El Salvador, big private enterprise is supporting Funes, but ARENA is preparing to strew his path with obstacles to make him fail. In Nicaragua, the Ortega government maintains good relations with big private business and has no cohesive political opposition that can mount significant obstacles. Despite his proven legitimacy, Funes thus faces far more complex political challenges than Ortega, whose scant legitimacy is offset by his firm hold on the country’s institutionality, with the weakness and divisiveness of the Nicaraguan opposition ensuring his governability.

Maybe in this
they’re still twinned

The day he took office, President Funes received continuous applause from the huge and varied crowd that attended the official ceremony. The greatest reaction was when he mentioned Monsignor Romero, followed by ovations for his decision to renew diplomatic relations with Cuba and “eliminate quotas in access to public health services and immediately provide essential medications to all public health system establishments” as one of his measures to alleviate the economic situation of the unemployed and poorest families.

Improving the Nicaraguan public health system’s services for the poorest population must be recognized as the FSLN’s most laudable endeavor. It’s no small thing, after those services were virtually abandoned by the preceding Bolaños government. And if those efforts continue in both countries, it is there that the old twins will continue to bear some resemblance.

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


El Salvador and Nicaragua: So Near and Yet So Far


So Far the AA Is of No Use to Us

Are We Surfing the Internet Or Have We Run Aground?

El Salvador
Disputing the Underpinnings of Impunity

The Rosenberg Case: A Guatemalan Labyrinth

The Legion of Christ: A Rotten Fruit

América Latina
Fernando Lugo: Irresponsibility and Machismo
Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development