Workers Vanguard No. 1046
16 May 2014
Ex-Guerrillas Remain at Helm of Capitalist State
In early March, the small Central American country of El Salvador was deeply polarized by a presidential election pitting Salvador Sánchez Cerén, from the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), against Norman Quijano, from the right-wing National Republican Alliance (ARENA). Sánchez Cerén’s victory by a margin of only 6,364 votes out of the three million cast marks the second time in a row that the presidency has gone to the ex-guerrillas of the FMLN, which entered electoral politics with the end of the bloody civil war of 1980-1992. During that war, the Salvadoran landowners and capitalists, as well as their U.S. imperialist overlords, had the military and ARENA-organized death squads slaughter tens of thousands of people. Tens of thousands more were turned into refugees. Few survivors of the civil war will ever forget its horrors: the bombings, the massacres, the mutilated bodies of suspected subversives dumped along roadsides. But today both the FMLN and ARENA are bourgeois parties opposed to the interests of working people and the oppressed.
The profound social divisions that sparked the civil war remain. Wealth is still concentrated in the hands of a tiny oligarchy while the downtrodden masses barely scrape by. Over one-third of the population lives in grinding poverty and 60 percent lacks electricity or running water. In such conditions, it is hardly surprising that El Salvador has one of the highest murder rates in the world and suffers under the weight of an exploding prison population, a situation made worse by the U.S. policy of mass repatriation of Salvadoran nationals deemed criminals.
Against the backdrop of deep economic inequality, Sánchez Cerén has pledged to expand the popular social spending programs initiated by the outgoing FMLN capitalist government, of which he was a part. In response, Quijano hysterically accused him of wanting to follow in the footsteps of such bourgeois populists as the late Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, whose oil revenue-financed reforms benefiting poor and working people continue to raise the ire of U.S.-backed right-wing forces in that country. Despite Sánchez Cerén’s protestations that he has no intentions of emulating Chávez, Quijano managed to narrow Sánchez Cerén’s lead in the second round of the elections by fuming that his supposedly leftist policies would bring chaos and violence. Evoking painful memories of the civil war, Quijano even intimated that the army would intervene to prevent Sánchez Cerén from assuming office.
After a succession of military governments beginning in the early 1930s and then two decades of ARENA rule from 1989, the FMLN first took the reins of government in 2009 when Mauricio Funes was elected president and Sánchez Cerén vice president. A journalist with sympathies for the FMLN during the civil war, Funes was never a rebel, joining the party in 2008. Sánchez Cerén, on the other hand, is strongly identified with the courageous guerrilla struggle against the U.S.-backed butchers.
A former grade school teacher, Sánchez Cerén was an activist in the teachers union who moved closer to the rebels in the 1970s as a wave of bloody repression befell Salvadoran union leaders. Under the nom de guerre of Comandante Leonel González, he rose to become one of the top five FMLN leaders. Even when he was speaking of the need to eradicate capitalism, Sánchez Cerén was known in the rebel movement as an advocate of “dialogue” with the blood-drenched junta. Later, he served as a negotiator in the UN-sponsored “peace” accords that ended the civil war in 1992 but left the ARENA death squad regime in power.
Since then, Sánchez Cerén has explicitly pushed for reforming capitalism under the guise of promoting equal distribution of wealth. In his book La Guerra Que No Quisimos: El Salvador, 1980-1992 (The War We Didn’t Want: El Salvador, 1980-1992, published in 2013), he contends that the FMLN picked up the gun as the only way to win “democracy,” and refers to the guerrilla struggle as having been “patriotic.” During the election campaign, Sánchez Cerén pledged to protect private property and businesses in the name of reaching out to all Salvadorans, showing exactly what kind of democracy he meant. And in a nod to the Catholic hierarchy and social conservatives, he is steering clear of legalizing abortion—in a country where mainly poor women are imprisoned as a result of an absolute ban on the medical procedure, which should be free and available.
Sánchez Cerén will now assume chief responsibility for the bourgeois state apparatus—not least the military—whose purpose is to enforce the rule of the exploiters and oppressors. In anticipation, he has taken steps to reassure his onetime foes. Extending an olive branch to the bloodstained ARENA killers, he called for reconciliation and unity shortly after the election results were announced. He also has promised to maintain good relations with the U.S. imperialists. No wonder that William Walker, who had been U.S. ambassador to El Salvador from 1988 to 1992, could opine that Washington “should not fear the prospect of another five years of F.M.L.N. rule” (New York Times, 30 January).
The FMLN and
the Salvadoran Civil War
A few months before the outbreak of the civil war, we wrote in “Massacre on the Cathedral Steps” (WV No. 233, 8 June 1979):
“Little-known El Salvador is itself practically a caricature of a nineteenth-century Latin American oligarchic dictatorship in which a strutting military caudillo rules a country where 14 families have traditionally lorded it over a mass of impoverished peones. As one Salvadorean priest said, ‘The peasants live like serfs in Europe 400 years ago’.”
Earlier in the 20th century, these oppressive agrarian relations had triggered the first Communist-led uprising in the Americas, a 1932 revolt in which landless peasants rose up against the oligarchs. In retaliation, over a few short weeks some 30,000 people were killed in la matanza (the massacre). Subsequently, the peasants and workers were held in check by the longest continuous military dictatorship in Latin America.
In 1980, rising social discontent exploded over the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was seen as an advocate for the poor and oppressed. Opposition groups—including labor unions, peasant associations, social-democratic parties and the Salvadoran Communist Party—united to form the FMLN, which adopted the name of the leader of the 1932 uprising, Agustín Farabundo Martí, for its banner. The FMLN espoused an eclectic mix of Stalinism and petty-bourgeois nationalism. Its main left groups had bases in mass organizations of workers, peasants and the urban poor and links to rural laborers and teachers. For example, the United People’s Action Front controlled the country’s largest union federation, which represented electrical workers, among others.
Soon after it was founded, the FMLN launched a military campaign against government forces, which Washington had helped train and equip for decades. When Reagan entered the White House, he picked up where his Democratic predecessor had left off and began sending rifles, grenade launchers and helicopters, as well as dispatching “advisers” to the country. Despite this U.S. aid to the ruling junta, the guerrillas were able to take control of significant parts of the country by the middle of 1981 and fight the war to a draw by the end of the decade. The stalemate was brought home by a November 1989 FMLN offensive, in which rebels managed to dig in and hold on to sections of San Salvador for days, despite heavy aerial bombing, only to withdraw—without organizing a mass insurrection that could have overwhelmed the army.
This failure was not primarily a matter of battlefield miscalculation: the FMLN’s aim was a “negotiated settlement,” not a military victory, to make it possible to form a government with a “democratic” section of the ruling class, i.e., a capitalist government. Such popular fronts—class-collaborationist coalitions in which one or more workers parties join with bourgeois forces to rule on behalf of the capitalists—have time and again paved the way for the triumph of reaction, such as the 1973 Pinochet coup in Chile. The presence of politicians from tiny bourgeois parties in the FMLN’s political wing, the Revolutionary Democratic Front, was a pledge in advance to the oligarchs and U.S. imperialists that guerrilla leaders would not attempt to transcend the boundaries of the capitalist system. Its corollary was not undertaking an all-out mobilization of the exploited and oppressed masses to win the war.
The struggle for a rebel victory in the raging civil war was thus the cutting edge of the fight for proletarian opposition to the popular front. At that time, El Salvador had the largest working class in Central America, concentrated in San Salvador, where industry had rapidly expanded in the 1960s and ’70s. A military victory of the guerrillas would have served as a catalyst for heightened working-class struggle. As we wrote at the time, “A workers revolution in El Salvador is impossible without military victory of the leftist insurgents.... Military victory of the left would open a period of dual power, posing the need for and direct possibility of a revolution that would sweep away the entire capitalist state” (“Smash the Junta, Workers to Power!” WV No. 283, 19 June 1981). Moreover, socialist revolution in El Salvador could have ignited working-class struggle throughout Latin America and in the very belly of the U.S. imperialist beast. The element necessary to lead such a struggle was a workers party committed to a revolutionary internationalist program. This is no less true today.
“Defense of Cuba, USSR Begins in El Salvador!”
In the years leading up to the “peace” accords, FMLN leaders increasingly dumped their anti-capitalist rhetoric in the hopes of winning a seat at the table with Washington. The September 1990 FMLN “Proclamation to the Nation” calling for a “democratic revolution” did not even make the usual obligatory nods to “socialism” in the by and by. This process of cleansing the FMLN of the Marxist stigma was given greater impetus by the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union in 1991-92, which removed from the international stage the main counterweight to the imperialists. The USSR had issued from the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, the first successful proletarian revolution in history. Despite its degeneration at the hands of the Stalinist bureaucracy beginning in 1923-24, the Soviet workers state remained the chief target of the imperialist powers, centrally the U.S.
From the start of the civil war, the U.S. rulers had declared that their support for the military junta and ARENA butchers was necessary for “containing communism” in Latin America. ARENA’s anthem to this day includes the bloodcurdling cry: “El Salvador will be the tomb where the Reds meet their end.” As we stated in “El Salvador: There Is No Peace” (WV No. 542, 10 January 1992), written a few days after the accords were signed:
“The demise of the guerrilla war in El Salvador, like the 1990 election defeat of the leftist Sandinistas by contra-linked forces next door in Nicaragua, directly reflects the collapse of the Stalinist regimes in East Europe and the Soviet Union. For the fighting in the isthmus was no isolated ‘regional conflict’ but a hotspot of U.S. imperialism’s anti-Soviet Cold War. The origin of the Salvadoran conflict was when the Reagan administration soon after taking office in 1981 vowed to ‘draw the line’ against ‘Communist subversion’ in Central America.”
In so doing, Washington was reasserting its imperialist claim to its own backyard as well as taking aim at the USSR and the Cuban deformed workers state, where capitalism was overturned following the seizure of power by Castro’s forces in 1959. Reagan presented the FMLN (along with the Sandinistas and leftist guerrilla forces in Guatemala) as Soviet proxies in order to prepare and mobilize the U.S. population for an actual war with the Soviet bloc. Yet the Soviet leadership treacherously abstained from providing military or financial support to the FMLN during the war, as it feared a victory of the Salvadoran working masses might well inspire a proletarian challenge to its own parasitic rule. Ditto the Stalinist regime in Havana, with Castro advising the leftist insurgents in Central America to not follow the “Cuban road”—that is, overthrow capitalist rule in sheer self-defense. After capitalist restoration in the USSR, the U.S. imperialists no longer needed to demonize the FMLN as a surrogate for the Soviet “Evil Empire,” removing a prime motivation for the civil war.
In the 1980s, reformist left groups in the U.S. like the Socialist Workers Party and Workers World Party (WWP), not to mention the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), politically supported the FMLN’s sellout program for a negotiated settlement. Today, the Party for Socialism and Liberation, a split from the WWP, still politically supports the bourgeois FMLN, as expressed in its “Solidarity Statement to the FMLN” (30 January) lauding Sánchez Cerén and his running mate as “exemplary leaders in the struggle for the victory of the Salvadoran people.”
In contrast, the Spartacist League/U.S., while giving the FMLN no political support, demanded during the civil war: “Military victory to the leftist insurgents!” We opposed the negotiated settlement pushed by guerrilla leaders and the reformists, calling to “Smash junta terror in El Salvador—For workers revolution!” And to underscore our unconditional military defense of the Soviet and Cuban workers states against imperialism, we insisted, “Defense of Cuba and USSR begins in El Salvador!” The SL and its supporters in industry also urged longshore unions to boycott military matériel destined for Washington’s right-wing killers in Central America. At the same time, we had to fend off both physical attacks and political censorship directed at us by the reformists, who built protests centered around Democratic Party politicians to bolster the case for a sellout deal.
FMLN Allies with
When its years-long effort to achieve a negotiated settlement came to fruition in 1992, the FMLN was recognized as a political party, enabling it to run in local and national elections. The former guerrillas were made to turn in their weapons, and some joined the new National Civilian Police together with their death squad enemies. The FMLN also backed a modified version of the ARENA government’s Public Private Partnership Law, which has met with labor opposition, including a 2002-03 strike by doctors and health care workers that defeated an attempt to privatize some public health services.
After taking the presidency in 2009, the FMLN under Funes and Sánchez Cerén doubled government spending on health care and provided free school meals, uniforms, shoes and supplies. The Family Agriculture Plan distributed free fertilizer, seeds and low-cost credit to small family farmers. Over 17,000 land titles were transferred to peasants. The FMLN also created some new jobs while providing temporary financial assistance for the unemployed and creating pensions for the poor. Nonetheless, such measures invariably fell far short of what is needed in an impoverished country beholden to U.S. imperialism.
Meanwhile, the deep roots of organized crime in the country gave the FMLN government the pretext to further strengthen the repressive apparatus of the Salvadoran capitalist state. Even as the “iron fist” policing introduced by ARENA was continued, Funes expanded the military by 57 percent in his first two and a half years in office, deploying three battalions to patrol urban areas alongside the police. He even made a former military officer head of domestic security until the courts overturned this appointment as unconstitutional. The 2010 “Gang Prohibition Act” unleashed the police to conduct mass arrests of suspected gang members, with tattoos considered sufficient “evidence” of criminal activity. In a country in which some 40 percent of the population is under 18 years old, Sánchez Cerén in 2012 hatched a scheme as Minister of Education that allowed cops to pose as coaches and patrol “gang-infested” schools in order to spy on youths!
Such measures earned Funes the praise of U.S. Commander-in-Chief Obama, whose administration has poured money into the Salvadoran military. By assisting the U.S. in prosecuting the “war on gangs” and the “war on drugs” in Latin America, the first FMLN government served as a regional cop for Yankee imperialism, signing on to the FBI’s MS-13 National Gang Task Force. Originally formed in 2004 and continued under the FMLN administration, this task force exchanges intelligence among U.S. and Central American law enforcement agencies. The Funes/Sánchez Cerén government also supported the Transnational Anti-Gang Unit and its associated Central American Fingerprint Exploitation initiative, which supply biometric records from Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize and Honduras for FBI databases.
In 2005, ARENA semi-secretly established the San Salvador branch of the U.S.-sponsored International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA), whose graduates usually join the Salvadoran National Police and go on to combat “drug trafficking” and “international terrorism.” CISPES reports that the ILEA functions like the notorious School of the Americas, which trained Latin American death squad leaders in the 1980s. The FMLN has maintained cooperation with the ILEA. In the same vein, the FMLN government’s Minister of Foreign Affairs in March 2013 signed an agreement with the U.S. ambassador to establish a joint anti-drug task force.
We Marxists are opposed to the so-called war on drugs, which is a cover for social control and the mass incarceration of black people and Latinos in the U.S. and for imperialist military intervention abroad. While drug addiction, like alcoholism, can have dangerous physical consequences, it is a personal and medical matter, not one for the police. We call for the decriminalization of drugs and for free drug treatment services. We also oppose the “war on gangs”—whether in the U.S., El Salvador or elsewhere—because it criminalizes poor and working-class youth and is accompanied by more laws that increase the capitalist state’s repressive powers, which will ultimately be used against workers and the poor.
For Workers Revolutions Throughout the Americas!
Sánchez Cerén talks of doing more to help the poor while advancing a bourgeois program of tax reforms, greater foreign investment, outreach to the Salvadoran private sector and defense of private property. No matter whether the FMLN or ARENA is in power, the capitalist government will not and cannot fundamentally improve the lot of the working and impoverished masses. As in other economically backward and dependent countries, El Salvador’s bourgeois rulers are chained to the imperialists by thousands of economic, political, social and military strings. As Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution teaches, the tasks of social liberation—from satisfying peasants’ land hunger and alleviating rural poverty to shaking off the rapacious oligarchy and their imperialist masters—fall to the working class at the head of the oppressed masses. This lesson was given stunning confirmation in the Bolshevik-led 1917 October Revolution in Russia.
A working-class socialist revolution in El Salvador would immediately confront a host of capitalist foes among its Central American neighbors, as well as elsewhere in Latin America, and above all the U.S. imperialist behemoth. This points to the inextricable link between proletarian revolution in El Salvador and elsewhere on the continent. As we stated in “For Workers Revolution in El Salvador!” (WV No. 271, 2 January 1981), written in the midst of the Salvadoran civil war:
“The Central American statelets, which emerged from colonial rule as a single federal state, have never been viable as independent economic or political units....
“In the face of likely imperialist intervention, and merely to defeat their ‘own’ bourgeoisie, forces seeking proletarian revolution anywhere in Central America will face defeat if they limit themselves by artificial national frontiers.”
Today, some two million Salvadorans live in El Norte, concentrated in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., New York City and other metropolitan areas. In the U.S., the Salvadoran population has been drawn into the organized labor movement, where it has played an active role in unions representing janitors and hotel and restaurant workers. These workers can be a human bridge to the Salvadoran proletariat back home. The task posed is the forging of revolutionary workers parties from Latin America to the U.S. to link the struggles of working people and direct them toward shattering the framework of capitalism in the Americas and beyond.