My, how things change. On March 9, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, former commander of the most formidable Marxist guerrilla force in Latin America's history, El Salvador's Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), will almost certainly be elected president of his country. While a few of the neoconservative old guard have taken to print to wring their hands about what a Sanchez Ceren victory might mean, most mainstream analysts and political leaders seem unconcerned.
Thirty-plus years ago, the FMLN was Washington's worst nightmare. Soon after President Reagan took office, Jeane Kirkpatrick, his new UN Ambassador, told Congress that Central America, especially El Salvador, was "the most important place in the world for the United States today." In April 1983, Reagan spoke to both houses of Congress to insist that the FMLN and Nicaragua's ruling Sandinistas were an imminent threat as Soviet-Cuban proxies, requiring a massive commitment of US military aid.
Ultimately, propping up El Salvador's right wing government became the largest U.S. military commitment between Vietnam and the First Gulf War. It cost six billion dollars and led to 75,000 dead in a country the size of Massachusetts, mostly civilians killed by the U.S.-backed military and government death squads, according to an authoritative UN report. The war dragged on, as the FMLN consolidated its rural strongholds and the U.S. bolstered the Salvadoran armed forces. Finally, as the Cold War ended, all sides recognized a military stalemate, and UN-brokered negotiations brought free elections in 1994.
Nowadays, Sanchez Ceren is a grandfatherly figure, generally regarded as incorruptible. Not even the most fervid anti-communists have accused him of Pol Pot tendencies. His organization within the FMLN, the Popular Liberation Forces (FPL), doggedly pursued a "prolonged popular war" strategy eschewing urban terrorism or high-profile insurrections. Originally a split-off from El Salvador's Communists, the FPL embraced peasant organizing, and allied themselves with followers of Liberation Theology. The base they built has paid off for them electorally. Sanchez Ceren originally joined the clandestine organization as an activist in the national teachers union, ANDES-21, a main target of the death squads in the 1970s.
Since 1994, the FMLN has largely dominated El Salvador's cities, but repeatedly lost presidential elections to their right-wing rivals, the ARENA party, founded in 1982 by the notorious Major Roberto D'Aubuisson as the electoral expression of death-squad anti-communism. A modernized ARENA pursued neoliberal capitalism with few results in macroeconomic terms, but the peace has largely been kept, although El Salvador saw an explosion of postwar gang violence. Finally, in 2009, the FMLN won the presidency by nominating Mauricio Funes, an independent journalist untainted by the war. Sanchez Ceren was his vice-president.
Since then, Funes and the FMLN implemented agricultural subsidies to rural families, and modest boosts in education and health programs, all along the lines of the popular "bolsa familia" programs in Brazil, which raised living standards and earned enormous goodwill for President "Lula" da Silva's Workers Party. They also brokered a controversial truce between the major street gangs, which has brought down homicides, while generating debate. ARENA, caught up in corruption scandals, proposed putting the army back in the streets to attack the gangs, and Sanchez Ceren outpaced the ARENA candidate 49% to 38%, almost avoiding a run-off.
In office, no one expects Sanchez Ceren to make El Salvador another Cuba. If the FMLN ever had that intention, they gave it up long ago. Nationalizing businesses would serve no purpose, and there is no Soviet Union ready to guarantee economic survival. The FMLN has enjoyed a positive relationship with Venezuela's populist-socialist government, and Sanchez Ceren certainly hopes to pursue beneficial trade and development strategies. But Venezuela is consumed at the moment by its own internal problems, and, in any case, Sanchez Ceren will seek to maintain good relations with a range of countries, including the U.S. (home to more than 1.2 million Salvadorans), Brazil, and China.
But whether El Salvador's new president tilts towards Brazil or Venezuela is not the point in historical terms. The only reason Sanchez Ceren is alive and his party is a powerful electoral force is because they took up arms in the first place, a point that all of Latin America understands vividly. They have transformed Salvadoran political culture, once so repressive that critics of the ruling elite risked their lives. In the 1970s, El Salvador's military rulers twice violently nullified electoral victories by a broad center-left coalition of Christian Democrats, social democrats, and Communists. The organizations that founded the FMLN in 1980 all came out of that experience of brutal repression. They fought their long war because they had no other choice, as U.S. allies like France and Mexico realized as early as 1981, when they recognized the FMLN as a combatant force under international law. Nowadays, they are competing in, and winning, elections in El Salvador, and under President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry, the U.S. proclaims its neutrality and accepts the FMLN's legitimacy. We should remember that when Funes and his vice-president attended their first Organization of American States meeting in 2009, the assembled leaders of the Americas gave the former guerrilla comandante a standing ovation. They understood his vindication, and so should we.