Alexandra Marshall

Saving El Savador

Originally published in The Boston Globe, March 9, 2009

I visited El Salvador in the month before the infamous tipping-point killings, by government forces, of six Jesuit professors, their housekeeper, and her daughter. The war was in its ninth year, and the purpose of our delegation was to meet with representatives from both sides. I don't speak Spanish, but I heard the discrepancy between the language of those in power – the President and an Army Colonel downgrading the "guerra civil" to "el conflicto"—and the savage stories told by everyone else.

It is no longer disputed that the criminal war in El Salvador was paid for by the American government, nor that, in a country the size of Massachusetts, there were 75,000 mostly civilian deaths. A peace agreement was reached in 1992, but to this day I carry a 5-colónes note in my wallet, a bill with little monetary value and rendered obsolete in 2001, when the country's official currency became the U.S. dollar.

American intervention has persisted with steady support for the ruling hard-right ARENA party, but this week's presidential election could change things. The opposition FMLN has a center-left candidate in Mauricio Funes, whose broad appeal has given him a lead of up to 20% in the polls. Still, his victory is by no means secure. A Salvadoran who went home for the first time in a decade in order to vote in the January round of municipal and legislative elections told me, "People say only one bullet can stop Funes from winning."

Mauricio Funes is a 49 year-old former political journalist whose mentors included two of those six slaughtered Jesuits. Another influence Funes cites in interviews is his older brother, Roberto, a student leader who was kidnapped and killed in 1980, at the start of the war. It is widely noted that Funes is the first FMLN candidate for president never to have been an armed combatant. As a journalist he drew a large and committed television and radio audience because of his ability to appeal, in that polarized society, across the traditional divides.

What this means is that, just as people around the world monitored America's recent historic presidential election results, many will be watching next Sunday's vote in El Salvador with a similar mixture of hope and apprehension.

In the last Salvadoran presidential election five years ago, the Bush administration generated fear among the electorate with explicit statements that an FMLN victory could affect the status of Salvadorans living in the U.S. This proved to be a powerful threat, since these temporary residents send back $3 billion in annual "remittances" that support 22% of Salvadoran families.

This time, there is hope for a different outcome. Letters have been written to President Obama by members of Congress, urging him to pledge to work with whichever candidate wins the election rather than to seek to influence the vote. A similar letter to Secretary-of-State Clinton warns of a highly politicized atmosphere charged by partisan interests, and it contains a September 2008 report citing pre-election instances of increased violence, fraud, and media manipulation, observations endorsed by more than 200 concerned North American academics familiar with Central and Latin American politics. This effort was initiated by Victor Perla, Jr., a Salvadoran-American professor of political science from the University of California at Santa Cruz, who told me in a recent phone conversation, "The point is that political campaigns based on slander, false information, and voter intimidation are a form of electoral fraud, because they limit a voter's ability to freely choose."

"Democracy vs. Authoritarianism," is the shorthand for Mauricio Funes's promise to bring "the change that all of you have dreamed of," and at campaign rallies the broad coalition he has built is already demonstrating its strength in numbers. With the election of President Obama providing pointed reminders of our own Civil War, we in this country have now been given an opportunity to reckon with the injustices of our own violent history. El Salvador's ongoing violence makes its need for reconciling voices more immediate, and Mauricio Funes is offering a uniting voice on behalf of the people. With a word from Washington, the United States could offer another: a word, for a change, of support for those people.