from Pressure Points and Middle East Program

Does the United States Favor Democracy in El Salvador?

July 18, 2012

Blog Post

Having undermined democracy in Honduras in 2009 and watched democracy disappear in Nicaragua as the Sandinistas regained power in 2011, it is perhaps not surprising that the Obama administration appears indifferent to the disappearance of democracy in El Salvador. But it is tragic to see the FMLN, the old communist guerrillas’ party, starting to subvert what has been decades of democracy since the Salvadoran civil war ended.

The Washington Post explains the current situation in an editorial:

The FMLN has forged an alliance with splinter parties in the National Assembly and launched a power struggle with the country’s Supreme Court. That a similar battle over the control of Nicaragua’s judiciary accompanied the revival of Daniel Ortega and the Sandinista movement is lost on few in San Salvador.

Leaders of El Salvador’s civil society, business community and Catholic Church ... fear that if the FMLN succeeds in subordinating the court it will move to consolidate control over other institutions, including those governing elections. That was the model followed by Mr. Chavez, Mr. Ortega and the leaders of Ecuador and Bolivia.

Leading the charge for the FMLN is El Salvador’s vice president, the former comandante Salvador Sanchez Ceren, who is the FMLN’s 2014 presidential candidate. In March, the opposition ARENA party won the parliamentary elections; the FMLN won only 31 of 84 seats. It looks unlikely, then, that democracy will give the FMLN the power it seeks, which helps explain why the Post fears it will seek power through extra-constitutional means just as Ortega, Chavez, and others have.

What’s the U.S. position? We’re neutral, as the Post describes:

The Obama administration has expressed concern about the political conflict but avoided taking sides. Like the church, it is urging the opposing parties in the National Assembly to negotiate a solution. Even if the current crisis can be defused, however, the FMLN has picked a leader and embarked on a course that threatens El Salvador’s hard-won stability and democracy. Given its close ties to the country, reinforced by the large Salvadoran immigrant population here, the United States has a strong interest in defending the constitutional order.

Indeed we do. We have failed to undertake that task in Honduras or Nicaragua, so there is little reason to think we will do very much in El Salvador. But the Obama administration might then leave office next year having presided over a deep degradation of democracy in Central America. Our new and very capable assistant secretary of state for the region, Roberta Jacobson, sent were what I thought were the wrong signals when she spoke at a press conference on July 12:

This is clearly something that Salvadorans have to resolve, that we have said clearly... I have said it in El Salvador but our Ambassador ... has said publicly that we really do urge in the strongest terms possible that the two sides of this dispute really try and come together and resolve it. And I think that’s important. It is a Salvadoran dispute to resolve; it is not ours to opine on how it gets resolved. We would just like to see it resolved.

That’s wrong: We would like to see it resolved in a way that maintains Salvadoran democracy and prevents the FMLN from doing there what has been done in Venezuela and Nicaragua to undermine democracy. When the FMLN acts to subvert Salvadoran institutions, we should say so.