In the 1980s members of AFT 2121, the City College of San Francisco faculty union, formed COSANDES, the Committee in Solidarity with the Teachers Union of El Salvador. At that time the movement for social justice in El Salvador was enduring savage repression and over 300 Salvadoran teachers had been killed by the U.S. backed military. The United States has a long history of backing repressive dictatorships in Latin America and El Salvador was no exception.

It has been 30 years since I was an active member of COSANDES, but I recently returned to El Salvador to participate in the CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador) electoral observer delegation. We observed the February 2 election in which the FMLN (Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberation Nacional) presidential ticket, led by the former guerilla commander and school teacher Salvador Sanchez Ceren, won 49% of the vote, just shy of the required 50% to avoid a runoff with the extreme right-wing ARENA party which, despite the backing of the mass media, only received 39% of the vote.

Most amazing about El Salvador is the high degree of political awareness of the population. A large segment of the population understands what the 20 year neoliberal agenda of ARENA had done to the country and appreciate the social programs that the FMLN has implemented since winning the presidency in 2009. Even without the control of the National Assembly, the FMLN has been able to provide the “school package” of uniforms, shoes, and supplies to over one million poor children, a monthly stipend for older people unable to work, single stop centers for abused and low income women, and new free health clinics in rural areas. Promoting its popular social programs and explaining how 20 years of Arena’s “free trade” policies had damaged the economy and harmed local industries is a key part of the FMLN campaign strategy.

There was a consensus among the more than 60 electoral observers in our delegation that the election was fair and transparent. Observing the process in many cities and voting locations, we were impressed by the set up, carrying out of the voting, and the counting and submitting of vote totals at the end of the day. There was surprisingly little tension, and the poll workers and observers, who were representing the three major parties, worked together respectfully with only occasional minor conflicts.

The Role of the U.S.

Throughout the 12 year civil war of the 1980s, the U.S. gave the Salvadoran military over $1 million a day of aid as well as help in training (and sometimes combat) in an effort to prevent the FMLN from coming to power. After the peace accords were signed in 1992, the FMLN became a political party, and the United States continued to interfere in El Salvador through its domination of the country’s economy and its support of the right-wing Arena Party. Before previous presidential elections, US politicians threatened to deny Salvadorans living in the U.S. the right to stay in the country and to send home remittances to their families if the FMLN candidate were to win. Now under pressure from CISPES and other activists, Ambassador Maria Aponte has issued a statement of neutrality in the elections stating that the United States intends to work with the new government, regardless which candidate is victorious.

The Campaigns

The FMLN implemented a savvy and determined political campaign to forge an FMLN victory on February 2. To be sure, the better funded right-wing parties Arena and the Unidad Party, whose candidate is the former Arena president Tony Saca, had the advantage of support of the dominant corporate news media. But even the rightwing media has been forced to prominently cover the country’s most popular party albeit with clearly biased coverage. Nevertheless, the FMLN has been competitive in terms of the visual aspects of the campaign by mounting much larger street mobilizations and evidenced by the widespread presence with its red flags waving from rooftops in especially the poorer neighborhoods.

The Arena Party’s campaign accuses the FMLN administration of President Mauricio Funes of not doing enough to prevent gang violence and street crime, which continues to plague the daily life of Salvadorans. However, the violence has been sharply reduced over the past two years. In addition, the Arena Party accuses the FMLN of jeopardizing international investments and economic assistance through its opposition to privatization efforts. The United States backed Millennium Challenge Corporation, for instance, has threatened to withhold $500 million in aid if the Salvadoran government does not agree to extend privatization to water, education, and health care through the proposed public private partnership law, which is back by Arena.

However, with a large core of youthful activists, the savvy political campaign and a substantial amount of unity, the FMLN received 1.3 million votes, about 300,000 more than second place Arena. Although the FMLN missed obtaining the required 50% of the vote needed for a first round victory, it has an excellent chance of winning the March 9 runoff election. There is widespread hope in the air for an El Salvador with greater social justice.