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El Salvador: rise of the left

By Rodrigo Acuña - posted Thursday, 16 April 2009

During the 1980s, the small Central American country of El Salvador often made the news as a civil war raged between a brutal US-backed regime and a leftist insurgency headed by the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN).

When Catholic Archbishop Óscar Romero was assassinated in 1980, followed by the murder of three North American nuns and one lay missionary, international attention on the government's poor human rights record began to take place.

The following year, when up to 1,000 civilians were slaughtered in the village of Mozote by the army's Atlacatl Battalion, further questions were raised about how the Salvadorian government was fighting the insurgency.


Between 1981 and 1987, Ronald Reagan's administration provided the country with $US2.7 billion in military and economic aid making El Salvador at the time the key recipient of US aid in Latin America.

In the past few weeks, El Salvador has once again received international media attention as the FMLN's Mauricio Funes won the presidential elections. Defeating his rival Rodrigo Ávila of the ruling Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) by 51.2 to 48.7 per cent of the vote, the FMLN's victory marks an historic occasion.

Since its independence from Spain in 1821, El Salvador has been ruled by right-wing governments - generally all military dictatorships until the early 1990s.

The ARENA party, “whose leaders were linked to death squads in the 1980s” according to a recent editorial in the Washington Post, has been in power since 1989, and defeated the FMLN in three presidential elections after it became a legal party in 1993.

However, with Funes running as the FMLN's candidate, the 2009 elections saw the party's fortunes turn. A former TV host of the show The Interview with Mauricio Funes, and ex-correspondent for CNN news channel, the 49-year old Funes is “arguably El Salvador's most respected journalist”, according to one observer.

In September 2007, Funes was nominated as the FMLN's preferred presidential candidate and soon joined the party. Funes promised to maintain good relations with the United States, and to restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba. He also promised to put a stop to government complacency with big businesses that evade taxes.


Originally a coalition of five left-wing political parties that unified in 1995, the FMLN has so far avoided the type of controversies and divisions surrounding the Sandinistas in neighbouring Nicaragua; in particular, the shameful deals the incumbent President Daniel Ortega made with the political right during the mid-1990s.

On a personal level, Funes has preferred to ideologically ally himself with Brazil's current centre-left President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva in contrast to Venezuela's Hugo Chávez. While Funes' own wife Vanda Pignato, who is Brazilian, was a founding member of Silva's Workers' Party, it is no secret the FMLN has strong ties to Caracas.

In 2006, FMLN mayors across the country set up ENEPASA, a joint venture energy company designed to provide Salvadorians with cheap fuel. While cities have 90 days to repay 60 per cent of their fuel bills, as noted by Nikolas Kozloff - an observer of Latin America - the remaining debt may be “paid in barter for agricultural and other locally made products or in cash over a 25-year period”.

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First published on March 24, 2009.

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About the Author

Dr Rodrigo Acuña is a educator, writer and expert on Latin America. He has taught at various universities in Australia and has been writing for over ten years on Latin American politics. He currently work as an independent researcher and for the NSW Department of Education. He can be followed on Twitter @rodrigoac7.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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