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EL SALVADOR: Growing Tension Between Funes and Ruling Leftwing Party

Edgardo Ayala

SAN SALVADOR, Jul 27 2011 (IPS) - Two years into his term, El Salvador’s first-ever leftwing president, Mauricio Funes, finds himself more and more distanced from the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) that brought him to power and from the promises of change that got him elected, analysts say.

Some of the moves made by Funes have not been the ones expected by the voters who put him in office with 51 percent of the vote in the March 2009 elections.

“He has not lived up to expectations, and I perceive a gradual disillusionment which, like a cup, is filling up drop by drop,” Omar Serrano, a vice rector at the José Simeón Cañas Central American University, told IPS.

Funes, a former CNN journalist and popular TV host, did not even join the leftist FMLN – a former guerrilla group that became a political party after a 1992 peace agreement put an end to 12 years of civil war – until after he was named the party’s candidate.

From the start, it was clear that his relationship with the FMLN was a marriage of convenience. After three consecutive electoral defeats at the hands of the rightwing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) since 1994, the FMLN was looking for a candidate who could attract a broader spectrum of voters.

The party’s gamble worked, but the FMLN and Funes have taken different tacks since the president took office in June 2009.

While the party has taken a harder-line position more in tune with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’s “21st century socialism”, the president has continued to follow the neoliberal economic policies of his ARENA predecessors, but combined with broad social programmes, such as a conditional cash transfer scheme for the poor, a community health care plan, and the distribution of free books and uniforms to students.

In a survey published in June by the University Institute of Public Opinion (IUDOP), more than 50 percent of respondents said the Funes administration had not ushered in significant changes.

Funes’ increasingly close ties with the business community and his distancing from the social organisations that supported him in the campaign have brought him in for harsh criticism from the left and applause from the right.

One move that put the president at loggerheads with his party was his refusal to approve a decree sponsored by the FMLN to eliminate the 9.42 dollars basic fixed telephone charge paid by households with land lines. Arguing that the move would scare off foreign investment, Funes modified the decree.

The charge represented around 120 million dollars in annual revenue for the telephone companies. One of the biggest beneficiaries was the CTE Telecom consortium owned by Mexican magnate Carlos Slim, who visited the country during the election campaign to talk about investment – and express strong support for Funes.

“The conflict in which he backed the telephone companies was one of the first signs that showed which direction he was going to take,” Serrano said.

The latest and most striking incident highlighting the differences between Funes and the FMLN was his Jul. 18 veto of a ban on smoking in public places passed by Congress on Jun. 23.

In vetoing the law, which had strong civil society support and was staunchly opposed by foreign tobacco companies like British American Tobacco, the president argued that the ban excessively regulated private activities and individual freedoms, and hurt the tobacco industry.

“There are better ways to address the negative consequences of tobacco use without the need to establish such a broad-reaching ban,” Funes stated in a document sent to Congress.

But on Jul. 21 the legislature managed to achieve the special majority needed to overturn the president’s veto, thanks to the votes of both the FMLN and ARENA, political rivals who were military enemies during the 1980-1992 armed conflict, and of smaller parties as well.

“For the president, the interests of transnational corporations are more important than those of the majority of the population,” Margarita Posada, director of APROCSAL, the Salvadoran association of community workers, told IPS.

The Pan-American Health Organisation reports that tobacco use is directly linked to hypertension, respiratory disease, heart attacks and strokes – the main causes of preventable death and disability in El Salvador.

PAHO expressed concern over the epidemic of smoking in this country, reporting in a 2009 study that 27 percent of adolescents between the ages of 13 and 15 have smoked at some time and that nearly half of these had smoked their first cigarette before the age of 10.

Posada acknowledged, however, that the government is attempting to introduce social change and improvements, such as an ambitious health reform involving community-based family healthcare teams, which has brought doctors and nurses to the country’s most remote villages. The focus of the teams is on preventive family and community-oriented health care, including sanitation, housing and nutrition.

The Funes administration spent 460 million dollars on social projects in 2010 and will spend 800 million dollars this year.

According to Deputy Minister of Health Violeta Menjívar, the Funes administration has doubled public spending on health care, despite the economic crisis.

In addition, a family farming plan has distributed free seeds and fertiliser to farmers, while providing them with technical assistance and cheap loans. And a universal pension for the elderly now provides an income for thousands of people who had none.

In an interview with the Mexican newspaper La Jornada this month, Funes said he was attacked from both the left and the right. “I am aware that people will be disappointed,” he said. “I never thought utopically, I knew I would distance myself from the people’s long-time aspirations.

“I understand that the trade unions are frustrated, I understand the frustration of the teachers with whom I reached an agreement on wage hikes that we will not be able to fulfil in the agreed-on terms. The problem is I do not have enough funds to improve hospitals, to improve the living conditions of so many people,” he said.

But he added that “despite everything, El Salvador has changed.”

He also said the constant clashes with the FMLN have weakened his mandate.

“There is something I should have done from the start that I didn’t: I should have built a social pact from the very first day. I didn’t do so because I had to fight with the FMLN, which thought it had won the presidency and could dump on the government,” the president said.

“It requires a large dose of sincerity to recognise that some of the old utopias are not possible in El Salvador, given the circumstances of the country when we took over the government,” he said.

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