“The oligarchy must learn to live with the Frente:” Funes

El Salvador's first left-wing president analyzes the situation in his country ahead of elections on February 2

The president of El Salvador, Mauricio Funes, during an interview.
The president of El Salvador, Mauricio Funes, during an interview.JÉSSICA ORELLANA

Mauricio Funes’ back hurts. “I have a herniated disk, between the fourth and fifth vertebrae.” But the president of El Salvador says he will not undergo surgery until after the elections. Until then, he uses a folding aluminum walking stick for support.

Funes won the 2009 elections with the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN). It was the first time that the former guerrilla group, now turned political party, gained power since the Peace Accords that ended the civil war in 1992.

On Sunday, the front-running FMLN will try to win re-election with a new candidate, former guerrilla commander Salvador Sánchez Cerén. But neither the incumbent party nor the opposition conservatives of Arena are expected to win enough votes for a clear victory, and will likely face off again in a second round in March.

It is 1.30pm on Wednesday, January 22 and the president has just reached his office after attending an event at a hospital in San Salvador. The television screen shows footage of the recently ended event, and Funes, a journalist by trade, carefully watches the coverage of his own speech. The screen then shows his right-wing opponent, the odontologist Norman Quijano, who claims that the president is "offering protection" to street gangs.

“Liar,” Funes tells the screen.

Gang violence has been the single greatest challenge of the Funes administration. The problem is somewhat subdued since gang leaders negotiated a truce in March 2012 in exchange for prison benefits. The homicide rate has since fallen from around 70 per 100,000 inhabitants to an average of 39 per 100,000 in 2013. But the down side of that is that the right accuses him of negotiating deals with criminals.

Funes replies that the agreement was an internal decision among gang leaders and that his government simply “facilitated” the process to help curtail a spiraling epidemic of deaths.

Question. But what do you mean by “facilitating”?

Answer. Gang leaders in maximum security jails and other penitentiaries decided one day not to attack one another over territorial disputes and to break the cycle of revenge. I think they became convinced that it made no sense to keep killing each other off. But they needed to convey this message to the gang members on the outside, and they could not communicate because they were under special control measures. The government transferred some gang leaders to prisons with fewer restrictions, but always within the law, and that enabled them to communicate more directly with their bases through relatives.

Q. And you think that those leaders decided on a truce in order to save lives?

A. I think they realized they were paying the greatest price.

Q. They were not seeking penitentiary benefits?

A. We did not give them penitentiary benefits. It's been said that the government allowed them more intimate visits, changes to their eating regime, or plasma TV sets for their leisure hours. This is contemplated by penitentiary law, it is part of the rehabilitation policy that inmates can improve their diet and have access to entertainment.

Q. So the truce was not your initiative?

A. No, it was neither my initiative nor an initiative of the public security authorities.

Funes, 54, is a talkative man. He speaks at length about drug trafficking, saying that it is a problem but that El Salvador does not suffer from it “in the same order of magnitude” as other countries do. He says he does not favor drug regulation, and instead feels that the key to solving the problem lies in lowering demand from the United States.

As for the economy, in 2013 El Salvador ranked third to last in terms of growth across Latin America, posting a figure of 1.7 percent. Funes argues that the previous government left him a “depressed” economy and that he also had to deal with the recession in the US, the country’s greatest trade partner.

Funes also discussed his party’s new presidential candidate, Sánchez Cerén, who is his own deputy.

Q. People say he is a “Bolivarian” candidate.

A. That is not true. That is a distorted vision of the evolution that the FMLN has experienced. There is no doubt that the party identifies with the transformations that have taken place in Venezuela, but that does not mean that Sánchez Cerén is going to make the kinds of decisions that are being made in Venezuela. The FMLN is a pragmatic team that has adapted to the new circumstances. Sánchez Cerén is a historic FMLN commander with a Marxist background, but that does not mean that he has not learned how to govern, especially as vice-president of the Republic. He has realized what is possible and what it is impossible to do.

Q. What is it that’s impossible to do?

A. We cannot introduce a Cuban-type or Venezuelan-type regime; we cannot afford a confrontation with the US when a third of our population lives there.

Q. The FLMN began as a guerrilla group that opposed the private powers that be. During your mandate, did you notice any reticence from the business sector when it came to working with a left-wing government?

A. Of course. Under 20 years of Arena government a corporate state was set up answering to the interests of the main economic groups. With my government they lost that possibility of influencing the state. I tried to build different relations with the business groups, but they failed to understand that they could no longer utilize the state to their own benefit.

Q. Does it still make sense in El Salvador to talk about an oligarchy that is oppressing the poor?

A. It still makes sense to talk about an oligarchy that is trying to wrest back the power of the state to continue oppressing the poor.

Q. Is it possible for El Salvador to develop without conciliation?

A. There needs to be conciliation. The oligarchy needs to learn to live with the Frente.

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