El Salvador: 'A new progressive hope for Latin America'

Monday, July 28, 2014
FMLN President Salvador Sanchez Ceren with supporters.

Marta Harnecker, a veteran Chilean-born author and politcal analyst who as an advisor to the government of late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez between 2004-11, spoke to Jose P. Gurrero about the new left-wing government in El Salvador.

Originally published in El Siglo XXI, the weekly newspaper of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) in El Salvador, the interview was translated by Federico Fuentes and an abridged version is published below. The full interview can be read at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal.

What does the triumph of FMLN candidate Salvador Sanchez Ceren, in the March 9 presidential elections in El Salvador represent for Latin America?

I see his victory as very significant because it not only further strengthens the progressive current expanding through Latin America since the 1998 triumph of Chavez in Venezuela, but because he is the first president since Chile's Salvador Allende to reach the presidency by putting forward a project that he had no qualms in calling socialist.

At the same time, he has explained socialism as a democratic, participatory project that is not decreed from above.

This idea is extremely important to me: you cannot build a new society if the people themselves are not involved in its construction. It is not about providing gifts to the people, it is not about resolving peoples’ problems from above.

The organised people, together with the government, are what make change possible.

The first example of this is the way in which he carried out the election campaign. To define his program, he decided to go to the people to discuss it with them, ask their opinions, and open his ears to the voice of the people.

What does this triumph mean for El Salvador?

I think that another battle has been won in El Salvador, but not the war. You have won government, but that is not the same as having taken power.

We are dealing with a process of peaceful, institutional transition, with many limitations that need to be understood. A broad national majority is needed to advance in a democratic manner towards a new society, and the president is very clear on that.

Therefore, not only is the unity of revolutionaries fundamental; we must also be capable of uniting all who share a common vision for a more just and solidarity-based society.

This includes not only the left, but also the centre and some business sectors that might be willing to collaborate with a popular project.

You have said that the inherited state apparatus cannot be destroyed overnight. Could you develop this point further?

In the past, the left always worked off the idea of destroying the bourgeois state, just like what occurred in the revolutions at the start and middle of the 20th century.

These were revolutions that grew out of civil wars or imperialist wars, where the armed people conquered power by destroying the inherited state apparatus.

That is why I can understand why some sectors feel disorientated when they see that the situation today is quite different.

First, we have to be clear that, electorally, we have only won government, the executive power. In many cases, we do not have a majority in parliament, that is, the legislative power, or [control] the judicial power.

Furthermore, there are other powers: money, media and military power. We have won a small piece of power.

The issue is how do we work towards conquering other spaces of power and how do we continue winning over more people to our project.

Can 'Living Well' [a concept raised during the election campaign] be built from the inherited state?

These processes can be helped along enormously, as long as revolutionaries inhabit the inherited state. From the government, and with political will, you can create conditions that allow the people to be the builders of their own destiny.

For this to occur, we must ask ourselves what are the ideal spaces for peoples’ participation?

In Venezuela, Chavez promoted communal councils: based on 200 to 400 families in the city, 100 to 200 families in the countryside and less in remote rural areas. The idea is that the people organise themselves and learn to resolve their problems through their own initiatives.

Participation cannot be reduced to voting every once in a while, or mobilising, or debating. It is fundamentally about making decisions on the basis of having received adequate information.

But it is not enough to just make decisions, because they can end up as a dead letter. The people need to organise themselves to watch over these projects and make sure they are carried out, and in the correct manner.

That is why social monitoring, over public works as well as the functioning of public services in general, is fundamental.

To carry out the required transformations, the government has as its starting point the inherited state apparatus. But to succeed it must understand that popular pressure is fundamental to aiding its struggle against this apparatus.

At the same time, FMLN members and the Salvadoran people need to understand that this apparatus cannot be destroyed overnight, because we do not have the strength to do so. We need to transform it bit by bit, conscious of the fact that along the path of this transformation there exists dangers, such as bureaucratism.

Only an organised, alert people, and a government that understands the need for popular organisation, the need for popular criticism to be able to advance, can overcome these obstacles.

We have to recognise that nothing is perfect and understand that we must confront defects in the most constructive manner possible. Criticism should be well received, but it has to be a constructive criticism that helps cure an illness, that offers an alternative solution.

It is very easy to criticise for the sake of criticising, but much more difficult to propose alternatives.

For example, I know there is a lot of criticism about the military’s involvement in public security issues, but what alternative is being proposed to protect the people if the police are too weak to deal with the issue on their own?

The government has to provide a concrete response to this issue. A broad national dialogue on the issue of crime could perhaps suggest concrete proposals that help resolve the most deeply felt problems of the Salvadoran people.

In this day-to-day struggle to build a new society, we have to be capable of detecting the main enemy ― the main obstacle blocking our advance ― in order to concentrate our fire.

I understand that in your case, the main obstacle is the fascist Salvadoran elite, represented by the most recalcitrant sectors of [the right-wing opposition party] ARENA.

The key task is being capable of mobilising all those social sectors in contradiction with this ARENA-based oligarchy, no matter how small the contradiction may be.

The political project of the FMLN ties in with the South American experiences of Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador. What is your opinion regarding the peculiarity of El Salvador?

I see differences. You cannot compare Venezuela, a big country with enormous oil wealth ― this is the revolutionary process that has been able to count on more resources than any other in the world ― with El Salvador.

El Salvador is a very small country, without much natural wealth, in a geographical situation that is very complicated, with the presence of a strong fascist right.

On the other hand, the big advantage that El Salvador has, in my opinion, is precisely its history, its tradition of struggle, the level of popular organisation that has been achieved and the presence of a very solid political organisation.

[When Chavez was first elected] Venezuela did not have these things. It did not have strong social organisation, it did not have strong leftist parties.

The Salvadoran process, as opposed to the other processes occuring in South America, has experienced more radical, more heroic struggles. These cost a lot of blood, but have also helped forge an important organisation, both before and after the war. This represents a historic memory and a learning process that no one can erase.

The new Salvadoran government has decided to become part of Petrocaribe [an agreement whereby Venezuela sells oil cheaply to Caribbean and Central American nations]. What is the advantage of doing so?

Via this agreement, Venezuelan oil is sold cheaply and with a preferential treatment that allows capital to be invested in social projects for the development of the nation because the loans are done on a long-term basis and with a low interest rate.

When [a former Salvadoran government] refused to enter into the agreement, [late FMLN leader Schafik Handel] saw ― with great intuition ― that municipal laws allowed these institutions to sign up to these types of agreements.

That is why he promoted this course of action via the various local councils run by the FMLN.

This has allowed for the creation not only of an oil company and its 45 petrol stations across the country [under the auspices of the Bolivarian Alliance for the People's of Our Americas ― ALBA, an anti-imperialist trading bloc set up in 2004 by Venezuela and Cuba].

There were also created various associated companies, such as ALBA Food, ALBA Supermarkets, ALBA Fertilizers, ALBA Gas, that have helped rebuild schools, provided scholarships and health care.

Without a doubt, reaching a state-to-state agreement will be of even greater benefit for the whole country.
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From GLW issue 1018