By KATE KILPATRICK
Salvadorans in the Mission District are watching the close presidential contest in El Salvador with feelings that range from ambivalence to fear.
“There’s too much violence right now in my country for elections,” said 23-year-old Cristina Portillo. “Right now they want to change but I feel scared for this change because I don’t know what will happen.”
Portillo was referring to ongoing violence that has given the country one of the world’s highest murder rates. Former police chief Rodrigo Avila represents the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party that has been in power since 1989. Leftist candidate Mauricio Funes, a former TV journalist and CNN correspondent, represents the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN).
If elected, Funes would end 20 years of one-party rule by ARENA, a party formed by the right during the country’s civil war and one strongly associated with business interests.
Both Portillo and her 21-year-old sister Marina worry Funes, the left candidate, will bring communist rule to El Salvador despite the FMLN’s participation in the democratic process since the civil war ended in 1992.
“I don’t want the left because everybody thinks it will be like Cuba or Venezuela—and we don’t want that,” said 21-year-old Marina. “We’re free right now.”
Her sister Marina added that, “Everybody knows the [ARENA] government steals too much,” but she’s afraid the elections may increase instability.
Abdon Calderón, 61, and his wife Aminta, 57, who own the Antojitos Salvadoreños Aminta pupuseria in the Mission Market mall, said it doesn’t matter which leader wins.
“If ARENA continues—it’s ok. If Funes wins—it’s ok,” explained Abdon, adding that for Salvadorans who live in the United States, neither candidate offers an advantage. Abdon said that whoever wins, the rich will be fine and the poor will continue to suffer. “To live in El Salvador in the middle class is to live in hell,” he said.
In El Salvador, five decades of military dictatorships were followed by more than a decade of civil war between the FMLN and the U.S.-backed government. About 75,000 civilians including the archbishop, four American churchwomen and six Jesuit priests died before the two sides signed peace accords in 1992. A peace commission later attributed the vast majority of the deaths to the military or to right-wing death squads.
The potential for a dramatic shift in El Salvador’s government began with the municipal and legislative elections on Jan. 18. In those, the left lost control of the capital but gained several seats in the Legislative Assembly, surpassing ARENA as the political party with the most seats.
Although unhappy with the successive conservative governments, many Salvadorans fear a leftist government would align with Cuba’s Fidel Castro, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, and to a lesser degree Bolivia’s Evo Morales.
Aminta Calderon, for example, said she worries Funes will make El Salvador “the same as Cuba or Venezula.” “It’s not that I like [Avila],” she said, “but he’s better than the other.”
With the election close, Taca Airlines, headquartered in El Salvador, ran a special promotion for Salvadorans living in the United States who want to fly home so they can vote. Passengers are required to receive a Documento Unico de Identidad (DUI), which also serves as a voter-registration card, to be eligible for the special. Then they can fly from San Francisco to El Salvador between March 12 to 17 for $299 roundtrip.
The regular fare for this period is $651, according to an agent at the Taca office on 17th Street between Mission and Valencia. Although the office was unable to confirm how many promotional seats were sold, they did say the promotion sold out.
In January, the Latin American activist groups Cispes, NACLA and Upside Down World released a joint report on the 2009 El Salvador Elections. According to the report, “ARENA administrations have made El Salvador one of Washington’s closest allies in the region and a poster-child of the free-market, neoliberal politics that have plunged millions into poverty throughout Latin America.” They believe the new leadership in Washington bodes well for El Salvador.
But on the flip side, many Salvadorans fear an FLMN government would impair relations with the United States, where an estimated one in four Salvadorans live and last year sent home $3.8 billion. The remittances account for 17% of the country’s GDP, and Salvadorans have long feared that electing a leftist president would jeopardize that income.
Jacqueline Mendez, 27, a committee member of the FMLN chapter in San Francisco, said such concerns are simply a result of the ARENA government’s fear tactics.
“It’s the same campaign as 2004,” she said. “They view Cuba and Venezuela as total dictatorships and they say if FLMN wins it’s going to be like that. The same tactics they use over there they use here through [radio shows].”
But for 21-year-old Alberto Rodriguez, a native of San Salvador, the biggest issue facing the next government isn’t the economy or emigration. “The biggest problem?” asked Rodriguez, “Delinquency—guns, drugs, extortion.”
Rodriguez said he favors the FLMN. “I think it’s better than the other one because the other one already had a chance and we don’t see anything better.”