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The Funes Administration in El Salvador: A Review of the First Year

June 25, 2010 // 9:00am1:30pm
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The March 2009 presidential election of Mauricio Funes in El Salvador represented a turning point in the country's progress towards democracy. Following a bloody twelve-year civil war and almost two decades in the political opposition, the former guerrilla group-turned political party, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), won the country's presidential election. The victory of Funes over the governing ARENA party represented the first time that the FMLN had reached outside its ranks for a more centrist candidate with broad national appeal. To assess the Funes administration's first year in office, the Latin American Program convened a June 25, 2010, conference bringing together senior Salvadoran government officials, scholars, journalists, and representatives of international development institutions. Panelists focused on the ability of President Funes to unite diverse politi-cal factions and actors in order to address the nation's foremost problems.

Director of the Latin American Program Cynthia Arnson summarized the country's most significant challenges. The global economic crisis has taken a toll on the small, liberalized economy; exports to the United States have dropped and remittances from Salvadorans abroad have also plummeted. Crime and insecurity are rampant: a 2009 report by the United Nations Development Program designated Central America, particularly the "northern tier" composed of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, as having the highest levels of non-political violence in the world. Drug trafficking organizations and other forms of organized crime are on the rise, establishing relationships with other criminal groups, including transnational gangs. As if this were not enough, natural disasters continue to wreak havoc on the small country.

The keynote speaker, Salvadoran Minister of Foreign Relations Hugo Martínez, highlighted the Funes administration's political achievements in its first year. He emphasized President Funes' commitment to national unity and the steady, calculated approach to the economic, social, and natural disasters facing the country. The administration established an Economic and Social Council to review national economic and social policies and seek consensus on future directions. There have also been advances in educational and income-generating programs aimed at vulnerable youth. Police reform has also shown successes, with 237 corrupt officers fired and another 1,000 being investigated for participation in cover-ups, money laundering, and organized crime.

Foreign Minister Hugo Martínez also laid out how the Funes administration's foreign policy has shifted, from a previous emphasis on ideological ties to the creation of transnational relationships which foment and share ideals of peace, democracy, and state autonomy. El Salvador has worked proactively to strengthen relations with Brazil and the United States as well as with global emerging markets, the European Union, and other Central and South American nations. Martínez highlighted President Funes' human rights initiatives, including the provision of reparations to individuals and families victimized during the twelve-year conflict. Martínez argued that the new directions in El Salvador's domestic and foreign policy have brought the country new respect and greater international presence.

Congressman Jim McGovern (D-MA), who has focused on El Salvador and U.S. policy since the 1980s, Rep. called the election of Mauricio Funes a "watershed moment" for Salvadoran democracy. He noted that since the signing of the 1992 peace accords, political competition has flourished; the electoral process has matured; new political coalitions and political parties have emerged; and civil society groups are increasingly engaging in public discourse. Nonetheless, impunity prevails under a weak judicial system that cannot hold elites, government officials, or members of the military or police accountable. Widespread benefits from foreign trade and investment have yet to materialize for the country's poor, and the devastating impacts of natural disasters, including recent Tropical Storms Ida and Agatha, continue to impede the nation's progress. McGovern underscored the increase in violent crime since the end of the war, and the intransigence of sectors that continue to benefit from crime, corruption, and impunity. He expressed hope, however, that the peaceful future envisioned in the peace accords would one day be attainable and called El Salvador, along with Costa Rica, the "most stable, functioning democracy in Central America."

Cristina Eguizábal, director of the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University, argued that Salvadoran foreign policy under Funes had remained generally consistent with previous administrations. Regional cooperation on issues of democratic governance, poverty reduction, and public security threats has remained unchanged, and relations with the United States have continued to be unwaveringly positive. While the Funes government has expanded its international partners, Eguizábal maintained that the foreign policy paradigm has not substantially diverged from the one established by previous governments.

Journalist Carlos Dada, director of the on-line publication El Faro, and researcher José Miguel Cruz noted how a culture of impunity and the lack of infrastructural resources and capacity continue to undermine efforts to curb violence levels. Dada criticized the lack of action regarding impunity and the unavailability of resources for police, adding the lack of involvement of the private sector and low morale across the population continue to spur high levels of emigration. Cruz pointed to several factors behind the persistent and cyclical nature of violence: the connections between criminal organization and political parties, a corrupt judiciary, and community-level networks of criminal organizations. Without a comprehensive approach to institutional reform that goes beyond the current police reforms, the Funes administration will not be able to effectively address this issue, Cruz concluded.

Continuing violence and a poor economy illustrate the meager results of President Funes' first year according to Federico Hernández of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry of El Salvador. Hernández argued that, just as the FMLN needed the politically independent Mauricio Funes to capture the presidency, Mauricio Funes equally depended on the spatial and political networks of the FMLN to win the election. The election and victory for Funes caused a fractionalization of its largest competitor, the ARENA party. Upon victory, President Funes staffed economic cabinet level positions with non-FMLN Funes advisors, while positions related to social policies, such as agriculture, health, and education, were given to FMLN party members. The slow increase in the national murder rate and Funes' continual blame on the previous administrations lack of effective action is raising concern and skepticism regarding current policies on security and violence. Hernández pointed out that Funes' vow to increase employment has yet to happen. Various corruption charges have been levied against the Funes campaign, and while the successes boasted by Minister Martínez have been popular, their medium-term effect on the economy and development of El Salvador will be counterproductive. In the end, Hernández stated in order for the President's agenda to succeed, he must deliver on his campaign promises without alienating the FMLN's electoral base.

Analyzing the political implications of the Funes victory, Ricardo Córdova Macías, executive director of the Fundación Dr. Guillermo Manuel Ungo (FUNDAUNGO), argued that Funes' electoral victory challenged the conventional structure of political parties and their leaders, and provided the new president with the unique political capital to push for greater government transparency and reform of electoral institutions. Córdova Macias and executive director for the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in El Salvador Federico Hernández agreed that ideological differences between President Funes and the FMLN will be a constant challenge for his administration: Funes has to avoid alienating the FMLN political base at the same time that he works with other parties to avoid political stalemate in the national legislature. Besides negotiating intra-party conflicts, Funes has also attached great importance to addressing economic issues. Hernández pointed out all economic cabinet positions in the Funes administration were filled by close, non-FMLN advisors, while non-economic positions were given to the party faithful.

Analyzing El Salvador's economy, William Pleitéz of the United Nations Development Program's El Salvador office provided an assessment of the impact the global economic crisis on El Salvador and the policies adopted by the Funes administration. He attributed a 9.9 percent inflation rate in El Salvador to increases in international oil and commodity prices, and noted how the global economic crisis led to a 3.3 percent contraction in the economy in 2009. Furthermore, for the first time in 20 years, the country experienced a decline in levels of remittances sent from abroad. He called for economic reform that goes beyond fiscal policy and incorporates the areas of savings, investment, and commercial sectors.

Finally, Luis Membreño of El Salvador's National Association of Private Enterprise (ANEP) argued that the nation's economic problems stem not from inflation or high consumer prices, but rather from a lack of public confidence in the business environment due to political insecurity and polarization. The only Central American economy still in recession, he explained how low remittance levels and an unpopular tax law lead to dim forecasts regarding future economic growth, the public deficit, and public debt. In order to address these issues, Membreño challenged the Funes administration to leave aside partisan economic policies and adopt a multidimensional approach capable of garnering wider support.

 

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