Democracy by Intimidation

Workers Vote With Their Feet in Mass Solidarity Walkout

By Charley MacMartin
April 1991; pages 12-13; Volume 2, No. 5

Voters in El Salvador, braving what observers termed "widespread fraud and intimidation" by the ruling ARENA (Nationalist Republican Alliance) party, turned out for the March 10 legislative and municipal elections. Results of the elections are still in doubt as opposition parties contest the official results and at least one city's election was postponed.

While elections come and go, El Salvador remains plagued by persistent poverty and U.S. sponsored repression. Adding to the tension, negotiations between the Salvadoran Amy and the rebel forces of the FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front) appear deadlocked. Despite pressure for negotiation from both within El Salvador and from abroad, military conflict is likely to return full force to El Salvador during April.

Arena's Plan: Winning through Intimidation

In early March, the international spotlight focused on the first round of elections in El Salvador since the right-wing ARENA party took office in June 1989. The March 10 elections selected members of the expanded 84-seat unicameral National Assembly as well as local governments in the 262 municipalities of Central America's most densely populated country. As results became known, ARENA lost its majority in the National Legislature. In addition, a three-party social democratic coalition, the Democratic Convergence (CD), was running strong throughout the country and was second in at least two provinces, San Salvador and La Libertad.

The erosion of ARENA's dominance in the legislative branch came amidst accusations by opposition parties of pre-election intimidation and election day fraud by the ruling party. Three days before the election, ARENA activists fired upon a San Salvador campaign rally of the opposition party, Democratic Nationalist Union (UDN), hitting a UDN candidate twice in the head. On February 21, another UDN candidate was shot and killed by death squad members only two blocks from the U.S. Embassy. The CD coalition had two campaign offices blown up in the weeks leading up to March 10.

In measured words of understatement, a German observer delegation pronounced "their dissatisfaction over the climate" leading up to the elections. The independent, Costa Rica-based Central America Human Rights Commission (CODEHUCA) linked the pre-election violence to government statements in February which accused human rights groups, trade unions and civic groups of being "fronts for the FMLN" (El Diario di Hoy, 2/14/91).

On election day, intimidation by ARENA persisted. In the eastern city of San Miguel, ARENA poll-watchers questions voters about party affiliation. In the working class neighborhoods of San Salvador, voting booths were moved, stalling elections. And in Santa Tecla, the CD coalition was left-off rhe ballot, forcing a postponement of that city's polling.

Mixed Interpretations

The battle over the election's meaning has proven to be as fierce as the debate over the exact vote count "ARENA's objective is to consolidate the legitimacy of its rule," observed one Salvadoran trade union leader. ARENA party leader and El Salvador's Vice President, Francisco Merino, commented on February 26 that a vote for ARENA would demonstrate that Salvadorans "demand authority, and that law and order should reestablish its reign in our country." To guarantee this interpretation, ARENA is expected to claim victory whether it achieves either an electoral majority or a plurality in the National Assembly.

In contrast, the electoral opposition, which includes the Christian Democrats (PDC), the CD coalition and the socialist UDN, hopes to make the National Assembly a forum to pressure a negotiated solution to the war. Political space for opposition parties has always been tenuous in an El Salvador of military conflict. The relatively stable environment of negotiations would allow the electoral opposition to build their respective bases before El Salvador's presidential elections in 1994.

For the United States, the March 10 elections stand as an enigma. For the past ten years, elections in El Salvador have been key evidence for Republican administrations that U.S. military aid is building democracy. But with electoral advances for the opposition, a set-back could occur for what Salvadoran opposition leaders describe as the real U.S. objective: defeat of the FMLN. "Peace is not the first priority of the North Americans," contends CD coalitions leader Ruben Zamora. "Their first priority is that the FMLN does not win the war."

The Rank and File Perspective

For Salvadoran trade unionists, rural campesinos, and urban slum dwellers elections have never been a solution to the poverty and repression which underlie their country's decade long civil war. Barely fifty percent of the electorate turned out for the March 10 vote, consistent with past years. The current strategy for rank and file Salvadoran organizers employs the tactics of concertacion and the civil strike.

Concertacion (Spanish for coalition-building) manifests itself through formations such as the Permanent Committee for the National Debate (CPUN), a broad array of over 1.5 million Salvadorans which hopes to promote a national solution to the civil war by isolating the most recalcitrant elements within the Armed Forces. The March 10 gains by the electoral opposition complement this strategy with the increased isolation of ARENA in the National Assembly.

Civil strikes by public sector employees and factory workers further the isolation of El Salvador's right-wing by forcing concessions from government ministries and business-owners. By doing so, workers attempt to protect themselves from what a February 27 Proceso editorial critically termed, "the scars or (ARENA's) economic deregulation," including a 45% increase in layoffs during 1990. Nearly ten thousand workers in telecommunications and in the ministry of foodstuff regulation held a one-day work stoppage to demand salary increases. On March 11, 1991, telecommunication workers again, along with Treasury Ministry workers this time, went on strike. And one of the largest public employee organizations, the Salvadoran Teachers Front (FMS) promised that educators will hold a series of work stoppages if their salaries are not increased. By flexing its muscles, union organizers contend, the popular movement could force its concerns onto national negotiations.

Post-Election Repression

Events in the wake of the elections reveal that while elections may occur in El Salvador, democracy still remains a privilege of the few.

Friday, March 15, the same day George Bush released previously suspended U.S. military aid to El Salvador, riot-police tear-gassed and injured striking workers in San Salvador. Supported by soldiers of the Salvadoran Amy's First Brigade, police arrived at the largest work-site of the Treasury Ministry, known as Tres Torres, and proceeded to beat and shoot members of the Association of Treasury Ministry Employees (AGEMHA).

Workers at Tres Torres are part of a ten-day-old sit down strike at six work-sites of the Treasury Ministry. AGEMHA demands include increased monthly salaries and promises from the ARENA government not to dismantle the Ministry under right-wing privatization plans.

Police fired on the AGEMHA workers with machine-guns, tear gas canisters and grenades. Three workers were injured in the melee and three others were captured by police. This brought to sixteen the number of AGEMHA members captured since the strike began on Monday, March 11.

Other public sector employees threaten a general strike if the ARENA government does not bargain in good faith with AGEMHA workers. As a show of strength, on Monday, March 18, eighteen thousand telephone, education and public works employees walked off the job in a day of labor solidarity with AGEMHA strikers.

Three days before the election, ARENA activists fired upon a San Salvador campaign rally of the Democratic Nationalist Union (UDN), hitting a UDN candidate twice in the head. On February 21, another UDN candidate was shot and killed by death squad members only two blocks from the U.S. Embassy. The CD coalition had two campaign offices blown up in the weeks leading up to March 10.

Repression Sparks Rebel Attack

In the wake of the police repression of the AGEMHA strike, rebel forces of the Farabundo National Liberation Front (FMLN) wasted no time in responding with what the FMLN termed "punishment" for the repression.

FMLN forces in at least four of El Salvador's fourteen provinces pounded Army positions the night of March 15 and the early morning of March 16 inflicting injuries and sabotaging electric facilities. An FMLN statement on Saturday, March 16, termed the sabotage as "punishment for ... the police attack on striking government workers." FMLN sabotage against key power stations late on March 15 cut off 51 percent of the country's energy supply during the weekend, the Hydroelectric Executive Commission said.

A Negotiated Solution
(section partially cut off)

m for a negotiated solution to El Salvador's increasingly hard to muster. February nego e down as the Salvadoran Army pulled U.N. proposals to review the human rights , Army generals and colonels.

y's sincerity towards negotiations remains a February radio speech by Salvadoran al Rene Emilio Ponce, he referred to the es as "unnegotiable" while arguing that from the United States must increase. The El Zapote of fifteen peasants on January 21 of the Army's First Brigade plus the arson t the opposition newspaper, Diario Latino, reminds organizers in El Salvador of the f the early 1980s. Salvadoran Auxiliary orio Rosa Chavez, speaking in Costa Rica 25, commented that death squads indeed added that they are able to operate with complicity of the Anned Forces" (Proceso,

encouragement for compromise emanates ngton. As Michael Posner, Executive Di Lawyer's Committee for Human Rights, testimony before the U.S. House Commit :n Affairs on February 21, the United States stacle to human rights discussions in the ons. "Each year when El Salvador is dis sner testified, "the U.S. delegation either iscontinue the (U.N.'s) annual reporting dilute (U.N.) Commission (of Human lutions which address specific human rights

Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, ations arid elections offer the chance to If as a political organization which will -civil war El Salvador. Recent statements commanders Joaquin Villalobos (New York 1) arid Leonel Gonzalez (Radio Farabundo 91) emphasize the guerrilla's commitment ns. Gonzalez explained, "(we) are channel ire military effon and our political and international struggles toward achieving political agreements and a cease-fire." The FMLN's willingness not to boycott the March 10 elections underscores, in the eyes of many Salvadorans, the rebel's good faith approach. The Army remains skeptical.

Adams-McDermott Bill

The next significant signal expected from Washington will be the vote on aid to El Salvador for fiscal year 1992. To the horror of Salvadoran Army hardliners, proposed legislation would stop all war-related aid to the government of El Salvador. The House version of the Adams-McDermott Bill already has sixteen cosponsors while, to-date, five have signed on in the Senate. Going farther than any previous legislation, the bill would pull all U.S. advisors from El Salvador (eight of whom died this year alone), halt all economic aid for war related purposes and forbid covert operations. A vote on aid to El Salvador may come as early as April.

By April, military activity will most certainly escalate after the lull around the March 10 elections. Before the elections, in the first week of March, the Salvadoran Army launched a major offensive into the FMLN's rearguard in El Salvador's northern provinces, including Chalatenango. This prompted the FMLN to activate urban commandos, striking in the Army's own base of operations in San Salvador and other cities. In the wake of the elections, Army forces remain in northern El Salvador, and the Army's intransigence at the negotiating table will not encourage the FMLN to tolerate their presence.


Post-election reports came from Salpress News, UPI, Radio Horizonte arid Radio Farabundo Marti. The author's telephone interview with AGEMHA workers on Friday, March 15, was cut short as riot police fired tear gas into the union offices where strikers had taken refuge after the attack at Tres Torres. Three Austin solidarity activists, Erin Rogers, Matt Cook and Bill Stouffer, witnessed the March 15 police attack on the union offices.