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Post-Election El Salvador Stretches Its Thinning Hope for the Future Again

<i> Arnoldo Villafuerte is a businessman in San Salvador</i>

On the sunny morning of this past Sunday, thousands of war-weary Salvadorans from all walks of life once again went quietly to cast their votes to elect a new president.

Days before, the Marxist guerrillas of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation front had launched an attack against government targets, primarily high-tension towers and telephone equipment, leaving 90% of the country without water, light and telecommunications.

At the week’s end, a bizarre calm filled the early evening air as the usual bustle of overcrowded buses bringing people home was suddenly gone, the result of a traffic stoppage ordered by the FMLN.

Although many living here would probably disagree, both the extreme right and the extreme left are powerful forces bludgeoning a civilized but weakened political center.

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Some of us who have stayed here believe that the irrational rule of the gun cannot define the future of a land polarized by extremes of wealth, years of repression and injustice. Rather, the society at large must define its own purpose and deal with all forms of the country’s economic and social “Third World” problems, let alone with patronization of foreign governments and institutions and, yes, the press.

It is my sense that these are probably the principal reasons why an overwhelming 54% of the popular vote went with a resounding basta ya-- enough!--to the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance party, which won the election fair and square.

As a child, I was impressed by the tragedy of Scarlett O’Hara’s life at Tara; as an adult, I find I am living a similar tragedy, only the suffering is real, not celluloid. As in the U.S. Civil War, it will take generations before Salvadorans can build a social consensus.

Violence in El Salvador is commonplace; three newsmen were killed covering Sunday’s election. But is the shedding of blood in El Salvador any less or any more absurd than killing defenseless civilians in a jumbo jet? Who knows. . . .?

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Alfredo Cristiani, El Salvador’s new president-elect, is a progressive, savvy, poised businessman exactly my age (41), Georgetown University-educated, from a well-respected family, with absolutely no need to be in the mess he has taken on.

The economy is broke, the war and violence are on an upward trend, and despite Cristiani’s undisputed victory over the viscerally disliked Christian Democrats, about 40% of the registered voters did not or could not vote, possibly weakening his mandate.

“Richard Nixon probably was the only politician who could have dealt with a Communist China, so perhaps a right-wing Salvadoran government can successfully negotiate with the left without being called Communist,” a political pundit here observed. Let’s hope so.

The onus of expectations that will fall squarely on Cristiani is formidable: End the war within the straitjacket of human-rights protocols; control the army; reactivate the economy and create badly needed jobs; unite a deeply polarized society traumatized by nine years of bloodshed; develop a social consensus, and continue with the policy of opening the political space to the extreme left.

Many conservative Salvadorans fear that the Marxist guerrillas will never give up their arms and abide by civilian rule. Many of the guerrillas have been fighting El Salvador’s government for 15 years and will be victorious or die trying.

Sadly, politically related deaths have risen lately after some years of decline, relative to the early 1980s. “An unidentified young man who appears to have been tortured was found this evening shot to death in a suburb of San Salvador,” is a not infrequent news item that sounds almost normal to a calloused TV audience.

Yet despite all of these problems, small towns like Tenancingo, which four years ago were mere ghosts, deserted after bitter fire fights and bombings by the air force, are springing back to life.

When 10 years ago demonstrations drew 200,000 people and left hundreds dead in the streets, today the left can scarcely muster 200 radicals who unsuccessfully taunt riot police, seeking a response of repression and foreign press sensationalism.

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Undoubtedly today the army is more professional; it has begun to learn to fight an insurgent war more effectively and appears more concerned about human rights, in part thanks to U.S. pressure.

Prospects of the future of El Salvador are difficult--indeed, grim--but not unmanageable. The left participated politically in these past elections and won a vital but weak third place in the voting. Nonetheless, the left will have a seat on the important Central Elections Council, together with the Christian Democrats and the Nationalist Republicans (known as Arena).

Cristiani must maneuver deftly to keep the left’s political space open and break its ties with the guerrillas.

Economically, the new Arena government is caught between a rock and a hard place. The conservative coffee growers’ association will demand a realistic exchange rate to boost profits and stimulate investment in coffee, El Salvador’s principal cash crop. The International Monetary Fund’s approach to the economic problems appears theoretically sound--devaluation, realistic interest rates, tight-fisted credit, austere government budgets and the like, with the expectation of positive results in the medium term.

But how about the short term?

What happens when beans triple in price--together with other staples--while the country waits for the miracle of an economic resurgence to occur? Let’s ask the Venezuelans, whose president’s first days in office were marked by deadly riots protesting new austerity measures. Can El Salvador afford such a scenario?

Cristiani has one thing in his favor: the legislative, judicial and executive branches are totally controlled by his party. But it is he who must ensure that human-rights abuses are minimal if he is to continue receiving U.S. economic aid.

Most important, while he’s riding high on a popular mandate, he must deal with a hard-working people who are tired of war and bloodshed and have high expectations that, as the Arena victory theme promised, “Happiness is coming.”

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