SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador – Facundo Guardado leans back in his chair in a trendy downtown bar in San Salvador and exhales blue smoke from his cigarette.
His grizzled face tells of past adventures, and his occasional laugh suggests a spark that could lead to more in the future.
Guardado spent his 20s and 30s leading a guerrilla movement, the People’s Revolutionary Army (EPR), which failed to topple the government of El Salvador. His forties were then spent trying to reform that guerrilla movement into a modern, left-wing social democratic political party under the flag of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) – a struggle that he says also came up short and ultimately resulted in his expulsion from the party following his failed presidential bid in 1999.
Now in his 50s, Guardado is temporarily retired from politics and can view the revolutionary process in his country with a bit more distance and hindsight.
Like the Sandinista National Liberation ront (FSLN), which in 2007 returned to power in neighboring Nicaragua after 16 years of embarrassing electoral defeats, Guardado claims that his former political party, the FMLN, may now be in its best position ever to win power in El Salvador in next year’s elections. But also like its brethren FSLN, which has suffered massive defections and expulsions over the last two decades, the FMLN of today is a shadow of its former revolutionary self, Facundo says.
“The FMLN today has little to do with its historic leadership,” Guardado told The Nica Times in a recent interview.
Following the 2006 death of historic FMLN leader Shafick Handal, the party’s vice-presidential candidate Salvador Sánchez Cerén remains the only original comandante still with the party. The other former guerrilla leaders have since defected from the party, claiming it has become too hard-line communist in past years and has lost touch with the modern-day left.
Guardado was part of the FMLN’s early reform efforts, starting a movement called Renovadores in 1999. The movement fizzled when Guardado was unable to persuade other guerrilla leaders to defect along with him. Two years ago, another wave of 7,000 former revolutionaries finally gave up on efforts to reform the FMLN and left the party’s ranks to start the Democratic Revolutionary Front (FDR), which aims to give voters a new option on the left.
Like the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) in Nicaragua, the FDR claims it is made up of intellectuals and historic revolutionary leaders loyal to the original cause.
But unlike the MRS, which is to the left of the Sandinista Front on the political spectrum, the FDR is presenting itself as a more moderate political option, trying to appeal to voters on the left, right and center in this deeply polarized country.
The FDR is running a well-known businessman and former minister of the economy, Arturo Zablah, as its presidential candidate next year and is already trying to form an electoral alliance with other minority parties to offer a single third-party ticket. By doing so, says the party’s secretary general Julio Hernández, the FDR hopes to win the majority of disenchanted voters on both sides of the spectrum.
“We are like Robin Hood,” Hernández said. “We are going to take votes from the rich to give to the poor.”
The FSLN in Nicaragua and the FMLN in El Salvador were born at different times and of similar circumstances.
When the three Sandinista tendencies unified within the FSLN and went on to topple the Somoza dynasty in 1979, their revolutionary counterparts in El Salvador were still divided among five groups. Yet after witnessing the success of the unified FSLN, the rebels in El Salvador started to move toward the same direction, and in 1980 they formed a guerrilla alliance known as the FMLN.
“The FSLN and the FMLN came from an internal process in each country to create space for participation in a time when our countries were controlled by the oligarchy and the multinationals,” Guardado said. “Our stories are the same.”
The ending to those stories, however, is different. The FSLN triumphed in revolution and governed Nicaragua for a tumultuous decade before being voted out of power in 1990. The FMLN, however, was never able to take power through arms – their final military offensive in 1989 fell short, despite receiving help from the Sandinistas.
The FMLN finally signed a peace accord with the Salvadoran government on Jan. 16, 1992, bringing an end to the war that claimed more than 70,000 lives and displaced tens of thousands more.
Guerrillas to Politicians
In the 1990s, the FSLN and the FMLN both began the foreign process of adapting to their new roles as opposition parties – the Sandinistas fresh out of office and the Farabundistas fresh out of war.
For both, the process of political survival meant an internal shakeup of redefining leadership roles and showing dissidents the door. As spaces for participation were reduced and vertical leadership solidified, there began to be factionalism and dissension among the ranks.
In Nicaragua, the FSLN suffered its first major split in 1995 with a defection of leading Sandinista intellectuals, poets and guerrilla leaders, who regrouped under the banner of the upstart Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), headed by former Vice President Sergio Ramírez and revolutionary hero Dora María Tellez.
Ramírez suffered a crushing defeat in the 1996 elections, winning less than 2% of the vote, and the party went into a virtual political remission for the next 10 years.
In El Salvador, the FMLN suffered its first major split around the same time, when former military commander Joaquin Villalobos separated from the front in 1995 to start the Democratic Party, a short-lived effort at forming a social democratic party. After the party failed to establish a foothold, Villalobos left El Salvador and moved to London, where he lives today.
Through the late 1990s, the FSLN and FMLN continued to consolidate their roles as opposition political forces, but the leadership of each – Daniel Ortega and Schafik Handal, respectively – were increasingly questioned.
In El Salvador, Facundo Guardado was becoming increasingly frustrated with his efforts to reform the FMLN. He says many of his compañeros in the party privately agreed with his Renovadores reform movement, but they ultimately kowtowed before the hard-line Stalinist element in the party.
“They were not willing to pay the political cost of being accused of trying to take the party to the right; they thought it was unrevolutionary,” Guardado said, adding that his reform efforts were ultimately no competition for the “mística” of the revolutionary movement.
In Nicaragua, similar reform efforts proved equally fruitless. In 2005, two other aspiring candidates within the ranks of the FSLN – former Managua Mayor Herty Lewites and former Sandinista national directorate member Victor Hugo Tinoco – were expelled from the party for challenging Ortega’s leadership.
The two men then gravitated toward the MRS and helped to revive the slumbering party, with Lewites as its presidential candidate and Tinoco as the top candidate for National Assembly. By the end of 2005, Lewites and the MRS were leading in the polls – a Cinderella story that ended abruptly in July 2006, when Lewites died of a heart attack. That event turned out to be one of the more transcendental occurrences in Ortega’s political career in the past 16 years.
The MRS, with replacement candidate Edmundo Jarquín, finished in fourth place in the election, with around 6% of the vote.
Tinoco, meanwhile, was elected to the National Assembly, where he has become a leading voice of criticism of his former revolutionary party.
“Over the last eight years – since Ortega formed an alliance with [incarcerated former President] Arnoldo Alemán – the FSLN is in process of reversing everything that is democratic,” Tinoco told The Nica Times. “For Ortega, this means quieting other voices. So he started to get rid of Herty, he got rid of me, of Henry Ruiz, Victor Tirado and the majority of the historic leaders of the revolution…Now it’s not a party, it’s only his family. He has given tremendous power to his wife [Rosario Murillo] and to his children, who control the radio and TV stations of the party.”
Sandinismo, Tinoco added, “is a lot more than Danielismo; it’s a conception of fatherland and social justice. It’s also a democratic conception. Ortega’s big problem is his aspiration to concentrate power, which is antidemocratic.
The ideas of [Gen. Augusto] Sandino were not totalitarian or authoritarian, they were democratic. And when the revolution triumphed over Somoza it was with a democratic platform. The people who have left the FSLN are the ones who are democratic.”
Former Vice President Sergio Ramírez, now retired from politics but not punditry, agrees.
“If the Sandinista Front had changed a lot between 1979 and 1990, by 2006 it had transformed into something totally different: its nature, its goals, its internal mechanisms, its philosophy, its ethics and its people,” Ramírez told The Nica Times. “The great majority of the people have left: the professionals, the intellectuals, the technicians and also the hard-line leadership, the hard left. So this makes the Sandinista Front an instrument exclusively at the service of Daniel Ortega, not any other revolutionary goals or any philosophy of change or transformation of the country, just the personal project of Daniel Ortega and his wife.
“Carlos Fonseca wouldn’t recognize the Sandinista Front, except for the flag,” said Ramírez, referring to the martyred founder of the Sandinista National Liberation Front.
21st Century Frentes
Ortega’s management of the Sandinista Front, although criticized, led his party back into power in 2007, thanks largely to a power-sharing pacto with former President Arnoldo Alemán that both divided the rightwing opposition and lowered the percentage of the vote needed for first-round victory to 35% (Ortega won with 38% and fewer votes than he got in previous elections).
Since returning to power, Ortega has promised to continue the Sandinista revolution in its “new phase” by empowering the people of Nicaragua with “direct democracy.” The new Sandinista government has also made efforts to lower government “mega-salaries” and earmark more funding for social programs, such as education, healthcare and poverty relief efforts, namely the “Zero Hunger” program.
Yet behind the rhetoric of revolutionary change, critics argue that Ortega’s continued consolidation of power has not changed, and that “direct democracy” and the controversial Councils of Citizen Power (CPCs) – neighborhood Sandinista groups organized across the country – are just a smokescreen for efforts to entrench his loyalists in all aspects of political and civil life in Nicaragua.
Many former revolutionaries argue that the Sandinista Revolution ended in 1990, and today’s project is pure Danielista.
In El Salvador, the FMLN, too, has managed to remain politically relevant despite years of electoral defeats and party defections.
And now the party appears to be in a position to be rewarded for its endurance with a shot at electoral victory next year over the perennial right-wing National Republican Alliance Party (ARENA), the United States’ closest political ally in the region.
“The FMLN has its best chance to win now, not because it is doing things well, but because there has been no renovation on the [political] right,” said Hector Silva, the former Mayor of San Salvador who later defected from the FMLN. “There is a feeling that now is the moment for the left.”
“If Nicaragua won, El Salvador will win – that’s how this is being viewed by the FMLN,” agreed upstart political opposition leader Julio Hernández.
Ironically, after years of resisting any reform efforts, the FMLN has softened its message following the death of leader Schafick Handal. The party is even running a non-Farabundista, TV journalist Maurico Funes, as its presidential candidate. Funes, in fact, was the candidate originally proposed by Guardado in his initial efforts to reform the FMLN nearly a decade ago.
Salvador Sánchez Cerén, the FMLN’s vicepresidential candidate, told The Nica Times that his party has indeed changed in recent years, and that no one is talking about socialist revolution anymore.
“Now we don’t even use the world socialist because we are in the phase of democratization and a capitalist system,” he said. An FMLN government, he said, will reform the system and “make it more human with a preferential option for the poor,” but will do so without changing the rules of thegame.
“Our party will respect the constitutional government,” he said.
Not everyone is convinced the FMLN has changed.
“The FMLN was more democratic during the war,” Guardado charges. “Now they are fascinated with authoritarianism and fundamentalism – Chávez, Castro and Che.”
Though he admits the FMLN might have some momentum heading into the elections, especially with the Ortega-Chávez alliance just over the border, he said the political situation here is much different from Nicaragua, and the FMLN will be happy just to maintain its quota of power.
“The difference in El Salvador, is that the FMLN can’t win with 38% of the vote, and ARENA doesn’t have an Arnoldo Alemán,” Guardado said.