El Salvador’s Irrelevant Elections

Salvadorans working in the United States—not politicians—drive the country’s economy.

A woman votes in San Salvador Sunday

SAN MIGUEL, El Salvador—On the eve of El Salvador’s legislative and mayoral elections, Mayor Will Salgado was waiting on the steps of our hotel when we got into town so he could denounce his enemies for fraud. Salgado was elected mayor in 2000 as a member of the moderate Christian Democratic Party, but he switched to the ultranationalist Arena (Republican Nationalist Alliance) in 2003. Having been kicked out of Arena six months ago (they say he was extorting businesses; he says he refused their orders to falsify voter documents), he was now running for re-election under the banner of a third party, that of the National Reconciliation Party. Salgado is a handsome, relaxed fellow with a disconcertingly magnetic gaze. He told me that Arena was sending in bus loads of Hondurans, Nicaraguans, and Salvadorans from other parts of the country to vote against him. No one ever saw any buses, but his fraud accusations—which he aired on the San Miguel TV station he owns—apparently helped get out the vote, because he took 60 percent in a field of six candidates and won.

Salgado’s popularity in San Miguel, a city of 250,000 that is the hub of eastern El Salvador, is notable for two reasons. First, the city has an unemployment rate said to hover around 70 percent. Second, Salgado was imprisoned for two years in the late 1990s for his involvement in Black Shadow, a vigilante group that left corpses in the gutters in its campaign against criminal gangs. People in the city, which was surrounded by guerrilla violence during the 1980s, seem to feel this was a good thing. Crime remains high—there are now more armed guards and barbed wire in evidence than during the civil war in the 1980s—but Salgado keeps the streets swept and, most important, brings big musical bands to town to play free concerts. He’s done little to put bread on people’s tables—the $3 billion a year sent home in remittances from Salvadorans working in the United States takes care of that problem—but he throws a hell of a circus. And he gains points by having started his professional life at age 6 as a lottery-ticket vendor. “We love Will so,” Ermelinda Rosales told me as she sucked on mangoes outside her house. “He’s one of us, you know?”

The popularity of Will Salgado says a lot about El Salvador today. Fourteen years after the end of the war, the public is largely indifferent to its leaders’ nasty pasts. And with 2.5 million of its able-bodied men and women living in the United States (out of a total population of 8 million), El Salvador has in some ways become a consumer society. Surely Salvadorans must be the only decent-sized national group that earns the majority of its income abroad. The money earned in the United States is 127 percent of the Salvadoran economy, and the portion of it that returns home as remittances represents 16 percent of the country’s gross domestic product (in Mexico, by contrast, the proportion is 3 percent).

The result, for a visitor who last set foot in El Salvador in 1986, is a confusing set of contrasts. On its face, El Salvador has undergone dramatic development. New superhighways and vast malls have popped up, and the streets are thick with fast-food joints and stores selling imported electronics. Yet the working-class suburbs of the capital are still dusty places lacking basic services. And in the countryside, agricultural life is dying. On a recent bus ride from San Miguel to the capital, San Salvador, I saw vast fields of brush where corn, cotton, and agave once grew. The people who worked those fields are now washing dishes and building houses, doing laundry and child care in the United States. The leathery campesino with gold teeth who sat next to me on the bus said he was one of the few still working the fields in his village in Morazán province. “Only us old people are left,” he said. “Everyone else has gone to the States.” To make up for their absence, thousands of Nicaraguans and Hondurans now arrive in El Salvador at harvest time to pick coffee and cut sugar cane. They earn typically $4 a day, but they get paid in U.S. dollars.

The Arena party, which the murderous former army officer Roberto d’Aubuisson created in 1979 as a hard-line response to the Marxist uprising, has run El Salvador since 1989 with a policy of free-market reforms that have transformed the look of the place. In 2001, the country adopted the U.S. dollar as its only currency, a reflection of the fact that both income and goods increasingly come from overseas. At election time, many of the have-nots vote for the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, which controls many city halls and a large chunk of the 84-seat national legislature. In Sunday’s vote, the FMLN and Arena won about the same number of votes at the national level. The race for mayor of San Salvador, a sprawling metropolis of 1.7 million, was still a tossup as of Tuesday between Arena laboratory technician Rodrigo Samayoa and the FMLN’s Violeta Menjivar, a pediatrician.

The remarkable polarization of the electorate—between one party that started, essentially, as a death squad and another that still espouses Marxism and at times Leninism—is rather tiresome to many Salvadorans living in the United States. About 40 returned home to observe the elections and to meet with politicians to suggest the possibility of allowing Salvadorans residing in the United States to vote in future Salvadoran elections. Some of these Salvadorans talk of creating a new diaspora party, while others feel the votes of Salvadorans overseas could moderate the political climate.

My friend Ivan picked me up at the airport two days before the vote, and as we drove to the capital he told me he had no intention of voting for any of the “sons of bitches” whose eager faces were plastered on light poles along the way. Ivan was a clandestine political organizer when I met him in San Salvador 25 years ago. He eventually split for Washington, and a few years ago we ran into each other after he bought a house in my neighborhood. He was back home this past week to settle his late mother’s affairs. The war years were a time of hair-raising danger, idealism, and gruesome sacrifice, but Ivan is more into aikido and organic gardening than armed struggle these days. And like a lot of intellectuals, his attitude toward Salvadoran politics can be summed up in the title of a recent Horacio Castellanos Moya novel—El Asco (“Disgust”). The optimism that followed the 1992 peace agreement, which converted the FMLN from an armed force into a political party, has left a sour taste in the mouths of many. The FMLN still talks a good line and is still incredibly well-organized, but the buck speaks louder than words. And it’s the global economy—not political idealism—that has transformed their country.