Conflict and Consensus in El Salvador: Contours of a Post-Neoliberal State

October 19, 2016

On June 1, 2014, Salvador Sanchez Ceren of the Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation (FMLN) will assume the presidency in El Salvador.  Although the FMLN has held the Salvadoran presidency since 2009 with its independent ally, Mauricio Funes, this will be the first time that a former guerrilla commander will occupy the country’s highest office.  Given its revolutionary origins (the FMLN was the guerrilla army that fought the repressive Salvadoran state during the Civil War of 1980-1992), the consolidation of the FMLN’s power in El Salvador has alarmed sectors on the right in the US and El Salvador.  However, as it has accrued more political clout, the FMLN has also become more centrist, pragmatic, and adept at administering El Salvador’s subordinated role in the global economy.  The Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) on the other hand, which emerged from the state-sponsored death squad apparatuses of the 1980’s, and cohered around the neoliberal project in the early 90’s to govern El Salvador from 1989 to 2009, has fallen into disarray through in-fighting, ideological vacuousness, and unprecedented corruption scandals.  Nevertheless, I would contend that the two principal parties converge around the basic logic of how the Salvadoran state should function: to provide increased social welfare programs alongside an ever-deepening insertion into global capitalism which generate endemic problems of poverty, violence, and social exclusion in the first place.


Electoral Conflicts

The runoff presidential election of March 9th, 2014 that brought Sanchez Ceren to power was decided by a mere 6,000 votes.  The FMLN obtained 50.11% of the popular vote to ARENA’s 49.89%.  Norman Quijano, the candidate for ARENA, proceeded to lead the party’s followers in furious and spurious accusations of fraud against the FMLN, which included claims that the FMLN had not only allowed thousands of its supporters to vote twice, but also brought thousands of prisoners out of jail for the day to vote for the FMLN as well.  Quijano even went so far as to call for the armed forces to be deployed in defense of ARENA’s “victory.”  Though the military reiterated its obedience to Constitutional law and not to partisan interests, ARENA mobilized street protests for the next three weeks in a destabilization campaign against the FMLN government.   By March 26, 2014, all ten lawsuits in which ARENA alleged fraud by the FMLN had been dismissed by the appropriate state authorities, and Sanchez Ceren was officially recognized as the incoming president—even by the US Department of State.1  To be sure, a wide array of international observation organizations declared these elections to be of the most free, fair, and transparent in El Salvador’s history.2

The bitterly contested runoff election showed on one hand that the FMLN had perhaps trusted too blindly in its prospects for success,3 and also that ARENA still enjoyed an immense capacity to mobilize voters.  However, critical analysts have attributed much of the increases in votes for ARENA between the first round (when it only received 20% of the vote) and the  runoff to its aggressive deployment of a fear-mongering media campaign that sought to equate the FMLN with the alleged chaos and violence occurring in Venezuela, and an equally aggressive campaign to buy votes.4  In the case of twelve specific businesses, there is proof that workers were coerced into voting a certain way,5 while anecdotal evidence from members of rural communities, low-paid workers at textile factories, and urban employees of banks and media conglomerates indicates that the electoral impact of vote-buying and voter intimidation could be quite large throughout diverse social and geographic strata in El Salvador.

But even more detrimental to ARENA’s public standing as a party—both in the electoral context and its aftermath—have been the corruption accusations against Quijano’s campaign manager and former president of El Salvador from 1999-2004, Francisco Flores.   In a testimony before the National Assembly in January, Flores unwittingly admitted to having personally received millions of dollars in cash from Taiwan which he proceeded to “hand out” to the appropriate state institutions.  There is no record of these handouts.  Amid additional corruption accusations and Flores’ inability to respond to them, ARENA soon pulled Flores as Quijano’s campaign advisor.6 The Attorney General in El Salvador has now issued a warrant for his arrest based on a $5.3 million sum,7 though the Legislative Assembly estimates he could have appropriated up to $75 million.8 His current location is officially unknown, though recent reports indicate he is being protected by the President of Panama, Ricardo Martinelli.9 Flores is the first Salvadoran president to ever be tried for corruption, though certainly not the first to be guilty of it.10 Much of the release of public information that led to Flores’ incrimination resulted from investigative work by President Mauricio Funes, which further positions the FMLN as the new standard bearer for democracy and stability in El Salvador, while ARENA continues to lose political legitimacy.


Domestic Conflict: Poverty and Violence

While social safety net programs implemented under the Funes government have palliated some of the basic costs of education, health care, nourishment, and agricultural inputs for poor families, problems of exploitation as well as sub- and unemployment continue to plague the Salvadoran populace. Immigration is less common since the US economic downturn, but is still a viable option for many young Salvadorans.  But most worrisome is the rampant social violence produced by gangs, drug-traffickers, and death squad-like structures serving obscure interests.  A Church-mediated truce between the two rival gangs marginally reduced homicides for about eight months in 2013, but has now largely fallen apart amid spikes in violence among gang members, as well as between gang members and public security officers.11 El Salvador was once again one of the most violent countries in the world in 2013 with the fourth highest homicide rate in the world and 41.2 homicides for every 100,000 people.12 This is in fact a slight decrease for El Salvador compared to years past, but does not constitute a perceptible decline for the populace.

Since the late 90’s, the response of the Salvadoran state to this endemic violence has been militarized security policies, which involve mass stigmatization, incarceration and repression of alleged delinquents, with a strong involvement of the military itself in field operations.13 The militarization of Salvadoran society to combat violence began under ARENA, was continued by Funes and the FMLN, and was recently declared constitutional despite the protests of human rights groups.14However, the informal institutions of the gangs are certainly not pacified through strict coercion, and are still able to destabilize the state system with violence and territorial control in many urban and suburban areas.  While ARENA has always advocated strict and comprehensive repression—which largely backfired under its rule—the FMLN has sought to employ various strategies of soft power with the gangs alongside the standard militarized repression.

Funes in fact won many votes with a discourse of pursuing humanitarian dialogue and rehabilitation programs for the gangs, though compliance with these promises has been minimal, uneven, and primarily symbolic during his administration.  The bungled truce itself was originally meant to be a secret, with the concomitant drop in homicides to be accredited to Funes’ gang repression policy.15 But now that the original truce has been scuttled for all intensive purposes, the FMLN is in the process of engineering a new national dialogue based on transparency and public participation, and led by progressive church representative and NGO’s involved in violence prevention work.16 To be sure, the perspective of the gangs must be taken into account in the national dialogue.  Despite their responsibility for abhorrent crimes against Salvadoran society—murder, rape, torture, kidnapping, extortion etc—their demands for the right to association, education, employment, and rehabilitative justice are also the demands of large swathes of marginalized Salvadorans. Unfortunately, these ideals are largely illusory within the current socio-economic model, which itself creates the conditions that perpetuate the existence of the gangs.


Domestic Consensus: Social Welfare and Global Capitalism

Public antagonisms have not impeded ARENA and the FMLN from working together on the maintenance of this socio-economic model.  Even before the most recent nail-biter election was officially decided, the FMLN and ARENA had already begun “secret” negotiations regarding crucial issues of national interest for the next five years including public debt, fiscal deficits, and institutionalism.17 The two parties’ efforts to achieve political pacts may seem to indicate a rising level of “political maturity,” but also a polyarchic18 consensus around the conditions necessary for El Salvador’s ever-deepening insertion into the global economy.  This process of economic integration is contingent on acceptably low levels of debt, functioning institutions, and a judicial framework that guarantees foreign investments, among other factors.  In broad strokes, this strengthening of state institutions and coffers, alongside renewed investments in “human development” (education, health care etc.) constitute the “second generation of neoliberal reforms” mandated by the World Bank and other elements agents of global capital such as the US and IMF.  These reforms have come to be seen by economic technocrats as necessary complements to the initial neoliberal reforms of financial deregulation, privatization, and trade liberalization.

In El Salvador, the second generation of reforms—especially the social welfare regime—began with the administration of Tony Saca from 2004-2009, in which ARENA prioritized social policy, in response to International Financial Institutions’ (IFI) calls to combat poverty more diligently.19 These policies included a Conditional Cash Transfer (CTC) program called Red Solidaria (Solidarity Network), a program that distributed “improved” (terminator) corn and bean seeds to small farmers, and a Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant from the US to invest in a highway and local development in the northern zone of El Salvador.20  Beginning in 2009, Funes continued expanding these programs while also implementing new ones such as free school supplies for students, enhanced health care coverage (with specific health infrastructure for women), and additional CTC programs for young urban entrepreneurs.21

In April of this year, the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly passed the Law of Development and Social Protection which ensures the continuance of all fourteen of the wide-ranging social programs of the Funes administration—with support from all political parties in the Assembly including ARENA.  The social welfare regime that corresponds to the second generation of neoliberal reforms have now become State policies enshrined in law.22 However, these welfare policies should be understood as palliative measures which stabilize the current socio-economic model based on El Salvador’s exploitative insertion into global capitalism, and do not actually constitute a new socio-economic model, as the FMLN contends.  However, state guarantees of social welfare alongside continued emphasis on integration into global capitalism may constitute a new post-neoliberal state form that not only goes beyond the classical neoliberal “hands off” approach to state facilitation of global capital accumulation, but also exceeds the “second generation of neoliberal reforms.”  According to the work of Fernando Ignacio Leiva and Johanna Bockman among others, this emerging notion of “the common sense” of integration into the global economy alongside social welfare policies in Latin America is best understood as “neo-structuralism.”23 This type of analysis is also furthered by academics such as William Robinson, who since 2008, has posited the emergence of a post-neoliberal paradigm in Latin America that exhibits structural shifts toward a combination of Keynesian state-based capitalism and “21st century fascism.”24

In the spirit of Saca and Funes, President-elect Sanchez Ceren has signaled that the FMLN will guarantee the stability of the post-neoliberal/neo-structural model in a number of ways.  The incoming government has met with the most important private business conglomeration, the National Association for Private Enterprise (ANEP) in order to provide assurances that the national business community will be prioritized.25 Additionally, the FMLN has promised to implement the second MCC grant being offered by the US to facilitate investment in large-scale tourism on the southeastern coast of El Salvador.  However, the US is making the funds contingent on El Salvador’s passage of a law enabling public-private partnerships, which some social movements fear could lead to the privatization of water, among other public goods.   The FMLN seems poised to overlook this danger in its effort to ensure the implementation of the forthcoming MCC funds despite worries by social movements that this would not only lead to environmental destruction in the area, but would signal the FMLN’s adherence to the neoliberal paradigm of treating the environment as a commodity.26         


Social Movements and the Post-Neoliberal State in El Salvador

The passage of Funes’ Social Protection Law, alongside the entrenchment of El Salvador’s integration into the global economy under the auspices of the FMLN since 2009, signifies the crystallization of a new post-neoliberal/neo-structural state form in El Salvador that transcends party lines.  No major party questions integration into the global economy as the path toward development and progress, nor do they question an expanded social welfare regime to ostensibly ameliorate the impacts of this global economic integration.   This is the new consensus of El Salvador (and of much of Latin America) and though conflicts over violence, corruption, fiscal policy, and ideological posturing will continue to proliferate, it seems that the FMLN and ARENA are both moving toward the center.

In this context, and especially with the increasing institutionalization of the FMLN, many social movements on the left are eschewing blind loyalty to the FMLN’s political project in favor of more autonomous organizing processes that are independent of electoral concerns.  In this emerging family of social movements we see feminist organizations, youth groups, certain disaffected urban sectors, and especially environmental organizations, such as those that are demanding that the Salvadoran state pass a law that prohibits metallic mineral mining.  While Sanchez Ceren has declared that he will not allow mining in the country,27 the Salvadoran state is still being sued by a Canadian mining company for $300 million on investment expropriation counts under the auspices of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) for not having allowed extraction of gold deposits.28

On this, and other crucial issues that will determine the future of El Salvador, how will social movements navigate the new post-neoliberal state form? Will additional movements desert the FMLN camp in search of autonomous organization processes and resistance to integration in the global economy? Are there more nuanced strategies that can combine the advantages of a “friendly” government with independent initiatives that empower local communities? What role will the transnational social movements that are becoming so prevalent in other parts of Latin America play in El Salvador?  Whatever the answers to these questions, El Salvador provides an instructive case study into social, economic, and political processes in Latin America.





[3] There were substantial improvements made in the country’s electoral machinery by FMLN leadership during the outgoing administration of President Mauricio Funes.  The establishment of procedures for residential voting, and for voting by Salvadorans residing in the exterior, allayed grave deficiencies in the electoral system. However, there is still no campaign finance law, and all aspects of the Salvadoran electoral process are still controlled by representatives of political parties as opposed to party-neutral technocrats—a situation which facilitates the type of allegations of fraud that ARENA utilized in this election, and which the FMLN employed in elections passed.  It seems clear that both parties did use partisan control of the electoral machinery in ways they thought would be beneficial to their interests.  However, the difference is that while in power, ARENA systematically worked to make the electoral processes less fair and transparent, while the FMLN sought to make it more transparent and fair—confident that they would win if the people could truly express their political will.  For more on this issue, especially in the context of the 2009 Salvadoran elections see my article “Elecciones 2009: El Fraude de la Paz y Democracia en El Salvador.”

[4] Another important factor is that many of the votes that went to former president Tony Saca, and candidate for the Unity Party (Saca was exiled from ARENA for corruption and leadership clashes after his administration ended in 2009) in the first round, all went to ARENA in the second, despite Saca’s pledges to support the FMLN in the second round.

[5] “Sancionaran a 12 empresas por coaccionar el voto de sus trabajadores,” Teresa Alvarado.

[6] “Francisco Flores, el primer expresidente con petición de captura por corrupción,” El Faro.

[7]  “El Salvador: Ex-President Faces Charges,” Randal C. Archibold.

[8] “Corrupcion atribuida a ex-president Flores aumenta $75 millones,” David Perez.

[9] “Exministro Panameno dice que Flores esta protegido en su pais,” La Prensa Grafica.

[10] The Salvadoran popular education organization Equipo Maiz released research that showed systematic corruption by ARENA government officials to the tune of $1.2 billion robbed from public coffers over 18 years, and tax evasion of $25 million over the same period.  Even according to the conservative newspaper Diario de Hoy, the ARENA president from 2004-2009, Tony Saca, spent $219 million more than had been allotted to his presidential office by the National Assembly, which was more than the combined federal budgets for Education and Security.  His expenses on goods and services exceeded investment in health care in 2009.  See

[11]  “Perdomo, los pacifistas, y la guerra de los marginados,” David Perez.

[12]  “El Salvador: Uno de los Paises Mas Violentos del Mundo,” Rosaura Perez.

[13] Wolf, Sonja. “El Salvador:Debatiendo el Papel de los Militares en la Seguridad Publica,” 2012: Distintas Latitudes.


[15]  “Gobierno negocio con padillas reducción en homicidios,” Oscar Martinez, Carlos Martinez, Sergio Arauz, Efren Lemus.

[16] “Maras se han convertido en amenaza nacional,” Contrapunto.

[17]  “FMLN y Arena iniciaron platicas en secreto,” Gabriel Labrador y Sergio Arauz.

[18]  In “Transitions from Authoritarian rule: Tentative Conclusions About Uncertain Democracies,” O’ Donnell and Schmitter conceive of polyarchy as a balance of democratization and liberalization whereby social and economic arrangements tend to become cemented, which is also often characterized by political pacts that “promote democracy by undemocratic means.”  In “Promoting Polyarchy: Globalization, US Intervention, and Hegemony,” Robinson describes polyarchy as a political system that utilizes electoral democracy as a more effective instrument for legitimating social inequalities than authoritarianism.

[19] Robinson. William I. Latin America and Global Capitalism. (2008) p. 21-22.  

[20] For details see Fomilenio El Salvador website:

[21] For a full discussion of Funes’ social programs, based on Salvadoran government documents please request a copy of my 2012 paper “Leaning Left in El Salvador: Lessons and Limitations of the Neoliberal Legacy.”

[22] “Funes logra elevar a ley implementación programas sociales.” April 4, 2014: La Prensa Grafica.

[23] Special thanks to fellow Pitt Sociology graduate student Gabriel Chouhy for sharing a draft of a comps. paper on this subject with me.  

[24] Robinson (2008) p. 345-347.

[25]  “ANEP: De inquisidor a cordial anfitrion del FMLN,” Gerardo Arbaiza.

[26]  “Current political transition crucial for advancing democratic reform and economic, environmental, and social development in El Salvador,” International Allies Against Mining in El Salvador.

[27] “Sanchez Ceren se compromete a no explotar la mineria,” La Prensa Grafica.

[28]  “Piden a Banco Mundial rechace demanda de Pacific Rim,” Gloria Moran.


About Author(s)

Danny Burridge's picture
Danny Burridge
Danny Burridge is a first year student in the Sociology PhD program at the University of Pittsburgh. He is currently preparing to do research for my MA on the interactions between social movements and the state in El Salvador under the FMLN administration of Mauricio Funes. He is also interested in exploring broader theoretical issues such as globalization, the state, democracy, revolution, and civilizational paradigms through the lens of Latin America.