Posts Tagged ‘el salvador elections 2009’

War by Other Means: Media and the Elections in El Salvador

March 14, 2009

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In pre-electoral El Salvador, media is merely the continuation of war by other means.

No one in this tiny country of 6 million understands this better than Mauricio Funes. As the first candidate of the opposition Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) with a real possibility of winning the presidency (most recent polls show him with a 5-11 point lead), Funes, a former journalist, knows well the new ways of waging political war in the media age.

As a result of their success, Funes and the FMLN also find themselves at the center of what many local and international media analysts concur is the fiercest, most expensive and dirtiest media campaign in Salvadoran history, a media campaign run not by the right wing ARENA party and its candidate, Rodrigo Avila, but by the news media itself.

Surrounded at a recent press conference held in a posh hotel and organized by the small army of black-suited young (male and female) media professionals that’s replaced many of the older, former guerrillero cadre that managed previous FMLN presidential campaigns, Funes defended against attacks by one of his primary adversaries-El Salvador’s largest and oldest media outlets.

“Their dirty campaign will backfire,” said Funes, whose media operatives then backed up his statements using various weapons in their media arsenal: a slide show detailing what they call the “Government-Party in government-News Media” continuum that opposes the FMLN and a booklet titled “Record of a Dirty Campaign.” FMLN operatives also distributed a video containing more than a dozen examples of news reports they believe reflect the “bias and extremism” of the mainstream Salvadoran media: television and print media news reports of “possible” FMLN involvement in the distribution of M-16’s to the Mara 18 gang in prison; reports in major newspapers of Funes and the FMLN dissolving the armed forces in the event of a victory in Sunday’s elections; news reports that the Obama Administration “may deny legal status” to Salvadorans living in the United States if the FMLN wins.

(newspaper headline claiming Salvadorans will lose legal status with FMLN victory)

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Once engaged in politico-military combat against the big agrarian interests defended by the Salvadoran military, the FMLN of the digital age now finds itself fighting the big financial interests at the heart of ARENA, interests that domestic and foreign observers say are defended by the country’s most powerful media outlets.

A report released last January by the more than 30 members of the Election Observer Mission of the European Union (EU) appeared to confirm the very political role of El Salvador’s news media. The report found “disproportionate disequilibrium in the amount of time or space assigned to the parties” in 11 of the 15 news media in monitored. Without naming the ARENA party by name, the Spaniard in charge of the EU mission, Luis Yáñez-Barnuevo said, “We are concerned that there exists in the campaign a very notorious disequilibrium in the support of the news media and the State towards one of the two candidates.”

For her part, Alexandra Bonilla, a reporter with La Prensa Grafica, one of El Salvador’s oldest newspapers, defends against reports critical of outlets like hers. “These reports are unfair” says Bonilla, who reports on the media. “The larger media here are owned by conservative interests, but we do try to uphold professional standards in our election coverage. We give equal time and coverage to both parties.”

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While the concentration of big media power does present a major obstacle to Funes and the FMLN, the new age of Salvadoran media has also provided the left with the means to take power. Both the FMLN and ARENA have made extensive and effective use of the confluence of new media known as Web 2.0: Facebook, Youtube, blogs and other media. And the deployment of new media outside the formal and often rigid structures of political parties has also making a major debut.

This year’s elections also mark the first time internet-based independent media have played a serious role in the elections as well. Political blogging on all sides of the political spectrum has started taking hold in El Salvador. Internet news sites like El Faro, ContraPunto and Raices are among the most popular sites of their kind in the country and have seen exponential increases in traffic because of the intense interest in this year’s elections.

“Internet news sites are still an incipient political medium” said Juan Jose Dalton, founder and editor of ContraPunto. “But they are already a major force because of the demand for fast news, professional reporting and alternatives to the very compromised officialist media” declared Dalton, who is the son of Roque Dalton, El Salvador’s revered revolutionary poet and writer. “We bring a vision, a political space that has not existed for most of our history.”

(journalist Juan Jose Dalton listening to Mauricio Funes at press conference)

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One anonymous blogger interviewed for this story said that he thought that the ability of alternative media to compete with his country’s big media is, in no small part, rooted in the culture of political anonymity created by the successive strings of oligarchs and military dictatorships that dominated the country for more than 150 years. “Blogs and other alternative media give us a way to participate anonymously; they allow us to say what we can’t say publicly. We’re watching an explosion of new voices and new ways to express ourselves” said the bespectacled young blogger.

While attending the Funes news conference, the blogger had his hands full with the camera he uses for blogging and the tape recorder he uses in his day job: journalist at a magazine. “In a country where saying publicly that you supported the FMLN could get you killed, alternative media offers the best alternative to the multi-million dollar campaigns of the right. The media itself has become a field of battle-and we’re going to win!”

Izalco, El Salvador and the Way Beyond the Silence

March 12, 2009

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Mystical Izalco portends the end of Salvadoran silence.

To understand the current presidential elections in El Salvador, you have to understand the cities, towns and the campo, El Salvador’s countryside, located outside the capital of San Salvador. What follows is my attempt to provide further context for the media’s description of the horse race between the FMLN and the ARENA parties. A good starting point is the fact that both parties trace all or some of their political roots to Izalco, a relatively small town in the western, coffee-growing part of the country. Izalco is also home to one of the largest concentrations of El Salvador’s small (less than 1% of the population) indigenous population.

For strange, tragic, even mysterious reasons, Izalco, which in the racist popular national lore (ie; one way to call someone ugly is to say they look “indio”) is home to witches, is also home to what, in my opinion, is the ever-present, but unspoken political and cultural spirit of the country. And this region also concentrates large numbers of volcanos, some of which are also quite alive (see above) , as are the narrow and crowded streets of Izalco (below).

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If we want want to take the political pulse of a country as poor (50% of the population lives in poverty) as El Salvador, speaking with people who are not just poor, but a small, indigenous poor minority living in such an enchanting and dark land will give us a unique read. Not all people here in Izalco identify as native people, but all recognize and live indigenous reality like few other places in this country of 7 million.

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You can see the indigenous presence in the sublime faces of the kids here.

You can also find it in and on the nahuatl textbooks and notebooks:

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And you can find the indigenous presence in the deep, dark soil of Izalco’s history. Almost all of the children from Izalco’s Mario Calvo school pictured above are descendants-great, great and great, great, great, grandchildren- of the 20,000-30,000 indigenous people who rebelled against deadly poverty and abuse and were then slaughtered in 1932 by General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez, the dictator who perpetrated what is known as “La Matanza” (the Great Killing). Martinez and his troops did all this in less than a month, according to scholars like my friend Aldo Lauria-Santiago, whose book is pictured below with a cover of the Izalco volcano.

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Recent research like Aldo’s and that of other scholars reveals that the idea that the rural insurrection in the west was led by urban communists of the period like Farabundo Marti is wrong. In fact, these scholars tell us, it was led by the ancestors (below) of the children pictured above. Below is the picture of the real leader of the insurrection, Jose Feliciano Ama.

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The spiritual reality behind images such as these inspired revolutionary Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton to say in his oft-quoted poem,

Todos nacimos mitad muertos en 1932

Sobrevivimos pero medio vivos

(we were all born half dead in 1932

we survived but half alive)

Despite recent research, many still blur the differences between the communists and the indigenous rebels of the period. Even many members of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) make the mistake as do members of the governing ARENA party, which was founded in Izalco by Roberto D’abuisson. D’abuisson also founded El Salvador’s notorious death squads, one of which was named for the old dictator, Hernandez Martinez.

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I actually have no idea who the group of Izalco Areneros pictured above are. I visited the office and spoke with the directores of Arena’s campaign in Izalco, who told me why their message of “democracy,” their message of “freedom” from the threat of El Salvador becoming a “Hugo Chavez satellite” moves Izalco’s voters.; The directores also lauded D’abuisson, whom they met, and Hernandez Martinez, whom they admire. The events of 1932, they said, saved the country from comunismo and laid the foundation for the later formation of the ARENA party. For these and other reasons, they said , ARENA always begins its presidential campaigns in Izalco, as they did when this year’s presidential candidate, private security mogul and former head of the national police, Rodrigo Avila, came here to kickoff his campaign.

The directores also showed me a copy of the ARENA anthem which hails El Salvador as the “tomb where the reds will be terminated.” I thought it odd that, rather than let me take their picture, the directores told the people pictured above to stand outside the ARENA office, where I took the picture. Less than half a small block to the right of the ARENA office is the large (1.5 blocks) field where most of the indigenous people killed in 1932 are buried in an anonymous mass grave (see picture of plaque and smoky Izalco volcano in background below) excavated by forensic scientists from Argentina in 2007.

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The fact that this is the only commemoration of La Matanza in El Salvador, a country where surveys tell us that 75% of the population knows nothing about the events of 1932, provides an object lesson in the dangers of institutional and political amnesia; It also tells us why ARENA has won every mayoral election in Izalco since it was founded here in 1981; Every mayoral election until this year, that is:

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Pictured above in the blue shirt is Roberto Alvarado, a member of the FMLN and Mayor-elect of Izalco whose stunning victory last January reflects the depths of the changes here and in the entire country. “They sang that stupid song about “the tomb of the reds,” Alvarado,a former teacher who was pursued by death squads, told me adding, “Now we are going turn Izalco, the cradle of ARENA, into the the political grave of the ARENA party.” Alvarado’s coalition-students, indigenous communities, Catholics and evangelicos– provided the FMLN with a major spiritual and political victory -and a model to be emulated across the country.

Streets reddened and silenced for several decades by the blood of the indigenous martyrs are now red with the hope voters are placing in the FMLN and its candidate , the multi-mediagenic former journalist, Mauricio Funes:

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The unprecedented openness expressed in the shoes, shops and streets of Izalco has many, many reasons and thousands of people to thank for it. Together, these forces ended the silence that cast a permanent cloud over Izalco -and El Salvador-after the events of 1932. One of today’s most vocal and effective breakers of the silence is Juliana Ama, director of the Calvo school that teaches nahuatl. She is also the great, great granddaughter of rebel leader, Jose Feliciano Ama (above). Since 2001, Juliana has organized commemoration ceremonies every January at the site of the mass grave near the ARENA office in Izalco, ceremonies that draw conflict and controversy.

Despite the tensions, despite the threats she has received, Ama soldiers on in what she defines first and foremost as a”spiritual act” because, she says, “we have no choice; we can’t remain and suffer in silence.” Juliana also believes that there is a direct link between the commemoration ceremonies and the defeat of the ARENA party. “Those ceremonies made it normal and acceptable to be open about the loss of long ago, the loss that still lives with us,” she said. “Nothing like this was ever possible before and I think that the ceremony made it possible for people to start being more open about political feelings too.

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Finally, as the son of the 10 year-old boy who witnessed and survived la Matanza and then went on to become my father, I want to thank Juliana and the people of Izalco for their example, their courage and their great wisdom.

R

The Pink, Bloodied & Reconstructed Walls of History: RL Reporting from El Salvador

March 11, 2009

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Saludos from El Salvador, land of my ancestors and of ghosts loving and hostile, a land that’s -again- on the verge of volcanic, platetechtonic shifts of consciousness – regardless of the outcome of this week’s historic elections. In the short time since landing last week, my own consciousness has been shaken by the central fact of Salvadoran life today: how absolutely and passionately people here are ready for change. Even small talk in this small country is full of big ideas –democracia, cambio, justicia-and other things we who are Border Walled-off from the insurgent continent can learn from. For those of you that don’t know me personally, intimately or otherwise, there would simple y sencillamente be no Of América without the people of El Salvador, their espiritu de lucha, mi espiritu de lucha.

Those of you who visit the site regularly may find some of my dispatches a bit more personal than usual. For example, as I prepared for the trip, the “journalist” within cautioned against exposing too much of my personal or political past. I even hesitated about sharing the pic above taken from within the pretty pink walls my aunt’s room in the province of San Vicente; I think the culture of fear and paranoia that fills the tropical (and very polluted) air here had infected me and manifested its noxious symptoms in the cautious voice of the journalist. But as I thought about it, having family that has sympathies for the right-wing Arena party -family that I love despite politics- is a fact of life for many a Salvadoran whose heart was not mangled or killed during the 12 year civil war. Furthermore, the frontal, direct assault on the hydra-head of Fear is nothing if not the great defining trait of people on the verge of another big revolutionary step.

It’s late and I’ve been on the road. So, the best thing I can do with remaining energy is to preview one of my stories by sharing pics from a recent visit. Am trying to share the stuff that reporters stationed behind the guarded, air-conditioned walls of hotels in San Salvador might not be able to.

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This pic is from San Vicente, my mom’s hometown. This is the view from the cobblestone street in front of my grandmother’s house, a street I used to float paper boats on. I also used to chase giant green dragonflies on the street with Luisito, my best childhood friend when I visited San Vicente. Luisito disappeared one teen year and I later found out he flew off to join the FMLN, El Salvador’s former guerrillas, who are now well-positioned to win the Presidency in this Sunday’s elections against the Arena party (pictured in pic of pink wall). Luisito called my aunt after being injured in combat. He wanted to speak with his mother before he died and my aunt was the only one with a phone back then. His radicalization and death weren’t something you talked about in small town San Vicente-even after the war ended in 1992.

This picture is interesting because the busloads of FMLN supporters, several of whom are members of Luisito’s family, are standing in front of his home wearing the red shirts and scarves and waving the red flags, something unimaginable years back. Thought it was also interesting that the FMLN campaign office is located across the street from Luisito’s.

You might also note the big red, white and blue flag of the Arena party, which is behind in most polls. Further in the background is the white wall of the Iglesia del Pilar, a colonial church, where ,in the 1830’s, Nonualco indian leader Anatasio Aquino took the crown of San Jose and crowned himself King of the Nonualcos after he and 3,000 men rebelled against local land barons. Aquino was later betrayed, beheaded and buried in the San Vicente cemetery where my family is buried.

Aquino and other indigenous leaders were adopted by the FMLN as symbols of their struggle while Arena draws inspiration from people like Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez, the dictator who started El Salvador on the road to modernization after slaughtering between 20,000 to 30,000 mostly indigenous people in what historians call “La Matanza” or the Great Killing of 1932. He ruled until being ousted in a coup in 1944 and was later assassinated (more below)
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My aunt showed me the wall where, as a girl, she saw Martinez’s troops execute criminals, indians, alleged subversives and other personas nada gratas. I walked over to the wall and also found one of the big treats of my trip thus far: Aquino’s tomb. Right in front of the tomb, radical students, some of whom were gathered in front of Luisito’s and the FMLN office, painted a mural last year on the same wall where Martinez’s troops killed many innocents. In their younger days (1980’s), older, 40-50 something others in the FMLN crowd gathered for electoral activities had come down from the mountains pictured behind the walls and hid in the cemetery before launching military offensives inside the town.

The pink, bloodied and rebuilt walls of El Salvador will be voting on Sunday too.