History of U.S. intervention Overshadows El Salvador's Presidential Elections
On January 30, thirty-nine members of the House of Representatives called on the State Department to publicly adopt a position of neutrality with regard to El Salvador’s February 3 presidential election. The letter, sponsored by Representatives Raúl M. Grijalva (D-AZ), Don Beyer (D-VA), and José Serrano (D-NY), raises red flags about a number of public statements that Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL), head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and President Trump have made in recent months threatening to unilaterally cut aid or retaliate against El Salvador in response to a variety of policy decisions made by the current Salvadoran government. (Read CISPES' Derailing Democracy report on US intervention in El Salvador's elections here.)
These statements come at a pivotal time in Salvadoran politics where there is little clarity as to how recent changes to the composition of El Salvador’s core electoral institutions will impact the upcoming elections, much less which of the candidates will ultimately emerge victorious.
In the letter, Members of Congress write: “We encourage the State Department to join us in honoring and respecting the will of the Salvadoran people when they go to the polls on February 3 to elect the next President of El Salvador. We seek your assurance that State Department officials wilUl refrain from positioning themselves in any sort of partisan manner or making any statements to influence the decision of Salvadoran voters ahead of the elections. The State Department’s position with regard to the outcome of the 2019 presidential election should be guided solely by evaluations that the process was free and fair and in compliance with El Salvador’s laws, not by the political preferences of any U.S. official.” (Read letter in English here and Spanish translation here.)
The letter was endorsed by the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), the National Lawyers Guild, the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON), CASA, the Central American Resources Centers (CARECEN) of Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, DC, the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA), U.S.-El Salvador Sister Cities, and the SHARE Foundation – El Salvador.
Representatives of CISPES, CARECEN-Los Angeles and the National Lawyers Guild who are serving as international observers for the 2019 Presidential elections held a press conference in San Salvador to help ensure that news of the letter would reach Salvadoran voters and to issue their own call to the State Department to adopt a public position of neutrality and to “respect El Salvador’s sovereign democracy.” (Read English Media press release here. For statement that was delivered to Salvadoran media, click here.)
The press conference sparked a lot of response in the Salvadoran media, generating coverage in outlets like:
Despite a long history of fraud and voter suppression on behalf of right-wing governments, numerous international observation missions have documented that systemic voting irregularities have decreased over the past 10 years under the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), El Salvador’s first leftist government. However, as a result of a series of rulings issued between 2011 and 2017 by the right-wing dominated Supreme Court of Justice, El Salvador’s electoral system has become one of the most complex in the world, yielding major concerns that El Salvador’s hard-won democracy is being deteriorated.
In a short span of time, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court radically altered El Salvador’s electoral system. The Chamber barred people affiliated with any political party from participating in the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), El Salvador’s independent electoral authority, as well as in all other electoral bodies, including the citizens who staff the tables on election day.
The ruling flies in the face of the spirit of the 1992 Peace Accords, which created the TSE as an pluralist institution in which all of El Salvador’s major political parties would play a role and provide a series of checks and balances. Salvadoran civil society organizations and several progressive elected officials whom the Supreme Court removed from their posts have denounced these rulings before the Inter- American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States, claiming that they violate civil and political rights.
The Court’s rulings together with their selective enforcement - targeting only those who may be sympathetic to the leftist FMLN - have shifted the scales to the right within the Tribunal.
In 2018, Members of Congress sent a letter to the Department of State and to Jean Manes, U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador expressing concern over these controversial rulings and, by extension, the U.S. Embassy’s frequent public displays of support for the Constitutional Chamber.
The 2019 elections are the first presidential elections that will take place in El Salvador since the Constitutional Chamber imposed these reforms and provoked a change in the membership of the Tribunal.
Additionally, the weeks leading up to the elections in El Salvador have seen an increase in the overall murder rate. This pattern has been documented for years and is widely understood in El Salvador as a right-wing attempt to intimidate voters and undermine support for the governing leftist party.
For well over a century, the United States has interfered in the domestic politics of countries in Latin America and throughout the Global South in order to tip the scale in favor of their preferred candidates and thereby gain or maintain access to and control over natural resources and territories. Such is the case in Venezuela, where right-wing opposition leader Juan Guaidó swore himself into office earlier this week in an attempted coup d’etat with the full support of the Trump Administration, which immediately recognized him as the president despite the absence of an election. An emboldened right-wing in Venezuela, Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America coupled with the return of cold-war mongers like Elliott Abrams to the White House sound an alarm for the urgent need for international solidarity and a coordinated hemispheric strategy to stop those forces that put the lives and livelihoods of millions of people in imminent danger.