Dialogue Begins Between Government Powers in Wake of Controversial Decree 743


Legislative Assembly president Sigfrido Reyes (left) in joint press conference with Supreme Court president Belarmino Jaime (right).

Also included in this update:

  • Unions Protest Funes' Replacement of Labor Minister
  • Honduras Rejoins OAS for Assembly on Regional Security in San Salvador
On Thursday, June 9, the leadership of the Legislative Assembly and the Magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court met for the first time to discuss the controversial legislative decree 743 that has caused a major conflict between the government branches and begin to reconcile tensions that have been developing over the past two years between El Salvador's Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branches; both sides considered the meeting an important step towards resolving the institutional tension that began with the passage of the decree two weeks ago. On June 2, all right-wing parties – Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), Great Alliance for National Unity (GANA), Christian Democrat Party (PDC), National Conciliation Party (PCN) - closed ranks to pass the decree that requires unanimous decisions from the five magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber. The Constitutional Chamber is the highest court in El Salvador’s judiciary and monitors the constitutionality of laws and policies passed by the Executive and Legislative branches. Previously, a 4/5 majority of magistrates was necessary to declare a law or policy unconstitutional and a 3/5 majority was necessary to determine that a person or institution's constitutional rights had been violated. The right-wing parties publicly stated that decree 743 was a preventative measure to halt the Constitutional Chamber from ruling on cases related to the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and dollarization - hallmarks of neoliberal economic policies implemented under ARENA administrations - as well as the Amnesty Law that prohibits prosecution of crimes committed during El Salvador's Civil War. 

The decree is also widely understood to be a retaliatory measure to restrict the Constitutional Chamber's powers in the wake of two rulings that have severely challenged right-wing parties at the start of the 2012 elections season; the Chamber has called for the dissolution of the PCN and PDC and the removal of PCN representatives from El Salvador’s elections authority. After a rushed legislative vote that did not include discussion or debate in the full legislative plenary, President Funes unexpectedly signed the decree into law the same day it passed. In the days following, the Constitutional Chamber ruled the decree unconstitutional, refusing to abide by a law that “violates the separation of powers”, while many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as well as the National Private Business Association (ANEP) and the right-wing think tank Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUSADES) organized protests to denounce the decree. Amidst public scrutiny, ARENA party president and former president of the Republic, Alfredo Cristiani, changed the party's position and began calling for the FMLN to join ARENA to repeal decree 743. In an ARENA communiqué, the party claimed to have supported the decree out of fear that the Amnesty Law - passed by Cristiani's administration in 1993 - would be found unconstitutional. The Amnesty Law is widely criticized by the social movement and the FMLN as a barrier to bringing justice to victims of State repression during El Salvador's Civil War. Given the recent Spanish Court indictments of 20 military officers for the 1989 Jesuit massacre, including Cristiani’s former cabinet members, Cristiani himself could be forced to stand trial without the protection of the Amnesty Law. In ARENA's communiqué, the party claimed to have changed its position after "evident demonstrations by the Constitutional Chamber that they have no intention of declaring the Amnesty Law unconstitutional." FMLN leadership immediately began to question whether ARENA and the Constitutional Chamber had cut a backroom deal. Presidentof the Supreme Court Belarmino Jaime has denied meeting with ARENA party leadership or engaging in negotiations regarding future Constitutional Chamber rulings, but acknowledged that on June 6 the magistrates did decide to dismiss pending cases against dollarization and the Amnesty Law. Since ARENA's call for repeal, many NGOs have joined in the clamor, viewing the decree’s repeal as the necessary action to restore institutional rule of law. In contrast, the FMLN and sectors of the social movement like the Salvadoran Union Front (FSS) have expressed  concern that repeal will not resolve the conflicts between the government branches highlighted by the passage of the decree. At an FMLN public forum in SanSalvador on June 10, FMLN General Coordinator Medardo Gonzalez advocated for dialogue between the Constitutional Chamber, Legislative Assembly and Executive as the appropriate solution. “Right now there is abattle between the powers of the government. Clearly, decree 743 seeks to undermine the authority of the Constitutional Chamber; but the Chamber has also tried to wield more power than it should. Their recent rulings are extremely prescriptive and go beyond simply deciding the constitutionality of laws – the magistrates are trying to legislate how laws should be applied, which is the duty of the Assembly. Repealing decree 743 will not resolve this larger issue. We need an open dialogue with all three branches of government to define the roles of each branch to move forward.” Gonzalez specifically cited rulings regarding voting procedures that the FMLN views as an attempt to legislate an electoral reform through legal rulings.  The FMLN is promoting an electoral reformin the Legislative Assembly, but has been unable to garner support from right-wing parties. However, the party asserts that it is the role of legislative deputies - elected to reform and create laws - to draw up this reform, rather than the magistrates appointed to make constitutional rulings. Since last Thursday’s meeting between the Constitutional Chamber and the Legislative Assembly, President Funes haspublicly supported the dialogue approach and has convened a second meeting to include representation of all three branches of government to determine a smooth way to resolve decree 743 and the clash of state powers. Unions Protest Funes' Replacement of Labor Minister On June 1 as President Funes delivered his annual State of the Union address and announced cabinet changes two years into his presidency, union members rallied against the replacement of the pro-union Minister of Labor Dr. Victoria Marina de Avilés outside the Legislative Assembly.Funes offered no reason for the personnel change at the Ministry of Labor and named the previous Minister of the Interior and former FMLN combatant, Humberto Centeno, as Dr. de Avilés' replacement. Wilfredo Berrios of the FSS commented, "Dr. de Avilés has stood up to corporations and the private sector for the rights of workers and unions, backing the labor movement like none of her predecessors have done and has followed El Salvador's labor code to the letter. We are disappointed that President Funes finally gave into the demands of the private sector who were accustomed to a Ministry of Labor that only responded to their needs and we call on the new Minister to continue Dr.de Avilés' example of protecting workers and their right to free association." Following Funes' announcement, the new Minister of Labor Centeno said he planned to mediate the relationship between workers and employers in a manner that responds to both sectors' interests, rights and needs. El Salvador's powerful business associations, ANEP and the Salvadoran Chamber of Commerce, have repeatedly clashed with Dr. de Avilés' Ministry of Labor regarding the recognition of new unions and her strict adherence to El Salvador's labor laws. Both associations have repeatedly called for the Minister's dismissal since 2009. During Funes' annual evaluation of cabinet members last December, Salvadoran union federations including the FSS organized public demonstrations in supportof the Minister, while international solidarity organizations and international unions sent letters and statements to President Funes applauding the work of Dr. de Avilés. During her two years as Minister of Labor, Dr. de Avilés has overseen the accreditation of over 80 new unions, many that have been fighting for years for legal recognition, like SITRAVX, a union of electronics assembly plant workers, and the industrial telecommunications union SITCOM. Both SITRAVX and SITCOM are currently embroiled in legal battles initiated by their corporate employers seeking to decertify the newly-accredited unions. The former Minister has also supported the democratic revival of unions beseiged for decades by corrupt leadership, as in the case of SUTC, the largest construction workers union. Honduras Rejoins OAS for Assembly on Regional Security in San Salvador From June 5 through 7, representatives of 27 countries from the hemisphere convened in San Salvador for the general assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS) to address regional insecurity and economic inequality, amidst constant public protest against the reincorporation of Honduras into the OAS. Honduras had been banned from the regional body since the June 2009 coup against democratically-elected President Manuel "Mel" Zelaya. Just a few days prior to the general assembly, the country was officially re-admitted into the OAS after ousted President Zelaya and current Honduran President Porfirio Lobo reached a pact mediated by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavéz and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos. The language of the pact granted the demands of the broad-based movement that arose to oppose the coup - the National Front for Popular Resistance (FNRP) - including allowing Zelaya to return to Honduras and sanctioning a Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution; nonetheless, sectors of the FNRP have expressed skepticism that the Honduran government will hold up its end of the pact and criticize the OAS for recognizing Honduras before the Lobo administration has met the movement's demands. Honduran and Salvadoran social movement groups began protesting the Friday before the 3-day OAS meeting, condemning the reincorporation of Hondurasinto the OAS, denouncing the Lobo administration as the illegitimate "continuation of the coup" and asserting that political violence against the Honduran social movement had increased as a result of Honduras' readmission into the regional body. The groups set up an encampment in San Salvador - Camp Dignity - to openly protest Honduras' participation for the duration of the regional meeting. In stark contrast to Camp Dignity, government representatives - including Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes - celebrated Honduras' reinstatement inside the OAS meeting, while discussing how to confront violence, crime and narcotrafficking in the hemisphere. The general assembly approved a 17-point plan to fight hemispheric insecurity, including an emphasis on crime prevention, rehabilitation and reinsertion of people convicted of crimes into society among the outlined priorities. Each member government will be responsible for creating national legislation and programs in fulfillment of this security agreement. The representatives of Central American countries also announced plans to request $900 million in aid from the US, European Union and other "donor" nations to fund regional socioeconomic,crime prevention and law enforcement policies at the June 22 meeting ofthe Central American Integration System (SICA), a Central America-specific coordination body. The US has already pledged $165 million in security funding through its Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), plus another $200 million from the State Department's International Bureau of Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL), headed by former US Ambassador to Colombia, Robert Brownfield, demonstrating Washington's continued eagerness to fund "Drug War" enforcement policies in Latin America, like the notoriously violent PlanColombia, over peaceful, preventative policies to alleviate the poverty and unemployment that fosters crime.

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