In the first days of his last year as president, El Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes was forced to make some changes in the country’s security cabinet. Following a ruling by the Supreme Court declaring the former security and justice minister’s term unconstitutional, Funes selected Ricardo Perdomo as the new security and justice minister.
Perdomo, a civilian who was the former director of the State Intelligence Agency, is a politically-savvy and experienced professional with a lot of political experience. In his first week, Perdomo fired the director of the penitentiary system, and the vice minister of security resigned precipitously.
It’s unclear what Perdomo’s tenure will represent for El Salvador’s unprecedented gang truce, which has helped reduce homicide rates significantly but left extortion rates barely altered. What is clear is that the discourse, at least, seems more coherent now that the security cabinet is led by Perdomo.
In the mix of resignations, police commissioner reassignments, new appointments and a waning presidency, Funes seems to be making a last effort to tackle the country’s insecurity. On June 6, Funes and Perdomo announced the creation of a new anti-extortion unit. The specialized unit will be comprised of 500 police officers and 500 military personnel and will be specially trained and equipped to reduce extortions.
El Salvador is heading toward another important electoral event within the next month. On March 11 Salvadorans will cast their votes to elect 262 mayors and 84 deputies to the Legislative Assembly. The results, especially for the legislative election, will shape the remaining two years of the Funes presidency.
The latest polls show a strong political opposition led by the conservative Alianza Republicana Nacionalista, ARENA, with higher voter preference over Funes’ governing, left of center, Frente Farabundo Marti para la Liberacion Nacional, FMLN. President Mauricio Funes still maintains high approval ratings however it seems like his apparent likeability among voters isn’t translating into potential votes for his party. Some argue that this may be the result of Funes (and the FMLN) maintaining a complex relationship filled with public disagreements on some issues and coincidences on others.
If the polls remain the same for the next month the big looser may be the orthodox leadership of the FMLN. Pressure has been mounting on the traditional, hard line leadership of the FMLN, from their base to break away completely from Funes. These militants perceive Funes as too much to the right and not pushing for radical reform. However, if ARENA does well and the FMLN doesn’t perform as expected this would leave President Funes in an awkward position as he would effectively become a “presidente sin partido” (president with no party). Should this scenario occur Funes would most certainly look for refuge in one of the smaller political parties and face a difficult two years characterized by attacks from both the left and right of the political spectrum.
President Mauricio Funes yesterday announced his support for changes to El Salvador’s electoral laws that would allow Salvadorans living abroad to vote in national elections. At an event in celebration of El Salvador’s national Independence Day, Funes emphasized: "I do not exaggerate when I say that the institutionalization of absentee voting is a historical necessity... we are not a true democracy until the one-third of Salvadorans living outside the country have a voice in our elections.”
According to Funes, his government has requested technical advice from the United Nations and will strive to make all necessary changes before national elections in 2014. One component of the effort will be the modernization of El Salvador’s national identity card, Documento Único de Identidad (DUI), which Salvadorans living in the United States will be able to acquire at their closest consulate.
In the first eight months of 2011, Salvadorans living abroad sent home $2.4 billion in remittances to friends and families in El Salvador—a 4.8 percent increase over the same period in 2010. This makes the overseas community a vital part of the national economy. If the proposed reforms are successful, El Salvador will join the growing number of countries in the hemisphere that allow citizens residing abroad to participate in the political process through absentee voting.
El Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes yesterday announced a major series of media reforms that will transform state-owned radio and television by granting them unprecedented legal autonomy to broadcast independent content. The reforms, which were developed in collaboration with the World Bank, is designed to put an end to the historic role of state media as a campaign tool of incumbent governments and a mouthpiece for ruling administrations.
Salvadoran Minister of Communications of the Presidency, David Rivas, explained that "for many years state radio and television were subject to political whims or subjected to the interests of particular groups, but not the interests of society as a whole." Critics of state media in El Salvador say the state-owned Radio Nacional and Canal 10 were often used during the country’s brutal 1980s civil war to disseminate disinformation and distract Salvadorans from accurate war coverage.
World Bank representative Alberto Leyton lauded the announced reforms and emphasized that state media should further the “public good” by refraining from simply broadcasting the “situational interests” of a particular government.
El Salvador President Mauricio Funes started his third year in office last week with a series of policy announcements primarily dealing with citizen security.
The proposed security policies would first institute compulsory military service for 5,000 at-risk youth between the ages of 14 and 16. These young men and women will be recruited if they reside in high-risk areas prone to gang violence as a deterrent and preventive measure but also as a mechanism for rehabilitation. The caveat is that these youth wouldn’t be trained in weapons use and military tactics. Instead, they would be exposed to military discipline and trained in civil protection measures at times of natural disaster. Recruited men and women would be paid for their service and would later constitute a sort of civil protection reserve—not a bad idea in a country frequently exposed to natural disasters. Other new security measures include the creation of a special committee composed of high-level security cabinet members that would closely follow-up on investigations of serious criminal investigations along with the addition of 1,000 new police officers.
How effective will these new policies be in a context of what seems like a spiraling plague of crime? This has yet to be seen. However, what’s true is that the compulsory military recruitment initiative is the first and perhaps most radical policy initiative made in the region since the Mano Dura programs in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras in the late 1990s and 2000s. Boosting the police force may seem like more of the same, but some experts suggest that increased levels of crime are a result of a lack of state presence. The presence of the police force, at the very least, represents state control of currently gang-ridden territories.
The next obvious question is how soon these measures will be taken. First, Funes has to overcome some legal limitations to the youth military service initiative, and reforms to the Military Career Law must go through the legislative assembly. Some government officials are already criticizing the measure, including the Human Rights Ombudsman, the National Institute for Children and Adolescents and a juvenile judge.
Amid a mix of praise and criticism, President Mauricio Funes today marks his second anniversary as the leader of El Salvador, with surveys showing that Salvadorans commend him for his progressive social policies but disapprove of the economy’s slow growth and rampant violence. In a national survey conducted by the Instituto Universitario de Opinión Pública at the Universidad Centroamericana from April 29 to May 7, 1,262 Salvadorans rated Funes' job performance at 6.16 on a scale of 1 to 10, down from 6.78 a year ago and 7.6 in August 2009.
A member of the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación (FMLN)—a leftist guerrilla organization that was converted into a political party in 1992—Funes assumed the presidency in the midst of the global economic recession and following 20 years of consecutive government by the right-wing Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA) party. He prioritized maintaining close relations with the United States, where more than 2 million Salvadorans live and work, contributing to the U.S. economy as well as to the Salvadoran economy through remittances. The President also has focused on implementing social policies to mitigate the effects of the recession on the Salvadoran poor. Among these is the provision of free lunches, school supplies, uniforms, and shoes to more than 377 million public school students; free medical services; and the Plan de Agricultura Familiar to assist small farmers with credit, insurance, technical assistance, and the procurement of seeds and fertilizer.
While survey results show that Salvadorans recognize the social achievements of the Funes government, they fault the President for failing to improve the economy and effectively combat widespread violence. El Salvador’s economy is projected to grow only 2.5 percent in 2011, although that number is up from 1.4 percent growth in 2010 and a 3.1 percent decline in 2009. Likewise, Funes’ government has succeeded in reducing the extortion rate by 28 percent and bringing down the daily average of homicides, but the latter still stands at 11 per day.
Today Funes will present the FMLN-led Legislative Assembly with an assessment of his past two years of government. The party has confirmed in a press release that it will continue to implement policies in favor of El Salvador’s most disadvantaged populations.
Air Force One touches down in San Salvador at 2:45pm EST today, the last stop in President Obama’s three-country Latin America tour. The President will be in El Salvador for two days. According to the White House schedule released this morning, the President and First Lady will participate in an arrival ceremony, followed by a bilateral meeting between Obama and his Salvadoran counterpart Mauricio Funes and a state dinner in Obama’s honor. The two leaders will hold a joint press conference at 4:55 pm EST with a live audio stream available.
Yesterday, in an address to Latin America at Santiago’s Centro Cultural Palacio La Moneda, the President attempted to reset relations between Latin America and the United States. Obama touched on themes like renewable energy sources, security against transnational crime, inclusive socioeconomic development and the importance of sustainable democratic institutions. (Here is a transcript of the President’s remarks.)
As previewed in AQ Online, discussion topics in the Obama-Funes working meeting are expected to range from immigration policy to poverty to free trade to counternarcotics efforts across the region. Read more AQ coverage of Salvadorans’ expectations from Obama’s visit.
Assuming the U.S. government will be operational past the March 18 funding deadline, President Obama will make his first trip to Central and South America from March 19-23. Obama had previously visited Mexico before heading to the Caribbean in April 2009, where he represented the United States at the Summit of the Americas held in Port-of-Spain, Trinidad and Tobago.
President Obama will begin his Latin America tour in Brazil, where he will visit Brasília on March 19 and hold bilateral talks with his counterpart, President Dilma Rousseff, who was inaugurated on January 1. The central discussion points are expected to be infrastructure financing and energy cooperation, with energy an especially critical area for sustaining Brazil’s economic boom and future development. Obama will continue to Rio de Janeiro the following day, where he is expected to hold a CEO roundtable and visit select sites with his family.
Obama will arrive in Santiago, Chile on the afternoon of March 21 and be greeted by Chilean President Sebastián Piñera. The two leaders will have a working meeting and sign a joint declaration, followed later that evening by a state dinner at the Palacio de la Moneda. Piñera and Obama will discuss innovation and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, the latest round of which concluded last month in Chile. President Piñera has expressed a desire to have the negotiating countries (Australia, Malaysia, Peru, United States, and Vietnam) join the existing TPP signatories (Brunei, Chile, New Zealand, and Singapore) before the next Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Honolulu, Hawaii, in November 2011.
On the morning of March 22, President Obama will deliver a speech to all Latin Americans from Santiago. The specific location is still being finalized; the Natural History Museum is a likely venue with the National History Museum and the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) headquarters as alternative choices.
After his speech, Obama will fly to El Salvador for his final stop. He will be the fourth U.S. president to visit the Central American country while holding office, after Lyndon Johnson, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. Obama will meet with his El Salvadoran counterpart, Mauricio Funes, and discuss a range of bilateral issues including U.S. immigration policy and the recently-announced $200 million pledge from the State Department to renew Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) funding. The two heads of state will also discuss the success of CAFTA-DR. El Salvador was the first Central American signatory. The United States and El Salvador celebrated five years of free trade relations on March 1, 2011.
Follow AQ Online for daily developments leading up to President Obama’s Latin America trip.
Ahead of this week’s first annual China-oriented trade exposition in San Salvador that is expected to include over 50 Chinese business representatives, President Mauricio Funes of El Salvador said Monday that his administration would explore establishing diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China. Funes added that he would do so only if it were in the economic interests of his country.
Presently, El Salvador has diplomatic relations with the Republic of China—commonly referred to as Taiwan. In accordance with Chinese policy, China refuses to engage in diplomatic activity with any nation that acknowledges Taiwan. For Taiwan, it fears that El Salvador will repeat what Costa Rica did in 2007: break off relations in favor of a partnership with China that includes greater economic benefits from access to a substantially larger market. However, despite Costa Rica’s actions, all other Central American countries have chosen to maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan.
A Taiwanese source confirmed Tuesday that Taiwan’s ambassador to El Salvador received guarantees that diplomatic relations would not be broken off. The same source noted that any of China’s attempts to poach Taiwan’s allies would have a negative effect on Taiwan-China relations, which have improved dramatically in recent years under the presidency of Ma Ying-jeou.
The past few weeks have been tough on El Salvador and Central America. The tragic discovery of 72 murdered immigrants in the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico, generated widespread commotion given the fact that most were Salvadoran, Guatemalan and Honduran citizens. The news—beyond moving society due to the cruel and sadistic nature of the crimes—became an ironic reminder for most young Central Americans who constantly flee their nations to escape increased violence and lack of economic opportunities.
Aggressive calls have been made by government officials and the alleged survivor of the massacre not to travel through Mexico due to increased violence and harassment toward immigrants. However, after the mourning of the deceased, everyone seems to have turned the page and recognize that these are no longer just isolated initiatives.
El Salvador’s President Funes just came back from a meeting with Mexican President Felipe Calderón where they first agreed on establishing a high-level working group on security and justice led by high-level political officials. Pessimism aside, the initiative will likely fail to deliver systematic changes in immigrant security. We all know that the situation in Mexico is complex, to say the least.
A second highly publicized incident came with the three-day suspension of virtually all economic activity in El Salvador due to a massive public transportation system halt. Beginning September 9, a generalized threat from maras led Transportistas to go a 72-hour closure of services that brought the country to a complete stand still. The threat was accompanied by the murder of several transportation workers and the burning of some buses. The government called for prudence and calm while deploying 2,000 additional armed forces personnel to patrol the streets and accompany what few buses did work.
In the midst of these two events, but particularly the second one, observers would expect an energetic outcry from civil society. However, aside from an estimate of economic loses made by the main business associations, civil society and the public in general had a very weak response to an ineffective public safety and crime stopping policy.