Salvador Rebels Struggle to Learn How to Become a Political Party

September 12, 1993|By FIONA NEILL

SAN SALVADOR — San Salvador. -- For 12 years left-wing rebels of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) waged one of Latin America's most successful guerrilla wars.

Today, the former guerrillas have set up offices in middle-class neighborhoods in San Salvador and take business management courses funded by the U.S. government. Next March the FMLN -- former Marxist revolutionaries who eschewed electoral politics -- will run in general elections as a legal political party for the first time.

The FMLN has won national and international respect for its role in consolidating peace in El Salvador. But the organization the U.S.-funded Salvadoran military couldn't defeat is finding that peace-time politics is in some ways more difficult than guerrilla warfare.

The May explosion of an arms cache in Nicaragua has underlined the difficulties of transforming the FMLN into a democratic political party.

A sophisticated array of weaponry -- including 19 surface-to-air missiles, 350 rockets and almost a million and a half rounds of ammunition -- was found in one of 16 safe-houses.

Documents linking the FMLN to an international-kidnapping group and "terrorist" organizations were also discovered. A number of other arms caches have been found since.

The FMLN's legal recognition as a political party was linked to the destruction of its weapons. While few doubt the former guerrillas' intentions to abandon bullets in favor of the ballot box, the arms-cache scandal severely undermined their international credibility.

"They didn't just shoot themselves in the foot, they shot themselves in the head," said one Western diplomat.

The unity and discipline which made the FMLN formidable foes on the battlefield and skillful negotiators during two years of peace talks is disintegrating. The political party formed through U.N.-brokered peace accords signed early last year is fraught with internal wrangling and division.

"This is a marriage of convenience," said Salvador Samayoa, member of the FMLN's political committee. "And it is obvious the married couple will separate. I see no possibility that the FMLN will remain unified after the election."

While division has always existed, the clandestine, hierarchical structure of the guerrilla organization meant arguments took place behind closed doors and involved few people. Now differences are aired on television.

During the war, the struggle against a common enemy was a unifying force. Ideological debate was subjugated to the common pursuit of military goals. But with the war over, the main raison d'etre for working together has died with it.

"Peace is more complicated," says Ana Guadelupe Martinez, another member of the FMLN's political committee. "Our biggest challenge is educating ourselves to be democratic. Our supporters are used to being told what to do and the leadership to giving orders."

To some extent the FMLN's current problems reflect the dilemma of the Latin American left. With the fall of communism in eastern Europe and the defeat of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, the left has been ideologically orphaned.

In El Salvador, one half of the FMLN is moving at high speed towards social democracy, while the other half remains committed to a more socialist platform.

The Peoples Revolutionary Army (ERP), one of the FMLN's five factions, has done a political about-face and now favors alliances with right-wing business interests.

"They [other factions] think they are revolutionaries and Marxists, and we say that doesn't work" says Ms. Martinez, an ERP leader.

Her party's pragmatic and flexible approach is intended, she argues, to widen its support base. But her organization's adoption of a social-democratic platform, after a decade of fighting for fundamental change, is seen by other FMLN factions and some of its own supporters as a sell-out.

Seven members of a radio station sponsored by the ERP were fired last year because they did not have "business acumen." The radio's swing from propagandist machine to a commercial channel playing Guns N' Roses was too much for some who had spent the war dodging bullets and bombs to spread the word of socialist revolution.

With elections only seven months away the FMLN has found itself in the midst of an electoral campaign with little time to resolve its identity crisis. "People don't know what the FMLN stands for any more," says Mr. Samayoa, "We no longer have a clear position."

Conscious of its inexperience and internal problems, the FMLN will not be running its own candidate in the next election. But the political directorate's eventual decision to back leftist politician Ruben Zamora was only achieved after severe disagreement. Three factions favored Zamora while two wanted to back a Christian Democrat businessman.

Dissension within the FMLN has also weakened its ability to pressure the Salvadoran government to fulfill the peace accords.

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