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Last Updated: 03/23/2009
El Salvador and the power of democratic change
Ross Ryan

The recent election in El Salvador is an example of those relatively rare times when substantial change in the direction and philosophy of government is achieved through peaceful democratic elections. As such, it deserves to be recognized as a victory for democracy itself.

As Dr Victor Valle's article in this month's PCM argues, the tragic violence of the Salvadorian civil war has finally completed its transition from revolutionary struggle, through fragile peace, and now to a viable democracy. With the FMLN in power, the grievances between the various sectors of Salvadorian society have a real chance of being resolved though policy and parliamentary debate. More than likely, those committed to violence as a method of political persuasion will find that their supporters have left them, now that they have seen for themselves that peaceful, democratic change is possible.

A lot of this has to do with other democratic changes in the Americas: the rising tide of leftist political movements across Latin America, and the election of President Barack Obama in Washington. While the previous US administration openly bullied El Salvador during their last elections – threatening to cut off foreign aid to the nation if the FMLN became the new government – the Obama administration acted with laudable restraint. 

(Oscar Alvarado's article in this month's PCM covers more of the history of US influence during El Salvador's civil war).

I must admit that when President Obama was elected, I was one of the sceptics. After all, a democrat won – not even an independent, and certainly not the leader of a revolutionary party. I am far from over my scepticism now. There has, however, been a welcome change in style from the new administration, as evidenced (among other things) by the non-interference with El Salvador's elections, and the very positive change in the president's personal tone towards Iran. These changes are already having an impact on global opinion, and are promoting dialogue and conflict resolution by democratic means. 

A solid continuation of this style would be to follow El Salvador's new president Mauricio Funes' lead and re-establish diplomatic relations with Cuba. In its long history, the US blockade against that country has done nothing to promote democracy, and everything to infringe upon personal freedoms to travel and trade.

Unfortunately, the largest political issue currently facing the US administration (in my opinion) is not yet even on the agenda for change. This is – and has been for some time – the military industrial complex. Despite the media hype, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are only the tip of an iceberg, with major US military presence in over 130 nations, and US arms manufacturers alone accounting for nearly half of the global arms trade.

Not only is this strategy financially unstable, it will necessarily lead to more war. Defence contracts continue to divert billions of dollars from US taxpayers into the hands of a few war-profiteering elites, and distribute arms all over the world. This is a poor way to promote freedom and democracy, and it must change.

Of course, the US is only one of the many nations undergoing changes at the moment and feeling the pressure to change even more. The international system, and the UN in particular, is increasingly recognizing the need for more democratic mechanisms and stronger partnerships with civil society – although the fundamentally undemocratic nature of the Security Council remains a serious obstacle to meaningful reform.

Perhaps the worst thing we can say about the democratic process is that it can be painfully slow, as the people of El Salvador have seen. It is no secret that the entrenched interests of political and economic elites have a way of influencing elections and other mechanisms of democracy, so as to preserve power for themselves. 

What El Salvador's election has shown, however, is that even these interests can be challenged and overcome, when the change is legitimized by the force of popular support and the peaceful exercise of democratic rights and freedoms. 

Ross Ryan is Editor-in-Chief of the Peace and Conflict Monitor.