El Salvador / Politics

“If the FMLN runs for the presidency, it is doing Bukele’s bidding”

Víctor Peña
Víctor Peña

Wednesday, March 22, 2023
Julia Gavarrete

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Eugenio Chicas is a former guerrilla fighter in the 1980s and historic leader of the Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (FMLN). He presided over the Supreme Electoral Tribunal of El Salvador on behalf of the Frente and was communications secretary to former President Salvador Sánchez Cerén. He is also one of the few current party members who dare to speak clearly about the turmoil roiling the Frente.

Chicas accepts that during its two administrations, from 2009 to 2019, the FMLN failed to respond to citizens’ needs and to those of its base, leading to electoral ruin in 2019 and 2021. Now, he says, the Frente is “a dead man walking.” The fractured party should not run a candidate in the presidential election next February, he asserts, instead letting its members support opposition proposals from civil society.

He places the party’s “irrelevance” in the opposition at the feet of Secretary General Óscar Ortiz, but above all a man who he calls the “power in the shadows”: José Luis Merino, the behind-the-scenes power broker who the U.S. State Department sanctioned in the ‘Engel List’ in June 2021 for alleged bribery and money laundering. Chicas thinks that Merino could let the party die and “hand over the corpse and banner to Bukele.” He asserts that, if the FMLN enters the presidential race and divides the opposition, “it will be a clear sign that they are in cahoots.”

What is your outlook on the coming elections?

The Frente will not die, but it is and will be irrelevant for the foreseeable future. It has an internal fissure that has profoundly weakened it. Those who think that it will begin a process of recovery are lost. The Frente’s main role right now is not in the elections.

But should we still consider it a political party?

Legally speaking, it is a political party. But it will not have an impact on the strategic exit to the crisis facing this country. It has no way to do so. My colleagues from the leadership will probably choose some candidate [for the 2024 presidential election], but it will be an unfortunate mistake. In the elections neither the Frente nor Arena should present a presidential candidate. This is the moment to construct a candidacy from civil society that can be coordinated, negotiated, put in motion in one, two, three small parties. The Frente and Arena should lead the legislative battle.

Should the Frente and Arena support whatever emerges from civil society?

They should let the candidacy grow. They should be cautious about supporting it because it would be fatal for any candidate to be born under the auspices of Arena or the Frente. The parties should cede the space and let their members support and sympathize who they’d like, but the leadership of the parties shouldn’t get involved — on one hand, because it would become distorted, and on the other, because the parties aren’t in conditions to come to an understanding. They never could understand each other historically, except for during the peace process, and they have since then been opposing forces. They should let society itself assume its role.

What do you know about the creation of a big-tent opposition alliance or coalition?

I personally belong to the national directorate of Citizen Resistance. We are an association from civil society composed of people tied to the Frente, tied to Arena, and without previous political ties. We’re critical of the Frente… I’m a member of the Frente, but very critical of the current leadership. And yes, there have been conversations [about an opposition alliance].

Would you participate under a single party or would this be similar to what we saw with José Napoleón Duarte’s UNO coalition in 1972?

In the Citizen Resistance we have launched an initiative to propose a presidential candidate to be considered by all of the opposition political parties. A candidacy assumed by parties like Vamos, Nuestro Tiempo, and FPS, without coalitions between the FMLN and Arena. They [the two latter parties] have expressly rejected the possibility. It can be a coalition of centrist parties. PAÍS, the UNO [National Opposition Union], MÁS [Authentic Salvadoran Movement], agricultural sectors, the Freedom Movement; and public figures like Rubén Zamora, José Miguel Fortín, Eugenio Chicas, Federico Hernandez, and Ronald Umaña, among others.

The FMLN legislative bloc, of four deputies, is split in two. Why is that?

The Frente has three internal groups: The first, with the majority to coordinate, control, and capitalize on the Frente’s brand, is tied to José Luis Merino. Of the 19 positions in the party’s Political Commission, they have 12. Then there are those of us from the Revolutionary Socialist Current, represented in five seats. Then there is the third group, that of [current Secretary General] Óscar Ortiz, with the remaining two seats. Óscar tries to play his cards right as secretary general, but in reality he is subject to whatever Merino’s majority establishes. Merino’s people will have to answer for the quagmire facing the Frente.

But Ortiz is at the head.

He has been unable to interpret the political period facing the country. He has been lukewarm in assessing Bukele has what he is: a dictator. From the start, this leadership tried to come to an understanding with Bukele, and to date I have not seen sufficiently critical stances.

If Ortiz has no decision-making power, why have him for a leader?

He was elected through 2024. The others were unwilling to clear out the offices and construct a consensus leadership able to lead this transition. The problem is that right now the leadership of the Frente is conveying nothing new to the public. We’re seeing the whole debacle of the informal sector, comprising 62 percent of the economy, and what is the Frente’s proposal? Where is their social struggle? We know that thousands of innocent young people have been imprisoned under the state of exception. Where is the struggle? I see the Popular Resistance and Rebellion Bloc, the MOVIR, getting together, orienting people, advising the family members of unjustly imprisoned young people. But where is the Frente?

Have you presented this criticism directly to Ortiz?

These criticisms have been made at party events. But the Frente has become very self-absorbed. For all these months, what has the Frente been doing? Revising its statutes. Who in this country cares about the FMLN statutes as a political issue?! As Bukele consolidated his state of exception, Ortiz and my colleagues from the leadership have spent months reforming the statutes, navel-gazing.

Do you think Ortiz should have already resigned?

Abandonment isn’t the answer. Ortiz has sufficient political experience to sit down and reflect and find the responsible path. We won two governing periods, but lost power. We have to answer for that. We made mistakes in many regards, primarily in strategy, and we’ve paid the political cost. They became the party leaders but haven’t tied the party to the struggles of the country.

Can you be more specific about José Luis Merino’s role?

He is the power behind the throne. He is the power. He is the person who corrupted Alba [Petróleos], a project that was good for the country that Shafick [Hándal] conceived to provide alternative resources to the municipalities. What José Luis Merino did among compadres [friends], among people on the Right, was to hand out money until the project went under.

Among those who received that money is Bukele.

Bukele and people tied to him. The Anlikers, for example, also took advantage of Alba’s resources.

This connection between Bukele and Merino, the person with the most power in the party — is it not enough to deduce that Bukele still has control and power inside the FMLN?

Of course; I think so. If the Frente does not take a critical stance, it’s because it intentionally let itself become entranced by Bukele’s supposed “anti-imperialism.” They’ve pulled in the base of the Frente with that tale.

Why did the FMLN’s strategy fail while in power?

Because the primary effort was to establish committees of national dialogue. The strategy was to, together with the U.N., create a second Chapultepec, a second peace accord. Why was that strategy misguided? Because it wasn’t realistic given that Arena was obstructing all government initiatives. The Rosales Hospital, the airport expansion… Arena was coming from a place of distrust, of course, because we were the ones who, together with [Mauricio] Funes, created Gana. We conspired to divide Arena and to empower [Tony] Saca. Arena is divided, Gana emerges, and it was ingenuine to say, “Come on, let’s agree on a new peace process,” but with the other hand I stab you in the back and divide your party. Arena and the Frente mutually annulled each other, tripped each other up. Where should we have forged alliances? With the social and popular sectors, with the historic base of the Frente. Why was our pension reform so lukewarm? Because it wasn’t connected to the base, but rather to an understanding among leaders. And people looked at us and said, “You offered me change and failed to deliver,” and then turned their backs on us.

Eugenio Chicas is one of the few leaders of the FMLN who gives interviews and directly criticizes the left-wing party that governed the country from 2009 to 2019. Photo: Víctor Peña/El Faro
Eugenio Chicas is one of the few leaders of the FMLN who gives interviews and directly criticizes the left-wing party that governed the country from 2009 to 2019. Photo: Víctor Peña/El Faro

We’re in part where we are because of your decision to expel Bukele from the FMLN.

It was the right decision. If the Frente hadn’t expelled Bukele at that moment, he would have taken over the party and this state of exception would have been mounted under the FMLN banner.

There are those who think that if the Frente hadn’t expelled Bukele, he wouldn’t have been ready to participate in time for the 2019 elections.

He would have always found a way to launch his candidacy.

The leadership has never acknowledged that you grew distant from your base and that there were officials who, during the ten years in power, were just as corrupt as the Right.

We were not exemplary in terms of avoiding corruption. There was no clear example set for people to say, “this government will not permit it.” Abandonment of the base is a political effect of strategy. Being with the base isn’t going to visit; it’s resolving their problems.

What should have been the FMLN’s stance, for example, in cases like Alba and José Luis Merino, after learning about the off-shore accounts and tax haven in Panama?

My public position is that some time ago José Luis Merino should have been separated from the FMLN and been made to respond legally for the judicial problems that those companies may face. The Frente must separate itself from that blunder.

Who should lead the party today?

In politics, the old maxim that the new generation should step forward and the old guard step aside doesn’t work. What should occur, as I have asserted from the start, is a consensus leadership. For example, if I was in the previous government, I shouldn’t be part of the new leadership of the Frente because I’m part of the problem. But I can contribute from the grassroots. But while the FMLN continues to talk of internal affairs, the high cost of living and of the egg are eating away at people… Taking the helm of a political party implies correctly interpreting the issues that interest people in that political period.

Do you believe that there is an intention among the leadership to let the FMLN die?

In the case of José Luis Merino, I don’t know. I have my doubts. I’m inclined to think that he is looking to kill the Frente and turn over the corpse and banner to Bukele.

And what would happen to the FMLN if it does not obtain sufficient support in the coming elections?

The grassroots machine, the organized base, of the FMLN is fairly large. We would have enough to continue breathing as a party, in the worst of cases. The problem is being a dead man walking.

Is the FMLN a dead man walking?

Of course. That’s the problem. Having the inscription and being irrelevant in the management of the main problems facing this country.

In December the party announced that it will participate in all of the electoral contests, including for the presidency.

No, that’s not exactly true.

There are already members who are promoting their pre-candidacies.

No, all of this from [Chinito] Flores is his own invention that he is going around running some grand campaign. Today what the party decided is an enigma: “We’re heading for the elections [but] we’re not going to join forces with Arena, nor with Gana, nor with Nuevas Ideas.”

With whom, then?

Nothing was said about civil society. The resolution does not oblige the Frente to present a presidential candidate. It can. But if it decides to do so, it will be the best proof that they are doing Bukele’s bidding. To present a candidate from the Left is to divide the opposition. The best signal that the Frente could give to contribute to a united opposition is to not present a candidate. If they launch a candidacy, it will be a clear sign that they are in cahoots [with Bukele].

If they participate, are they signing off on illegal reelection?

If the opposition does not participate in these elections, it leaves Bukele with an open playing field. Whether there are opposition parties or not, he will run. If you leave an open space, another body will fill it. There is no need to fear this dictatorship. You have to confront it.

You talk of the need to “confront this dictatorship.” But the two former FMLN presidents, Mauricio Funes and Salvador Sánchez Cerén, have sought the protection of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. They have embraced a regime not far off from the one that they criticize. Is that not hypocritical?

I respect those who have left. Others have left for Mexico, or for Europe. Everyone weighs with their family the path to take. I wouldn’t venture a criticism.

Again: It seems that the Frente does not treat the Nicaraguan regime with the same critical stance that you are adopting in this country.

Nor have I seen a stance on the departure of the political prisoners. What is happening in Nicaragua is grave. In Venezuela, in Bolivia, in any of these countries, but they are very different processes. The human effects are quite similar, but Bukele is something else. Bukele… who knows what he will be.

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