El Salvador’s Armed Forces Veterans Take the Streets

On January 8, 2013, Salvadoran police clashed with military veterans who had blockaded several of El Salvador’s busiest highways in protest over pensions and benefits.

For more than a year, veterans groups have been negotiating with the Funes Administration to secure benefits they believe they were due for their service during the civil war. Some veterans groups are demanding that the government pay each veteran $10,000 for indemnification and begin disbursing $700 per month pension. These groups said that if the government did not start making payments by the end of 2012 they would start protesting, which they did on January 8 and have promised to continue doing.

Among the busiest roads protestors blocked was the Comalapa Highway that runs between the Comalapa International Airport and San Salvador. After protestors had blocked the highway for a couple hours causing major disruptions the police used their batons and teargas to break them up. They arrested 37 protestors in the process.

Seven of the protestors arrested at the Comalapa Highway blockade are from Nuevo Amanecer, a small community in the Lower Lempa of Usulután that was settled in 1991 by demobilized armed forces veterans. After being detained for 72 hours, the protestors were released on probation. The Nuevo Amanecer veterans are not new to protests and blockades. In 2011, the same group blocked the coastal highway that runs through San Maros de Lempa in protest of the government’s mis-management of dams on the Lempa River and their weak response to flooding caused by Tropical Storm 12-E.

Voices staff spoke with several of the Nuevo Amanecer veterans arrested during the protests. Daniel Benavides Martinez said he is a veteran of the Armed Forces and was demobilized in February 1992 after the Peace Accords were signed. He says he never received any of the benefits promised to veterans following the war. His father, who is also a veteran, received a piece of land in the Lower Lempa, but none in the family have received any other pension payments or benefits. Mr. Benavides Martinez also recalled that towards the end of the war military leaders mistreated soldiers in an effort to get them to desert the Armed Forces without collecting salaries, pensions, or other benefits.

Another of the Nueveo Amanecer veterans arrested during the protests spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing reprisal. He said “there were funds assigned to us (veterans) after the Peace Accords, and [former Presidents] Cristiani and Calderon Sol and other members of the Tandona (military leadership) split it up amongst themselves.”

We also spoke with Pedro Martinez, a former FMLN militant and friend of those arrested. He explained that many veterans were cheated after the war, but are just now learning how to organize and advocate for their rights. Martinez, who is part of a veteran’s association that represents both armed forces and guerilla veterans, is working to distribute resources to veterans in need through the War Wounded Fund. However Martinez says that people try to take advantage of the limited fund. He said, “now someone who maybe just got bit by a horse is out on the street saying they were wounded from the war.”

Not all of the veterans are on board with the protests. José Amaya heads a veteran’s association that has been negotiating with the Funes Administration since November 2011. He disagrees that the administration has not done anything and apologized to Salvadorans for the protests, ensuring that they were not involved.

The day after the protests, Alex Segovia, the President’s Technical Secretary, emphasized that the government had never promised the veterans monetary compensation. “They say the government has made a commitment and this is false. We are never going to accept the amount [of pension] that they are proposing because it would break the State and we are not going to bend to pressure from anyone who makes demands.”

Retired Army Colonel Ochoa Perez, who is now serving as a legislative representative, disputes Alex Segovia’s claim that the administration has not made any promises. He said that in the past few months the Funes Administration has made promises of an indemnification package (the $10,000), a pension fund, land grants, and agricultural packages, but they have not followed through on any of them. In an interview just after the protests, he told La Pagina that he has documentation that proves they made promises. Perez unabashedly supports the protests, stating that he is a soldier before he is a politician. He even visited the veterans who were arrested while they were in jail, and gave them $160 to buy food while they were detained.

In January 2012, President Funes and Segovia promised a law that would provide more benefits to FLMN and Armed Forces veterans. And the general consensus seems to be that the FMLN and Armed Forces Associations agree that since the Funes Administration took office, they have begun to receive more pensions and social and economic support, especially for the war wounds, who are represented by ALGES. The Instituto de Previsión Social de la Fuerza Armada (IPSFA) has provided pensions and services for Armed Forces veterans for over 30 years, but getting benefits can be a long and tedious process, and the resources available are quite limited. In October of 2012, IPSFA announced that they were running a $4 million a month deficit and would be selling off a lot of their assets, which include beach resorts, hotels, and other properties. (The comment sections at the end of these articles are full of interesting comments and accusations of corruption within IPFSA).

In his response to the protests, Alex Segovia alleged that the protests were an effort by other political parties to destabilize the government and the FMLN party in what is essentially an election year (presidential elections are scheduled for January 2014). This would not be the first time that the military and veterans have been used for political gains. Even Ochoa Perez said after the protests that “they have used veterans and thrown them in the trash like sugarcane pulp.”

Pedro Martinez says that anger and protests targeting the current administration are a little misplaced considering that there were four conservative ARENA governments that failed to adequately address the needs of military veterans.

Defense Minister David Munguía Payés

Yesterday afternoon, President Funes appointed Minister of National Defense David Munguía Payés as Minister of Justice and Security. It is the first time since El Salvador ended twelve years of civil war that a military official has been in charge of El Salvador’s domestic security. Minister Munguía Payés is replacing former Minister Manuel Melgar who resigned just over two weeks ago.

As Minister of Defense, Munguía Payés oversaw the deployment of troops in San Salvador neighborhoods controlled by El Salvador’s notorious gangs. He made the news earlier in 2011 when he warned that Mexican drug cartels were building a presence in the region and targeting Central American police and military bases as a source for weapons.

When President Funes made the announcement yesterday, he said he “asked for concrete results in the fight against crime.” In his first statement as the new Minister, Munguía Payes said that he “is convinced that has not come to work miracles, but he is committed to taking concrete steps.” He also said that he was committed to respecting the Constitution and human rights, and managing public security as a civilian as mandated by the Peace Accords.

According to ElFaro.net, during the ceremony to swear in the new Minister of Security, President Funes made a tacit admission that the government had not made significant advances in combating murders in the past 2 ½ years.

The FMLN objected to appointing Minister Munguía Payés because of his military background. They argue that his appointment is a step backwards in El Salvador’s democracy, and a violation of the Peace Accords. Former leftist guerillas who were integrated into the National Civil Police also expressed concern that Munguía Payés’ appointment would result be detrimental, but President Funes assured them that there would be no structural changes within the police force.

According to an article on netorivas.net, the FMLN has had a good relationship with Munguía Payés in the past. The former colonel had a falling out of sorts with ARENA politicians when Presidents Calderon Sol and Francisco Flores refused to promote him to General. In 2003, Sanchez Ceren, who was then the head of the FMLN party, announced that Munguia Payes was joining the FMLN, and would serve as an advisor on national security issues. One of the reasons for bringing him on was to bring other old soldiers into the FMLN fold. If the FMLN had won the 2004 Presidential elections, Munguía Payés would have likely been appointed Minister of Defense. His appointment is another reminder that the Funes Administration and the FMLN party are not working as closely together as they might be.

The People Spoke and 743 Was Repealed!

Yesterday, representatives from the FMLN and ARENA in the Legislative Assembly joined together to repeal Degree 734 – the controversial bill that required the Constitutional Court to reach unanimity in order to publish a decision. The Legislative Assembly passed Decree 743 and President Funes signed it into law on June 2, with no public debate. Protestors of all political colors and ideologies joined together to protest the bill, claiming that it violated the principal of an independent judiciary as established in both the Salvadoran Constitution and international treaties.

According to El Faro, the agreement began as a proposal by FMLN Representatives in the Legislative Assembly searching for a solution to the constitutional crisis that has been roiling since June 2. Their original proposal, which was introduced earlier in the week, maintained the unanimity requirement for the Constitutional Court when the decide whether a law is inapplicable, while allowing for a four out of five majority in other decisions. Representatives from the ARENA party, however, said they would support the FMLN plan if they got rid of the unanimity requirement altogether.

This past weekend, Voices hosted a small event in conjunction with our summer board meeting. In attendance were several Salvadoran-Americans living in the Washington DC area, and we asked their opinions on Decree 743 and the Constitutional issue. A middle-aged man we know only as Julio (nom de guerre), said that while de did not support Decree 743 at all, he thought the debate was little more than a growing pain in El Salvador’s efforts to strengthen its democratic institutions. He took the view that Decree 473 was meant to protect the same power structures that have existed since the Peace Accords were signed in 1992. He was confident that Decree 743 would not stand and that the Court and the rule of law would be stronger for having the debate.

We think Julio’s point is an important one. The decision to repeal Decree 743 seems to be a real victory for the rule of law and the independent judiciary, and will only serve to strengthen El Salvador’s institutions. The rule of law is stronger because even though the Constitution and international law may not be convenient for those with political and economic power who want to maintain greater control over the judiciary, Decree 743 did not stand. From this point forward, it also becomes more difficult for officials from the executive and legislative branches of government to interfere with the Court, even when they are taking on controversial decisions. And with stronger rule of law and even greater independence, the Constitutional Court will be able to continue addressing controversial issues such as reform of the Electoral Code.

The Decree 743 debate has also been valuable for the amount of attention it has focused on controversial issues such as Electoral Code reform. With the local and legislative elections scheduled for March 2012, the debate over reform is very important. Those who advocate reform believe that the current system of voting for political parties (who then choose representatives for the Legislative Assembly based on the number of votes they receive) is unconstitutional and that the people ought to be able to vote for individual candidates. Those who are opposed to reform argue that by giving political parties greater control over who is appointed to represent people in the Legislative Assembly, they can better control the agenda and prevent corruption and abuse. On July 8, a group of FMLN supporters issued a declaration against electoral reform, arguing in part that they are better able to defend the people against the economic and political interests of the wealthy elites if they maintain a system in which they choose representatives.

As the debate over the electoral process for the March 2012 elections continues in the coming weeks and months, it will be very important for Salvadorans to understand the changes proposed and what it would mean for their access to the governing process.

Yesterday’s repeal of Decree 743 is also another important indication that civil society and public participation are strengthening in El Salvador. Though Salvadoran law does not provide civil society or people the right to directly comment on actions taken by the central government (the Municipal Code allows for public participation at the local level), organizations and people have mounted strong advocacy campaigns that pressure government officials to listen. The Decree 743 advocacy campaign is as important as the anti-mining movement’s efforts to prevent the government from granting exploitation permits to Pacific Rim Mining Corporation, and the 2002 health workers strike to prevent privatization of part of the health care system. And like participants in the anti-mining movement and the 2002 health worker strikes, opponents of Decree 743 set aside their political party affiliations to unify as one people.

Decree 743: The Controversy Continues

As the constitutional crisis continues in El Salvador, several different people and groups have staked out their formal positions on Decree 743, the law passed on June 2 that weakens the country’s Constitutional Court.  If you haven’t read our other posts about Decree 743, click here for more information.

Last week, Constitutional Court Magistrate Sydney Blanco was in Washington, DC visiting friends and family, but took time to meet with Salvadorans in the area and others interested in the issue. Magistrate Blanco is one of the four Constitutional Court Magistrates most affected by Decree 743.

Blanco speaking at an event held last Friday by the Salvadoran Lawyers Association in Maryland

At a press conference held at the Central American Resource Center on Wednesday, Magistrate Blanco stressed that, as judges on the Constitutional Court, he and his colleagues are independent. He continued, “we are not thinking whether [a decision] is going to prejudice or favor one political party or another; our only motivation is the Constitution.”

During the conference, Magistrate Blanco emphasized that not only the content, but also the form of decree 743, is unconstitutional.  The decree was approved and sanctioned in a mere 7-hour window and was not discussed, which is inherently unconstitutional.  In addition, the magistrate noted that the Salvadoran Constitution provides for pluralism of political views, as established in its article 686.  The Magistrate commented on the necessity of these “different streams of political thought…[allowing] each magistrate to think differently and possess a different view.”  He argued that pluralism is undermined by the decree’s requirement of unanimity in the Court.

Pluralism is the basis of  judicial independence, which is a recent phenomenon in El Salvador. Until 2009, when Mauricio Funes was elected President and Sydney Blanco and others were appointed as Magistrates to the Constitutional Court, the judiciary often served political and economic interests of those in power. Since taking the bench in 2009, however, the current Court has struck down several controversial laws, including the Electoral Code.

In a letter dated June 30, 2011, a group of civil society organizations, which included FESPAD, FUNDE, FUSADES, WOLA[V3] , and others, reject Decree 743 because it violates the principals of an independent judiciary and separation powers. They argue that Decree 743 is targeted to interfere with the Constitutional Court’s work, and therefore violates Article 8(1) of the American Convention of Human Rights and Article 14(1) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantee citizens the right to an independent judiciary.

While the Constitutional Court has undoubtedly been greatly impacted by the decree, Blanco asserted, “The decree has not interrupted the work of the Court…for us [Magistrates] the decree was born and died instantaneously.”  In addition to the charge of obstructing the function of the Court, organizations opposed to the decree view it as a separation of powers issue, in that the Legislative Assembly and Executive have limited the abilities of the court in order to keep them from ruling on the Amnesty Law, continuing their call for reform of the Electoral Code, and other issues.

On July 8, another group of Salvadoran organizations participated in a conference on electoral reform, resulting in a declaration supporting President Funes and his efforts to limit the Court’s authority. Without even mentioning Decree 743, the declaration and its signatories clearly support the administration and the FMLN in the current debate. They accuse FUSADES, ANEP, and the ARENA party of using the Constitutional Court to destabilize the government by finding the Electoral Code unconstitutional and creating chaos in the months before the January 2012 municipal and legislative elections.

It seems unlikely that the Court’s demand for reformation of the Electoral Code was a right-wing conspiracy. Domestic and international organizations have talked about the need for reform of the Electoral Code since before the 2009 elections. Whether or not there was a conspiracy with the Court, some right-wing politicians and groups have used the debate to drive a wedge between left-leaning organizations and political parties. Early on, members of the ARENA party, who are surely just as opposed to electoral reform as the FMLN, said that they would support repeal of Decree 743, and since then have been largely absent from the debate, letting Funes and the FMLN struggle to defend the unpopular law.

Drafters of the declaration produced at the July 8th conference recognized that right-wing interests are using election reform and Decree 743 as wedge issues, trying to divide the FMLN and President Funes from large segments of their base. The declaration calls on the People and organizations not to fall for false or confusing information and to continue to support the administration and party of change. The declaration, however, does not back its positions on reform of the Electoral Code and Decree 743 with the same kind of legal reasoning that the drafters of the July 30th letter to President Funes use. The drafters instead depend on the threat that the right-wing supporters of the oligarchy are trying to destablise the government.

Magistrate Sydney Blanco said that there isn’t much of a crisis for the court. He argues that they ruled Decree 743 unconstitutional and has been operating same as always. The Official Diary of the government, however, did not publish that ruling because it did not have the signature of all five Magistrates, which Decree 743 requires. So the standoff between the branches of government continues. It remains unclear what the process will be for electing representatives to the Legislative Assembly will be in January 2012 or whether the Magistrates will be able to serve out the rest of their term. It is apparent, however, that the President’s base is split on the issue and he has spent a lot of political capital.

 

PDC and PCN “No Han Muerto”

We recently reported that last Friday, July 1, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal voted to dissolve the PDC and the PCN political parties.  However, as of today, the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) and National Coalition Party (PCN) have not died.  Both parties are still alive as the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) was not able to sign off on its final decision yesterday. It seems as though this now permits PCN and PDC politicians to participate in the municipal elections in March 2012 and they are able to obtain funds from the state for campaigning. For the PCN and the PDC, this failure on the part of the TSE to sign off on the decision 48 hours after having decided on the verdict, has saved these parties from being removed from the ballot.

 

In order to be able to issue the verdict, four of the five magistrates were required to agree, but that was not possible yesterday after having sat down for almost three hours in discussion. As a result, there is some discrepancy as to whether these parties will in fact be able to participate in the elections or not. Eugenio Chicas, a magistrate on the TSE said on July 4 that “the cancellation process has not been consolidated, in other words, there is no clear resolution to the cancellation.” When asked if the PCN and PDC will be able to run in 2012, Chicas said that “these parties are still alive, there is a certain form of life in these parties, but I still cannot give a resolution regarding they eligibility to run in the March 2012 elections”. Even the president of the TSE was unable to clearly state whether or not the parties will obtain funds for their campaigns.

 

 

Supreme Electoral Tribunal Dissolves Two Oldest Political Parties

On Friday, July 1, 2011, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) of El Salvador “cancelled” the country’s two oldest political parties, the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) and the National Conciliation Party (PCN). If the ruling stands up to appeal, the two parties will no longer appear on election ballots, having each gained less than the required 3% of the vote in the 2004 elections.

Although the Legislative Assembly passed a decree in 2005 allowing both parties to continue to officially run, in April the Supreme Court declared that decree unconstitutional. In order to register for the ballot, the parties would each have to collect 50,000 signatures of support, rather than the 3,000 that were required by the Legislative Decree.

Both parties have roots in the military right wing. The PDC was the ruling party during the Civil War years of the 1980’s, whereas the PCN had been the political face of the military dictatorships in the two decades prior.

We’ll be reporting on the other TSE electoral reforms for the 2012 municipal elections in the next couple of days… stay tuned!

 

Funes Quickly Losing Support over Decree 743 Discontent

A few weeks after President Funes signed Decree 743 into law, requiring the Constitutional Court to make decisions by unanimous consent, Salvaodrans remain very concerned about the impact of the law and how the current standoff between the judicial and legislative bodies of government will play out. We now know that President Funes was involved in formulating Decree 743, and two representatives of his own FMLN were supportive of the measure, going as far as to ask the President to sign the bill into law the day it passed the legislature. This is contrary to the impression given by an FMLN press release last week that indicated it was the right-wing parties that pushed the bill through. ARENA party representatives were in fact supportive of the bill, but shortly after it became law, party leaders seemed willing to back its repeal. Their early support of Decree 743 was apparently motivated by their fear that the Constitutional Court was going to repeal the Amnesty Law as well as the law that ratified the Central American Free Trade Agreement. In expressing willingness to support a repeal of the law, the ARENA said they were misinformed about the law, but it seems more likely that they were reacting to the public’s disapproval of the law and saw a way to get an advantage in the 2012 municipal and local elections.

Another notable update is that the President did not in fact sign the original version of the decree that was passed by the Legislative Assembly; instead, he signed a one paragraph version of it. The missing four paragraphs of the measure included provisions that indicate what will happen if not all five magistrates are present may it be due to vacancies, inabilities to serve, absences, or any other circumstance.

As this crisis unfolds, one thing is clear – President Funes is losing support from all sides. His approval ratings have plummeted to 41%, down from 83% in April. While he may recover some of that support, its an understatement to say that President Funes spent some of his political capital on Decree 743, and it still remains unclear what he got in return. Maybe he didn’t expect such extreme fallout?

The FMLN is not united on this issue either. Though some have supported Decree 743, former Secretary General of the FMLN, Fabio Castillo said that after years of supporting the President, he now regrets voting for him in 2009. Shortly after his statement, Castillo was asked to resign from his current position in the consulting commission of the Ministry for External Relations.

Norma Guevara, a department secretary of the FMLN, says that she has proof that FUSADES, a non-profit organization that is often called a right-wing think tank, caused this constitutional conflict in order to destabilize the government. Whether or not this true remains to be seen, but it is certainly reasonable to think that organizations and individuals view this as an opportunity to discredit and weaken the Funes Administration.

The President was recently in Mexico from June 20-21 on a state visit aimed at addressing several of the issues facing both El Salvador and Mexico, such as migration, gang violence, commerce, and climate change, among other things. This visit comes amid this power struggle among the branches of government in El Salvador. With many people calling for the repeal of this decree, it will be interesting to see what actions will be taken upon President Funes’ return after a subsequent security conference in Guatemala.