SAN SALVADOR—On a hot and sticky Sunday morning, pilgrims pour into the crypt of San Salvador Cathedral to pray at the tomb of Archbishop Oscar A. Romero. Grown men and women approach the tomb on their knees, whispering, “reza por mi” (pray for me). The pious scene may strike visitors as unremarkable for a Catholic country, yet there is deeper significance here: It is an election year, and the pilgrims are predominantly leftists.
El Salvador has never had a leftist government, and the leftists have never managed to entirely repair the public image of Romero, still labeled by many as a communist sympathizer who probably deserved what he got—a bullet through the heart. Yet all of that may soon be changing, for the first time in Salvadoran history.
Romero’s assassination while celebrating mass on March 24, 1980 is often viewed as the first salvo in the Salvadoran Civil War, which claimed 75,000 lives between 1980 and 1992. In nationally broadcast sermons, Romero blamed the government for his nation’s violence and was killed for it. But few outside this tiny Central American nation may realize how important the outspoken prelate remains to the current political scene. It is widely known here that the same committed group of activists who hail Romero as a saint (his official canonization is still pending Vatican approval) are driving what may become the nation’s first-ever leftist victory when voters cast ballots for president and the legislative assembly in March 2009.
In recent polls, the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) has enjoyed unprecedented leads over the right wing National Republican Alliance (ARENA). The ARENA party has held power since 1989. Both parties have their roots in the violent guerilla and paramilitary organizations that Romero condemned.“It is impossible to ignore Romero’s name recognition with young and old, rich and poor. Whether one labels him a communist or a saint, Romero is a political lightning rod, the best-known public figure in Salvadoran history.”
Directly speaking, Romero has little to do with the left’s ascendancy. Many observers have attributed the growing popularity of FMLN to the softening of its radical politics, including the selection of moderate former CNN reporter Mauricio Funes to run against ruling party candidate Rodrigo Avila in the March 2009 presidential contest.
The FMLN party no longer wishes tear down the capitalist economic system, which adopted the American dollar as its national currency in 2001. They now counsel socialist reform and expanded government programs. Likewise, interest in liberation theology—a Marxist-inspired school of thought that does not believe in markets—has waned in religious circles. According to polls, gang violence and the economy (particularly the impact of international migration) are the top two election-year issues.
Danilo Miranda, a professor in the Department of Sociology and Political Science at San Salvador’s University of Central America (UCA), says ARENA is suffering a loss of popularity after 20 years in power—hardly surprising considering the victories of leftist governments in Latin American countries like Chile and Venezuela. According to Miranda, FMLN is attempting to capitalize on voter fatigue with ARENA’s failure to solve problems of violence and the economy.
“The choice of Mauricio Funes as FMLN candidate was a pragmatic decision,” says Miranda. “Funes is a popular figure that comes from the media. Nowadays, television is the main stage in the electoral and political game, and Funes, with his more than two decades in TV journalism, is very comfortable. In opposition, Rodrigo Avila, it is not the best candidate that ARENA could find and he it is not as popular as Funes.”
Nevertheless, he adds, ARENA “is a powerful electoral organization and has a lot of resources ready to use. The triumph is not secure yet for the FMLN. Public opinion is variable and there are several months before the elections. Moreover, even if FMLN wins the presidency in 2009, it is not probable that it can reach absolute majority in parliament, which they need in order to make decisions and execute actions regarding public policies.”
As far as the ARENA government is concerned, a divisive figure like Romero is best forgotten during such a contentious election year. Roberto D’Aubisson, founder of the ruling ARENA party, was identified in a 1993 United Nations Truth Commission report as the paramilitary leader who ordered Romero’s assassination. The ARENA party refuses publicly to acknowledge its connection to Romero’s death, sharpening the sense of some leftists that a victory in next year’s election would be a long-awaited comeuppance.