Salvadorans head to the polls March 9 to choose their next president in an election that will influence the future of a nation plagued by gang violence, drugs and poverty. With a large Salvadoran community living in the Washington area, we explore the challenges facing the next president both at home and in El Salvador’s relationship with the U.S.


  • Abel Nuñez Executive Director, Central American Resource Center
  • Hector Silva Avalos Research Fellow, Center for Latin American/Latino Studies, American University; former investigative reporter for the Salvadoran newspaper La Prensa Gráfica; former Deputy Chief of Mission at the El Salvador Embassy in Washington


  • 13:06:39

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, how our workplace benefits are changing and why. But first, in a race too close to call, a former rebel leader holds a thin lead in yesterday's presidential runoff in El Salvador, but the challenger from the nation's conservative party is also claiming victory. Salvadorans went to the polls yesterday to choose between two very different parties to lead a nation plagued by poverty and by gang violence.

  • 13:07:18

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIThe FMLN led a 12-year civil war in the 1980s against a US backed Salvadoran government. If its candidate wins, he will be the first former rebel leader to serve as president. On the other side is the conservative Arena Party, whose candidate made a surprising showing yesterday after warning against turning El Salvador into another far left leaning Venezuela. But, whoever wins the runoff faces an alarming murder rate from gang violence and the continuing exodus of Salvadorans who migrate to the US, many to the Washington region, in order to escape poverty.

  • 13:07:56

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us to talk about the implications of this election and its possible result is Hector Silva Avalos. He's a Research Fellow at the Center for Latin American/Latino Studies at American University. He is a former investigative reporter for the Salvadoran newspaper, La Prensa Grafica. And former Deputy Chief of Mission at the El Salvador Embassy in Washington. Hector Silva Avalos, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:08:20

    MR. HECTOR SILVA AVALOSThank you for having me.

  • 13:08:22

    NNAMDIJoining us by phone from El Salvador is Abel Nunez, Executive Director of the Central American Resource Center. Abel Nunez, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:08:33

    MR. ABEL NUNEZThank you. Thank you for having me.

  • 13:08:34

    NNAMDIIf you'd like to join the conversation, give us a call at 800-433-8850. Did you vote in the El Salvador election? Which candidate did you support and why? 800-433-8850. You can send email to Abel Nunez, I'll start with you. The conservative candidate, former San Salvador Mayor Norman Quijano, is reportedly claiming fraud after the first count has him trailing by 6,000 votes. I guess a couple of questions there. One, can you update us on has there been any official word today on the result? And two, what did you see at the polls yesterday?

  • 13:09:15

    NUNEZWell, thank you, once again, for having me in your show. And, you know, one of the things that I can report is that the elections have been pretty fair and transparent. It continues from the first round. As observers, what we've seen is that, you know, people -- there has been more opportunities for citizens of this nation to vote, and to vote in a very transparent way. You know, what is concerning is that, historically, what a party does is that it claims victory before the results are in. And then, by default, they take power.

  • 13:09:57

    NUNEZI think that the issue here is that the democratic institutions are really strengthening and there's a great opportunity for this nation to really begin to trust the process of democracy and not just the parties.

  • 13:10:13

    NNAMDIWe were informed that there was an announcement that was going to be made at ten o'clock this morning Salvadoran time, which would have been noon our time. Did that happen?

  • 13:10:24

    NUNEZYes. I think that the TSE, the Supreme Military Tribunal, is being very careful, in terms of announcing a winner. They are actually started announcing all the polling places which were not, or are not going to be able to be counted, because there have some irregularities that need to be, you know, scrutinized more and they will be added to the count. But there are only 14 in the nation, so those numbers would not sway the current lead. But the TSE, as well, also requested of both parties for them to hold any announcement of victory until they give the official final count.

  • 13:11:11

    NNAMDIHector, in the first round of voting cast last month, former rebel leader Salvador Sanchez Ceren came very close to winning the majority he would have needed to avoid a runoff. He got more than -- about 49 percent, and he was heavily favored to win yesterday. Are you surprised that Norman Quijano came back to make the race so close?

  • 13:11:31

    AVALOSYes. Well, good afternoon. Yes, I think it came to a surprise, first of all, for him and his party. I don't think they were expecting this. And I think that showed in the way that they developed their first reactions to yesterday's results. In the first round, they were 300,000 votes behind (unintelligible). And they gained almost half a million votes in one month. That's a really good achievement and I think this candidate, Mayor Quijano, really brought up the vote, historically, for the Arena party.

  • 13:12:10

    AVALOSSo here is, all of a sudden, this guy comes as an underdog. He wasn't expected to win. Polling between the first round and the runoff showed even a larger advantage to the FMLN candidate. So, all of a sudden, he ends the night with a lucky 6,000 votes to win the thing. And so, I think he made some sort of -- I think he made a really huge mistake when he went off to give his first speech after the results. And he became very emotional again. All of a sudden, he is just lacking 6,000 votes. And he starts talking about fraud. He starts saying that they had won and that nobody was going to steal this win from them.

  • 13:13:03

    AVALOSAnd he says this. He calls for the army to defend the vote. And in a country like El Salvador, that's a pretty dangerous place to be at -- a pretty dangerous thing to say in an election. Well, whenever, but more in an electional -- electoral environment. So, I think it came as a surprise. I think they -- the Arena people was expecting this and it showed at the end of the night. Right now, I think -- my sense as Abel is telling us, is that everything is pretty calm nationwide. That some irregularities have come forward.

  • 13:13:44

    AVALOSThat the tribunal has taken four hours to go all over the acts and say, well, there are 14 that we cannot process, but that's -- that wouldn't make a difference. But, again, some Arena party people are out on the streets, you know, calling again for, to defend against the fraud. So, it's becoming pretty tense.

  • 13:14:07

    NNAMDIYes. There have been a few extreme statements -- defend it with our lives. But, as Avalos pointed out, so far, the focus still seems to be on what the tribunal was doing, but Abel and you, too, Hector, I'd like a little bit of analysis here about why you think Quijano eventually ran so well. He initially campaigned on a pledge to use the army to fight the country's notorious street gangs, but in the runoff, he shifted his message to warn that his rival would turn El Salvador into another Venezuela with a strongly socialist government. How much did fear of socialism and the politics of Venezuela influence voters in this runoff, in your view, Abel? First you.

  • 13:14:49

    NUNEZYeah. I think that there's a couple of things that you have to understand the context. In the first election in February, there was a third party, which was -- had more conservative tendencies. And the difference, the ten point difference that they want, it wasn't necessarily a hard vote of the FMLN. So when we had two options, a lot of those votes came out against (word?) so it trends back to a more conservative candidate. I think the rhetoric of fear in terms of this nation, you know, in the first campaign, it was gangs and violence. In the second campaign, you know, he really utilized, I think, the news of the day which is, you know, what's going on in Venezuela, to really capitalize on that.

  • 13:15:42

    NUNEZI think just creates a sense of instability, that brings out the worst nature in all of us, and I think they were able to touch a nerve, and I think that's where that comes from. You know, and I think the FMLN did not change their strategy or their rhetoric and they kept going on, you know, they still kept a very positive message. But, you know, I think what is concerning me is that now that they've lost -- and I think, you know, you have to give them credit, they did get close to half a million votes, they want to be able to claim victory, but the rules were set and they both understood the rules, on the second round, majority of the votes wins, whether it's one vote, whether it's 20,000 votes, whether it's six or 600 votes.

  • 13:16:28

    NUNEZSo, you know, part of it is that the institution really is maturing, even in the process, both the national police, everyone working within the electoral process from both parties handled things incredibly well. You can see the maturity of this country as it moves forward in its democracy, and I think that the real winners at the end of the day, it's really the Salvadoran people and their ability to exercise their right to vote.

  • 13:16:55

    NNAMDISpeaking of the country maturing, Hector, if in fact the margin of victory for the FMLN, is as narrow as it seems to be, does that mean that the party will have to govern a little bit differently than it did in the past?

  • 13:17:12

    AVALOSI do think so. I think this outcome will change a lot of things within both parties. Before yesterday's outcome, Norman Quijano was, you know, practically out of the picture, because it was, you know, forecasted that he was going to lose. And that -- but now he becomes a player. Even if he loses, he becomes a player within the party, and he will be a very important political player for the next election, which is in 2015, and is a legislative election. And that's going to be very important because this is going to be the Congress that the new president will be having to deal with.

  • 13:17:56

    AVALOSAnd probably Mr. Quijano will be a very important leader of that political wing in Congress. So he represents a more conservative and traditional wing of his party. There's been a lot of talks within Arena about renovation, after the bad results of the first round, there were a lot of young leaders trying to push for renovation within the party. Quijano is a representative of old -- a more conservative wing of the party. That wing will regain a presence in the internal discussion. In the FMLN also, I think it's going to be different to rule and govern now, with such a narrow difference that it would have been if you would have won with 10,000, sorry, ten percent of the vote.

  • 13:18:46

    AVALOSI think that will mean basically that the incoming president, if he wins, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, will have to moderate a little bit, his agenda, his narrative, and that will probably mean interesting changes.

  • 13:18:59

    NNAMDIHow central is it to whoever happens to be the ultimate victor, assuming for the moment that it's the FMLN, how central to his policies are going to be bringing down the homicide rate? How central is it going to be to bringing street gangs under control, because they are involved in so many murders?

  • 13:19:21

    AVALOSIt's going to be central. I think I would say that the two main things that the next government will be having to look at is that's the first, that's the main concern of Salvadorans, security, citizen security. There's an ongoing truce between gangs, the two major gangs in El Salvador...

  • 13:19:37

    NNAMDIBut that truce has been fraying recently.

  • 13:19:38

    AVALOSYeah, but it hasn't been -- it's not called off.

  • 13:19:41


  • 13:19:41

    AVALOSSo I think that the incoming president will have to deal with that. And that's going to be key and central for the Salvadorans in the next years. And the other one is the fiscal deficit, and the finances of the state. That's going to be central also, and that's one of the things - that we will see that will be important, how the behavior of the new government, if it's the FMLN, will change now. I think they will -- by winning this narrowly they will have different approaches, for instance with the fiscal deficit, to their relationship with the private sector than if they had won by a further difference.

  • 13:20:26

    NNAMDIAbel Nunez, I hear you wanting to say something.

  • 13:20:29

    NUNEZYeah, and I think -- and, you know, those issues are going to be there independent of which party eventually wins. But the reality is that there's different approaches, you know, around, you know, the public safety issue, you know, I think FMLN is more willing to engage the gangs as in -- as a social actor I suppose to ARENA wants to bring them in with the military or more force and incarceration.

  • 13:20:57

    NUNEZAnd I think that those approaches are going to have very -- two different impacts. And, you're right, I think with the fiscal deficit that this country is facing, their ability to promote the social programs that were started under the current administration may become more difficult to move forward in the next five years.

  • 13:21:15

    NNAMDISo what can the president do about the stagnant economy? Talk about how important that is in the next administration, the ability to provide job opportunities. A lot of people are leaving the country because of -- and coming to the United States because of the lack of job opportunities. How can that change? First you, Abel.

  • 13:21:35

    NUNEZI think that part of what any government needs to provide is stability. The country sorely needs foreign investment to promote jobs and move this economy forward. Without those sources of income it won't happen. 'This country cannot continue to just rely on remittances and loans from world entities to sustain its economy. And it really needs to develop a strategy of how to engage it. But I think that the stability of a government in the reduction of violence could be two things that could hopefully move the country in that direction.

  • 13:22:22


  • 13:22:22

    AVALOSYeah, as for what it takes as to the economy I think, well, first of all the next -- the incoming president, especially if it's the case that the FMLN wins, will have to get into a broad national alliance of forces that would allow for, you know, the economic scope of the suburbs to broaden. I think it's going to be very important on how the private sector relates to the new leftist government. And it will have to take a lot of maturity from the private sector to really engage in a productive relationship.

  • 13:22:59

    AVALOSAs for now and mostly for all -- the previous administration of President Mauricio Funes, the private sector has taken more a role of electoral or political activist against the administration of President Funes than, you know, a productive national player. I think that needs -- that must change. It's going to be more difficult with a leftist government in place but it's a must for the country.

  • 13:23:27

    AVALOSAnd another thing that's going -- will be -- that the incoming president will need to address is that of corruption. That's something that came out during the campaign but it's something that's -- it's one of our greatest problems. It remains unsolved. And I think the next president will really need to get into that in order to give the economy moving.

  • 13:23:54

    NNAMDIFinal question to you Abel, roughly a quarter of a million Salvadorans live in this region and not only send money home but they have a big influence in Salvadoran politics. What will the outcome of this election mean for the expats living here? Does the expat population here tilt in favor of either party or either candidate?

  • 13:24:14

    NUNEZWill, if you look at the results from the votes that were cast by some of those living abroad, it does tend to favor, I think. But remember there was a low amount of participation. Only 10,000 were actually, you know, registered out of, you know, potential nationally of close to a million plus. So I think that it creates but it's a symbol that the -- one of the country -- once they engage them in solving the problems, I think that if they can trust the democratic institutions I think it opens the opportunities for possibilities of engaging in sort of the civil discourse of how to improve this nation.

  • 13:25:01

    NNAMDIAbel Nunez is executive director of the Central American Resource Center. He joined us by phone from El Salvador. Abel, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:25:08

    NUNEZThank you so much.

  • 13:25:10

    NNAMDIHector Silva Avalos is a research fellow at the Center for Latin American/Latino Studies at American University. He's a former investigative reporter for the Salvadoran newspaper La Prensa Grafica. He's former deputy chief of mission at the El Salvador Embassy in Washington. Thank you for joining us.

  • 13:25:25

    AVALOSThank you very much.

  • 13:25:26

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, how our workplace benefits are changing. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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