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US Accused of Interfering in El Salvadoran Elections

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Issue: 17 Section: International News Geography: USA, Latin America El Salvador Topics: elections

April 6, 2004

US Accused of Interfering in El Salvadoran Elections

When Tony Saca, a former sports commentator, faced the marxist ex-guerilla commander Schafik Handal in El Salvador's recent presidential election, the US took sides. White House special assistant Otto Reich held a press conference at the headquarter's of Saca's ARENA, a right-wing nationalist party, warning local reporters of the potential consequences if Handal won. Reich suggested that Salvadoran immigrants with temporary status could be deported in the event of a Handal victory. In an earlier visit to El Salvador, Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega asked Salvadorans to "consider what kind of a relationship they want a new administration to have with [the US]." Noriega met with all presidential candidates except Handal.

(In a strange twist, both Saca and Handal were born to Palestinian parents who came to El Salvador from Bethlehem.)

ARENA's principle campaign issue was the status of remittance payments from Salvadorans living in the US; campaign ads claimed that these could be compromised if the popular Marxist party was elected. More than a quarter of El Salvador's 6.5 million citizens live and work in the US, and remittance payments account for more than 16 per cent of the nations's economy.

"The elections were basically clean," said Jen Pierce, who worked as observer during the elections, "the main concerns are about all the manipulations and interventions that occurred in the campaign, related to media control, US intervention, fear mongering, vote buying, and partisanship."

Sande Ewart, who lived in El Salvador during much of the presidential campaign, said that Handal's political style was as much to blame for the loss as the US intervention. "Schafik would have news conferences and if he didn't like the quesions the media was asking he would just kick the reporters out of his office, essentially reinforcing the dictator image they were trying to paint him with."

Geoff Thale of the Washington Office on Latin America attributes the US intervention to the momentum of cold war policy in Latin America. "A lot of the [US] State Department's high-level people concerned with Latin America came out of the cold-war era, and they continue to see Latin America through that lens."

Otto Reich fits Thale's description. He was involved with the Contras, a Nicaraguan terrorist group that the US provided with arms, funding and training in the 1980s. By recent estimates, the Contras murdered over 10,000 Nicaraguan civilians during the country's bloody civil war.

Reich and Noriega's interventions were condemned by 24 members of Congress. Presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich also condemned the statements, saying that US policy is "not about promoting healthy democracies, but instead focused on making Latin American nations bend to U.S. commercial interests."

Writing in the Washington Post, Marcela Sanchez suggests that US interference would not work the same way in other leftward-leaning Latin American countries like Panama, Uruguay and the Dominican Republic. This is, she argues, because those countries are simultaneously less dependent on the US than El Salvador is, and equipped with more candidates more palatable to the mainstream.

"U.S. warnings about the outcome of elections in these other nations would probably be futile, if not also counterproductive. In Bolivia two years ago, the U.S. ambassador's admonitions against supporting the leftist candidate for president fueled anti-American sentiment that almost carried the coca leader Evo Morales to power."

» Christian Science Monitor: El Salvador vote recalls cold-war power play

» Dominion Weblog: Intervention in El Salvador

» National Security Archive: Public Diplomacy and Covert Propaganda: The Declassified Record of Otto Juan Reich

» Dennis Kucinich: Kucinich to Bush Administration: Let Salvadorans Vote

» Washington Post: Interference in El Salvador Won't Work Elsewhere

» Seven Oaks: Fear and voting in Latin America: A report from El Salvador and Venezuela, with Henry Nava

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