On Sunday, June 1, Salvador Sánchez Cerén took office as President of El Salvador. Sánchez Cerén, of the FMLN Party, is a former school teacher who became a teachers’ union activist and eventually one of the five military commanders of the guerrilla force that fought a twelve year civil war against the U.S.-backed government of El Salvador in the 1980s.
Sánchez Cerén comes to office after narrowly winning a runoff election in March of this year. His electoral victory marks both a decisive change in his party, which has transitioned from an opposition force to a mature electoral competitor, and a change in Salvadoran political culture, which has accepted left-of-center political actors as participants in the political process and accepted the FMLN as a governing party.
Governing will present major challenges for Sánchez Cerén and his party. His narrow victory will compel him to seek dialogue with sectors of the business community and the political right. This will be a difficult process; both the ARENA and the FMLN contain sectors that distrust the other side and are reluctant to engage in discussion. At least initially, Sánchez Cerén and others in his administration have reached out and started a process of communication. The president may need to bring elements of his party along, and international and domestic pressure may be needed to keep some sectors of the business community and the political right involved.
Along with the need to govern effectively while engaging with the opposition, the administration will face other major policy challenges.
El Salvador’s new administration will have to confront significant problems of crime and insecurity. The country’s homicide rate, which dipped three years ago in response to a controversial gang truce, has crept back up as the truce has eroded. The country faces problems with youth gangs and extortion; drug trafficking; corruption and money laundering; and a criminal justice system in need of reform. In a column in El Salvador’s online newspaper El Faro, analyst Miguel Cruz succinctly described the challenges El Salvador faces and what is required of the Salvadoran government to enact meaningful initiatives to bring crime and violence under control.
The initial signs are encouraging. In his inaugural address, President Sánchez Cerén discussed the need for a comprehensive approach to crime and violence that recognizes the importance of community-based approaches, as well as the need to weed out corrupt elements from the police force.
In addition to problems of insecurity, the Salvadoran economy has been sluggish over the last few years and the government faces significant deficit problems. While maintaining the popular social programs on which it campaigned, the administration will also have to pursue fiscal and tax reform and seek new sources of international financing. Fiscal and tax reform will not be an easy process; sectors of the business community and the political right have long been reluctant to endorse the budgetary reforms and effective tax increases that a modern democratic state needs.
International financing will raise a number of issues. Discussions with the international financial institutions could be difficult, depending on the terms offered. El Salvador recently joined PetroCaribe, Venezuela’s program to provide oil on preferential payment terms (to which Honduras, Nicaragua, and most Caribbean states also belong), and the administration is likely to cast a broad net in its search for financing. The government is also trying to work out final details for the approval of a second U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation grant. Final approval of the grant has been held up several times by concerns raised by U.S. agencies.
Like most of the countries in Central America, El Salvador faces a set of criminal, political, and economic difficulties. The U.S. and the international community ought to be supportive and flexible as the new government seeks to address these serious problems.