miércoles, 7 de enero de 2009

Former Salvadoran guerrilla explores crippling post-war political divide

Joaquín Villalobos, 57, was one of the top commanders of the FMLN, the coalition of guerrilla groups that in the 1980s waged a bloody civil war against the U.S.-supported government of El Salvador. He was also one of the negotiators and signatories of the peace accords that ended hostilities in 1992. Villalobos progressively distanced himself from the FMLN and in 1995 moved to Oxford, England. Since then, he has been working as an advisor in peace processes and transitions to democracy.

In an exclusive interview with The Miami Herald, Villalobos spoke about the March 15 presidential elections in El Salvador -- which might put his former comrades in power -- and also touched on current events in Cuba, Colombia and Venezuela.

Q.Compare today's El Salvador with the El Salvador of 20 years ago, the one the American public was familiar with.

A.You mean the El Salvador of the war? Unfortunately, El Salvador's credentials are still those of the war. When you say El Salvador, people immediately say: They killed a bishop there. Or they ask: Is the war over? We have not managed to be identified with peace. Colombia, for example, with a conflict that is relatively smaller than ours, is being clearly identified with peace. So we signed the peace and never had a policy to turn it into an identity. This excessive polarization we are seeing today is the search for maturity in our country.

Q.But the peace accords of 1992 were an outstanding example of consensus.

A.When we signed the accords we had a vision of state, a strategic vision, that lasted a few seconds in the history of our country. And then we went back to the reality of politicking. And that politicking created the polarization in the country that I define this way: The government party felt that the worse the opposition did, the better it was for them. And the opposition felt that the worse it was for the government, the better it was for them. And the result is that the country has not done well. There was a deterioration in the quality of the political class, in the quality of the parties. This is what we see now on stage. And a scenario that points to a new crisis.

Q.Is the situation in El Salvador cause for concern?

A.It is. Some called me a traitor and others called me a fool when I warned about the dangers of polarization. The right and this government have made many mistakes. I said to myself: The Frente will come to power and it will last five years. I supported the idea that ARENA should be punished. But because of my work, I am asked to comment on what is happening in Venezuela, in Ecuador, in Nicaragua. And I made an association with what was happening in my country and these other countries. And then I worried: This is going to be much longer than five years, when you look at it in context. It is not just a situation that can alter the political balance in El Salvador, but it can become the situation that sends the country to Never Never Land.

Q.But I see prosperity in El Salvador. There is development, less poverty.

A.When I was young and in school and someone asked you: What does El Salvador produce? You had an automatic response: El Salvador produces coffee, sugar, cotton, shrimp. Now, even though I boast of knowing my country well, I don't know what it produces. The only fact that jumps up at me is that El Salvador exports people. And here comes the vicious cycle that is apparently positive but really fatal. The export of people has drained this country of its labor force. And all of the signs of progress you see are the result of that. We abandoned the land, we export people, we get another income -- the remittances -- and those remittances have depleted our labor capabilities and the imagination of our business class. And there is a social consequence of this apparent progress. We signed the peace, exported people and have become a violent society because of the disintegration of community and family. And this cycle is still open. The gangs are a part of this phenomenon. What you saw is the 10 square kilometers of peace. The route from the airport to the city. The most vital challenge of this country, and that is why it is a problem if the Frente wins, is to reinvent the economy.

Q. Why is it a problem?

A.Because we are not going to have a constructive government if the Frente wins. We are going to have a demanding government. This country needs someone that can put it back on track, and what we are going to get if they win is not those who can put it on track but those who will make the demands. Because what you have to do is a complete redesign in terms of technology, politics, social issues, operational processes, and the Frente is not capable. It is a demanding force that will be casting about for a guilty party, which is the cycle that has opened in Venezuela, in Ecuador, in Bolivia. And conceivably the Frente could manage, like others have, to build an electoral majority and win several elections by incorporating disenfranchised groups. And if this lasts 10 years, I don't know what could happen to us. We will not be viable as a country. We will not come to a war, but we will have a much bigger polarization.

Q.What about the right?

A.The Frente is not responsible for our current predicament. The right is responsible, and the situation is serious. It was a very stupid thing to play the polarization game. They thought nothing was going to happen. They used the Communists and its leader, Shafik Handal, to scare people. They played with something that was going to disappear. So Handal dies, Hugo Chávez comes to power and starts to throw dollars around. ARENA gets old. It is tired. A global economic crisis comes. The scary leader is dead and there is a new candidate, Mauricio Funes. It was the perfect star alignment. And now there is no option.

Q.What advice would you give the United States if the Frente wins?

A.Open up a dialogue with Cuba as soon as possible, because that is the matrix. Everything starts there. The Cuban model belongs to the currents of nationalism of the 1940s and 50s. The United States has enormous responsibility in the way that process played out. That is why it is vital for the United States, also because it would square off pending accounts with the rest of the continent, and it would weaken the others. I believe Cuba wants and is ready for change. One thing you must take into account when considering Cuba is that the Communist Party is the most important political force there. There is no other. The Cubans of Miami represent too much instability and are not internal players. The internal opposition is too weak. A successful transition process requires the transformation of the dominant force. Here, if the right had not changed because of our pressure, I would not be here talking to you. In Cuba, if the Communist Party is not the main component of the transformation of society, the transition will not happen.

Q.But how can a transition happen if there is only one party?

A.An internal debate within the Communist Party is the equivalent of a debate among different political parties. It is not the first time that a hegemonic party will undergo a transition. It happened in Mexico, with the PRI. In all Eastern Europe. It's not a new concept. So if the United States alters, modifies the relationship it has with Cuba, it will impact this situation here. It is important to point out to my countrymen that Americans are paranoid about their security. And if an Iranian embassy opens here, they are not going to be amused.

Q.What should the United States do about Venezuela?

A.Hugo Chávez is not the heart of the matter. He is a poor idiot, an accidental clown, the result of the incapacity of the Venezuelan ruling class. The policy of the United States toward Venezuela has not been bad -- the policy of restraint, of standing firm in the face of insults and mockery. Because Chávez needs conflict. It begs the United States for it, it pleads with the United States for it, and the United States has not given it to him. The predictions about Chávez are one of the most complicated now for consultants. When you analyze surveys in these past years, you see a decline in popular support, but what is clear is that even in the worst of moments Chávez had a popularity rate of about 40 percent. On the other hand, this dollar party (wealth from oil production) is generating a new upper class. So there is a new group with a new political identity and a new economic elite. We don't know what path these groups will take, but we know the phenomenon will go beyond Chávez and that the Venezuelan political system is permanently reconfigured. The second political force in the country is exactly half the size of the chavismo, and from then on there is atomization. Also, it is a mistake to analyze the situation in Venezuela from a point of view of normalcy -- things in Venezuela are not normal. So they tell you Chávez will fall when the money runs out. Venezuela is in such a state of agitation that it does not matter whether he governs well or poorly. What matters is the power to mobilize people and the size of his government apparatus, so he can stand even harder conditions. I say this because I knew well the situations in Nicaragua and Cuba during difficult moments, and I know the power of agitation and of creating an enemy to build up support.

Q.You mentioned you met Alvaro Uribe of Colombia when you were both pursuing your master's. What is your opinion of his administration?

A.Colombia is going well. Very well. Today, the security forces in Colombia are the ones that have best understood the direct relationship between effective military and police action and human rights. The indiscriminate use of force multiplies problems. In order to exercise force, you must have legitimacy. And if you abuse it or use excessive force, you lose legitimacy. In Colombia recently, 30 military men, including generals, were cashiered for various violations. And my friend President Uribe had no problem signing the order. He was punishing them for going against the strategic doctrine with which Colombia is defeating the FARC and the drug traffickers. Uribe's 80 percent popularity rate has to do with the acceptance of the way in which the Colombian state has been handling force in a clean way -- with a black past, to be sure. But the bobbies in London, before they evolved to walking around without weapons, liked to hang people. The Colombians understand there is a relation between operational efficiency and human rights to preserve legitimacy. The operation to rescue Ingrid Betancourt and the other hostages is a perfect example of this. Contrast that with Argentina, when Admiral Emilio Massera said ''they are judging us for a war we won.'' They were being judged for how they won the war, not for winning the war.

(The Miami Herald)