US diplomat in El Salvador: Calls for “participatory democracy” are threatening to democracy

At the time of this posting, WikiLeaks has posted about five cables from the US Embassy in San Salvador, El Salvador. Most of them applaud the “moderate” and “pragmatic” political position taken by current president Mauricio Funes as contrasted with the stance of the leftist “hard-liners” in his own party, the FMLN. In one cable, the Deputy Chief of Mission for the embassy makes a rather Orwellian statement while describing the dispute between Funes and the left-wing of the FMLN.

Robert Blau, US Embassy of America in San Salvador, 26 Jan. 2010:

The FMLN’s relationship-of-convenience with Mauricio Funes has soured since the March 2009 election.  Early in his tenure, Funes surrounded himself with centrist advisors and laid out a moderate, pro-U.S. foreign policy – moves FMLN hardliners saw as an attempt to distance himself from their influence.  Recognizing Funes’s popularity and needing his support, the FMLN sought subtle ways to challenge Funes’s independence.  Starting in September 2009, FMLN hardliners within Funes’s cabinet (most notably Vice President and Education Minister Salvador Sanchez Ceren) gave anti-American speeches, announced El Salvador’s intention to join ALBA, and made high-profile visits to Cuba and Venezuela – each action carefully choreographed to defy Funes’s agenda but with the pretense that the officials were acting as FMLN representatives, not as members of the Funes government. […]

The [Salvadoran Government’s] inability to make gains in public security, continued anemic growth and the disintegration of the right taken together present a challenging road ahead for democracy in El Salvador, especially if coupled with a Funes-FMLN split.  Funes’s persistent high popularity ratings, now well over 80 percent, make it too soon to sound the alarm, but democratic institutions are vulnerable.  Sanchez Ceren’s recent call for sweeping constitutional reforms to institute “participatory democracy” is a timely reminder that the hard-line FMLN’s threat to Salvadoran democracy is real. The Embassy, allied with civil society, will continue to engage and support moderates in the GOES while working with democratic forces across the political spectrum to strengthen Salvadoran constitutional institutions.

It should be noted that “participatory democracy” to the Left around the world usually entails some sort of democratic representation within economic entities. This usually means the public financing of worker- and consumer-owned cooperatives and the establishment of community councils. One could understand a bit of concern being expressed over a call to establish “revolutionary tribunals” or “people’s militias.” Such terms evoke images of armed Marxists rounding up “counter-revolutionaries” and “enemies of the people” to be put before the firing squad. However, the term “participatory democracy” is comparatively benign and should suggest a commitment to democratic ideals rather than thoughts of centralized dictatorship.

It is revealing–but not surprising–that this official finds the term so threatening. The US tends to view liberal economics as intrinsically democratic. The logical flip side to this, of course, is the equation of moves away from economic liberalism with authoritarianism and undemocratic sentiment.

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