A victory for the left in El Salvador?

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El Salvador may be one of Latin America's smallest countries (the size of Wales with a population of around 7 million), but politically it is highly significant.

The war of national liberation that began there in 1980 came pretty close to victory in January 1981, with a massive armed mobilisation of workers. The injection of huge amounts of military aid by the US broke the back of the Salvadorean resistance. But this was only after ten years of heroic rural and urban struggle, a struggle led by a coalition of several left organisations, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). Augustin Farabundo Marti was the communist leader of a failed national rising in 1932.

Nearly 30 years after that armed struggle began, the candidate of the FMLN, Mauricio Funes, has won the election for the presidency. This ends 20 years of government by Arena, a party of the extreme right whose founder was the man who murdered the progressive Archbishop Romero.

His margin of victory was small - 52 percent to 48 percent. But there is no doubt that the FMLN was carried to victory by the mobilisation of workers, small peasants and all those who have suffered the impact of globalisation in this tiny country. That support was emboldened and given renewed confidence in 2006 after a mass protest movement successfully reversed a decision to privatise health services.

The victory was significant because, despite the high level of politics of its working class movement and the sustained revolutionary resistance of the 1980s, there has been little to celebrate in El Salvador since then. The war ended with peace talks in 1992 and the reorganisation of the FMLN as an electoral front. In the years that followed, El Salvador became a source of cheap labour for US capital, inside the country and outside it (18 percent of the working class are migrants who send home cash that represents nearly 20 percent of national income). In recent years living standards have fallen as unemployment has risen. And to cap it all the population lives in fear of the extreme violence of the street gangs exported from Los Angeles back to El Salvador.

Funes has been represented as another left president - to stand alongside Hugo Chavez, Evo Morales and Rafael Correa. He is often mentioned in the same breath as the cynical and corrupt Nicaraguan president, Daniel Ortega. They both have the vocal support of Hugo Chavez. The FMLN's programme promises to protect indigenous rights while constructing a government of national unity that will work with private enterprise and encourage foreign investment.

Those two objectives, of course, are incompatible. In any case, the FMLN president will run a government of reform restrained by a right wing dominated parliament. But the hope and optimism generated by the 2006 mobilisations certainly carried the FMLN to power - in the same way as Morales in Bolivia and Lula in Brazil reached their presidencies.

Some organisations of the left argued for a boycott of the elections on the grounds that the FMLN was not a revolutionary government. That is true, of course; but, however briefly, its victory and the defeat of a hard and brutal right devoted to defending the interests of bankers and oligarchs will bring encouragement to the mass movement. That provides a space in which renewed trade union activity and mass mobilisations can gain ground and recover the revolutionary spirit of the 1980s, with or without the FMLN.