On Sunday, El Salvador will hold elections for a new president. In Washington, some on the right are raising alarms that the party of El Salvador’s onetime leftist guerrilla army, the F.M.L.N., will win re-election, with a former guerrilla commander as the new president. The drumbeat started early this month when Elliott Abrams, who oversaw the Reagan administration’s Central America policy during El Salvador’s civil war, warned in The Washington Post of the dangers of an F.M.L.N. victory. He cited the party’s connections with the Colombian leftist movement FARC, and accusations of its involvement in the drug and arms trades. Other conservatives have echoed his warning. Implicit is a threat that if Salvadorans make the wrong choice, America will reduce its support.
From 1985 to 1988, I worked closely with Mr. Abrams at the State Department. I respect his honesty, but I believe he is wrong in this case. I travel often to El Salvador on business. I have seen how much the country, and the F.M.L.N., have changed in the 22 years since the war ended in 1992. I believe those spreading fear are stuck in the past.
I served as the American ambassador during the final three and a half years of the war, and the first months of peace. I know well how grisly that war was; the State Department protected me with Delta Team security, believing I was high on the F.M.L.N.’s hit list. But a lasting peace was negotiated in 1992, and in 2009 the F.M.L.N., relying on the ballot box, fairly won the right to govern.
That year, the party chose Mauricio Funes, a television journalist, as its candidate, precisely to reassure voters that the F.M.L.N. would not reignite old conflicts. But presidents are limited to one term, and after five years of mixed reviews, the F.M.L.N. has nominated Salvador Sánchez Cerén, who is considered a far more orthodox F.M.L.N. representative, as its flag-bearer. His campaign promises a more rigorous, but lawful and peaceful, effort to address the F.M.L.N.’s core issues — the corrosive inequality and social injustice that underlaid the civil war.
It is not my place to assess the merits of Mr. Sánchez Cerén. This is 2014, not 1992. He and his party have earned a fair chance to let El Salvador’s voters decide. The peace agreement 22 years ago ended one of the bloodiest civil wars in Latin American history. On one side was a right-wing government that had used every tool at its command, including American assistance, in a vain effort to crush the F.M.L.N. insurgency. Both sides used terror, but government forces and civilian right-wing militias were among the most promiscuous by far. Few Salvadorans can forget the bodies, the disappearances, the torture of loved ones carried out by American-supported security forces, all in the name of defeating Communism. But in the aftermath, F.M.L.N. perpetrators who were judged to be terrorists were placed on blacklists by the United States, while right-wing terrorists seldom were. Even today, most former F.M.L.N. commanders remain ineligible for American visas while right-wing terrorists are seldom so identified. A similar imbalance between left and right characterizes the accusations of corruption and criminality.
In 1992, there were understandable concerns regarding the intentions of the F.M.L.N. Salvadoran voters gave Arena, the party of the right, three successive victories. But now, after five years in power, the F.M.L.N. has played down leftist rhetoric and has come to realize — enthusiastically and publicly — that El Salvador needs to work with the United States to confront its problems. Lawlessness, corruption, poverty and narcotics trafficking all worsened during the years of Arena rule, and little was done to improve the lives of the poor.
So when Americans demonize former F.M.L.N. commanders like Mr. Sánchez Cerén, either for their activities during the war or for accepting assistance from the Castro regime or from the political heirs of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, they are making a big mistake. The Salvadoran people view Venezuelan assistance as a blessing. American assistance has dwindled, even though an estimated one-fifth of people born in El Salvador now live in the United States. Salvadoran migrants send home $4 billion or so in remittances each year — 90 percent of it from the United States. These payments account for more than 16 percent of El Salvador’s gross national product, more than any other source. And narcotics trafficking, gang violence and money laundering are problems all shared with the United States. We should welcome the F.M.L.N.’s statements of good faith and cooperate with it.
Mr. Abrams did get one important point right: Corruption, criminality and violence all undermine democracy. That is what makes Central America a hot spot posing a threat to our national security. Do some in the F.M.L.N. wish the United States ill so long after the war? Yes. Are some engaged in corruption? Certainly. But in both cases, the same could be said of some players on the right. So should the United States pay close attention to this election? Yes. But we should not fear the prospect of another five years of F.M.L.N. rule.
I am neither predicting, nor advocating, an F.M.L.N. victory, though polls suggest it is likely. But Salvadorans must be able to make their choice free of veiled suggestions that one or another outcome will lead to a worsening of United States-Salvadoran relations. If the majority deem an F.M.L.N. victory better for them than the alternatives, we must respect that choice.
William G. Walker, a retired career diplomat, was the United States ambassador to El Salvador from 1988 to 1992.