On June 1, 2014, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, historic leader of the Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN), was inaugurated as President of El Salvador. At a formal session of El Salvador’s Legislative Assembly, held before a crowd of thousands at the country’s international convention center, the presidential sash was officially handed over from Mauricio Funes, elected in 2009 as the first FMLN candidate to win the presidency, to Professor Salvador Sánchez Cerén, elected in a runoff election on March 9 of this year.
Unlike Funes, who was a civilian journalist, Sánchez Cerén, after being one of the founders of the militant teachers union, ANDES-21 de junio, went on to become a commander of El Salvador’s powerful guerrilla forces that battled a military dictatorship during the country’s civil war (1980-1992). One of those who, on behalf of the FMLN, signed the historic Chapultepec Peace Accords that ended the war in 1992, he has remained a leading voice within the party for a revolutionary, democratic and socialist vision, making his victory all the more significant as a departure from two decades of hard-right rule by the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party and a further step to the left from the progressive Funes administration.
As Angela Sanbrano, President of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities (NALACC) and former Executive Director of CISPES commented, “This victory is deeply rooted in the democratic revolutionary movement and represents the possibility of creating a new El Salvador, a just El Salvador, a country that can serve as an example to all of Latin America in showing that the people who struggle will triumph.”
The historic memory of the Salvadoran struggle against state repression was a strong theme throughout the inauguration, a marked distinction from Funes’ inauguration in 2009. An artistic installation guiding visitors into the auditorium featured striking human figures paying homage to El Salvador’s often-marginalized cultural history – from assassinated indigenous leader Anastasio Aquino to late-19th century feminist scholar Prudencia Ayala. The President of the Legislative Assembly, Sigfrido Reyes, opened the ceremony by saluting the representatives of the unions, campesino organizations, the student movement and women’s organizations that have continued the popular struggle they began in the 1960s and 1970s who were in the crowd.
After being sworn in by Reyes, President Sánchez Cerén addressed the public. “After long years of struggle for justice and democracy in my country, I humbly and with deep respect accept this presidential sash. I receive it with a commitment to exercise the presidency for all Salvadorans, here and abroad.”
He outlined the three primary pillars of his administration: security, employment and education, as well as some of the early plans, including the creation of a Women’s Ministry, the expansion of the free school uniforms and school supplies program from elementary to high school, and an agenda for environmental sustainability that includes “taking action against the environmental crisis and climate change.”
Quoting Pope Francis on his recent trip to Brazil, he urged El Salvador’s youth, “not to be afraid to dream big.” Young adults are one of the country’s largest demographics; nearly 50% of the population is under the age of 24, due in part to high migration rates out of El Salvador. “To the youth: I invite you to be participants in this government. Not only because you are the present and the future but because you should be the dynamic force in the work of public policy. The well-being of the children and the youth is the well-being of all of society, ” said Sánchez Cerén.
Declaring the country’s national resources “sacred,” his strong call for an end to corruption and active citizen participation in government oversight was received with cheers from thousands of people energized by outgoing President Funes’ unrelenting quest to bring to justice former ARENA officials accused of corruption, including ex-president Francisco Flores.
The overriding theme of the speech, however, was a call to national unity, and the need to unite diverse sectors in the country in order to advance a national agenda and to resolve the problems the country faces, especially the high levels of violence. “United, we all grow,” he echoed throughout the speech. “I am convinced of this. We did it during the Peace Accords, when we united to move the country forward. This moment requires that we unite all our efforts and our strengths, even though we have diverse ways of thinking. But we’re Salvadorans and we love our country. We cannot forget that we are one people, one country, where each of us deserves the opportunity to live in happiness and peace.”
While no direct mention was made of ARENA’s attempts to reverse the results of March’s election nor concerns that the right-wing will continue to follow in the footsteps of the Venezuelan opposition and attempt to destabilize the new government, the president’s call to unity was a sign to the country, and to the international community, that there is one political force that stands in the way of progress in El Salvador – and it’s not the FMLN.
Demonstrating his stated commitment to reclaim El Salvador’s historic memory, he paid special tribute to several key leaders of El Salvador’s revolutionary movement, his teacher Mélida Anaya Montes, also a founder of ANDES-21 de junio and leader of the Popular Liberation Forces and to Schafik Handal, former leader of the Communist Party and his fellow commander in the FMLN, saying, “This government begins with a lot of hope and happiness. This is only possible due to the labors of our heroes and martyrs, those men and women, visionary people, who gave their lives dreaming of a democratic country.”
Fittingly, the formal ceremony was peppered with excited cheers from the crowd, from rounds of “El Pueblo Unido Jamás Sera Vencido!” to “No volverán! No volverán” (“They won’t be coming back!”), and including an a capella version of the FMLN’s party hymn. Jeers and boos were reserved for a group of ARENA deputies who shunned President Funes upon his entrance, the president of El Salvador’s Supreme Court of Justice, Florentín Meléndez, frequently accused of responding to ARENA party interests, and various ARENA deputies who are being investigated for corruption and slander.
Delegations from over 100 countries attended the inauguration. Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Evo Morales of Bolivia and Salvador ValdésMesa, the Vice-President of Cuba were greeted with the loudest cheers as they descended the staircase into the auditorium, a demonstration of the support of El Salvador’s organized social movement for further integration into the leftist bloc in Latin America and the Caribbean. No one from the United States joined the parade down the red carpet, as the US sent only a low-level delegation, another departure from the Funes inauguration, which was attended by Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.
A popular celebration was held later in the afternoon in San Salvador’s historic Plaza Cívica, the site of the Salvadoran armed forces’ horrific 1980 attack on the crowd gathered at the adjacent cathedral to attend the funeral of Monseñor Romero. Sánchez Cerén’s supporters were too buoyed by excitement to be bothered by the cold rain that began to fall. With genuine admiration, gratitude, love and respect, the new President exchanged saludos with dignitaries from Cuba and Venezuela, as the crowed cheered for champions of Latin American independence, including Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez and El Salvador’s own Schafik Handal.
In a rousing speech, El Salvador’s new president ended the day taking once more about dreams: the dreams of a revolutionary, the dreams of a nation. Calling on the country to dream for its children, he shouted, “El Salvador is worth the struggle. It’s worth sacrificing ourselves. And it’s worth struggling all of our lives for our dream… In my dream, El Salvador will become a country of buenvivir, where everyone can have happiness, where inequality is torn down, where we all see each other as brothers and sisters – this dream is worth fighting for.”