Cable reference id: #09SANSALVADOR947

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Reference id aka Wikileaks id #228629  ? 

SubjectReorganizing Arena: The Partys Future After Avila’s Defeat
OriginEmbassy San Salvador (El Salvador)
Cable timeTue, 6 Oct 2009 21:20 UTC
Referenced by09SANSALVADOR978
  • Time unknown: Original unredacted version, leaked to Wikileaks
  • Thu, 1 Sep 2011 23:24: Original unredacted version published, with HTML goodies


DE RUEHSN #0947/01 2792120
P 062120Z OCT 09
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E.O. 12958: DECL: 10/06/2019
TAGS: PGOV [Internal Governmental Affairs] PREL [External Political Relations], ES [El Salvador]


Classified By: Chage d’Affaires, for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d)

1. S/NF) Summary: On October 11, the The National
Rpublican Alliance (ARENA) party will hold its annul
convention, marking the first time in 20 years that it has
held the convention as an opposition arty. The party
emerged from its March 15 presidential election defeat in
chaos. In June, long-brewing resentment of former President
Tony Saca’s heavy handed party management and allegedly
corrupt politics erupted into a purge of Saca loyalists from
the party’s directive body, the National Executive Council
(COENA). Some party insiders believe that COENA’s
initiatives since June have been insufficient to mend
lingering rifts between pro- and anti-Saca forces and worry
that weak COENA leadership could harm the party’s prospects
for the 2012 legislative elections. Sources suggest the party
will not make any significant changes to its current course
at the October 11 convention. End Summary.

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¶2. (S/NF) While the Salvadoran public may be inured to
self-serving behavior by politicians, many in ARENA believe
that the brazen manner in which Saca and his people are
widely perceived to have used their positions for personal
enrichment went beyond the pale. ARENA deputy (and son of
controversial ARENA founder) Roberto d’Aubuisson (protect)
told PolOff that Saca “deliberately ignored” his Public Works
Minister’s government contract kickbacks scheme, even after
the case was revealed in the press. Furthermore,
considerable evidence exists, including from U.S. business
sources, that the Saca administration pushed laws and
selectively enforced regulations with the specific intent to
benefit Saca family business interests. Saca also
accumulated conspicuous assets – including a mansion in San
Salvador and large landholdings in La Union ) that do not
square with the investments and income he had prior to
assuming the presidency. ARENA loyalists worry that the open
and audacious character of corruption in the Saca
administration seriously damaged the party’s reputation more
profoundly than had corruption in previous ARENA presidencies.

¶3. (S/NF) President Saca further alienated ARENA members with
his heavy handed, autocratic management of the party. The
most prominent example of this was his arm twisting to
appoint Rodrigo Avila as the party’s 2009 presidential
candidate (see reftel A). Avila was elected by a show of
hands during ARENA’s March 2008 convention. This broke from
ARENA’s previous tradition of allowing COENA to select the
party’s candidate via consensus. COENA member Coralia de
Schonenberg (protect) told PolOff that many ARENA members
only voted for Avila in fear that a vote against Saca’s
candidate would lead to retribution. Many in the party
feared the move was an attempt by Saca to retain power by
pushing a pliable politician loyal to him as his successor.
In the process of supporting Avila, Saca tried to weaken the
candidacies of several members of ARENA’s old guard ) party
founders and other long time members. In marginalizing these
party patriarchs and manipulating party rules Saca bred
widespread resentment in the party.

¶4. (S/NF) Various sources speculate that Saca maintains a
group of ARENA legislative deputies loyal to him through
direct cash payments. Defense Attache Office reporting cites
a source alleging that at least 23 of the 32 current ARENA
deputies are on Saca’s payroll (see reftel B). Hugo Barrera
(protect), a founding member of ARENA, told PolOff that Saca
is “definitely” using stolen government and party money to
pay deputies for their support. However, Salvador Samayoa
(protect), a 1992 Peace Accords signatory for the FMLN turned
centrist political analyst, told PolCouns that COENA
president Alfredo Cristiani privately discounted these rumors
and suggested that, at most, only two ARENA deputies are
pro-Saca enough to suggest they might be receiving covert
payments. Samayoa says former ARENA legislative faction head
Guillermo Gallegos is suspected to be one of these pro-Saca

¶5. (S/NF) Despite the controversy he created within his
party, Saca remains a popular figure to the Salvadoran
public. As of June, his approval rating was 55 percent,
higher than that of any other Salvadoran politician except
President Funes (72 percent approval). This presents a
challenge to ARENA’s leadership: how should the party deal
with the internally divisive but publicly popular former
president? COENA’s strategy so far has been to keep Saca at
arms length in internal party issues while publicly showing a
face of unity with him. For example, while Saca’s people
were recently purged from COENA, Saca himself will be seated
at the dais together with the party’s other former presidents
at the upcoming convention. According to Salvador Samayoa,
Cristiani said the party is slowly pushing aside the Saca
loyalists in favor of the ARENA institutionalists. So far,
Samayoa says, Cristiani is satisfied with the progress the
party has made in resolving post-election division.

¶6. (S/NF) Another important challenge facing the party is to
define its opposition strategy to President Funes’ and the
FMLN’s initiatives. ARENA members are acutely aware of the
split between Funes and the FMLN hardliners. However, in
conversations with PolOff, several ARENA deputies suggested
the party would be careful not to attack Funes too hard.
First, Funes is a popular figure ) attacking him could
backfire and hurt ARENA’s public approval. Second,
criticizing Funes too hard from the right could push him into
the arms of the FMLN, thus creating a unified leftist ruling
party ) ARENA’s nightmare. The ARENA deputies said they do
not want to be viewed as an “obstructionist” opposition.
They said they would work with Funes provided that his
initiatives are moderate and that he does not engage in
legislative trickery to marginalize ARENA’s influence.

¶7. (S/NF) The party’s directive body, COENA, will have to
navigate these challenges. Several sources within the party
are upset that COENA, as currently composed, lacks the
political clout necessary to confront either Saca or the
FMLN. In June, the party swept out the old Saca-loyalist
COENA and replaced it with former president Cristiani and a
group of what Hugo Barrera calls “second-level people.”
Barrera and d’Aubuisson both told PolOff that ARENA should
use the opportunity of its October 11 annual convention to
recompose COENA with several heavy hitters within the party.
They believe a COENA with more political weight would have
more authority to lead the party and would generate more
enthusiasm among the party,s rank and file.

¶8. (S/NF) Despite these calls to break from the status quo,
ARENA insiders cautioned not to expect much from the party’s
upcoming convention. According to Salvador Samayoa,
Cristiani has hinted that ARENA will wait until next year’s
convention to assess its electoral prospects and consider a
change of course. Cristiani reportedly said the party’s old
guard “can make the boat float, but they can’t make it sail.”
He indicated a reshuffling of COENA to refresh the party’s
leadership could be in the works for the 2010 convention.

¶9. (S/NF) Comment: We understand Cristiani recently proposed
naming former president Flores an honorary COENA president, a
distinction former presidents Cristiani, Calderon Sol and
Saca now enjoy. Flores enjoys lukewarm support in ARENA, and
naming him an honorary president has long been a touchy
subject within the party. This proposal could be a litmus
test for ARENA’s internal division. If it passes without
internal uproar, it may suggest other divisive issues ) such
as how to deal with Saca and his loyalists ) will also be
resolved amicably. Either way, we expect ARENA under
Cristiani to move slowly and cautiously to address the
internal division. All signs indicate that COENA will use
the October 11 convention to reaffirm the current course.

¶10. (S/NF) Comment (cont.): Despite evidence that Saca’s
leadership may have weakened ARENA’s institutional
foundations, it remains a well-disciplined party with
substantial popular support. A unified and robust ARENA is a
vital counterbalance to the pro-Chavez/hard-line segment of
the FMLN. Even some of Funes’ (non-FMLN) advisors would
agree. End Comment.