A Conversation with Carlos Calleja

Inter-American Dialogue / Irene Estefania Gonzalez

On September 27, the Inter-American Dialogue and Alianza Americas hosted a conversation with Carlos Calleja, Vice President of Grupo Calleja and candidate for president of El Salvador from the ARENA Party. The conversation was moderated by Michael Shifter, president of the Dialogue, who offered some introductory remarks focused on the current situation in El Salvador. As the country’s economy is struggling, nearly 40% of Salvadorians live in poverty and corruption scandals have been widespread; all of which have led to broad disaffection with the political system. Since the end of the civil war in 1992, two parties have dominated Salvadoran politics: the conservative ARENA party and the leftist FMLN. Current Gallup polls show that the front-runner is Nayib Bukele, the candidate from the GANA party (Grand Alliance for National Unity) and the first time in three decades that an outsider has a chance of winning the presidency. Shifter finished his opening remarks by noting that there is a lot of interest in this election due to the large community of Salvadorans in the United States. 

Calleja began with commentary on his vision for El Salvador and how his personal history brought him to the presidential race. The candidate defined his jump into politics as an attempt to “work for something above and beyond himself” and build a country with equal opportunities. Calleja said that he identified with the values of the ARENA party, and added that he and his family share the party’s guiding principles of liberty and democracy at the center of society. The candidate praised ARENA’s move towards opening up the party to internal democracy, a process which he defined as being humbling and educational. After winning the primaries with over 63% of the vote, he formed an alliance with small parties and signed an accord called “Alianza por un nuevo país.” Calleja says this aligned with his view of uniting the country around common values and a shared vision towards equal opportunity and growth in cooperation with the private sector.

With respect to the latest polls, Calleja said he was optimistic. He labeled his objectives as being “audacious,” as he is seeking to unite Salvadorans that have been socio-politically polarized. When talking about his goals, the candidate said that the biggest barrier has been the inability to move forward at the rate that the country deserves. His new political project will have civil society at its center, as he wants an “inclusive government based in surrounding his presidency with the best leaders that the country has to offer- a true meritocracy.” Calleja continued by saying that his work seeks to offer  a different option for the nation, subsequently building a new country based on what he called “the pyramid of hope”– a robust and audacious economy based in much more than a “low wage human resource provider.” Calleja used his background in the private sector to explain his economic policies, which would be centered around the ongoing changes of the current global economy. He finished by emphasizing the importance of a robust educational system because he considers investment on a country’s human resources to be one the most important paths towards building that “audacious, new, and innovative economy.”

During the Q&A session, questions revolved around various methods to address his proposed policies, international developments relevant to El Salvador, and the role of his party throughout history. When asked about unity within ARENA, Calleja said that his coalition is united under the call of working with an efficient operation. Therefore, allowing functionality that allows them to fight the structural issues that could have been solved long ago had it not been for corruption. Calleja said he plans to remain genuine, defend the ongoing development of democracy, and decentralize the corrupted nature of the government. “It is time to unite our country and build on our differences,” said Calleja, as a closing remark.

This event marked the end of Calleja’s tour in the United States, where he met with members of Congress, and representatives of the Department of State and White House, as well as local members of the Salvadoran community. The candidate ended by proposing to give his constituents the opportunity to realize the “Salvadoran Dream” within their borders- taking ownership of their country and not looking to a dependency relationship with international actors.

Watch the full recording of this event here