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Barack Obama's presidency

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George W. Bush's presidency from 2005-06

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From free trade to the Kosovo crisis.

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El Salvador Turns a Page

By David Corbett
April 6, 2009

On March 15, El Salvador made history by electing the first left-wing president in its history.

Mauricio Funes, a former political journalist and television host with CNN Español, defeated Rodrigo Avila, the director of the National Civilian Police and owner of several private security companies.

(Funes's long-running morning show was one of the few national programs that consistently criticized the right-wing government of the Nationalist Republican Alliance party, known as ARENA, which has held power in El Salvador since 1988.)

The margin of victory was narrow, approximately 51 percent to 49 percent, but does not tell the whole story. The very fact victory belonged to the FMLN, the former political front for the guerrilla resistance in this very conservative and staunchly pro-U.S. country, is historically significant.

As one commentator (Kevin Casas-Zamora, senior fellow in foreign policy at The Brookings Institution and former vice president and minister of national planning of Costa Rica) put it:
"This is remarkable in a country that for as long as anyone remembers has been ruled, by hook or by crook, by a reactionary oligarchy. If the Salvadoran left's close electoral victory is peacefully accepted — as it has been so far — it means that Latin America has truly come a long way."
All of the major electronic media outlets and all but one major newspaper in El Salvador are owned by interests very closely connected to ARENA, and the anti-FMLN propaganda came hard and heavy during the election campaign.

The major thrusts of that propaganda concerned alleged FMLN ties to populist leftists in the region such as Venezuela's Hugo Chàvez, Bolivia's Evo Morales, Ecuador's Rafael Correa and Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega — and, of course, the Castro brothers in Cuba — and supposed ties between the FMLN and Mara Salvatrucha, a criminal gang formed in Los Angeles in the 1980s that now has clicas throughout the region and the U.S.

Painting Funes

On the first front, opponents tried to claim that Funes would forge ties with the more radical and anti-American leftists in the region, which in turn would jeopardize immigration issues with the U.S. and threaten the flow of remesas, money sent by relatives living abroad, chiefly in the U.S., to their families in El Salvador (as many as one-third of all Salvadorans live abroad).

This flow of money is an economic lifeline that by some measures accounts for as much as 20 percent of GDP (more than the value of all exports to the U.S.), which some argue is keeping the Salvadoran economy afloat.

ARENA had help from American friends in this propaganda effort. On Sept. 18, at the American Enterprise Institute — a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. — Salvadoran Minister of Foreign Affairs Marisol Argueta appealed to the U.S. government to not let "dangerous populists" win the upcoming election.

Before the elections, some U.S. lawmakers, including Reps. Trent Franks, R-Arizona, Dan Burton, R-Indiana, and Dana Rohrabacher, R-California, tried to influence the outcome in favor of ARENA by suggesting that if the FMLN won, the U.S. would end the Temporary Protected Status program that allows certain Salvadorans to live and work legally in the U.S., and other immigration and remesa issues would also have to be re-assessed.

They made these remarks in time for them to appear in the media the Friday before the election, permitting no time for the FMLN, the Obama administration or members of Congress with an opposing view to respond.

El Salvador's two nationally distributed newspapers, El Diario de Hoy and La Prensa Grafica, ran daily reports trying to link the FMLN to Chàvez's Venezuelan oil money, the Colombian FARC rebels' arms — and drug-running activities, Cuban dictator Fidel Castro's worldview, or Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega's suppression of democracy.

But the cheap shots sometimes took an even more bizarre turn: A foreign nongovernmental organization worker told In These Times that a frightened, elderly peasant woman had recently asked her if it was true that if el frente won, the elderly would be "turned into soap."

(It should be lost on no one that this tactic, i.e., painting Funes as an unrepentant Marxist in moderate clothing, mirrors attempts by some on the political right in the U.S. to paint Barack Obama, both as candidate and President-elect, as a "socialist" with "terrorist friends.")

The ARENA argument claimed that Funes, a purported center-leftist (he was never a guerrilla like all other FMLN presidential candidates to date), was really just a puppet of the more radical members of the party, such as vice-presidential candidate Salvador Sànchez Cerén, a guerrilla comandante during the civil war and the head of the party's ortodoxo wing since the death of Schafik Handal in 2006.

The Duck Metaphor

Or, if Funes wasn't a puppet, he would be easily out-maneuvered by his more radical confreres, since they were the real power within the party.

No one put this more succinctly than current president Antonio Saca, who said in February during an interview with CNN Español: "If it flies like a duck, swims like a duck and eats like a duck, it's a duck... The FMLN is a communist party. Its ideas haven't changed."

Not all such criticism came from ARENA. To former FMLN member Julio Hernandez, Cerén's inclusion on the ticket was proof that the party is still living in the past.

"This is a rare combination in which you have Funes, a fresh, modern figure, but [the influence on the party of] Hugo Chàvez is very visible, especially his money. The FMLN [must] open up the party, but they're not doing so."

Hernandez served in the guerrillas and reached the party's upper echelons in 1992. He says he felt confident that el frente was growing more moderate — even as some of the rebels' heroes, such as Joaquin Villalobos, refused to participate in the post-war FMLN.

Hernandez resigned in 2005 after the old guard insisted on running Schafik Handal as its candidate — instead of a more pragmatic choice, like Funes. (Handal, after enjoying early leads in the polls, was soundly defeated by Saca.)

Hernandez has since formed a new, left-of-center political party called the Revolutionary Democratic Front. He applauds the FMLN's decision to run Funes this time around, but he says the party is feeding the Salvadoran people a mixed message.

"The FMLN ... gives Funes the title of presidential candidate, but that's it. All of the [congressional] candidates are from the hard line, the linea dura. The candidate frequently says one thing, but the party base says another. These aren't mistakes, but ways to show Funes who's in charge."

However, the fact that Funes could actually lead the FMLN to victory strengthened his hand within the party against the more traditional old-line true believers.

With this success, Funes potentially gained a credibility and a power base that protected him from being used as a mere puppet, or outmaneuvered from below. Whether that will actually happen remains to be seen, of course, but there are several signs that inspire confidence.

Sources consulted for this piece include:

David Corbett is an author whose upcoming novel, Do They Know I'm Running? is due out later this year. (For an excerpt and more about the author, click here.)

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