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Barack Obama's presidency

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Salvador's Funes Finds 'Change' Hard

By Don North
June 4, 2010

Like U.S. President Barack Obama, Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes won on a platform of “hope and change,” but he has since discovered that hard economic times and old political divisions can make accomplishing new policies difficult.

One year into his presidency – marking the first time a political leader of the Left has held power in El Salvador, long dominated by powerful right-wing oligarchs – Funes remains personally popular but has made little progress in improving the lot of most Salvadorans.

Taking advice from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, Funes has avoided confrontation with powerful interests but made little dent in the high rates of unemployment and poverty, both about 40 percent. Nor has he done much to alleviate the gross inequities in Salvadoran society between the rich and the poor.

However, Funes has maintained his popularity, in part, by undertaking modest reforms. By focusing on small-bore policy changes – like providing free school uniforms for children and eliminating charges at public hospitals – Funes seems to be following more in the footsteps of ex-President Bill Clinton than Barack Obama.

Salvadorn President Mauricio Funes at the National Press Club in Washington. (Photo by Don North)

In the 1990s, Clinton found that some of his “micro” programs, such as supporting uniforms in public schools, proved popular with Americans after he confronted political catastrophe early in his presidency over his more ambitious proposals, like national health care.

Nevertheless, like both Clinton and Obama, Funes has discovered that trimming his policy sails alienated some of his “base” as represented in El Salvador by the old revolutionary fervor of the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front, the FMLN, which remade itself into the political party that Funes now heads.

Funes, a former journalist, did not fight in the bloody civil war which raged across the country for much of the 1980s, as President Ronald Reagan made El Salvador a key front in the Cold War. An estimated 75,000 people died in the conflict, which ended in 1992.

During his 2009 campaign, Funes walked a narrow line, trying not to rekindle the old hatreds while still drawing from the passions and idealism of the Left’s old struggle. Funes particularly honored Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero who bravely defended the rights of the poor and was assassinated by right-wing gunmen in 1980.

After his election, Funes continued down that same tricky path. In a popular gesture, he issued a formal government apology for Romero’s murder as well as for the army’s killing of six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter in 1989, two of the civil war’s most notorious crimes.

Yet, Funes took some criticism for not acknowledging abuses by the FMLN rebels, even though the FMLN accounted for only a small percentage of the human rights crimes during the war. A United Nations truth commission blamed government forces for about 85 percent of the abuses.

Funes also annoyed some FMLN supporters by refusing to reopen the possibility of criminal charges against human rights violators. He opposed reversing a 1992 amnesty law.

Like Obama’s approach toward torture and other war crimes under George W. Bush’s presidency, Funes has chosen to look forward, not backward. Also, like Obama, Funes has distanced himself from the more ambitious economic and social reforms favored by many of his core supporters.

Similarly, on foreign policy, Funes has tried not to rock the establishment’s boat. He has sought to maintain warm relations with the United States.

When Vice President Salvador Sanchez Ceren traveled to Venezuela and praised anti-American President Hugo Chavez, Funes rebuked Ceren, declaring that only the president could set El Salvador’s foreign policy.

Ceren retreated from a confrontation with his boss. Like other FMLN hardliners, he seemed to accept that the FMLN cannot appeal to the majority of Salvadorans without the help of the popular Funes.

Still, Ceren expresses his more hard-line approach through symbolism, favoring a red shirt for public appearances while Funes wears white.

Funes also has staffed his cabinet mostly with intellectuals and economists, with few FMLN stalwarts from the civil war days. That's been especially true of his economic ministries as Funes lives up to his campaign pledge to respect the free market.

In his first year in office, Funes has largely defended the market economy, though he has moved to legalize the disputed claims of some small farmers to their land.

He also has strengthened the country's agricultural sector and its ability to meet domestic food needs. He has won praise for expanding the school lunch program -- and he has contracted for 2.8 million school uniforms to be freely distributed.

Recently, Funes removed his Minister of Agriculture who was a FMLN party loyalist. That prompted accusations that Funes was directing agriculture supplies for poor farmers to areas of the country supporting the PCN political party, one of the small parties in the Parliament that broke off from the right-wing ARENA party, which had dominated Salvadoran politics since the days of the civil war.

During last year’s campaign, Funes also benefited from the support of some figures from the country’s elite, known as "Amigos de Mauricio," including business leaders and ex-Arena supporters who had shifted to independent parties in the National Assembly.

Some FMLN traditionalists, who favor a greater emphasis on class struggle, see Funes as overly solicitous to these business interests.

Still, Salvadorans appear to favor Funes’s more centrist policies. A recent poll showed that 62 percent agreed with Funes taking positions contrary to those of the FMLN.

Though moving to the political center, Funes has staked out some positions not favored by international business interests. Funes refused to grant mining rights for the Canadian owned El Dorado gold mines, citing severe cyanide contamination and the use of scarce water supplies to extract the ore.

Pacific Rim Mining is now suing the Salvadoran government for hundreds of millions of dollars, claiming the company’s rights under the U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement were violated. Despite the controversy -- and the loss of economic activity -- the move against El Dorado was politically popular.

Another popular move by Funes was to send 5,000 government troops into the streets to combat rising crime, which averages 12 murders a day. So far, however, the initiative has had little impact on the levels of violence.

Some analysts believe that Funes’s reaching out to more moderate parties could be a threat to the FMLN's political hopes in the 2012 parliamentary and municipal elections. However, others see Funes protecting himself from both left and right by maneuvering to the center.

Nevertheless, as Funes enters his second year, he seems increasingly a president without a political party and the FMLN appears to be a party without a president.

Veteran war correspondent Don North covered El Salvador’s civil war in the 1980s and returned during Mauricio Funes’s successful presidential campaign. North's recent documentary, "Guazapa: Yesterday's Enemies," examined the lives of FMLN guerrillas both during and after the civil war. [You can get a copy of North’s documentary with a $29 donation to, just click here, make your donation and follow up with an e-mail to [email protected] telling us where to ship the DVD.]

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