D.C. Area A Stop in Salvadoran Campaign

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 19, 2007

It seems the United States isn't the only nation where the campaign season starts early. Fifteen months in advance of El Salvador's March 2009 presidential election, opposition party candidate Mauricio Funes has flown to Washington to woo the region's sizable Salvadoran community.

Funes, of the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front, or FMLN, said the early start is intended to head off a repeat of the 2004 elections. That year, the governing party, the pro-business National Republican Alliance, or ARENA, launched a media blitz asserting that a victory by the FMLN, a former Marxist guerrilla group, would destroy relations with the United States. Television ads and newspaper articles said Salvadoran immigrants would be deported en masse, depriving their relatives of the estimated $3.5 billion the immigrants send home annually.

"This campaign of fear was mainly directed at Salvadorans who live here in the United States. Because, even though they don't have the right to vote [from overseas], they have enormous influence over their families back home," Funes said. "So we want to reach those people to remove their fear and gain their trust."

Funes, a political commentator and talk show host, represents a break from the former guerrilla commanders who previously headed the FMLN. While in the United States, he intends to meet with State Department officials and several members of Congress, as well as members of the Salvadoran community.

The U.S. Census estimates that more than 1 million Salvadoran natives live in the United States, including 133,000 in the Washington region, where they are the area's largest immigrant group. The Salvadoran Embassy says that when U.S.-born children of Salvadoran citizens are counted, about 1.7 million Salvadorans, or 20 percent of that nation's population, live in the United States, with about 500,000 in the Washington region.

Although there is talk of giving Salvadorans the ability to vote from the United States, expatriates currently can cast a ballot only by traveling to El Salvador. This is an almost insurmountable barrier for the many who are in the country illegally or who have temporary work permits that prohibit visits home.

Nonetheless, the expatriates' ability to sway relatives in the homeland has made campaign swings through the United States a regular feature of Salvadoran politics since 1992 peace accords ended a 12-year civil war and ushered in the current democratic era.

More recently, Washington area Salvadorans have emerged as an important source of campaign funds, said Geoff Thale of the Washington Office on Latin America, a nonpartisan think tank.

"You now have people over here who are well connected, who have the potential to raise real money, and I think members of both parties see that and are targeting the community," he said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company