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Salvadorans See Promise in Candidate

By N.C. Aizenman and Alejandro Lazo
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, June 21, 2008

For most of his life, Luis Reyes has had a dread of public speaking and a distrust of left-wing politicians from his native El Salvador.

Yet on a recent evening, the 48-year-old restaurant owner stepped nervously to a microphone in front of more than a hundred Salvadorans under a party tent behind his Northwest Washington home to introduce the new head of the leftist former guerrilla party, Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front.

Looking on with a smile was the man responsible for Reyes's change of heart: Mauricio Funes, whose recent nomination as the FMLN's candidate for El Salvador's March 2009 presidential election represents the party's best chance of winning the top job since it laid down arms in 1992.

Funes, a former journalist whose nonviolent past and embrace of centrist economic policies distinguishes him from previous FMLN frontmen, has been polling as much as 21 points ahead of the ruling Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party's candidate.

He is also proving to be the catalyst for a notable political awakening among the sizable Salvadoran immigrant business community in the United States, including dozens of influential entrepreneurs and professionals in the Washington area, where an estimated 133,000 Salvadoran-born residents make up the region's largest immigrant group. The Salvadoran Embassy said that if 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 many local Salvadoran businesspeople travel to their homeland several times a year and raise substantial sums to support schools and churches in their home towns, many have steered clear of Salvadoran politics until now.

"There just wasn't a single candidate from either side that appealed to us," Reyes said.

Their dissatisfaction with the right often stems from their formative years in El Salvador. Despite their current wealth, many were born to impoverished farm workers, received little schooling and achieved success in the United States only after years of hard work.

Reyes, for example, co-owns two popular District restaurants, Lauriol Plaza and Cactus Cantina, and has stocked his spacious house with original paintings and elegant colonial-style furniture. He fled El Salvador's violence and poverty as a teenager and got his start as a dishwasher. As a result, Reyes said, he still identifies with El Salvador's poorest class, and he worries that the conservative ARENA party is dominated by wealthy elites who are not sufficiently concerned with social justice.

"They haven't done anything to improve the country," Reyes said. "It's because of them that so many Salvadorans are forced to leave the country every day to find work."

Those who come from regions of El Salvador hardest hit by the civil war between leftist guerrillas and the military-backed government during the 1980s also tend to mistrust ARENA's military roots.

Jorge Granados, 53, a real estate investor who was one of the guests at Reyes's home, recalled how, during the height of the war, several classmates at a university in San Salvador were kidnapped and murdered merely on suspicion of harboring leftist sympathies.

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