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Salvadorans See Promise in Candidate

These Salvadorans' distaste for ARENA has only increased as the party's victory in four successive presidential elections has yielded limited economic and security gains. More than 30 percent of El Salvador's nearly 7 million people live in poverty, and the country has one of the highest per-capita homicide rates in the world.

Salvadorans living abroad send $3.7 billion a year to those living in El Salvador. And although the administration of President Elias Antonio Saca has tried to woo them by frequently visiting the Washington area and hosting international conferences for them, many of them also complain that they are not allowed enough input in government policy.

Salvadorans have lobbied unsuccessfully for the right to vote by absentee ballot and must return to El Salvador for elections.

Still, if their youthful experiences in El Salvador have made immigrant Salvadoran business owners leery of ARENA, their time in the United States has made them equally skeptical of the FMLN. Many have become stalwart defenders of the capitalist principles that enabled their businesses here to thrive. And they have long worried that the FMLN was hostile to foreign private investment, free trade and free markets.

So it was that during the presidential election of 2004, Reyes decided it was better not to vote at all than to cast a ballot for the FMLN's candidate, Schafik Handal, a former revolutionary.

"He wasn't pro-business; he was very radical," Reyes said. "He could have done bad things like nationalizing private businesses. His whole approach was just too leftist."

Funes, who gained fame as an independent, crusading television journalist and only officially joined the FMLN when it was about to select him as its candidate, arrives with none of that baggage.

Although he has pledged to pull Salvadoran troops out of Iraq and to improve ties with Washington's bete noire, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, Funes has also taken pains to distance himself from previous FMLN positions. He has promised not to pull out of the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States or to reverse the Salvadoran government's decision to adopt the U.S. dollar as its currency.

"Funes represents an opportunity for significant sectors of the

Salvadoran community here to engage in a way they haven't felt able to before," said Geoff Thale of the Washington Office on Latin America. The implications, he added, could prove long-lasting. "I think what you're seeing is the emergence of the Salvadoran Diaspora in the United States as actors in both the political process here and in El Salvador itself."

Even as they cast their lot with Funes, many of these immigrants are making a point of distinguishing themselves from the FMLN. The organizers of the party at Reyes's house, for instance, call themselves simply "Friends of Mauricio," and the tables were decorated with white tablecloths and pink flowers instead of the red and black flags normally associated with FMLN events.

ARENA's candidate, former police chief Rodrigo Avila, meanwhile, has responded by shifting somewhat to the left -- for instance, modifying his party's mantra from "Peace, Progress, and Liberty" to "A More Just Country. Progress With Equity."

Both parties have long had committed representatives in this and other immigrant-filled communities who have reliably turned out hundreds of supporters at pre-election rallies. But Funes's new backers in the business and professional community could substantially bolster his fund-raising muscle.

Their public support may be most important to Funes because it could neutralize a repetition of ARENA's 2004 strategy, in which the party launched a media blitz warning that an FMLN victory would ruin relations with the United States. Many Salvadoran immigrants, terrified that this would jeopardize their immigration status and deprive their relatives of the money they send back home, urged family members to vote for Saca.

Funes's speech seemed directly pitched at calming such fears.

"Times have changed," he said. "The left is not afraid of business. And business does not need to be afraid of the left."

The crowd before him erupted in cheers.

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