In El Salvador Vote, Big Opportunity for Leftists

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 9, 2009

SAN SALVADOR -- After a 12-year civil war and a peace undermined by soaring crime, leftists in El Salvador are on the verge of completing a remarkable journey from armed struggle to the presidential palace.

Their candidate is a veteran TV broadcaster and morning talk show host, Mauricio Funes, whose Facebook page lists his political views as "other." Funes, 49, a former correspondent for CNN en Español, was recently recruited by the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), the revolutionary group-turned-mainstream political party that is favored by polls to win the presidency in a vote scheduled for March 15.

Though the FMLN standard-bearers traditionally campaign dressed in fiery red, Funes favors a white Panama shirt, hip bluejeans and designer glasses. And while some of his FMLN stalwarts still favor rhetoric that evokes Cuba's Castro brothers, Funes considers himself to be El Salvador's Barack Obama -- an agent of change in a country beset by the highest murder rate in Latin America and an economy in free fall.

The comparison is overt: Funes and the FMLN use images of Obama in their ads (despite objections by the U.S. State Department), saying both candidates were smeared by their opponents as allies of extremists. The FMLN television spots complete the link by employing the Obama slogan in English and Spanish, vowing "Yes, we can!"

"During the entire history of El Salvador, the left has never had such opportunity to win as it does now," said José Raymundo Calderón Morán, a historian and dean of the University of El Salvador. "The people see a possibility for change, because one way or the other, they are demanding something different, no matter who wins."

Operating from the forested slopes of volcanoes, FMLN guerrillas during the 1980s and into the early 1990s fought a repressive military government that was backed by arms, training and billions of dollars in aid from the United States in one of the last conflicts of the Cold War. More than 70,000 people died in the 12-year war, many of them peasants. The war gained notoriety for the rape and murder of U.S. nuns and the assassination of Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero. It ended without any real winners in a U.N.-brokered truce in 1992, which saw the rebirth of the FMLN as a traditional political party. Today, the FMLN has mayors in city halls across the country and recently won 35 of 84 seats in the national assembly, making it the top vote-getter.

A win by Funes would put another Latin American country firmly on the political left, joining the "pink tide" of governments in Brazil, Chile, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Uruguay and Nicaragua. The question about Funes in the minds of El Salvador's voters, according to interviews and polls, is what kind of left? Will it be the democratic, globalized, pro-business, moderate left that is friendly toward the United States, like Brazil? Or the populist, hard-line, nationalistic left that is antagonistic toward United States, like Venezuela?

Funes has said that his left is the moderate kind, and that the Cold War needs to end in El Salvador. He has vowed to appoint a mixed cabinet composed of not only FMLN members but outsiders such as himself.

"I represent a new kind of leadership in El Salvador," he said, sweat pouring moments after he finished a high-octane speech in front of 1,000 supporters in the plaza in Metapan on Saturday night. In his address, he vowed to put medicine on hospital shelves, help families left behind by immigrants working in the United States and reduce the price of fertilizer. Funes was introduced by a mayor in a cowboy hat, who was wearing a pistol shoved into his waistband and who worked up the crowd by proclaiming that Funes would end the rule of the "bloodsuckers."

"The business community is not afraid of us," Funes said in an interview. "And we are not afraid of business. I will work to strengthen the relationship with the United States, to make the U.S. more of a partner, and I think we will work well together."

El Salvador's close relationship with the United States has been a campaign issue. On Saturday, there was a stadium-size celebration to salute the last returning soldiers from Iraq, where El Salvador once had 6,000 troops. The current president, Elías Antonio Saca, was a frequent visitor to the Bush White House. As many as 2 million Salvadorans reside in the United States, and many live in the Washington area. Remittances from Salvadorans living abroad are estimated at $3.8 billion annually, about 20 percent of the gross domestic product.

Funes's opponent is Rodrigo Ávila, 44, former chief of the National Police, who represents the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), which was formed by Cold War conservatives and was the winner of the last four presidential contests. Ávila says Funes is a puppet who will serve his true masters -- the FMLN hardliners who want to turn El Salvador into a Venezuelan satellite, under the influence of President Hugo Chávez.

As for the Obama comparison, Ávila is skeptical. "I don't know what he's talking about," Ávila said in an interview before a midday rally at a soccer field in San Vicente on Sunday, as he was being mobbed by women and children wanting a hug. "He's claiming a lot of different things. I don't know about the comparison. Obama speaks English. Obama graduated from college."

Ávila speaks fluent English and graduated from North Carolina State University with a degree in industrial engineering. He also attended the FBI National Academy. Funes speaks little English and did not finish his literature degree at the University of Central America.

The elections continue El Salvador's tradition of extreme political polarization. Two of the country's leading newspapers are so closely tied to either the FMLN or ARENA that their campaign coverage is unabashedly partisan. The same is true of TV stations. One evening last week, a news show asked viewers to call in and vote: Is FMLN vice presidential candidate Salvador Sánchez Cerén a communist, or not? In recent weeks, crews of FMLN and ARENA supporters have been busy painting over each other's banners and colors.

"The right has stoked the fears that the communists are coming, that they're going to nationalize the people's chickens, ship their kids off to political education camps and that the government will only allow them to buy one pair of shoes," said Carlos Dada, an independent journalist and editor of El Faro, an online newspaper based in El Salvador that covers Central America. "Fear is the protagonist in this election. This is an emotional democracy, not a deliberative democracy."

Still, Dada said he's hopeful. "El Salvador is entering a new stage, no matter who wins. There will be change here. If ARENA wins, which is still possible, they'll undertake reforms, too. They have to. People are demanding it. And Funes? Listen to him. He doesn't talk like a communist, he doesn't talk like a militant, he doesn't even talk like someone from the FMLN. What he sounds like is a very liberal democrat."

Assessing Funes, political analyst Leonel Gomez called him "a decent man. Maybe arrogant, which will help him. He needs to have a lot of faith in himself to believe that he can fix things."

According to the most recent polls by Jeannette Aguilar, director of the University of Central America's public opinion institute, 60 percent of Salvadorans don't want ARENA to govern another term. But a third of those surveyed also believe that the FMLN is influenced by Cuba and Venezuela, and even among its supporters, 25 percent question whether the FMLN has the ability to govern.

The February polls show Funes up 49 percent to Ávila 's 31 percent, but Aguilar cautioned that the race remains dynamic. Other polling shows the race to be a virtual dead heat.

During his speech in Metapan, Funes promised that "we will end the economy of privilege for the few," a reference to the so-called 14 major families of the Salvadoran elite, who have dominated the country for generations. He urged the crowd not to believe ARENA's "propaganda." "They're desperate because they know they're going to lose," he said. "If you vote for me, light is at the end of this tunnel."

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