16 March 2009

Ex-FMLN Guerrillas Party Wins El Salvador Election.

Pby: Jason Beaubien

Morning Edition, March 16, 2009.
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Ex-Guerrillas Win El Salvador Election

For the first time in El Salvador, a left-wing party has won the presidency. The Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front formed in 1980 as a band of Marxist guerrillas attempting to seize power. They spent 12 years fighting in the jungle and almost two decades in political opposition — and they finally accomplished their goal Sunday night.

Salvadoran leftist president promises moderation

A charismatic former TV journalist promised to build strong ties with President Barack Obama and promote investor confidence Monday as he took El Salvador into uncharted territory by being elected its first leftist president.

Behind Mauricio Funes is a party of former Marxist guerrillas that fought to overthrow U.S.-backed governments in the 1980s and whose rise to power has raised fears of a communist regime in the war-scarred Central American country.

Funes, who gave up journalism less than two years ago to become the presidential candidate of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, sought to quell those concerns after his historic victory Sunday.

"Nothing traumatizing is going to happen here," he said in an interview with local Megavision television. "We will not reverse any privatizations. We will not jeopardize private property. There is no reason at this moment for fear."

The FMLN, formed from five rebel armies in 1980, is the second former enemy of the United States to take power democratically in Latin America's lurch to the left. In 2006, Nicaraguans elected Daniel Ortega, two decades after his Sandinista government fought U.S.-backed Contra rebels, and his relations with Washington have remained tense under the Obama administration.

Among the 75,000 people killed in El Salvador's 12-year civil war were a U.S. Navy lieutenant commander gunned down by guerrillas and four Marines who died in a rebel attack on a restaurant. Ex-guerrillas will almost certainly form part of the Funes government, including Vice President-elect Salvador Sanchez Ceren, a rebel-commander-turned-congressman.

The outgoing government party, too, is stained by memories of the war. It was founded by right-wing death-squad boss Roberto d'Aubuisson. His victims included the assassinated Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero, according to a U.N. investigation.

Funes, who was a TV reporter during the war, has stayed away from the firebrand anti-U.S. rhetoric that characterizes Ortega and Venezuela's leftist President Hugo Chavez. Instead, he has compared his message of change to Obama's.

Funes, who takes office June 1, promised in his victory speech that strengthening ties with the United States would be a priority. The Obama administration congratulated him Monday.

"We look forward to working with the new government of El Salvador," said State Department spokesman Robert Wood. "It was a very free, fair and democratic election."

The overture was a marked departure from the administration of former President George W. Bush, which suggested during the 2004 election that it could not trust an FMLN government.

The United States' current neutrality has deflated one of the major arguments of the conservative Arena party as it sought a fifth five-year term in power. Arena flooded the airwaves with ads showing Chavez railing against Obama and warning that Funes would turn El Salvador into a Venezuelan satellite.

Chavez's government congratulated Funes on his triumph Monday and said Salvadorans "showed their clarity and courage, defeating the campaign of lies, garbage and manipulation."

While the FMLN has long-standing ties to Chavez, Funes kept the Venezuelan president at a distance during the campaign. Last week, Funes told foreign reporters he admired Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva for gaining the trust of the business class despite misgivings when the leftist first took office in 2003.

Critics who once questioned the sincerity of such messages gave Funes the benefit of the doubt Monday.

"Let Lula, and not Chavez, influence the direction of this country," wrote Fabricio Altamirano, executive director of El Diario de Hoy, whose pro-government leanings so angered Funes during the campaign that he refused to grant the newspaper interviews. "The president-elect has said it a million times and the whole country is waiting to see if he keeps his word."

In another conciliatory gesture, President Tony Saca — himself a former television sportscaster — said he will formally introduce Funes as El Salvador's future president at an April Summit of the Americas in Trinidad, which Obama will attend.

Funes needs the peaceful transition to last. He will be the untested leader of a country that has known only right-wing governments — all dictatorships until the mid-1980s — since its 1821 independence from Spain.

Arena's bureaucrats and policies have been entrenched for 20 years and the party is far from finished. It will have 32 seats in the next single-house Congress, compared to the FMLN's 35, meaning it could have the power to block key measures such as the budget and foreign debt approvals.

Still, Funes has made it clear changes are coming to El Salvador. He promises to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba and end what he calls government complacency with big businesses that evade taxes.

"The time has come for the excluded. The opportunity has arrived for genuine democrats, for men and women who believe in social justice and solidarity," Funes told a rally of roaring supporters.


Associated Press writers Matthew Lee in Washington and Ian James in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.


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