- The Washington Times - Monday, March 16, 2009

SAN SALVADOR, EL SALVADOR (AP) - Mauricio Funes made a name for himself by reporting on El Salvador’s 1980-1992 war between U.S.-backed governments and leftist guerrillas and as a television show host who was unafraid to tackle the Central American nation’s most sensitive issues.

His popularity increased even more after guerrillas-turned-politicians tapped him as their presidential candidate. On Sunday, he led the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front to victory and became El Salvador’s first leftist elected to power.

Bespectacled and quick-witted, Funes, 49, gave the FMLN a moderate face that helped the war-scarred country overcome fears of a leftist government.

Funes says he will “end the structure of privileges” among “business groups who have kidnapped the state and are using it for their own benefit.” But he also pledges to respect El Salvador’s market economy and protect property rights.

Even Funes’ dress exudes moderation: He normally wears white rather than the red preferred by his fellow FMLN members and the legions of Salvadorans who turned up at his campaign rallies.

He has compared his message of change to President Barack Obama. Even his campaign slogan echoed the new U.S. president: “Hope is being born, change is coming.” Supporters chanted “Yes, we can!” at rallies.

Born in 1959 in San Salvador, Funes studied communications at a Jesuit university, where he was involved in student activism but did not associate with any particular party. After five years as a teacher at Catholic schools in the capital, he began his journalism career as a reporter for state television Channel 10.

Like many Salvadorans, he knew loss during the war. His older brother, a student activist, was shot dead in 1980 _ a killing Funes has blamed on the national police.

After the conflict, his opinion program “Uncensored” hammered away at scandals, including allegations that 2001 earthquake aid had been illegally diverted.

Funes also was a correspondent for CNN’s Spanish edition from 1991 to 2007.

In a country where much of the media was aligned with the conservative government, his work earned him a reputation as a crusader against corruption. After launching his candidacy in 2007, he led opinion polls all the way up to Sunday’s triumph.

“I have seen his passion for the truth, for justice, his courage in his role as a communicator,” said Gregorio Rosa Chavez, auxiliary bishop in San Salvador’s Catholic Church. “I believe many people have viewed him with sympathy and hope.”

Funes often expresses admiration for Brazil’s moderate leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. His wife is a Brazilian cultural attache in El Salvador who belongs to Silva’s Workers’ Party.

Critics say Funes is too inexperienced to govern an impoverished country where gang violence fuels one of the highest homicide rates in Latin America.

But Roberto Rubio, head of the Salvador-based National Foundation for Development, said two decades in the media spotlight have prepared Funes to lead the nation.

“He is more articulate, more prepared,” Rubio said. “His 20 years as a journalist allow him to know various topics, develop and express his thoughts clearly.”

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