- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 17, 2009

With the election of former television journalist Mauricio Funes as president, El Salvador joins the growing ranks of Latin American nations turning to leftist leaders amid global economic uncertainty and increasing fatigue with the region’s standard bearers of power.

Mr. Funes and his Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), a former guerrilla force, ended two decades of control by the conservative Nationalist Republican Alliance, or Arena party.

Mr. Funes, 49, said his victory Sunday marked a major shift for the impoverished Central American nation, where a protracted civil war between FMLN fighters and the U.S.-backed Salvadoran military in the 1970s and ‘80s left 75,000 dead. The war ended with a 1992 peace agreement signed in Mexico City.

The country’s president-elect has no personal legacy of FMLN violence. Having never fought in the civil war, he has promised to lead a moderate government.

“There is no time to lose. From tomorrow, we will start taking the necessary decisions,” said Mr. Funes, who promised to try to close the nation’s gap between rich and poor.

During months of campaigning, critics accused Mr. Funes of following the socialist model of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

In his concession speech, candidate Rodrigo Avila of the Arena party alluded to those concerns, saying his party would “be a constructive opposition, an opposition that is vigilant so that liberties are not lost in our country.”

Mr. Avila’s concerns are shared by some Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill, who earlier this month sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton warning of “FMLN extremism” and “potential threats to [U.S.] security interests.” They cited the prospect of closer ties with Venezuela, Cuba and even Iran.

In recent years, Iran has reached out to other Latin American leftist leaders such as Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, Cuba’s Castro brothers, Bolivian President Evo Morales and Mr. Chavez.

There also are persistent reports that the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah operates a cell in El Salvador.

Regional specialists are skeptical of the claim, which they trace to a growing Arab population in El Salvador and other Central American countries.

“If there are a few thousand Muslims in El Salvador, there are going to be hotheads that line up behind someone like [Osama] bin Laden. But is El Salvador going to be a springboard where hotheads can wage war on the United States? I doubt it,” said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org.

Former U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Robert White agreed, although he did speculate that Arabs of Palestinian and Lebanese descent in the region donate privately to political arms of militant groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.

“I think to qualify it as support for terrorists is making too much of it,” said Mr. White, now the president of the Center for International Policy.

Extremism and terrorist concerns aside, the more likely scenario is that an El Salvador under Mr. Funes will have a closer relationship with Mr. Chavez than his predecessor and George W. Bush administration ally, outgoing President Tony Saca.

A cash-strapped El Salvador would benefit from the discounted oil program that Venezuela has granted other Latin American and Caribbean nations.

But with oil prices plummeting from a high of $150 a barrel last year, Mr. Chavez’s largesse with his country’s petroleum has been curtailed, making his political outreach less pervasive.

“On a good day, he is no better than annoying,” said Mr. Pike, discounting concerns in some Washington circles that the Venezuelan leader is behind Latin America’s shift to the left.

Mr. Chavez has used Venezuela’s oil wealth to supply aid to Bolivia, Ecuador, Cuba, Nicaragua, Argentina and other nations with leftist leaders.

Ahead of Sunday’s election, the Obama administration said it would work with whoever won El Salvador’s presidency. In contrast, the Bush administration suggested ahead of El Salvador’s 2004 presidential election that a win by the FMLN party would adversely affect U.S.-El Salvador relations.

The end of the right-wing government in El Salvador was brought on by the Arena party’s shortcomings in the post-civil war era, said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.

“The reason why Arena lost is because of its corruption and failed programs,” Mr. Birns said.

Mr. Funes made some lofty promises to reverse Arena policies in the coming years.

Mr. Birns said the new president would have to work with limited amounts of capital during a period of economic uncertainty.

“What El Salvador needs right now is a bread-and-butter kind of president that can improve the administrative effectiveness of the government,” he said.

The Obama administration congratulated El Salvador for holding a free, fair and democratic election. The State Department rejected suggestions that Washington’s traditional support for Salvadoran rightists might be a hurdle in working with Mr. Funes’ government. It said free elections should be the standard for the Western Hemisphere.

“This is a democratically elected government,” department spokesman Robert A. Wood told reporters. “The people have made a decision, and the will of the people needs to be respected.”

Nicholas Kralev contributed to this report.

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