Is El Salvador’s first left-leaning president changing the country’s internal political realities for the better? Are U.S. policy makers about to make a major mistake?

An analysis of current developments in El Salvador, while at the same time undertaking an assessment of President Mauricio Funes’ performance, might reveal that:

“For the first time we have a democratic government, a solidified government, a just government that is going to push for changes that for decades many of our esteemed people fought for, at times with their lives, who waited to see that a new El Salvador is possible.”

President Mauricio Funes uttered these words as part of his inaugural address delivered on June 1, 2009. He is the first and only leftist candidate ever to be nominated and elected from the former guerrilla Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) political party. Consequently, many who voted for him strongly expected that genuine change would take place on his watch. His proclamation that this is “the first time we have a democratic government” was due to the fact that the traditional ruling, rightwing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) party, which uninterruptedly had controlled the nation for nearly two decades, had been defeated.

Many Salvadorans, including Funes, had questioned the legitimacy of a purportedly democratic government in which ARENA had governed for years without ever being defeated in elections that saw violence and death squads freely used against the opposition. What is alarming about the increasingly rancorous relationship between the left and centrist wings of the FMLN party is that ARENA is likely to take the risk of fishing in troubled waters, even if it means leaving the door open to a deterioration in the country’s security situation and face-offs between the country’s political factions. But the situation gets worse when one looks at the injudicious behavior of high U.S. officials, who are not helping to seek a resolution of the country’s internal dislocations.

Before aspiring to be El Salvador’s president, Funes had been fired in 2005 as Director of Content and News of Channel Twelve, due to his adverse critiques of the multiple scandals afflicting ARENA. Although there was an outburst of wild optimism in FMLN circles following Funes’ election, his political credo did not mark him as a typical FMLN militant. He was the first presidential candidate backed by the FMLN who had not fought as a guerrilla during the 1980‘s Civil War; furthermore, as COHA’s research associate James Garman earlier detailed, Funes sees himself as a moderate idealist in regards to his political orientation.

In examining Funes’ possible success at straddling his moderate and the FMLN’s much more leftist philosophies, Garman made clear that the implementation of the new president’s policies would be contingent upon “the resolve of the opposition (possibly forming a center-right coalition to block the pro-FMLN legislation in the upper house), and his response to the political pressures being registered by radical elements in his own party.” Not surprisingly, having served as chief-of-state for only eight months, Funes has encountered difficulties in his effort to relate to purists in both main political parties. His struggle to achieve a bipartisan style of rule could have important repercussions during the remaining four years of his presidency.

So Far…
As Funes not so subtly distances himself more and more from the FMLN, he runs the danger of being deserted by the very political party that worked so hard to shoe him into office. He then could conceivably ally himself with ARENA as Jorge Velado, the Vice President of COENA (ARENA’s executive body), has called for. However, knowing the historic bad blood between the FMLN and ARENA, it seems doubtful that Funes would take such a provocative approach. Furthermore, it is politically unrealistic that such relationship can exist with Salvador Sánchez Cerén remaining as Vice President. With the somewhat tenuous existing relationship between the United States and FMLN, but with no likely ties to ARENA in the offing, what will Funes conceivably do? To whom will he look to for political cover? A plausible explanation might be that by estranging himself from the more radical members of FMLN, Mauricio Funes is resorting to a potentially perilous, strategy that will almost mandate that he obtain some form of ARENA’s political support. It’s too soon to come to conclusions about how this move will affect Funes’ ability to truly “push for [the] changes and transformations” that he so enthusiastically spoke about during his inauguration speech. However, these divisions will likely prompt increasingly profound confrontations between the two factions of the FMLN that will not expedite the movement toward change that Salvadorans envisioned and desperately hoped for when Funes first took office as President.

It is a certainty that any breakdown in relations between the U.S. and the FMLN would be a dangerous development-one which the Obama administration should do its best to avoid if it has any illusion regarding starting up a new relationship with Latin America. It is crucial that U.S. officials dedicate themselves to improve the harmful relationship with the FMLN that has existed since the beginning of the 1980 War and implement an entente cordiale that takes into account the interests of the Salvadoran people, and not just the political class. In this regard, Deputy Assistant Secretary Julissa Reynoso should be sent on a lengthy field trip to Honduras and El Salvador in order to examine two countries to which her authority now extends, and develop policies that further aid the country’s genuine development and the positive relationship between the United States and Latin America that the Obama administration states that it is seeking. Secretary Reynoso, at least up to now, appears to be long on background and short on how this applies to Honduras and El Salvador, for which she has had little or any experience. Currently, her record in this regards seems to be predominantly negative.

Relations with the United States
The United States was heavily involved with El Salvador during the twelve-year Civil War spanning from 1980-1992. Washington’s Cold War containment policies were part of an effort to restrain the alleged spread of communism through Central America during the period. In this fractious struggle supported by the Reagan White House, upwards of 75,000 Salvadoran civilians were killed, often under murderous conditions. Orchestrated by the then incumbent conservative administration, this containment strategy was both ideological and strategic in its nature, and was pegged on the proximity of El Salvador and the rest of Central America to the U.S. and the subsequent simple-minded insistence that the threat of communism so close to our borders required a swift and robust response. Fueled by a near state of hysteria brought on by the Reagan administration, the United States’ financial aid to El Salvador rose from $264.2 million in 1982 to an estimated $557.8 million by 1987. This was in addition to the $197 million that the U.S. provided to local military forces in order to defeat the leftist guerrillas.

Many of these funds illicitly landed in the hands of senior commanders of the Salvadoran armed forces, and ultimately in secret accounts in California banks. Also benefiting from the skullduggery were highly placed politicians who headed up major governmental fiscal institutions. Even before the peace treaty to end the conflict was signed on January 16, 1992, the armed forces and many of the country’s political leaders chose to switch parties. The officials who ruled the country during the early phases of the war were mainly members of the Christian Democratic Party (PDC). Members, often for opportunistic reasons, dumped the PDC to help form the ultra-conservative political party, ARENA. This vehicle was the inspiration of a lethal extremist ideologue named Major Roberto D’Aubuisson Arrieta. The large amount of humanitarian and military aid that El Salvador irregularly received from the U.S., in the form of bribes and skimming schemes, did not come without strings attached. Rather, it helps explain the close, often duplicitous relationship between the United States and ARENA during the latter’s eighteen-year reign.

Once elected president last March, Funes insisted that his country would “keep the American currency and will seek to preserve El Salvador’s close ties to the United States.” El Salvador is the only country in Central America that uses the American dollar as its sole form of currency; Panamá uses dollars in addition to its local currency, and the issue became a subject in the recent Honduran presidential campaign. The original form of the country’s currency, the Colón, was dropped in favor of the dollar in 2001, which was officially adopted by the ARENA government. Moreover, to prove its pro-U.S. mettle, El Salvador sent eleven rotations of troops to Iraq, dutifully validating its committed membership in the “coalition of the willing,” in the U.S.’s fight against terrorism. El Salvador’s presence in Iraq from 2003 to 2008 lasted for a longer period of time and deployed a greater contingent of troops than any other Latin American country.

Funes’ Policies – No Barking Dog
Funes’ first act as president was to brush aside the notion that he was unwilling to make unilateral decisions that could potentially threaten the traditionally close relationship between the United States and El Salvador. On the day of his inauguration, he officially restored diplomatic ties between El Salvador and Cuba. Following the lead of the United States, El Salvador had terminated all links with Cuba and had no formal relations with Havana since 1961. On January 8, 2010, the first Cuban embassy was opened in San Salvador; previously, El Salvador was the only country on the continent without one. FMLN representatives were pleased by this step, categorizing it as an historic event; its leaders always have criticized the policy of non-recognition followed by the previous ARENA administrations. Prior to Funes’ reconciliation with Cuba, the U.S. had a longstanding ally in its fifty-year hostility toward the communist-governed island. Now, Washington remains the only country in the western hemisphere that does not have full formal relations with Cuba.

Secretary of State Clinton was present at Funes’ inauguration, reflecting the United States‘ support of his presidency. In regard to El Salvador’s new relationship with Cuba, Clinton expressed, during an interview with the Salvadoran media, the notion that Obama also has “reached out to Cuba…because we believe that it is in the Cuban people’s interest and the interest of our region for Cuba to be more integrated.” Clinton suggested Washington was condoning Funes’ actions towards Cuba and had no intention of permitting this development to weaken its relationship with El Salvador. Nevertheless, if the U.S. single-mindedly maintains its sang-froid towards Cuba, it could compromise its alliance with El Salvador in the future. Wayne Smith, of the Center for International Policy, has observed that the U.S. relationship with Cuba could be a reflection of its entire relationship with Latin America. Thus, although Funes’ reconnection with Cuba did not alter the tone of El Salvador’s ties to Washington, this action could pose a significant bilateral problem in the future if Washington’s links to Havana further corrode.

In response to the relationship between Funes and the Obama administration, Clinton pronounced that “the United States stands ready to assist you and your new government. This is a commitment that President Obama and I share, and we will look forward to deepening and broadening our cooperation.” The United States, if anything, plays an all-important role in the Salvadoran economy as its largest trading partner, as well as being a steadfast ally. According to the CIA World Factbook, the U.S. accounts for 47.5 percent of El Salvador’s exports, while supplying 29.9 percent of its imports; the continuation of their positive bilateral relationship is crucial to the Funes administration, which equips Washington with no small amount of exploitable leverage.

Funes’ U.S. Agenda
A key issue that Funes wants to resolve with the United States relates to immigration—most importantly, the continuous threat of deportation from the U.S. of illegal Salvadoran immigrants on the basis of being accused of committing crimes. The Washington Post estimated the total amount of Salvadorans living in the United States at around two million, nearly 28 percent of the entire population presently to be found living in El Salvador. The immigration director of El Salvador, Ruben Alvarado, reported that by January 12, 2010, the United States already had deported four hundred Salvadorans; surprisingly, this number is miniscule compared to the tally in 2009, in which U.S. authorities deported close to 2,000 Salvadorans every month. Funes has made it clear that the small Central American country cannot easily support the large numbers of its nationals liable for deportation, mostly for serious crimes. He has urged the Obama administration to develop an immigration policy that will keep in mind his nation’s difficulties related to poverty, crime and unemployment. To date, nothing has been done in response to Funes’ plea. Eventually, an immigration accord will be essential as a defining factor in maintaining the positive relationship between the two countries.

ARENA-Funes-FMLN
Although many FMLN members would have preferred a candidate much more radical than Funes, FMLN leaders have compensated for his lack of leftist credentials by pairing Funes with Salvador Sánchez Cerén as his Vice President. As previously explored by COHA research associate Garman, Sánchez Cerén is to be seen as the true representative of the ideological marrow of the party.

Sánchez Cerén implicitly threatens the close relationship that Funes has been diligently working to maintain with the United States. In supporting, on behalf of the FMLN, the reinstatement of ousted Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, on September 26, 2009, Sánchez Cerén’s sentiments toward the United States were made amply clear. He stated, “I say to the United States to learn the lessons, they were defeated in Vietnam, they were defeated in El Salvador, and will be defeated in Latin America.”

In response, Julissa Reynoso, the State Department’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of Western Hemispheric Affairs, a relatively unknown name in such matters, said that it was shocking for the FMLN figure to make such a statement, but, she explained, that what proves to be the strong bond between El Salvador and the United States is the “excellent cooperation and results seen by part of the President Mauricio Funes.” Here, Reynoso distinguishes between El Salvador’s Vice President and its President, and makes it clear that what matters to the U.S. are the actions and statements of the Salvadoran president himself. Meanwhile, the mayor of Soyapango, Carlos Ruiz, attempted to clarify what Sánchez Cerén intended to say, by commenting that the FMLN is not against the United States, but that it is opposed to imperialists. However, in regard to the relationship between El Salvador and the United States that is being implemented by Funes, Ruiz indicated that he doesn’t share the president’s position, and fully supports that of the FMLN. This early rift between the President and his political party, which demonstrably is aligned more closely with Vice President Cerén than Funes, is likely to pose difficulties in the president’s later attempts at implementing certain policies as well as the overall management of the country.

Jorge Velado called upon Funes to bridge the gap with the right. He stated in an interview that “President Funes would be surprised of how we could help him, if he implements positive relationships between ARENA and all of the right.” Furthermore, Velado gleefully recognized that the new president was distancing himself from the socialist ideals of the FMLN by saying that Funes “has repeated several times that he doesn’t want socialism, it’s his party that is pushing it.”

ARENA is Prepared to Play Hard Ball
Funes did not respond to Velado’s call for a close relationship; however, a new debate between ARENA, Funes, and the FMLN might result in his taking up the former’s offer. The debate, in fact, began when Funes was informed that the legislative assembly had passed a bill proposed by the FMLN to discontinue a basic telephone fee paid to the large telecommunication companies. In response to this action, Funes asserted that the country’s legislative assembly was being “irresponsible,” and further declared that the FMLN was acting with a “double standard.” He was upset over the fact that the party had taken such action without consulting him or the giant telecommunication companies that would adversely be affected by the discontinuation of the payment.

The reason behind his objection to the bill is that if the telephone companies are negatively affected by the action, Salvadoran jobs will be at risk. More importantly, Funes is being pressured by the telecommunications companies which, in turn are threatening that if he does sanction the decree, they will think about shuttering their business in the country, resulting in even more lost jobs.

In addition to criticizing the FMLN, Funes also condemned ARENA for allowing such threats to be issued. When ARENA was in command, it inexhaustibly defended the interests of the private sector. In a recent report, Funes offered amendments to the bill that undermine the FMLN’s primary reason to support this legislation, which was that the telephone companies have been reimbursed for the funds spent during the transition to privatization of the National Administration of Telecommunications (Antel). The president argued that this fee was implemented before the privatization of Antel; therefore, it is an invalid argument to call for the elimination of the fee. In the written amendments, he also questioned the legislative assembly for enacting a bill without discussing and analyzing it with other institutions. He proposed that instead of eliminating the fee completely, it should be reduced from $8.34 to $6.34. A prompt resolution of this conflict must be reached in order to stabilize the political atmosphere in El Salvador, which can hardly afford one more contentious issue.