In the days prior to the election, a group of 46 Republican congressmen outrageously urged the Obama administration to place restrictions on the financial remittances being sent home by Salvadoran nationals in the U.S. in the case of an FMLN victory. This would be the case even if the FMLN’s win came about in a free and fair election. At the same time, the right-wing Salvadoran NGO Fuerza Solidaria used images of Obama in its broadcasts while falsely attempting to attribute this policy to the U.S. government, and also largely invented FMLN links with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in its effort to derail what turned out to be Funes’ successful campaign.
Funes’ victory is illustrative of the significant public dissatisfaction with the policy failures of the incumbent ARENA party, which after 20 years in power has demonstrated an inability to address El Salvador’s fundamental economic and security problems.
The new president has emphasized an eagerness to work with the Obama administration in Washington, and Funes may well find that maintaining this relationship provides him with the best opportunity to tame cartel violence and begin to address his country’s economic predicament and raging drug-related crime problems. Meaningful progress on this front will ultimately dictate his ability to sustain the FMLN in power.
The White House quickly recognized the outcome of the election, with spokesman Robert Wood using positive language on March 16 to say, “I want to specifically congratulate Mauricio Funes as the winner of the presidential election … we look forward to working with the new government of El Salvador on our bilateral agenda.” In San Salvador, the U.S. Charge d’Affaires, Robert Blau, posed for photos with Funes, saying, “We have said many times that our intention is to continue with the good relations with El Salvador from government to government, and from people to people.”
Such manifestations were in marked contrast to the role of the U.S. embassy during the Bush administration, when U.S. emissaries like Rose Likens ran the San Salvador embassy as if it was a muscle man for ARENA, and warned the country’s political forces that there would be negative consequences if the FMLN won the presidency.
At present, the prospects for constructive cooperation between Washington and San Salvador look bright. Despite his opponents’ claims during the campaign, Funes possesses a moderate political personality, and many expect him to be able to strike up a constructive and worthy relationship with Obama. In Washington, the election of the FMLN standard bearer poses a good opportunity for the Obama administration to demonstrate that it intends to fulfill its campaign rhetoric of taking a fresh approach to Latin America. The White House’s comments on the Salvadoran elections marked a welcome and creative start, but Obama can go even further in using this occasion to stress a new beginning for U.S. regional ties and to repudiate sterile and fallow policies based on threats and neglect. Making a move to engage personally with Funes prior to April’s Summit of the Americas would send precisely the welcomed positive and constructive signal that much of the region has been looking for from Obama since he assumed office, and would better position U.S.-Latin American relations for going down the path to a recovery of regional ties and then on to a constructive relationship.