Almost as soon as Mauricio Funes won the presidency as the standard bearer for the party of El Salvador’s former leftist guerrillas, he set about trying to reassure his opponents.
“I have said it, and I repeat it,” Funes, who will be El Salvador’s first leftist president, told cheering supporters on Sunday night. “My government will be moved by a spirit of national unity, and this demands that from now, from this very instant, confrontation, revenge must be put to one side.”
The fact that Funes has had to disavow any plans to judge his party’s enemies from the country’s 12-year civil war shows how much the war’s aftermath infuses politics in this country. Whether he can govern as a moderate, as he pledged during the campaign, remains to be seen.
Funes’ party, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, known as the FMLN, is led by many of the same commanders who laid down their weapons with the 1992 peace agreement and entered politics. Although the FMLN has managed to win legislative seats and town halls, the presidency has eluded it until now.
The right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance, known as Arena, has won four successive presidential elections since 1989. Backed by the country’s business elite, Arena pushed for a hard line against the guerrillas during the civil war, during which some 75,000 people died and an estimated 8,000 disappeared, mostly at the hands of the right-wing death squads and the military, which was supported by the United States.
With the FMLN’s victory, El Salvador joins a growing number of Latin American countries that have elected leftist governments this decade. In part, the left’s success is a response to disappointment with the failure of free-market policies promoted by Washington in the 1990s to generate significant economic growth and reduce the region’s yawning inequality.
But the left in Latin America can no longer be described in a single phrase. In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez combines economic populism with authoritarianism and socialist rhetoric, while democratic governments in Brazil and Chile have adopted investor-friendly policies closer to those of European social democrats.
Funes has promised “safe change” and says he will lead in the mold of Brazil’s president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. He has sought to allay fears that the FMLN would nationalize important industries, as occurred in Venezuela and Bolivia, and he has promised to respect private property. Advisers have said they do not plan new taxes, just better enforcement of the existing tax law. Funes has said he will keep El Salvador in the Central American Free Trade Agreement and retain the dollar as the country’s currency. He has also sent a strong message that he intends to continue El Salvador’s close relationship with the United States. He met with the charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy, Robert Blau, shortly after his victory speech Sunday night.