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  1. Wealth
March 15, 2009

The saviour of Salvador?

By Spear's

The conservative ARENA party has gained ground by claiming that leftist Funes would make El Salvador a satellite in Chávez’s socialist orbit.

Mauricio Funes, a popular television journalist and the liberal presidential candidate leading the polls in today’s elections in El Salvador, is running from the ghost of Hugo Chávez.

The ruling conservative ARENA party has been gaining ground by claiming that leftist Funes would make El Salvador yet another satellite in Chávez’s expanding socialist orbit. They have even featured billboards with doctored images of Chávez with his arm around Funes.

Now Funes is on the defensive, telling construction executives that his election would not lead to Venezuelan-style expropriations of private property. “We will defend an economic system that has private property at its core,” he insists. Funes says that Lula, not Chávez, is his model for pragmatic socialist reform.

Well-intentioned as he may be, Funes’s political reality is far more complicated than he cares to admit: he is the moderate leader of a party whose rank-and-file still contain communists. In the 1980s El Salvador barely survived a bloody civil war between Marxist guerrillas and a US-backed military junta, and that struggle is still alive today in its transmutation into US-versus-Venezuelan influence in the elections.

Although Funes may be trying to distance himself from Chávez and liken himself more with Lula, the same cannot be said of his vice-presidential running mate, Salvador Sánchez Ceren, a former guerrilla commander.

Funes and Sánchez Ceren’s rallies attract FMLN party supporters bearing placards with images of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. The left-wing FMLN party is an offshoot of the Marxist rebels who fought the regime in the 1980s, and Chávez has made inroads into El Salvador by dispersing resources to the FMLN through his ALBA Petroleum, which gives subsidized oil to the Caribbean region. So Funes may not want anything to do with Chávez, but his party certainly does.

On the other side of the equation is the long history of US intervention here, which has not stopped since the 1980s. In the 2004 elections, US lawmakers warned that should the leftist candidate win, US remittances could end. He lost the election.

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This time around, the Obama administration is adopting a different attitude, as it has done all over Latin America. Despite El Salvador’s current conservative Foreign Minister Marisol Argueta urging the US to get involved, the US State Department has issued statements reaffirming its official position of neutrality.

The problem is, however, that ideology may well be secondary as salvadoreños go the way of the Americans. After more than twenty years under the same regime, voters are buying a message of change.

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