El Salvador vote recalls cold-war power play

Salvadorans choose a new president on Sunday.

On the stump the right-wing presidential candidate touts his tight relations with the United States government and warns of a communist threat. The left-wing party is running a former guerrilla commander and avowed communist. The US is taking sides.

Twelve years have passed since a peace accord ended El Salvador's bitter civil war and closed the curtain on one of the US's hottest cold-war theaters. But Friday, on the eve of Sunday's presidential elections, this tiny Central American nation seems to have gone back in time. Its relationship with the US is at the center of the country's political debate once again.

US officials are even making highly controversial statements that hint that relations, including immigration policy, could be affected if the leftist candidate wins.

"A lot of the [US] State Department's high-level people concerned with Latin America came out of the cold-war era, and they continue to see Latin America through that lens," says Geoff Thale of the Washington Office on Latin America, a nongovernmental organization. "From the Central America perspective, relations with the United States are important, not because they need to fight off guerrilla insurgencies or negotiate a peace accord, but because, among other reasons, Central America survives on migration."

Indeed, one of the cornerstones of the campaign by the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), the ruling party, is immigration and the remittances migrants send home. More than a quarter of El Salvador's 6.5 million citizens live in the US, and Salvadoran economist Robert Rubio estimates that remittances account for 16 percent of the country's economy. He likens the flow of remittances to a life-support system for the country's poor economy.

At a rally in San Miguel - in the eastern part of the country where emigration rates are high - right-wing ARENA candidate Tony Saca, a sportscaster turned radio magnate who is leading in opinion polls, asked the crowd to think about what a win by the leftist Faribundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) and its candidate, Schafik Handal, a former guerrilla commander, would mean for remittances.

"The administration that assures tranquility for our brothers in the United States is ARENA and Mr. Saca, because we have good relations with the United States," he bellowed to the crowd.

Saca's message strikes a chord with voters like unemployed Mirna Hernandez who lives off remittances sent by her relatives in the US. "Tony Saca has good relations with the United States, and according to what we've heard, if the FMLN wins, the United States is going to deport the Salvadorans" who live there, she says.

The US Embassy explained this week that visas and deportations are based on legal, not political, criteria. Still, the ARENA message may well be working.

"I have no way to measure it, but I have no doubt that this message has an impact," says Miguel Cruz, director of the public opinion institute at the University of Central America in San Salvador. "Among less-educated voters in rural areas this could make people decide to vote for ARENA."

And some analysts say that the comments by US officials may be bolstering ARENA's message. Last Sunday, White House Special Assistant Otto Reich gave a phone-in press conference at ARENA headquarters. According to local newspapers, he said he was worried about the impact an FMLN win could have on the country's "economic, commercial, and migratory relations with the United States."

In February, Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega told voters to "consider what kind of a relationship they want a new administration to have with us." He met with all the candidates except Mr. Handal. Last week, 28 US Congress members sent a letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell saying Mr. Noriega "crossed a boundary" and that his remarks were perceived as "interference in Salvadoran electoral affairs." This week two US congressmen blasted Reich's comments as inflammatory.

In the end, Washington may not have anything to worry about. Saca has as much as a 25-point lead over Handal in polls. Two other candidates are polling in the single digits. If no candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote getters will advance to a runoff in May.

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