In El Salvador, Obama lauds Funes as a model Central American leader

During his two-day visit to El Salvador, President Obama hailed center-left President Mauricio Funes as a leader who has strengthened democracy in a region beset by instability.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
President Obama looked at a limited edition print with images of El Salvador's famous former Archbishop Oscar Romero, which was given to him as he toured the National Cathedral in the country's capital, San Salvador on Tuesday. Standing with Mr. Obama are: El Salvador's President Mauricio Funes (right), Archbishop of San Salvador Jose Luis Escobar Alas (left), and a translator (second from right).

President Obama hailed the “wise leadership” and reconciliatory efforts of President Mauricio Funes in El Salvador during the third and final stop of his Latin American tour Tuesday afternoon.

During his two-day visit to El Salvador – his first and only stop in Central America after visiting Brazil and Chile – Mr. Obama discussed the importance of strengthening regional efforts to combat drug trafficking, increase trade and investment, and improve the region’s economic prospects to offer young people job opportunities that don’t require emigrating to the United States.

Obama also pledged $200 million to fund a regional security response to transnational crime and drug-trafficking, focusing on preventive measures and the strengthening of judicial and public-security institutions.

But in a Tuesday afternoon press conference, the two presidents stressed the importance of building a new model of US-Latin American relations based on partnerships among equals.

While the thrust of that message appeared to get a bit lost on the media scrum – the US press corps asked questions only about Libya, while their Salvadoran counterparts limited their queries to concerns about how much money Washington was going to give El Salvador – the presidents stressed the importance of creating a new vision for north-south relations.

And in many ways, El Salvador – a country ruled by the left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), a former guerrilla group whose uprising was brutally repressed by a US-backed regime in the 1980s – was an appropriate place to share such a vision.

Many, no doubt, were reminded of the US’s dark historic role in Central America when Obama visited the crypt of martyred Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero on Tuesday afternoon. A Liberation Theologian who repeatedly denounced the atrocities of the US-backed Salvadoran government in the 1970s, Monseñor Romero was gunned down exactly 31 years ago by right-wing death squad assassins trained and funded by the US.

Analysts say Obama’s choice to visit El Salvador also represents an interesting passing of the torch to a new Central American ally, after years of maintaining a preferential relationship with Costa Rica.

“I think Funes has become Obama’s go-to guy and interlocutor in Central America,” says Kevin Casas-Zamora, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a former vice president of Costa Rica.

Who is Funes?

A former TV journalist and party outsider, Funes took office in 2009 with high levels of popularity but a career that was untested politically and undefined ideologically.

Despite initial concerns that Marxist ideologues within the FMLN planned to use Funes as Trojan Horse to infiltrate the nation’s highest office, as president he has maintained a steady balancing act between the hard-line leftists in his party and hard-line reactionaries in the opposition.

Equally impressive, at least according to Washington’s point of view, has been Funes’s ability to strike a balance in its foreign relations. Though his government was quick to reestablish full diplomatic ties with Cuba, the Salvadoran president has cordially declined overtures by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to enlist his country in the leftist bloc of nations known as the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), despite pressures to do so from within his party.

Why Obama chose El Salvador

Analysts say Funes’s pragmatic balancing act and solid leadership have lent a new stability to the country’s democratic transition, and maintained the Salvadoran president at the top of hemispheric popularity polls nearly two years into his administration. And it’s a job well done that Obama – who also identifies as center-left yet pragmatic – is recognizing by choosing to visit to El Salvador as his Central America stopover.

“Obama, by visiting El Salvador, sends a message that the US stands on the side of governments being responsive to their people – especially when they are pluralistic and have an independent foreign policy that not is not slavishly aligned to Hugo Chávez,” says Latin America analyst Richard Feinberg, former President Bill Clinton’s senior director of the National Security Council’s Office of Inter-American Affairs.

Mr. Feinberg adds that Obama’s choice of El Salvador is “an interesting one” that suggests “the US recognizes that center of the Latin American political fulcrum is now center-left.”

Obama’s visit is also a nod to the “new left” – Funes is an open admirer of former Brazilian President Lula – which he has distinguish from the old left, even if not in those terms.

In Chile, Obama spoke out against leaders of the old-guard Latin American left who “cling to bankrupt ideologies to justify their own power and who seek to silence their opponents because those opponents have the audacity to demand their universal rights.”

But according to former Salvadoran guerrilla leader and political analyst Ana Guadalupe Martínez, the biggest difference is not necessarily ideology, rather commitment to institutional democracy and rule of law. In that sense, she said, Funes and the FMLN now represent an attractive and moderate leftist option, even though historic leaders the party identify with more Marxist ideology.

“President Obama sees the institutional evolution of El Salvador’s democracy, which is much different from what is occurring in Honduras and Nicaragua, where institutions are being weakened,” Martínez told the Monitor in a phone conversation from San Salvador.

Costa Rican analyst Luis Guillermo Solís says in practical terms, Obama didn’t really have any other serious options to visit in Central America.

“El Salvador was the only country in the region that assures President Obama a quiet visit. Guatemala and Nicaragua are in the midst of very complicated elections processes. Honduras poses a challenging issue in that its government is still not recognized by many countries in the Hemisphere. Panama is ‘not Central America’ ... and Costa Rica not supportive and cooperative enough with US security concerns,” he said.

“In short,” Mr. Solís said, “El Salvador was the best – and perhaps only – option for Obama.”

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