SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador – After decades of rule by military dictatorships and successive right-wing governments, the tiny yet turbulent nation of El Salvador is about to make a political transition into the unknown.
On June 1, Mauricio Funes, a former TV journalist who ran as a reformed leftist on the radically left-wing ticket of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), will take the presidential sash from conservativePresident Tony Saca and start a new chapter in El Salvador’s history.
Despite his distinguished career as a journalist, Funes, 49, remains politically untested and ideologically undefined. Some fear he might buckle to the hardline leftistelement within his party, represented byMarxist ideologues such as his Vice President Salvador Sánchez-Cerén. Others within the FMLN, meanwhile, fear he could try to be too much of a centrist and placate the right.
Analysts say Funes is “intelligent and strong” as a person, but considered a political wildcard as he prepares to take office.
“No one knows what he is going to do; He has no political experience and has never been subject to political pressure,” said Facundo Guardado, a former guerrilla leader who now works as a risk analyst. “I doubt whether he’ll align with the hardliners in the FMLN, and I doubt he’ll be about to resist them. I am not sure of either.”
Guardado says Funes’ handling of the relationship with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez could offer an early indication of which path his government might take.
Guardado estimates that as many as 30 percent of Salvadorans who voted for Funes are moderates who don’t want their president to crawl into bed with Chávez.
Funes has said that strengthening relations with the United States and other Central American countries will be a priority of his government’s foreign policy, and that he will not join Chávez’s Bolivarian Alternative for the America’s (ALBA).
But analysts say Funes is already being pushed to join Chávez’s club by his ownparty’s leadership. His handling of that internal political pressure could be an early indicator of how his government will go.
“If Funes aligns with Chávez, it would resolve some of the financial problems from his campaign and from within the party,” Guardado said. “But the rest of the country would go to shit.”
Salvador Samayoa, former FMLN comandante and peace negotiator in the 1990s, acknowledges that certain party leaders want Funes to join ALBA, but he thinks the president ultimately will have the last word on the issue. Plus, Samayoa added, there’s not much popular support in El Salvador for ALBA.
“The FMLN’s social support base isn’t that concerned about the issue,” Samayoa said. “There are economic interests involved with some of the leaders of the party, but the people don’t win or lose anything if El Salvador enters ALBA.”
Samayoa also said he doesn’t think the Sandinista government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega will be a model that Funes and the FMLN will look to follow.
“I think the left in El Salvador and the FMLN are much more serious than Daniel Ortega and the Sandinista Front. Much more serious,” Samayoa told The Nica Times.
Last week, Funes and an FMLN delegation flew to Venezuela to meet with Chávez and discuss future plans for cooperation between their two governments.
Though Funes has kept some distance from Chávez since being elected in March, following the May 19 meeting in Caracas he hailed the Venezuelan leader for his solidarity with Latin America, especially in providing petroleum under favorable terms.
Chávez also celebrated Funes’ victory in El Salvador and talked about a new era of cooperation of “unlimited” possibilities.
Though the media in El Salvador has made a big deal of Funes’ meeting with Chávez – some suggesting that it already marks the beginning of his leftward adventure – others are taking a more level approach to the situation.
Out going President Tony Saca, who was in Managua last week aspart of a Central American presidential summit, said the fact that the two leaders met is not a big deal. Still, he distanced himself from any change in foreign or economic policy that might come as a result of new relations with Chávez.
“Foreign policy is set by presidents, and President Funes has made it a priority to buy petroleum on long-term credit and he’ll have to explain that. I’ve decided not to comment on those decisions because that is up to the new president,” Saca said.
The government of El Salvador currently does not purchase any petroleum or refined oil, a market that is handled by the private sector. That arrangement has allowed the state to avoid accruing any petroleum debts.
Though Funes has yet to define his oil policies, some think he’s leaning toward involving the state as a buyer, allowing his government to negotiate directly with Chávez.
“I think the private business sector has managed the oil business very well, but if the president wants to involve the government in the purchase of petroleum or refined oil, that will be a decision that he makes,” Saca said.
Setting the Course
Some political observers say the biggest challenge facing Funes as he takes office is not ideological issues, but rather administrative matters.
Héctor Silva, the former FMLN mayor of San Salvador, told The Nica Times this week in a phone interview that Funes’ main issue as president will be making the central Government more efficient, especially in terms of tax collection and public spending.
Silva said that in times of economic difficulty, Funes will have to grease the machinery of state to get everything running smoothly to make efficient use of the country’s own resources.
“I think he’s going to have to show some results in the short term,” Silva said.
Funes has already indicated that his government will continue macroeconomic stability policies. Earlier this month he traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with representatives of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Inter-American Development Bank in search of more assistance for his government.
Though Funes was elected on the promise of change, religious leaders are asking him to work toward “national unity.”
Civil society, meanwhile, is stressing the importance of establishing a government program based on the National Development Plan, which has been years in the making. Sandra de Barraza, head of the National Commission on Development (CND), said she hopes her commission – a 13-year-old institution formed by presidential decree after the peace accords – can act as a guiding light for the Funes’ administration.
The CND was formed in 1997 by then-President Armando Calderón Sol as a council of seven respected leaders representing different ideologies and backgrounds.
The commission, created in the spirit of national reconciliation after the war, was charged with helping to develop a National Development Plan for El Salvador – a vision of country and continuity thattranscends changing government administrations.
Now the CND hopes Funes will heed its advice in the coming months and years, so that change can occur within the frameworkof the National Development Plan, rather than spinning off on an uncharted path.
Barraza said the development commission is stressing the importance of promoting institutionality with the incoming government.
She hopes the CND will play the role of facilitator between the Funes administration, municipal governments and civil society.
“I think (the new administration) is interested in who is going to be their guiding star and who is going to assure coherence,” Barraza said in an interview in her office in San Salvador. “We are willing to play that role.”
Though many questions remain about the direction of Funes’ government, even the opposition seems willing to give him the benefit of the doubt at first.
“There will be a moment of change, but that’s what the Salvadorans voted for,” outgoing president and soon-to-be opposition party boss Tony Saca told The Nica Times last week in Managua. “Our party will continue to support the plans that are important to the country and support the government when it is convenient to the population.” However, Saca warned, that doesn’t mean Funes has a blank check.
The outgoing president added, “We will ferociously oppose any violation of the liberties that El Salvador has won over the years.”