El Salvador will turn left, but not too much

Granted, Sunday’s victory of President-elect Mauricio Funes of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) marks the end of two decades of rightist rule, which had turned El Salvador into one of the closest − if not the closest − US allies in Latin America.

And, to be sure, while Funes is a moderate, the FMLN is one of the most radical leftist parties in Latin America. Funes’ running mate Salvador Sánchez Céren was the FMLN’s commanding general − and according to his foes, one of its bloodiest commanders − during the 1980s civil war, and the entire FMLN bloc in Congress is made up of hard-liners closely tied to Venezuela and Cuba.

Many former guerrilla leaders who have left the FMLN, including former commander Joaquín Villalobos, have cast doubts in recent months that Funes will be able to control his party. In a conversation in San Salvador a few months ago, Villalobos told me that a Funes government would be run by the party because Funes doesn’t have a political apparatus of his own, nor loyalists in Congress.

Still, there are several reasons to believe that Funes will not be able to follow the script of Venezuela’s narcissist-Leninist President Hugo Chávez or his followers in Bolivia and Ecuador, who after winning elections focused their energies on changing their countries’ constitutions to be able to stay in power indefinitely.

• First, El Salvador, which has adopted the US dollar as its currency, depends far more on trade, investments and remittances from the United States than most other Latin American countries.

• Second, Funes will have to govern with an opposition Congress, which will try to block any effort by him or his party to change the constitution and turn the country into an elected dictatorship.

• Third, Funes will take office at a time of economic crisis, and he will need to avoid a confrontation with the business community that could result in massive capital flight.

• Fourth, Funes will not be able to count on Chávez to bankroll El Salvador like the Venezuelan President does with Cuba or Bolivia. Chávez could happily spread his petro-socialism in the region with crude prices at $156 a barrel, but he won’t be able to do it with oil at $45 a barrel.

• Fifth, after his election victory last Sunday, Funes appeared on the podium with Sánchez Céren, but without the FMLN’s orthodox hierarchy behind him. And, in post-election interviews, Funes has suggested that he will be closer to Brazil’s political model than to Chávez’s.

On Wednesday, I called Villalobos, the former Salvadoran guerrilla leader, to ask him whether he still thinks that the FMLN will end up managing Funes.

“Judging from what has happened in the 48 hours after his election, it seems that Funes won’t allow the party to control him,” Villalobos said. “While the jury is still out on who will prevail, the FMLN appointed an accidental candidate, and it looks like they are losing control over him.”

Diego Arria, a former Venezuelan ambassador to the United Nations and outspoken Chávez critic who was an international observer in Sunday’s election, agrees.

“Before the election, I thought that Funes would become a hostage of the FMLN, but now I think that the FMLN will become a hostage of Funes,” Arria told me. “On March 15, Funes became his own man.”

My opinion: I agree. Funes’ victory in an election that was amazingly smooth for a country still recovering from a civil war gives him extraordinary momentum to govern from the centre, and turn his country into a mature democracy where governments can change without major economic traumas. He deserves the benefit of the doubt, and any help he can get to prevail over his own party’s fundamentalists.

© The Miami Herald, 2009. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Media Services.

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