Salvadoreños head to the polls today in an election that many see as further strengthening the leftist tide in Latin America. As polls open throughout the country, voters will choose between Rodrigo Ávila of the ruling conservative ARENA party and Mauricio Funes, a more centrist member of the FMLN, the country’s main opposition group which was previously a Marxist insurgency movement comprised of the five main guerrilla groups who fought the government during the Salvadoran Civil War.
Funes, whose ascendancy into the national spotlight now leaves him poised to become the first leftist ever to be elected in the country’s history, has drawn comparisons to U.S. President Barack Obama by many Salvadoreños. But while he is on the cusp of making history, Funes has had to deal with a relentless barrage of attacks from the right, and even from some within his own party.
ARENA has compared Funes with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is a divisive character throughout Latin America and is often used as a political tool by parties on the right to discredit and bring suspicion towards leftist candidates. Most recently, it was used against Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo, who himself had to fight off accusations that he was taking orders from Caracas while trying, like Funes, to end the 61 year rule of the Colorado Party. Lugo, the former Roman Catholic bishop, was able to withstand the calumny. Mark Engler, senior editor at Foreign Policy In Focus and author of the recently published How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008) observes:
A key tactic of the Salvadoran right has been to paint Funes and his party as tools of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Many U.S. commentators have mirrored this position by caricaturing the Latin American left as naively obedient to Chávez and encouraging Obama to craft a tougher response.
The Chicago Tribune puts it more bluntly:
Political opponents have erected billboards showing a doctored image of Chavez with his arm around front-runner Mauricio Funes. In fact, Chavez has become a wild card as Funes, a popular television journalist, fights claims that he would be another satellite in Chavez’s expanding socialist orbit.
The tactic, mirrored by conservatives here in the United States in their attempt to portray President Obama as a socialist, is a desperate attempt by ARENA to hold onto power after it’s policies have failed and the country remains one of the poorest in the hemisphere. Bankrupt with new ideas, ARENA banks its fortunes on castigating Funes rather than presenting why it has better ideas.
A reactionary editorial in today’s Washington Times goes one step further:
A pro-terrorist political party taking power in El Salvador is a grave development that underscores the need for urgent action in Latin America. Our friends in Colombia are being surrounded, and Mexico is inching toward a social meltdown that Chavez and his cronies will leap to exploit.
The fear, however baseless and contrived, is warranted. There is a reason for the right to fear a Funes victory. Conservatives have lost nearly every recent election in Latin America and only Colombia and Mexico remain on the right. Parties who had long maintained political dominance throughout the hemisphere have been tossed in the unfamiliar opposition roles while others have completely collapsed.
But not all on the left are followers of Chavez, or even aim to implement his policies. Some, including center-left Peruvian President Alan García, have at times openly battled with Chavez. In fact, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who has also openly sparred with Chavez, is seen by many as having the most political capital in the region. The more accurate comparison of Funes would be to Lula, but that would be self-defeating for those on the right.
And yet while Funes has had to deal with these attacks from the right, more radical segments of his own party have also attacked him for being too moderate.
As the San Francisco Chronicle puts it:
Today, Funes avoids wearing the FMLN color – red – and has adopted several positions at odds with the party. He does not support dropping the U.S. dollar as the nation’s currency nor legislation that would reverse a 1993 law granting amnesty to army officers accused of war crimes, arguing judicial and financial reforms would be a better way to address past injustices. He also says he is against big government.
El Salvador, plagued by corruption and violence, now has the attention of the world, if only for one day. Voters are expected to run ARENA out of office. If he wins, Funes will be most certainly be expected to bring the change that he has long campaigned on. He will do so and his party, once put into a power, will most certainly moderate, perhaps into some sort of Chavez/Lula hybrid.
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