The narrow-but-nonetheless-historic election of leftist Mauricio Funes as president of El Salvador came earlier this week. The 49-year-old Funes was the candidate of the FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front), the party of former guerillas and Communists who fought U.S.-backed governments in El Salvador’s bloody civil war from 1980-92.
But Funes had nothing to do with the FMLN during its insurgent days. A popular former television reporter, he presented a positive and upbeat image, campaigned on the theme of economic revival and “social justice,” and likened himself to Barack Obama. Indeed, in the campaign in which he edged out (51% to 49%) former national police chief Rodrigo Avila of the ruling ARENA (conservative) Party, Funes actually used Obama’s ’08 slogan “Yes, We Can.” (When I asked White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs about that days after Funes win, he told me: “Well, it works here, too.”)
All well and good. So far, at least, no one in the administration seems to be bothered by the fact that Funes was the latest in a string of elected presidents throughout Latin America with the support of Venezuela’s virulently anti-American Hugo Chavez. Or that other elections in Latin America will soon be upon us in which Chavez-backed candidates are on the rise.
So far, Chavez is 7 and 1 in terms of his won-lost record in presidential elections throughout Latin America. He was actively involved in presidential elections in Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Peru. Only in Peru, where Chavez-backed candidate and former Army officer Ollanta Humala lost to former President Alan Garcia in ’06, has a Chavez ally lost.
Of Funes’ election as El Salvador’s first left-of-center president in two decades, one correspondent wrote me from Latin America: “Chavez was totally dedicated to winning this election and pumped extensive money and manpower into the battle. On the monetary side, he used his PetroCaribe discount low interest scheme [for oil] on a local level, providing huge amounts of cheap oil to FMLN mayors, who sold it at a very considerable profits and used the money generated to fund rallies, advertising, and transportation top polling places. Well-trained poltical operatives indoctrinated FMLN candidates on putting their case in a non-contentious way” — hence, the use of the Obama slogan and imagery.
Chavez-watchers agree his next target will be Panama, where President Martin Torrijos (son of the late leftist strongman Omar Torrijos) must by law step down this year. The election in May could easily push Panama more to the left if Balbina Herrera of the Democratic Revolutionary Party emerges triumphant. Two decades ago, during the U.S. invasion of Panama. Herrera hid then-dictator Manuel Noriega in her home prior to his arrest and capture by American forces.
In Columbia, where pro-U.S. President Alvaro Uribe must by law step down in 2010, a pro-Chavez leftist could easily be elected. Among names mentioned for the race is that of Bogota Mayor Samuel Morales Rojas, grandson of onetime leftist dictator Gustavos Rojas Penilla.
When I asked Gibbs whether there had been any discussion of Chavez’s role in the election of other chiefs of staff throughout Latin America, he ducked. In his words, “I did notice in news reports that the President-elect [of El Salvador] mentioned one of his first priorities in office is to strengthen the relationship that that country has with the United States of America. The President will later…travel to the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago to take part in the summit there, and to begin a renewed effort to change the way we view Latin America, and do so in a way that is beneficial for both Latin America and South America — beneficial for them and for us.”
A footnote: Wednesday night, Gibbs sent a press release confirming that Obama had called President-elect Funes to congratulate him and noted that their two countries could work together on issues of mutual interest, including “economic growth, poverty, energy cooperation, and security.”