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Salvadorans Buck a Trend

March 24, 2004

Salvadoran voters went to the polls in unusually large numbers over the weekend and chose an inexperienced but pragmatic leader over an old ideologue. Faced with a stark choice between 39-year-old sports broadcaster and entrepreneur Tony Saca and the representative of the former leftist guerrillas known as the FMLN, Shafik Handal, voters opted for the candidate who showed fewer ties to a dark past and more willingness to heal old divisions. Turnout was near 65%, about 50% higher than normal. Saca's party, the Nationalist Republican Alliance, or Arena, was linked to death squads in the 1980s but has held office democratically since it first won power in 1989. Saca is too young to have taken part in his party's bloody past.

Handal, a 73-year-old former communist guerrilla, excited fears that El Salvador would turn away from pro-U.S. policies and move closer to Fidel Castro's Cuba. In one much-criticized incident, Handal wrote to Castro praising his crackdown on pro- democracy activists last year. Many Salvadorans grew alarmed about alienating the U.S., the country's main trading partner.

Three years ago, the country adopted the U.S. dollar as its currency, and last year the approximately 2 million Salvadorans who live in the United States sent $2.16 billion home in remittances. That amounts to 14% of the still-poor country's GDP.

From a U.S. perspective, Saca's triumph reverses a trend in Latin America that has brought to power anti-democratic figures like the Venezuelan Hugo Chavez and other anti-American populists. Saca achieved his victory not just with his party's superior funding but with promises of cooperation with the FMLN. The party of the former guerrillas has attracted growing support in recent years from unions and the poor.

There is no doubt that El Salvador is better off than it was 15 or 20 years ago, in the midst of civil war. But about one-third of its people still live in abject poverty -- on about $1 a day. Economic inequality is huge. Public health is in perpetual crisis and street crime is rampant.

With direct U.S. economic aid drastically diminished, trade agreements have become more economically important to poor nations. Congress should keep El Salvador's electoral results in mind and speed ratification of the free trade agreement negotiated between the U.S. and five countries in Central America, El Salvador among them.

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