The inauguration of El Salvador's first leftist president on Monday was another democratic landmark in Latin America, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's attendance at the ceremony was a welcome show of U.S. support for this peaceful transfer of power between parties that fought on opposite sides of the country's civil war. President Mauricio Funes, an ex-television journalist, was elected on the ticket of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, a former Marxist guerrilla group that fought for 12 years against U.S.-backed governments. His presidency ends two decades of rule by the ultraconservative National Republican Alliance, or Arena party, which has been a staunch ally of the United States.
Funes began the day paying homage at the tomb of San Salvador's Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, an advocate for the poor who was assassinated in 1980 after speaking out against killings by right-wing military and paramilitary death squads. In his inaugural speech, Funes criticized the economic elite in Arena for having failed to address the poverty that helped ignite the civil war, drawing cheers from his leftist supporters and silence from many others in the still-divided nation. Then one of his first acts as president was to reestablish full diplomatic relations with Cuba, whose communist government was a patron of the FMLN guerrillas. That leaves the United States alone in the Americas without formal ties to Havana.
But we should not confuse change with radicalism. At the same time, Funes said that he found inspiration in presidents Obama and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, and that he seeks to follow in their footsteps. His Cabinet has more economic pragmatists than ex-guerrillas, and he promised economic austerity along with a fight against corruption, drug trafficking and organized crime -- all issues of interest to the United States. And while Clinton and Lula were at the festivities, the more radical presidents Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua were notably absent.
Funes has tremendous hurdles ahead. The government of El Salvador, one of Latin America's poorest and most densely populated countries, is nearly broke, and the economy is in recession. Remittances have dried up from the approximately 2.5 million Salvadorans abroad, most of them in the United States, who were supporting their families back home. Meanwhile, Funes will have to negotiate austerity budgets with far-left members of his party and proposed laws with the right-wing parties that still control the Legislative Assembly. In short, he is going to need all the help he can get. The United States should support his progressive government, and we expect that Funes will reciprocate with pragmatic support for the United States.