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El Salvador's president strikes conciliatory note

Mauricio Funes, the leftist winner, acknowledges his narrow margin of victory and reaches out to the conservative leadership, which ran the country for two decades.

March 17, 2009|Tracy Wilkinson

SAN SALVADOR — Back in the 1990s, when he was a television reporter who relished tweaking the government, Mauricio Funes accepted an invitation from the president to dine at his home and receive an award.

Funes asked if he could tape the ceremony for his mother. The president, Armando Calderon Sol, consented. Then, at the moment of the toast, Funes launched into a scathing rebuke of Calderon and what Funes considered to be government abuse and corruption.

The right-wing guests, senior officials of the ruling Arena party, were floored.

The incident is preserved in a little-seen video (the one Funes supposedly was making for Mom) and it illustrates his reputation as a crusader willing to take on the powers that be.

That reputation helped propel Funes to victory in El Salvador's presidential election Sunday. When he takes office June 1, he will become the first leftist president in a country where, in the past, supporting the left could be fatal.

Funes, 49, was the moderate face of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, a coalition of onetime Marxist rebels who fought U.S.-backed governments for more than a decade in one of the Cold War's bloodiest battlefields. The U.N. brokered a peace accord in 1992.

In interviews Monday, Funes began to sketch the outlines of his plan. Acknowledging that the vote was close and that he would be governing a bitterly divided country, he reached out to his Arena rivals, who had ruled for 20 years, and praised them for their so-far peaceful acceptance of defeat.

Funes faces the challenge of keeping Arena at bay while diluting the influence of leftist hard-liners in his own party as the nation is gripped by economic and public-security crises: falling remittances from Salvadorans living abroad and one of the highest homicide rates in the Americas.

"We will have to be a government permanently in negotiation, in search of consensus, where the consensus will leave behind the intolerance and exclusion that has characterized the last 20 years of [government] exercise," Funes said.

He said he would end an economic system based on privilege while respecting private property, give small and medium-sized businesses easier access to credit, and depoliticize such institutions as courts and the electoral commission.

Funes said he would work to maintain close ties with the U.S. and wants to enlist its help on issues such as migration and drug trafficking. The Obama administration on Monday saluted the president-elect, a departure from Republican leaders' support for the right.

Arena has sent out conciliatory signals as well. Outgoing President Tony Saca, who called Funes last night to congratulate him, said Monday that he would introduce Funes at next month's Summit of the Americas. The Diario de Hoy newspaper, which attacked Funes so ferociously that the candidate refused to grant it interviews during the campaign, on Monday featured a huge picture of him on the front page and said on its editorial pages: "It was inevitable that there be a shift in power."

Hato Hasbun, one of Funes' closest advisors and a member of the FMLN political leadership, said the first transition meetings with Arena would take place today.

"We are going to ask them to join us in moving the country forward," Hasbun told The Times. "Unity is only worthwhile if it is to achieve something. Let's fight crime together. Let's fight poverty together. I don't know if they'll hear us."

Funes gave interviews to two morning TV news talk shows Monday. He'd had about two hours' sleep, after enormous street celebrations that lasted into the wee hours, and his right thumb was still stained with the ink that is used here as proof of voting. One interviewer addressed him with the informal pronoun tu (you), being more accustomed to Funes as a colleague than president-elect.

Funes said his win showed that Salvadorans had overcome their fear, stoked by the right, that voting for the left would bring doom.

"In the end," he said, "hope, hope that this time would be different . . . is what ended up conquering the fear."

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wilkinson@latimes.com

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