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Mauricio Funes: His Way

A moderate leftist president seeks a new way to rule a traditionally polarized country.
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The March 2009 election of Mauricio Funes and the broad coalition of social and political forces that supported his candidacy inspired the Salvadoran people and heralded a new era in the history of the smallest country in Latin America. The election of Funes, a Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) party candidate, for many raised hopes of the moderation of El Salvador’s left wing and—as it moved from government to opposition—the modernization of the country’s conservative Alianza Republicana Nacionalista (ARENA) party. But even with the potential evolution on both sides of El Salvador’s polarized politics, the middle that President Funes seeks to occupy is still a pretty lonely place.

Despite El Salvador’s size and dearth of natural resources, it occupied an outsized strategic role during the Cold War. In the 1980s, then U.S. President Ronald Reagan defined El Salvador as the southern border of the United States. During 10 years of bloody civil war in this period, El Salvador was a battlefield for the U.S. and the Soviet Union. The FMLN was considered the most powerful leftist guerrilla organization in the Americas.

Today, his country and party are changing, but President Funes continues to face challenges from the Left as well as the extreme Right. Business and conservative sectors do not trust him. In attempting to win their confidence, President Funes has reached out to conservative party leaders and business representatives. He appointed an economic cabinet with representatives from the financial sector to prove and honor his campaign promise to respect the free market. Like a good pupil, he is following and implementing the policy recommendations of the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Inter-American Development Bank. On the other hand, President Funes faces criticism from the Left for supporting the Centro Democrático Unido (CDU) party and the emerging political movement Amigos de Mauricio that is based on the coalition of independent parties that backed him in last year’s election. The Left sees reaching out to moderate parties as a threat to the FMLN’s social base in the 2012 parliamentary and municipal elections. More sophisticated, less polarized analysts believe that President Funes is strengthening a centrist movement to protect himself from both the Right and the Left.

As part of this effort to build out the center, President Funes has shown remarkable political deftness in dealing with the other branches of government. Most agree that his management of the selection of Supreme Court justices and the appointment of the attorney general demonstrated a savvy skill for dealmaking. The president also scored a master move in the Salvadoran political chess game by altering the balance of the National Assembly. Faced with a right-wing bloc in the National Assembly that threatened to prevent initiatives he supported from passing, President Funes anticipated the inevitable split within ARENA. The president backed the 12 members of parliament who split from ARENA to join his own parliamentary group while also protecting the interests of the Partido de Conciliación Nacional (PCN), an ARENA ally. In doing it, the Funes administration guaranteed the 56 votes needed to approve international loans, and the national budget was approved despite strong ARENA opposition. Bills that were introduced years ago but were thwarted by the former majority right-wing blocs, including proposals on credit card regulation, medicine control, territory planning and fiscal policy, are now likely to become law.

The price of this success, however, could be the perception that the executive branch has intervened in the legislature, jeopardizing the independence of the different government branches and undermining the basic rule of law. President Funes must overtly respect the legislative process, limiting his role to problem solver of last resort. Otherwise, El Salvador will risk reviving the ghosts of corruption and authoritarianism, when a president’s overwhelming authority has weakened the functions of state institutions.

Opposition to President Funes doesn’t come exclusively from the parties on the Right and Left of his government. He has also been challenged by officials within the FMLN, leaving some with the impression that the president lacks the support of his party and that the victorious party is not influential enough in the current government. 

A bitter battle—sometimes internal, sometimes publicly aired by the media—took place within the Funes transition team before he even took office. The struggle was visible in President Funes’ government nominations—the FMLN representation is much smaller than expected even though this is the party that won the presidential election. More cabinet officials come from Amigos de Mauricio (the small CDU party) and various other political affiliations than from the president’s own party.  President Funes has blamed the conservative-leaning Salvadoran media for magnifying the division between his government and the FMLN. Though President Funes and other FMLN leaders have different approaches to some issues, fundamentally both are pursuing the same goals, in the president’s view.

One such area has been the country’s proximity to Venezuela. Recently, factions of the FMLN have formed strong links to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. Yet in his campaign, Funes clearly stated his intentions not to follow the Chavista path. Early on the president announced that El Salvador should not join the Bolivarian Alliance for Latin America and the Caribbean (ALBA)—the plan for regional integration pursued by Cuba, Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua, and (at the time) Honduras. But in El Salvador, local communities led by FMLN members have signed an agreement called ALBA Petróleo, creating a network of gas stations that sells gasoline at a lower price than the regular market brands.

President Funes’ own political ideology is best judged by the company he keeps internationally. His administration sees Brazil as a model government. And the president himself has a longstanding friendship with President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and his wife is Brazilian. First lady Vanda Pignato was not only a political operator in President Funes’ campaign and career, but is also a key decision maker in his government. During his campaign, President Funes announced his intention to follow Lula’s model of left-oriented government. His frequent trips to Brasilia and the agreements signed by the two presidents show he is fulfilling this promise. Lula, however, is an outgoing president, and the new Brazilian government will not necessarily want to continue the privileged relationship.

The Funes government does not fit the right-wing policy of Latin American governments that have historically begged U.S. protection, but no Salvadoran politician today can ignore Washington either. Twenty percent of the Salvadoran population lives in the U.S., making Salvadorans the third-largest U.S. Hispanic minority behind Mexicans and Puerto Ricans. Remittances are one of the country’s main sources of revenue, and thousands of Salvadorans in the U.S. are receiving benefits from a policy called Temporary Protected Status. To keep these privileges, past Salvadoran governments unconditionally supported the U.S. war in Iraq. And President Funes has stated publicly that he will continue to pursue a strong relationship with the administration of President Barack Obama.

Having made a campaign promise not to align with ALBA countries, President Funes will not look for such partnerships now. China could be a strategic alliance; however, President Funes’ commitment to maintaining a diplomatic relationship with Taiwan, despite advisors urging him to change this policy, closes that possibility for now.

For all the ideological currents swirling around him, what will probably most determine the policy direction of this government will be President Funes’ strong personality. He’ll most likely make decisions on domestic and foreign policy based on his own criteria and refuse to be provoked by media sensationalism to antagonize his own party, the FMLN. What he’ll do is use inflammatory speeches, strong opinions and statements to affirm his independence as head of state, if necessary. As the president often says, he is not the president of just one political party but an entire nation. In a September 2009 speech at the UN, he asserted that he is leading a government of national unity. That same month he was named the most popular president in Latin America by the polling firm Consulta Mitofsky of Mexico, coming out ahead of Lula and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet.

All that said, Funes does have populist tendencies. He has been known to announce projects only because they are broadly supported, rather than conducting feasibility studies. In fact, it’s not uncommon that popular, democratically elected leaders, who consider themselves beyond conflicts and partisan interests, accumulate power—a modern-day, centrist Bonapartism—believing that they transcend the give and take of politics.

We can only hope that this won’t happen with President Funes. Over the long term, such tendencies tend to further inflame divisions. In the meantime, look for El Salvador to follow not a leftist or rightist agenda, but a new direction: the Funes way.

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: ALBA, FMLN, Mauricio Funes

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