El Salvador: Crisis, Poverty Huge Challenges for Leftist President

(IPS) – The main challenges faced by El Salvador’s leftwing president-elect Mauricio Funes are forging understandings with other political sectors, adopting measures to deal with the economic crisis, and especially its effects on the poor, and strengthening the country’s institutions, say analysts.

Funes of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) will have to act fast, even before he takes office on Jun. 1, to generate confidence at the political level, among the business community and in society at large.

The director of research and development at the Business Foundation for Educational Development (FEPADE), Joaquín Samayoa, told IPS that Funes will have to work out "understandings" with other political forces to ensure "democratic governance."

He will also have to "creatively" tackle domestic economic problems that have been aggravated by the global recession, which will have a particularly heavy impact on this impoverished Central American nation, said the analyst. El Salvador adopted the dollar as its currency in 2001, and 80 percent of this country’s exports go to the United States.

The crisis has already been reflected in the loss of jobs and in a drop in the remittances sent home by Salvadorans in the United States, which are "a lifeline for a large number of families living in extreme poverty," he added.

Funes, a veteran TV journalist who was not a member of the FMLN until he was nominated as the party’s candidate, garnered 51 percent of the vote in Sunday’s elections, against the 49 percent taken by his rival Rodrigo Ávila of the rightwing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), which has governed the country since 1989.

The FMLN insurgency, which fought government forces in the 1980-1992 civil war, became a legal political party in 1993.

The war left 75,000 people – mainly civilians – dead and 6,000 forcibly disappeared, largely at the hands of far-right death squads led by the late founder of ARENA Roberto d’Aubuisson (1944-1992).

El Salvador, the smallest country on the mainland of the Americas, which is severely overcrowded with 5.7 million people in a mountainous territory of 21,000 square kilometres, has one of the highest murder rates in the world: 61 per 100,000 people.

Casey Reckman, associate director of Fitch Ratings, an international credit rating agency, said this week that Funes would have a tough time ahead of him because of the impact of the U.S. recession, and added that cooperation among political sectors is crucial to implementing long-term fiscal policies and restore the confidence of investors.

According to the Central Reserve Bank, some four billion dollars in remittances were sent home by Salvadorans in the United States last year, equivalent to 17 percent of GDP.

But in January, remittances dipped eight percent with respect to the same month in 2008.

Ninety percent of the 2.9 million Salvadorans living abroad are in the United States.

In his victory speech, Funes said he would build a government of national unity because "the country belongs to all Salvadorans," but clarified that he would put a priority on the poor, who he said were the victims of the neoliberal free-market policies followed by ARENA since 1989.

Analyst Dagoberto Gutiérrez said the country’s first leftwing president will also have to dismantle a state apparatus created by, and at the service of, ARENA.

He said that from its very origins, El Salvador’s small wealthy elite "has been primitive in essence," generating political and social confrontation in a country where the "opulence" of a few contrasts sharply with the "disgraceful poverty" of the majority of the population.

"Funes has to show the people that his government won’t be just another government, and to do that he will have to establish a new state apparatus to overcome entrenched corruption after two decades of rule by ARENA, which took advantage of the state to benefit the dominant class," said Gutiérrez.

The new president will also have to use referendums as an instrument to give "voters greater participation in decisions of far-reaching significance for the direction that the country will take," he added.

Samayoa said "any party that has been in the government for a long period of time tends to act in an arbitrary manner," and called for "vigilance and intolerance of corruption on the part of the government."

Outgoing President Antonio Saca said he would seek a "smooth, expedited transition," and has invited Funes to accompany him to the Mar. 25 summit for the Central American Integration System (SICA), to be hosted by Nicaragua.

ARENA leaders have said their party will be a "constructive" opposition force, while remaining vigilant to protect the country’s "freedoms."

In its editorial Monday, the ultra-conservative El Diario de Hoy underwent a radical shift in position, stating that "the proposal for national unity is welcomed with open arms."

"El Salvador is divided, and requires a strong dose of wisdom from both halves to find the best route forward for the country," the editorial said.

During the election campaign, the newspaper had accused Funes of being "the candidate of the party of kidnappers and criminals."

The president-elect will head to Brazil Thursday to meet with President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who called him on Sunday to congratulate him on his triumph and reiterate his earlier offer of helping El Salvador in the fight against poverty.

Carlos Gómez, who has been driving a taxi for two years, remarked to IPS that he voted for "change" and that he hopes Funes will live up to his promise to improve living standards for the poor, through the creation of jobs, price controls for basic products, and more effective measures against crime.

The question that should begin to be answered over the next few months is how inclusive and participative the new government will be, and how constructive ARENA will be as the main opposition party, said Samayoa.