Former Newsman Fronting El Salvador's Leftist Group is Presidential Hopeful

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Published March 11, 2009

| FoxNews.com

A frontrunner in El Salvador’s upcoming presidential election has two Web sites, a Facebook page and the designation of “hottie,” courtesy of one political analyst.

He has taken a page out of Barack Obama’s playbook and tried to draw a comparison between himself and the American president. One of his campaign ads, despite the U.S. Embassy’s protests, features images of Obama and points out that both he and Obama were attacked by conservative parties who accused them of being associated with terrorists and radicals.

But for Mauricio Funes, a former journalist for CNN en Espanol, ties to radical leftists are no mere accusation. It’s a fact: He is the candidate of Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), a former guerrilla group and by-product of El Salvador’s Communist movement that waged years of armed struggle before gaining legal status as a political party following a bloody civil war.

This Sunday Funes will face off against Rodrigo Avila, the former deputy director of the national police and the candidate of the National Republican Alliance Party (Arena), which has been in power for two decades. And while Avila has been gaining steadily in the polls, it is Funes who is provoking both inspiration and suspicion throughout the Western Hemisphere.

Latin American watchers wonder just what lies ahead for El Salvador, an American ally, if Funes wins.

Born in 1949 to middle class parents, Funes received earned a university degree in Letters, with a specialty in Social Communications – an upbringing and education that separate him from the impoverished farmer backgrounds of other leftist Latin American leaders, such as Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia.

In 1986 he began a 21-year career as a television reporter. His only experience in politics, prior to being tapped as the FMLN presidential nominee in September 2007, was interviewing his party’s former guerrilla leader, Schafik Handal.

Latin American watchers say Funes’ lack of experience is precisely what makes him such an attractive choice to the FMLN.

“He is not an ideologue,” says Larry Birns, Director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. “He is a person who doesn’t mouth traditional political lingo. He’s a kind of a Schwarzenegger type. He’s a celebrity, and people have good feelings towards him, and most of all he carries with him very few negatives.”

Funes’ telegenic celebrity is a 180-degree turnabout from FMLN’s former presidential candidates, who carried the extreme leftist views on which the party was originally created.

“The party had run a series of ideologues who were very committed to the FMLN ideology, but they were never able to get beyond a certain minority of the vote,” Birns told FOXNews.com. “So this time, very much like in Nicaragua with Daniel Ortega, the decision was made by the electorate to basically back someone who could win.”

But many political analysts in the United States have their doubts that Funes will really govern the country if he’s elected.

“This is one of the big issues,” says Ray Walser, Latin American policy expert at the Heritage Foundation. “Is Funes a new force, or is he simply a face man for the older, hard-line FMLN, who are really sort of still the guerrillas, who want to go back to Marxist, Leninist views of society, who want to take it to a Cuba-style, Chavez-style system of government?”

The FMLN was created in 1972 after the Salvadoran military staged a coup and took control of the country. Pre-existing leftist groups that espoused Marxist and Leninist ideologies joined to form the FMLN as a guerrilla organization that pledged to fight for workers’ rights and economic freedom. When a peace accord ended a bloody civil war in 1992, the FMLN was demilitarized and granted the status of a legitimate political party.

But while the FMLN has left guerrilla fighting behind, not all the guerrilla fighters have left the FMLN, and some doubt that Funes’ own party takes him seriously. He is the first FMLN candidate who is not an ex-guerrilla.

“He’s sort of a figurehead,” says Walser. “He has no traction in the FMLN – simply, he has no constituency in his own party. And will he be able to govern, to tamp down maybe radical tendencies within the FMLN?”

The United States has long been a friend of the ARENA party, which has been in power for 20 years. While Funes has said during the campaign that he wants El Salvador and the U.S. to remain close friends and “strategic partners,” some Americans are skeptical.

“The foreign policy platform would probably be, look, we’ve been too dependent on the United States, we need to distance ourselves, we need to align ourselves with other forces in the world,” Walser says.

There have also been persistent rumors for years that if an FMLN candidate wins the presidency, the U.S. government will retaliate by deporting many of the 1 million Salvadorans who currently reside in the U.S. Last year about $3.8 billion was sent back to El Salvador from Salvadorans living in the U.S. Fear of these lost funds might explain why the polls -- which last summer so heavily favored Funes – have narrowed considerably.

“This is the first time you would have a left president in El Salvador and that’s creating I think a certain amount of consternation,” Walser said.

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