SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador – Two decades ago, the United States backed Salvadoran governments as they battled leftist guerrillas who ultimately laid down their arms. Now the former U.S. enemies are back — this time as El Salvador's first elected leftist government.
The Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, is the second former foe of the United States to democratically take power in Latin America's lurch to the left. In 2006, Nicaraguans elected Daniel Ortega two decades after his Sandinista government fought U.S.-backed Contra rebels, and his relations with Washington have remained tense under President Barack Obama's administration.
But the FMLN rebels won El Salvador's presidency behind a charismatic former television journalist who is more interested in comparing his message of change with Obama's than matching the anti-U.S. rhetoric of Ortega.
Mauricio Funes, who gave up his journalism career less than two years ago to become the FMLN presidential candidate, sought Monday to quell fears that his historic victory would usher in a communist regime in the war-scarred Central American country.
"Nothing traumatizing is going to happen here," he said in an interview with local Megavision television. "We will not reverse any privatizations. We will not jeopardize private property. There is no reason at this moment for fear."
Five rebel armies joined forces to form the FMLN in 1980. Among 75,000 people killed in the 12-year civil war, were a U.S. Navy lieutenant commander gunned down by guerrillas and four Marines who died in a rebel attack on a restaurant. Ex-guerrillas will almost certainly form part of the Funes government, including Vice President-elect Salvador Sanchez Ceren, a rebel-commander-turned-congressman.
But Funes, who was a TV reporter during the war, promised in his victory speech that strengthening ties with the United States would be a priority when he takes office June 1. The Obama administration congratulated him Monday.
"We look forward to working with the new government of El Salvador," said State Department spokesman Robert Wood. "It was a very free, fair and democratic election."
The overture was a marked departure from the administration of former President George W. Bush, which suggested during the 2004 election that it could not trust an FMLN government.
The United States' current neutrality has deflated one of the major arguments of the conservative Arena party as it sought a fifth five-year term in power. Arena flooded the airwaves with ads showing leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez railing against Obama and warning that Funes would turn El Salvador into a Venezuelan satellite.
Chavez's government congratulated Funes on his triumph Monday and said Salvadorans "showed their clarity and courage, defeating the campaign of lies, garbage and manipulation."
While the FMLN has long-standing ties to Chavez, Funes kept the Venezuelan president at a distance during the campaign. Last week, Funes told foreign reporters he admired Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva for gaining the trust of the business class despite misgivings when the leftist first took office in 2003.
Critics who once questioned the sincerity of such messages gave Funes the benefit of the doubt Monday.
"Let Lula, and not Chavez, influence the direction of this country," columnist Fabrico Altamirano wrote in El Diario de Hoy, whose pro-government leanings so angered Funes during the campaign that he refused to grant the newspaper interviews. "The president-elect has said it a million times and the whole country is waiting to see if he keeps his word."
Funes needs the conciliatory atmosphere to last. He will be the untested leader of a country that has known only right-wing governments — all dictatorships until the mid-1980s — since its 1821 independence from Spain.
Arena's bureaucrats and policies have been entrenched for 20 years and the party is far from finished. It will have 32 seats in the next single-house Congress, compared to the FMLN's 35, meaning it could have the power to block key measures such as the budget and foreign debt approvals.
Still, Funes has made it clear changes are coming to El Salvador. He promises to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba and end what he calls government complacency with big businesses that evade taxes.
"The time has come for the excluded. The opportunity has arrived for genuine democrats, for men and women who believe in social justice and solidarity," Funes told a rally of roaring supporters.