SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador – El Salvador's U.S.-friendly president is under threat from his own party of former leftist rebels, who are secretly organizing anti-government protests and may be tapping his phone lines, say newly leaked U.S. diplomatic messages.
While the tensions between President Mauricio Funes and the Farabundi National Liberation Front are known, messages sent the last two years offer insight into the divide and increasing U.S. concern about the stability of an ally in Central America.
Funes became El Salvador's first leftist-backed president in 2009 and he brought to power the FMLN, which had fought for 12 years to overthrow U.S.-backed governments until laying down arms in 1992.
Funes, a former journalist who did not join the FMLN until the presidential campaign, has distanced himself from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and other Latin American leftist leaders who have tense relations with the U.S. He has reached out to moderate Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and maintained El Salvador's strong ties with Washington.
That has caused friction with FMLN leaders who "have pushed him to strengthen ties with Venezuelan and Cuba while de-emphasizing the U.S. relationship," according to a report sent last Feb. 23 by U.S. Embassy describing the political situation in El Salvador ahead of a visit by U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Stockton.
Another message dated Jan. 26 described El Salvador's government as "schizophrenic."
"The part of the government Funes controls is moderate, pragmatic, responsibly left-of-center and friendly to the (U.S. government)," according to that document, which was released late Tuesday by WikiLeaks and posted online by the Spanish newspaper El Pais. "The part he has ceded to hard-line elements of the ... Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front ... is seeking to carry out the Bolivarian Chavista game-plan, including implacable hostility toward the (U.S. government.)"
Another report described Funes as having "an 80 percent approval rating and overwhelming public support for a strong bilateral relationship with the U.S."
Salvadoran Foreign Minister Hugo Martinez dismissed the significance of the messages and insisted they would not affect relations with the U.S.
"The subjective opinions of one official are not going to affect the strong and strategic relation we have with the United States," Martinez told reporters. "We think the issue is being given an importance that it doesn't have."
Arturo Valenzuela, assistant U.S. secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said he would not comment on the documents' contents or their accuracy.
"Some cables will be credible, others less credible, but the problem is that I cannot comment about cables that have been released illegally," he said.
FMLN Lawmaker Benito Lara insisted the party has good rapport with Funes.
"I have not heard the president express concern about the FMLN," he said.
But according to a report sent Aug. 21, 2009, one Funes ally told U.S. Embassy officials that the president "suspects hard-line FMLN elements are intercepting Funes' and his inner circle's telephone calls."
The ally, whose name was blacked out, also said Funes was disappointed in his intelligence security chief, Eduardo Linares, who had failed to inform the president of several incidents, "including the surprise arrival of substantial numbers of protesters at (the presidential residence), complete with portable toilets."
Another message that month said hard-line FMLN members were behind street protests against the construction of a hydroelectric dam. The document claimed the real motive for the demonstrations was to "vent their frustration about the direction of economic policy and directly challenge the president."
By last January, the U.S. Embassy warned that "if things continue to deteriorate, we could see an open break between the two sides" ahead of 2012 legislative elections.
"The FMLN response would be ugly — massive street protests, labor strikes, road blockages, threats of violence, legislative logjams — and paralyze some government operations and place a further drag on the struggling economy," it predicted.