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Leftist On Track For Historic Triumph In El Salvador

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Leftist On Track For Historic Triumph In El Salvador

World

Leftist On Track For Historic Triumph In El Salvador

Leftist On Track For Historic Triumph In El Salvador

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/100920378/101053955" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Presidential candidate Mauricio Funes of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) greets supporters in San Marcos, a suburb south of San Salvador, El Salvador, during a political rally on Feb. 13. Funes, who leads in opinion polls, would be the country's first leftist president. Jose Cabezas/AFP/Getty Image hide caption

toggle caption Jose Cabezas/AFP/Getty Image

Presidential candidate Mauricio Funes of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) greets supporters in San Marcos, a suburb south of San Salvador, El Salvador, during a political rally on Feb. 13. Funes, who leads in opinion polls, would be the country's first leftist president.

Jose Cabezas/AFP/Getty Image

ARENA presidential candidate Rodrigo Avila poses with supporters before a Feb. 12 rally in Las Pilas, El Salvador, near the Honduran border. The conservative ARENA, which came to power toward the end of El Salvador's civil war in 1989, is aggressively trying to hold on to the presidency. Jason Beaubien/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Jason Beaubien/NPR

ARENA presidential candidate Rodrigo Avila poses with supporters before a Feb. 12 rally in Las Pilas, El Salvador, near the Honduran border. The conservative ARENA, which came to power toward the end of El Salvador's civil war in 1989, is aggressively trying to hold on to the presidency.

Jason Beaubien/NPR

An FMLN flag flies over a slum in San Salvador. Hundreds of squatters started moving into this area two years ago. Residents complain that living conditions in the country are deteriorating under the ruling ARENA party. Jason Beaubien/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Jason Beaubien/NPR

An FMLN flag flies over a slum in San Salvador. Hundreds of squatters started moving into this area two years ago. Residents complain that living conditions in the country are deteriorating under the ruling ARENA party.

Jason Beaubien/NPR

ARENA supporters wave party flags at a Feb. 12 campaign rally in Las Pilas. Jason Beaubien/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Jason Beaubien/NPR

ARENA supporters wave party flags at a Feb. 12 campaign rally in Las Pilas.

Jason Beaubien/NPR

Former leftist rebels in El Salvador appear poised to accomplish at the ballot box what they were unable to accomplish on the battlefield: win power.

In the 1980s, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front drew the U.S. into a bloody Cold War conflict in Central America.

Now, as a political party known by its acronym FMLN, it has been leading in public opinion polls for presidential elections slated for March.

If the party's candidate wins, he would be the first leftist president in El Salvador's history.

Campaigning For Change

At an FMLN rally in the capital, San Salvador, supporters call Mauricio Funes — despite his white skin — "El Salvador's Barack Obama."

A former journalist, Funes once hosted a television talk show for which he had a reputation for holding government officials' feet to the fire. He has electrified the left in El Salvador in a way that previous FMLN candidates haven't.

As did Obama, Funes is running on a campaign of change.

When he leaps onto the stage in a white Panama shirt with an open collar, Funes is greeted like a rock star.

He tells the crowd that his candidacy offers Salvadorans an option for a better future.

Illustrating the huge problems facing the country, Funes promises a health system with medicine, hospitals with beds and nurses. He also promises to boost the budget of the national university.

The country is still recovering from the civil war that ended in 1992. During the 1980s, El Salvador was one of the fronts in the Reagan administration's battle against the spread of communism in the Americas.

El Salvador is a tiny country of some 7 million people. Yet the U.S. funneled billions of dollars to the right-wing government to fight the FMLN guerrillas.

More than 70,000 people died in the war, and there was no clear winner. Under a U.N.-brokered peace deal, the FMLN rebels put down their weapons and became the political opposition.

Over the years, the FMLN won control of some local governments, but the ruling ARENA — or Nationalist Republican Alliance — always held the presidency.

Corruption and Poverty At Forefront

Now, even members of ARENA complain that corruption is rampant in El Salvador. As a central part of his presidential campaign, Funes has vowed to attack graft.

"You know that I'm going to go after the corrupt government officials and send them to jail," Funes says.

Funes has been leading in opinion polls, although the gap between him and ARENA's candidate, Rodrigo Avila, has narrowed recently.

Political pundits in El Salvador say part of Funes' appeal is that he is not from the communist wing of the FMLN — which dominates the party — nor is he from the ranks of the old-guard, guerrilla commanders.

One of the main causes of the civil war was the huge disparity in wealth in El Salvador. ARENA has aggressively pushed pro-business, free-market policies favored by the country's oligarchs. But almost 50 percent of Salvadorans live in poverty. In a current ad blitz, ARENA is promising rural development and improved living conditions for the nation's poor.

Ruling Party Linking Opposition To Chavez

In some parts of the capital, every telephone pole is painted with the red, white and blue stripes of ARENA.

The party's presidential candidate, Avila, is the former head of the national police. Currently, he is touring the country to try to pull closer in the polls.

The ARENA party was born during the Cold War; the party anthem is about defeating the Reds in Latin America.

Speaking in a small mountainous village close to the Honduran border recently, Avila said the Funes' campaign is being financed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

"There's a saying in Spanish, 'Whoever pays the mariachi decides what song is going to be played.' And that's going to happen with them," Avila said. "No matter what they say, what they do, their campaign is being financed by Venezuela."

Funes and the FMLN deny the charge, which is ARENA's central argument in the campaign. ARENA officials say that a win by Funes would swing El Salvador to the far left.

Funes, meanwhile, has put himself forward as a moderate. In advertisements and stump speeches, Funes argues that under ARENA, living conditions in El Salvador continue to worsen and that it is time for a change.

Voters will get to have their say on March 15.

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