El Salvador Voters Ready For New Leadership

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The citizens of El Salvador will soon elect their next leader. The candidates, Mauricio Funes, who represents the Front for National Liberation, and Rodrigo Avila, who represents the right-wing National Republican Alliance, have waged a spirited campaign for the Presidency. Ernesto Clavijo, a news director for Univision, talks more about the race for leadership in El Salvador.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now to El Salvador, where voters head to the polls this Sunday after a hard fought, some say, vicious campaign. Voters had been bombarded by radio and television ads from right-leaning presidential candidate Rodrigo Avila of the Nationalist Republican Alliance known as ARENA.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified People: (Singing in Spanish)

MARTIN: And from left-wing candidate Mauricio Funes of the FMLN, who is mounting the first serious challenge in years to ARENA's rule.

(Soundbite of ad)

Unidentified People: (Singing in Spanish)

MARTIN: Despite the upbeat melodies, the winner will lead a country that continues to grapple with the scars of more than a decade of civil war during the 1980s and '90s, as well as the aftermath of two natural disasters, all of which caused millions of Salvadorans to flee north.

Joining us now to talk about all this is Ernesto Clavijo. He's the news director for Washington, D.C.'s Univision channel. Univision's a leading Spanish-language television network. And he's been covering the local Salvadoran community's response to the campaign, as well as the election. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. ERNESTO CLAVIJO (News Director, Univision): Thank you, Michel, for having me.

MARTIN: And D.C., of course, has a significant Salvadoran-American population. Salvadorans living outside the country aren't allowed to vote, but there's still a lot of interest in the campaign, and are people planning to travel back to vote?

Mr. CLAVIJO: Yeah, very much, Michel. What's happened is the national airlines from El Salvador, they are organizing special flights to ferry people from here, from other cities like L.A., for instance, to go to San Salvador and cast their votes. They set up in a special place, in a stadium, the biggest hugest stadium, to make easy for them. They don't have to go to their local villages to vote. So that's why they are counting on them. They say that probably they're going to have, like, 20,000 people. I don't think that would amount to that number.

MARTIN: But it's as if, let's say in the U.S., we set up Yankee Stadium…

Mr. CLAVIJO: Right. Exactly.

MARTIN: And special flights to allow people to fly in just for the day to vote and fly back out. So what type of supports are either of the candidates getting from Salvadorans here in the U.S.? Do you think the Salvadorans abroad favor one candidate or the other?

Mr. CLAVIJO: Very much, very much. You have to understand, the people that are living outside of the country, they left El Salvador during the civil war, during the '80s. So they very much, they leaning to the FMLN Party.

MARTIN: Well, tell me a little bit more about each of the candidates. Let's start with the FMLN, the - Mauricio Funes is a veteran news anchor. He's a morning talk show host, a public figure. Why did he leave journalism for politics? And why the FMLN?

Mr. CLAVIJO: Okay. What's happened with him is he used to have a - working for a major network in there.

MARTIN: CNN International.

Mr. CLAVIJO: Well, that was part of it. And he was very much very critical towards the government. Then the owners of that network, they pressured him to change his tone, and he refused it. So he left. And he organized his own talk show, independent talk show. And during that time, he was very much - he has -among the leaders of the Farabundo Marti Party. So they put him on their ballot.

MARTIN: And he's used images of President Obama, as I understand it, in his campaign as advertisements?

Mr. CLAVIJO: Yes, very much. They are saying…

MARTIN: Why are they doing that?

Mr. CLAVIJO: Because he wants to portray the change, that he means change and change the old ways to deal with the Salvadoran politics. That's why he's using the party - been using Obama's portrait, even some of his slogans - yes we can. Si, yo puedo. Si, podemos, all those things, like during the American election, pre-election time.

MARTIN: And tell me about the opponent, Rodrigo Avila.

Mr. CLAVIJO: Rodrigo Avila has been member of one of the wealthiest families. His older brother, Roberto, was engaged since the beginning with the ARENA Party. He's one of the founders. He gets an education at North Carolina, Texas A&M and also he took some classes at the FBI in (unintelligible), I believe, in Quantico.

MARTIN: I understand that he's a former chief of the national police.

Mr. CLAVIJO: Yes.

MARTIN: Is that an asset or a liability for him?

Mr. CLAVIJO: It depends. It depends. It can be both. Some people can say that, can question about the methods that the police uses. And others, they can say he has a strong hand to deal with the crime, which is one of the main concerns of the Salvadoran people - the high levels of crime in El Salvador. So - but according with some sources, inside sources, they say that he's very soft. He's not as strong as it appears. So that can be his handicap.

MARTIN: Why is it that people say his campaign has been dirty or vicious?

Mr. CLAVIJO: Well, this is not as was the other campaign four years ago. Today, for example, they are saying two congressmen, one from California and one from Florida, are saying that if FMLN wins the election on Sunday, they will cut the aid, I mean, the remittance that they send people from El Salvador, which is not the case.

MARTIN: That they'll cut remittances?

Mr. CLAVIJO: Right.

MARTIN: Why?

Mr. CLAVIJO: They didn't specify. And they say, well, probably the government of Obama will consider it. No, it's not the case. So both sides are using arguments like that, in order to win support. I mean, for example, ARENA has been saying don't go with the FMLN because if the FMLN wins, it will become another Venezuela, another Bolivia.

And we spoke with Funes. We spoke with people in his party when he visited Washington, and he was very clear, saying, no, we're not going to become another Venezuela. We're not going to be like a Bolivia.

MARTIN: He's not talking about nationalizing key industries, things of that sort.

Mr. CLAVIJO: No, not support. No, he say he wants to keep all the (unintelligible) in place, and even though he says, I want to assure the American people, to assure the politicians, we're going to keep working on our relationship. So I don't think it's going to become another Bolivia.

MARTIN: Polls show that Funes had a significant lead, initially, but that that lead has narrowed quite a bit.

Mr. CLAVIJO: Right.

MARTIN: Why is - first of all, why was he the preferred candidate at the beginning? And why has the lead narrowed?

Mr. CLAVIJO: Well, it depends on who is the pollster. For example, universities are giving more advantage to Funes than the other candidate. And other independent polls, companies, they are giving some - leading to the official (unintelligible) candidate. So, in the middle, I believe, according, talking with other journalists and people who is coming from El Salvador, Funes has a little advantage for Sunday. But you never know because maybe a lot of people - in Latin America, in general, you cannot trust 100 percent the polls.

MARTIN: Why is that?

Mr. CLAVIJO: Because people say one thing, and they do another thing.

MARTIN: Really?

Mr. CLAVIJO: Yeah, very much so.

MARTIN: People are afraid to tell the truth about their opinion?

Mr. CLAVIJO: In this case, it can be. It can be.

MARTIN: Now, and Mr. Funes has expressed some concern about potential fraud during Sunday's vote. Is that a legitimate concern?

Mr. CLAVIJO: Very much, very much. For instance, they're saying, okay, the national airline is giving special rates to fly people from America to El Salvador, but they are asking them their numbers of - like a Social Security number, which is their identity cards number. And they are saying, why they are asking that? Because they want to be sure? They're going to know who is going and how they're going to lean?

And, also, the other people are saying, are asking for their cards, as well. And they are saying, in the past, they find out that even dead people went to the polls.

MARTIN: Are there any international observers expected to participate?

Mr. CLAVIJO: Many, many, many, many, many.

MARTIN: To observe the vote. And from where are they coming?

Mr. CLAVIJO: From the Organization of American States, from United States independent occupations like CISPUS, for instance, people from Washington, from Chicago, from other cities where there is a big Salvadoran communities there.

MARTIN: And so the vote is expected to be close?

Mr. CLAVIJO: Very close.

MARTIN: Do you think that we'll have results right away, or do you think it'll take some days to figure out a winner? I know it's hard to speculate about something like that, but based on past experience, what do you think?

Mr. CLAVIJO: I think now they improve a lot. I think we're going to be able to know very much, maybe for Monday morning, who is the winner.

MARTIN: And finally, I had asked you this at the beginning, how are people feeling about the election? Is it a sense of anxiety? Is there a sense of - I mean, in a way, it sounds as though the civil war is still being fought, albeit through the electoral process.

Mr. CLAVIJO: They want change.

MARTIN: Is there a sense of anxiety about it, or what is it?

Mr. CLAVIJO: Very much because this is for - the main reason that the FMLN -this time they have the real possibility to reclaim the government. That is the main reason. And also they want change. They don't want to keep on going the same way that has been (unintelligible) the country until now.

MARTIN: We'll see how it turns out. Ernesto Clavijo is news director for Univision station here in Washington, D.C. He was kind enough to join us here in our Washington, D.C., studios. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. CLAVIJO: Thank you for having me, Michel.

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