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Mauricio Funes is a busy man. Yesterday, he was in Argentina shoring up support from President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Tomorrow, the Salvadoran presidential candidate will begin crisscrossing the countryside. He’ll help set up a pro-Funes grassroots organisation and meet fishermen and students. His task? To convince them to do something they have never done before: elect as president a member of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, or FMLN – a former guerrilla group that traded its guns for politics after the country’s 12-year civil war ended in 1992.

Since the peace accords, the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance, or ARENA, has dominated El Salvador’s presidency. Yet Funes has enjoyed a continuous lead in the polls in the run-up to next March’s presidential election. Unlike the previous two FMLN presidential candidates – both ex-guerrillas – Funes, a 48-year-old former TV journalist, has cast himself as a maverick and a pragmatist unafraid of breaking with party orthodoxy. He only joined the FMLN when the party nominated him last year. And to the dismay of some Salvadoran leftists, he says he will not support overturning a law that protects those who committed war crimes. He would not phase out the dollar, he says, nor accept campaign funding from Hugo Chávez, as American National Intelligence director Michael McConnell suggested he would.

Yet as much as Funes promotes his mantra of change, the right wing is sending out the message: supporting Funes is tantamount to supporting Chávez, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the FMLN of yore.

Monocle:Why do you want to become president of El Salvador?
Mauricio Funes: There’s a historical opening for me to be president. The problems here are so powerful that I can’t continue working as a journalist. Journalism has allowed me to know the realities of El Salvador – especially the reality of poverty. But journalism doesn’t allow me to change that reality.

M:What personal strengths would you bring to the presidency?
MF: I understand the fundamental problems that El Salvador has to deal with. In a world in which most of the population has lost faith in traditional politicians, people trust me and I have the independence not to be dominated by a party.

M:Why does El Salvador need a left-wing government now, and how does your vision for the country differ from your opponent?MF: I don’t believe El Salvador needs a left-wing way of thinking. We need more economic growth that’s delivered equally to everyone in the country. The problem is that the right wing has always represented the wealthy few and has kept political power to itself.

M:Would you like to see El Salvador more closely aligned with the political and social programmes of a country such as Venezuela?
MF: Not necessarily. El Salvador has its own identity. It’s true that the Salvadoran left wing has always been close to President Chávez, but they don’t breathe through his nose.

M:If you win the election and Chávez offered you financial support would you accept?
MF: If it is not tied to political support, then I would accept it.

M:El Salvador uses the dollar, has troops in Iraq, and the International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA). Would you maintain those close ties with the US if elected?
MF: The links with the US are related to the third of the Salvadoran population living there. That’s a fact I need to take into account to build a relationship with the new US government. The dollar will stay... ILEA will stay. But we would bring the troops home from Iraq immediately. The presence of troops in Iraq has not benefited the Iraqis, nor has it benefited the Salvadorans.

M:How do you think El Salvador can put the atrocities of the civil war behind it?
MF: The state has to recognise that it committed human rights violations. I would promote the knowledge of truth to keep such things from happening again.

M:Would you like to see El Salvador’s diaspora returning from the US?
MF: For sentimental reasons, yes. The first wave of migrants left to escape the violence of war. After the peace accords, millions of people went to the US for economic reasons [there was an agricultural crisis when ARENA decided it was cheaper to import all food instead of producing it locally, which affected workers in food production]. We have to take back our food production levels to try to keep those people in the country.

M:How would you reduce El Salvador’s crime rate – particularly its homicide rate?
MF: It cannot be resolved by taking a hard line on crime – such as only using the police. In the last two years there has been a greater emphasis on the repression of crime but there’s been no emphasis on prevention. Before, the gangs were a problem with the young people but now it’s turned into organised crime.

M:Since last year’s electoral reforms, have you asked for international observers to monitor the forthcoming election? If so, why?
MF: I’ve made requests to the US Congress, Germany, the EU, Spain, Brazil and Argentina. They said they will be willing to send observers… Why? Because ARENA will surely try to defraud voters. Last year, the Salvadoran Congress approved electoral reforms that led me to believe a technical fraud is in motion.

M:Why do you think the FMLN hasn’t won previous elections?
MF: You have to analyse each presidential election in its own context. The first election FMLN participated in was held in 1994, two years after the peace accords, and people didn’t have faith in its ability to lead. In the 1999 election the FMLN had a bad candidate, an ex-guerrilla leader who wasn’t trusted – and he faced a candidate who had people’s trust. Since then, ARENA has started using fear as a campaign tactic. The right wing wants to make people believe that voting FMLN will lead to anarchy and chaos.

Press pass into politics

Mauricio Funes’s CV

1959: Born in San Salvador.
1987: After briefly working for a state news channel, Funes gets a job with Channel 12. He becomes the first Salvadoran reporter to interview leftist guerrilla commanders.
1992: As the war ends, Funes gets a job as host of Al Dia and turns his focus on corruption and public affairs issues. Over the next decade, he becomes one of the most-watched television journalists in El Salvador.

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