Journalist becomes big news

Times Staff Writer

Like a prizefighter nearing the ring, Mauricio Funes strides through a gantlet of feverish fans.

Booming speakers blare an old left-wing political anthem while a fluttering canopy of red campaign banners lends a celebratory air to this sweltering farm town.

It is an intoxicating moment for Funes, a presidential candidate, and his flag-waving backers from the Salvadoran left. In what would be an improbable turn, Funes could be the next leader of this famously conservative country.


The 48-year-old television journalist, a newcomer to politics, has jolted El Salvador by grabbing a sizable early lead in the race as the candidate of the leftist group that fought a guerrilla war in the country two decades ago.

A victory for Funes would represent a historic breakthrough for his party, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, and for a nation where memories of the war still burn.

Funes, who was a journalist during the war, hopes to position himself as leader of a postwar generation by reaching out to about 350,000 young Salvadorans who are eligible to vote for the first time. Many were not born when FMLN fighters battled troops in the hills around places such as El Paraiso, which housed a key army base in the north. He also has been buoyed by discontent over rising food and gasoline costs, and over the right-wing government’s decision seven years ago to adopt the U.S. dollar as the country’s currency.

The election is nine months away, an eon in campaign terms. But various polls show Funes running solidly ahead of the Nationalist Republican Alliance, or Arena, which has ruled the nation of 7 million since 1989.

A big reason is that voters are in a foul mood over El Salvador’s deepening economic woes and alarming violence, much of it by street gangs. More than 14,000 people have been killed during the four-year term of President Tony Saca of Arena.

“I want to see change. That’s the key point -- change,” said Fanny Beatriz Romero, a 34-year-old merchant who said she used to vote for Arena.

A Funes triumph would add El Salvador, which has been a fervent U.S. ally, to the swelling roster of Latin American nations that have elected leftist presidents.

Funes, a former talk-show host who wears stylish glasses and short-cropped, graying hair, is a political outsider and a newcomer to the FMLN. He is admired by many Salvadorans for his tough questions and for sharply criticizing the Arena government on his daily public affairs program, “The Interview.”

Recent polls give Funes leads as large as 21 percentage points over Arena’s candidate, Rodrigo Avila, former head of the nation’s police. The surveys, by university researchers and independent polling firms, show deep unhappiness with Saca and little confidence in the party’s ability to solve the country’s problems.

Funes portrays Arena as a bastion of out-of-touch fat cats who have enriched themselves while much of the country is in distress.

During a stump speech, for example, Funes attacked as “immoral” a new 4-cent-a-minute tax on international phone calls. The issue is sensitive. More than 800,000 Salvadorans have migrated to the United States but keep ties to family members back home.

Funes has tread cautiously to avoid being tagged a hard-line leftist in a country still deeply polarized since the war, which claimed 75,000 lives before ending with a peace accord in 1992.

He says it would be financially “irresponsible” to dump the dollar and asserts that the time is not right to seek any changes in the regional free-trade agreement with the United States.

“El Salvador needs a democratic, realistic and responsible left,” Funes said during an interview in San Salvador, the capital.

Funes is more likely to hold up as a model Brazil’s president, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, than Old Guard members of the FMLN or the bombastic Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, who has antagonized U.S. policymakers. Funes’ wife, Vanda Pignato, who is Brazilian, is a founding member of Lula’s Workers’ Party.

Funes has met with American officials during trips to the United States in recent months to make clear that he would retain close bilateral relations, particularly on issues such as regional drug trafficking and organized crime. In a sign of the political influence of Salvadorans abroad, he will meet with expatriates in Los Angeles today and address a conference at UCLA on Friday.

Arena supporters lump Funes with Chavez, former Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega, to stoke fears of what a leftist regime in El Salvador might do. Conservatives say that despite Funes’ moderate image, he could end up controlled by FMLN hard-liners seeking to impose a radical economic agenda on a nation with a strong free-market bent.

“What worries me is that [the FMLN] wants to change the system: nationalize businesses, take over private businesses,” said Hugo Barrera, a businessman who co-founded Arena during the early 1980s. “They have been saying that for 16 years.”

But many on the left say Funes’ candidacy is itself evidence of how much the FMLN has changed since combatants traded guns for positions in the Salvadoran government.

“Mauricio is an expression of the transition,” said Gerson Martinez, a one-time FMLN fighter who is now a lawmaker.

Funes’ best electoral ally may be the growing anger over continuing price hikes for basic food items and gasoline. Discontent rippled through the crowd in El Paraiso, traditionally a conservative bastion.

Farmers complained of soaring fertilizer prices. Others cited a shortage of work. Many spoke fervently of the need for change but did not have specific remedies in mind.

Maria Teresa Tobar, 58, who is raising an 11-year-old daughter alone, said she is considering voting for the FMLN for the first time because she cannot make ends meet on earnings from a small plot of corn and occasional work ironing clothes.

Tobar said Arena governments had abandoned her, though she sent two sons to fight for the army during the war. One lost an eye in battle and the other later moved to the United States.

“I don’t trust the FMLN, but I feel alone,” Tobar said, standing at the edge of the Funes rally. “I gave my two sons to the government, and now I have nothing.”