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El Salvador elects its first leftist president, TV host Mauricio Funes

Mauricio Funes, a television journalist whose party once fought a bloody guerrilla war in El Salvador, on Monday became the country’s first leftist president amid emotional symbols of landmark change.

Funes, a 49-year-old moderate elected under the banner of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, cast himself as a motor of change for El Salvador, in the mold of President Obama and President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil.

“The Salvadoran people asked for a change,” Funes said in his inaugural speech, wearing the blue-and-white presidential sash. “Change starts now.”

He said it was time to “reinvent” the country to overcome poverty, social inequities and technological backwardness.

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The new president faces a pile of problems, topped by an economic crisis and runaway street crime that has resulted in one of the world’s highest homicide rates. Funes will have to navigate between a right-wing opposition that controls Congress and leftist hard-liners within his own party, the FMLN.

“He’s in for a bit of a rough ride,” said Kevin Casas-Zamora, a former vice president of Costa Rica who is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Funes has assembled a moderate-looking Cabinet drawn from Salvadoran intellectuals and allies within the FMLN whose views have mellowed since the conflict ended with the signing of peace accords in 1992.

Funes’ economic team will be led by Alex Segovia, an Oxford-trained economist, and Finance Minister Carlos Caceres, a businessman who formerly headed the country’s banking association. Hector Dada, a leftist lawmaker, will be economy minister.

Salvadorans worry most about economic troubles: a growing deficit, shrinking growth and rising prices for staple goods.

“The new government is receiving an unfinanced state, basically a government in bankruptcy, with the highest level of indebtedness in the last decades,” said Jeannette Aguilar, who runs a polling institute at the Jesuit-run University of Central America in San Salvador, the capital.

El Salvador’s history hung over the ceremonies, which came 2 1/2 months after Funes defeated Rodrigo Avila and his rightist Arena, the ruling party for 20 years.

Attending were former fighters of the FMLN, which joined the political system after the peace accords. Funes was met by cheers and a chant long familiar among the Latin American left: “The people, united, will never be defeated.”

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Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was on hand to represent the United States.

Earlier, Funes visited the grave of Roman Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated in 1980 after speaking out against human rights abuses by the U.S.-backed regime. Funes has referred to Romero as his inspiration.

The scene was powerful for Salvadorans with memories of the civil war’s ugly excesses. “The tears are ending now because victory has come,” said Lidia Torres de Garcia, 76. “This day fulfills Monsenor Romero’s dream.”

Funes pledges to keep close ties with the United States and retain the dollar as his country’s currency. But in a sign of a new, post-Cold War foreign policy, Funes said his government would open full diplomatic relations with Cuba.

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Funes, a popular TV host, is the latest in a string of left-leaning presidents to come to power in Latin America in recent years. He likens himself more to Brazil’s investment-minded Lula than to firebrand Hugo Chavez of Venezuela.

Funes’ prospects will hinge on how he manages Salvadorans’ high expectations while he steers through the tricky political terrain. Analysts say Arena acted responsibly during the transition. And the makeup of Funes’ Cabinet is a sign that, so far, he has not buckled to FMLN militants.

Casas-Zamora said Funes has locked up his spot in Salvadoran history and, despite high hopes and big problems, is well positioned to be judged a success no matter what.

“Anything short of a horrible breakdown will count as a success,” he said. “Funes will go down in history as the guy who made possible the normalization of politics in El Salvador.”

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ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

Renderos is a special correspondent.


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