A Conversation With Mauricio Funes
by Roberto Lovato & Josue Rojas
March 17, 2009
On March 15, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) became the first leftist party to clinch a presidential election in the history of El Salvador. By 10 pm, it became clear to Salvadorans and to the world that the former guerrillas had ended more than 130 years of oligarchy and military rule over this Central American nation of 7 million. In the streets, thousands of red-shirted sympathizers chanted “¡Si Se Pudo!” (Yes, We Could), while they celebrated the victory of the FMLN’s Mauricio Funes.
Funes captured 51 percent of the vote, to 49 percent cast for Rodrigo Avila of the Nationalist Republican Alliance party, which had been in power for twenty years. Though Funes, a former journalist, is the best-known Salvadoran on his country’s TV networks, he is little known outside the region. Thanks to a collaboration between The Nation and New America Media (NAM), reporters Roberto Lovato and Josue Rojas had the opportunity to interview El Salvador’s next president on the night of his election. What follows is an excerpt from this interview with Funes, who addressed numerous issues: the meaning of his presidency, El Salvador’s relationship with the United States, immigration and other domestic and foreign policy concerns.
Immigration has become one of the defining issues of the US-El Salvador relationship. How will your administration’s approach to this issue differ from that of the outgoing Saca administration?
The fact that we’re going to rebuild the democratic institutions–enforce the constitution and make of El Salvador a democratic state that respects the rule of law–is the best guarantee to the United States that we will significantly reduce the flows of out-migration. Salvadorans who leave to go the United States do so because of the institutional abandonment, the lack of employment and dignified ways to make a living. This forces them to leave in search of new possibilities in the US. It’s not the same for us to ask the US government to renew TPS [temporary legalization] without a Salvadoran effort to avoid further migration flows, as to do so from a position in which we have undertaken efforts to reduce the migration flows.
What’s the first message you’d like to send to President Obama?
The message that I would like to send to President Obama is that I will not seek alliances or accords with other heads of state from the southern part of the continent who will jeopardize my relationship with the government of the United States.
Opinion polls in El Salvador indicate that large majorities of its citizens reject key policies that define, in many ways, the relationship between El Salvador and the United States, specifically CAFTA, dollarization and the Iraq war. What will your approach be to these issues?
We can’t get mixed up in repealing CAFTA…nor can we reverse dollarization, because that would send a negative message to foreign investors, and then we’d be facing serious problems because we wouldn’t have enough investment to stimulate the national economy.
What do you think the United States government should be concerned about with regard to El Salvador at this time?
To the degree that we do our part, which is to rebuild our productive capacity and to create a coherent social policy that improves the quality of life, there will be fewer reasons to leave for the US and we’ll reduce migration flows. And that should be a concern for the US.
Where will the effects of the transition in power be felt most immediately?
We’re going to change the way we make policy. And one of the most significant changes is that we will no longer have a government at the service of a privileged few. And we will no longer have a government that creates an economy of privileges for the privileged. Now, we need a government like the one envisioned by [Archbishop of El Salvador] Óscar Arnulfo Romero, who, in his prophetic message, said that the church should have a preferential option for the poor. Paraphrasing Monseñor Romero, I would say that this government should have preferential option for the poor, for those who need a robust government to get ahead and to be able to compete in this world of disequilibrium under fair conditions. This government implies a break from traditional policy-making. Now, what we’re going to do is put the government and the structure of the state at the service of the Salvadoran people–the totality of the Salvadoran people–but fundamentally, of that great majority who are oppressed and excluded from the country’s social and economic development. [The people who for] not just the last twenty years but for last 200 years or more have not had the possibility of participating in the formation of public policies. A government like the one I’m going to create will give them the protagonist’s role, which, until now, they have not ha