Why Obama Is Placing His Hopes on El Salvador

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Jose Cabezas / AFP / Getty Images

Schoolboy Jorge Sermeno hold a U.S. and a Salvadorean flags during the preparations for President Barack Obama's visit, in the town of Comasagua, 30 km southwest of San Salvador on March 17, 2011

Of all the politicians President Barack Obama encounters during his current Latin American tour, none is likely to be more welcoming than Salvadoran president Mauricio Funes. Elected in 2009 as El Salvador's first leftist leader since the end of its bloody civil war in 1992, Funes — much like Obama himself — is a youthful populist who campaigned as a progressive but governs as a pragmatist. A political neophyte, Funes' pro-business and anti-crime policies have transformed the former CNN en Espanol correspondent into the great Gringo hope of Central America.

As El Salvador struggles with a stagnant economy, rising drug-trafficking trade and one of the world's highest murder rates, the Obama visit on March 22 is a high-profile effort to ensure Funes' hope is not merely hype. Unlike Chile and Brazil — Obama's other Latin American destinations — El Salvador offers little in terms of natural resources or geopolitical might. Instead, El Salvador's success is as much symbolic as strategic — a Cold War-era battleground that's traded civil war for civil society while neighboring governments still deal with coups, corruption and communism.

"Funes has cultivated a sense of inclusion, tolerance and civility within a very stable democracy," says Joseph Tulchin, visiting fellow at Harvard University's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies. "He represents [America's] bet on peace, a bet on democracy — he's a reformist in a region where there aren't that many around."

Things looked very different when Funes first entered the presidency in June 2009. Backed by the former guerrillas now leading his FMLN party, Funes' first acts — particularly, re-establishing ties with Cuba after a 50-year freeze — caused analysts to worry that El Salvador might join Ecuador, Bolivia and Venezuela in the hemisphere's anti-U.S. axis.

But Funes embraced market-friendly, socially expansive policies, boosting public-health and education programs, securing more than $2 billion in direct foreign investment, encouraging post-civil war reconciliation and — by backing Obama during Honduras' 2009 coup — solidifying El Salvador's good standing in Washington. Aided by the media skills he honed as a reporter, Funes has generated approval ratings of over 70% — the region's highest.

"Funes' pragmatism helped prevent the crisis of governability that was expected with a transfer of power to former guerrillas," observes Hector Lindo-Fuentes, professor of history at Fordham University in New York City. "By demonstrating that the opposition can rule, Funes has helped consolidate democracy...and this is a long-term contribution of the highest order."

Still, in a county where nearly 35% of the population lives under the poverty line and a quarter of citizens report being victims of crime, short-term survival often trumps long-term stability. With more than 2 million Salvadorans living in the U.S., poverty and crime are certain to dominate the Obama-Funes agenda. And the two issues meet at the Maras — the violent Salvadoran youth gangs whose trade in drugs, kidnappings, human trafficking and extortion now stretches from San Salvador to San Francisco.

The Mara gangs actually have their origins in the Salvadoran barrios of the U.S. Much of their leadership was born in cities like Los Angeles during and after El Salvador's civil war, and it moves easily today between the two countries (as well as their prisons). "The violent potential of these organizations can be seen as a direct threat to the safety of the people in the United States," says Victor Valle, a former Salvadoran politician and Professor of Human Security at the University of Peace in Ciudad Colon, Costa Rica.

Far more worrisome however, is the specter of strategic alliances between the Maras and Mexico's massive Central American drug cartels. Salvadoran security officials say such partnerships are already developing — accompanied by increases in local crime and drug use. Breaking up those marriages will require money — lots of it — and Funes is counting on Obama's generosity. With El Salvador already a base for the U.S.'s regional anti-narco efforts, Funes is likely to receive it.

But as lackluster anti-trafficking efforts in Colombia and Mexico illustrate, programs aimed at fighting the drug trade will only help so much. For Funes to truly triumph over poverty and crime, he must improve the lives of Salvadorans at home while ensuring those in the U.S. continue to prosper. Last year Salvadoran emigrants sent nearly $3.65 billion back to their homeland — more than 15% of the nation's GDP. Both Obama and Funes want to keep that cash flowing, well aware that decreased living standards pave the way for increased Mara membership.

A few months before I visited San Salvador, the Mara had succeeded in threatening public transit workers into striking — and temporarily paralyzing several cities — to protest a new law that criminalized gang membership. But while I was in the capital last month hoping to interview Funes, I saw little evidence of the Mara menace. Instead, I found the talk was mostly of what Obama might offer his Salvadoran counterpart. Despite endless meetings with ministers and media advisers, I never did secure an audience with the Salvadoran president. As a former journalist, I was repeatedly told, Funes guards his public image aggressively and rarely grants interviews. So I made do with daily sightings of his guards, his office, his motorcade. With all of Central America counting on Funes to prove he's more hope than hype, no such indignity will greet Obama when he arrives on Tuesday.