Obama Should Reboot Relations with Latin America

by Teo Ballvé

The Progressive, Op-Ed, Mar 21, 2009

The election results in El Salvador show the time has come for the Obama administration to upgrade Washington’s relations with Latin America.

The Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) won the presidential election last Sunday. This is the same group that President Reagan waged war against during the 1980s. The U.S. government spent $6 billion trying to defeat the FMLN rebels, and the CIA worked with death squad operatives whose brutality left a scar on the entire country.

The bloody proxy war left a ravaged country and 75,000 people dead – the vast majority at the hands of the U.S.-backed army and allied death squads.

The FMLN traded the bullet for the ballot in 1992, becoming a legal political party with the signing of peace accords.

El Salvador’s newly elected president is Mauricio Funes, a bookish and charismatic former journalist who is considered a political moderate within the leftist FMLN. His victory brings an end to 20 years of one-party rule by the far-right ARENA party.

Statements by House Republicans a week before El Salvador’s election attempted to derail Funes’ victory. They called his party “pro-terrorist” and threatened to cut off the flow of cash remittances sent to Central America by Salvadorans working in the United States. The congressmen warned that the legal immigration status of Salvadorans in the United States would also be jeopardized by an FMLN win at the polls.

The last time Salvadorans voted for president, in 2004, Bush administration officials made nearly identical threats, helping sway voters toward ARENA.

But things turned out differently this time. After an outcry by U.S. foreign policy watchdog groups over the threats made by Republicans, Obama’s top diplomat for Latin America announced the administration was willing to “work with whomever the Salvadoran people elect.” And the day after Funes won, the State Department congratulated him on his victory.

That shows a maturity that has been sorely lacking in U.S.-Latin American relations.

With Funes’ election, El Salvador joins a group of nearly a dozen Latin American nations that have elected left-leaning leaders. The Bush administration’s hostile reception to this regional political shift left U.S.-Latin America relations at their lowest point since the height of the Cold War.

The Obama administration should work quickly to mend these frayed ties. El Salvador – still reeling from violent U.S. intervention in its civil war – would be a good place to start.

Reaching out to Funes with more than words would send a clear message across the region that President Obama is willing to work with Latin American leaders, regardless of their political stripes.

In appealing to voters, Funes asked Salvadorans to leave behind the tired Cold War rhetoric.

We should do the same.

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