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March 14, 2009

Obama Administration Insists It's Neutral in Salvador Poll

by Jim Lobe

In the face of threats by Republican lawmakers here that a victory by the leftist FMLN party in Sunday's presidential elections could harm relations with the United States, the State Department is insisting that Washington is prepared to work with any government that reflects the will of the Salvadoran people.

"The United States government reiterates its official position that it does not support either candidate in the upcoming presidential election in El Salvador on Mar. 15," a State Department spokesperson told IPS emphatically Thursday evening.

"Through our embassy in El Salvador, we have stated this position publicly and repeatedly since November of 2007," she noted, adding that recent letters and statements by Republican congressmen here regarding possible retaliation against El Salvador if the candidate of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), Mauricio Funes, emerges victorious do "not reflect the official position of the United States."

This stance was echoed at a press conference Friday by Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon.

"I have met with both political candidates here in Washington. We have engaged both major political parties in El Salvador. And we have made it very clear that this is a choice of the Salvadoran people that we will respect and that we look forward to, continuing our very positive relationship with El Salvador, and working with the next elected government," he said.

These statements, which were reportedly echoed by the U.S. embassy in San Salvador Friday, were designed to clarify Washington's neutrality in the first election campaign in which the former insurgency-turned-political party is being given a good chance of wresting control of the presidency from the National Republican Alliance (ARENA), a right-wing party founded by the former death squad leader, Roberto D'Aubuisson at the height of the bloody civil war that broke out in 1979 and ended a decade later.

During the 2004 elections, when Republican President George W. Bush was in office, Washington was not shy about intervening on behalf of ARENA.

"We are concerned about the impact that an FMLN victory could have on the commercial, economic, and migration-related relations of the U.S. with El Salvador," Bush's Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Otto Reich, said in a press teleconference at ARENA headquarters in San Salvador just before the vote.

Similarly, Rep. Tom Tancredo, a veteran Republican, warned that "If the FMLN controls the Salvadoran government after the March 2004 presidential elections, it could mean a radical change in U.S. policy regarding the essentially free flow of remittances from Salvadorans living in the U.S. to El Salvador."

Two years later, the Bush administration made similar warnings about a Sandinista victory in Nicaragua, but its candidate, former President Daniel Ortega, won with a plurality of the vote.

Since then, of course, Republicans have lost control of both the White House and the Congress. Despite those losses, however, Republican lawmakers here have been warning that Washington could retaliate if Funes wins the election. Those warnings have reportedly echoed loudly in the right-wing press in El Salvador, where ARENA's candidate, former National Police chief Rodrigo Avila, has pulled up close to Funes who had held a double-digit lead, according to the latest polls.

"Should the pro-terrorism FMLN party replace the current government in El Salvador," said Republican Rep. Trent Franks on the floor of the House of Representatives last week, "the United States, in the interests of national security, would be required to re-evaluate our policy toward El Salvador, including cash remittance and immigration policies to compensate for the fact there will no longer be a reliable counterpart in the Salvadoran government."

Remittances from Salvadorans working in the United States are believed to account for roughly 20 percent of the Central American nation's gross domestic product. In 2008, its Central Bank estimated that remittances totaled nearly four billion dollars, and about one in four families living in El Salvador receive them, according to a recent survey by the U.N. Development Program (UNDP).

"Those monies that are coming from here to there, I am confident, will be cut (if the FMLN wins), and I hope the people of El Salvador are aware of that because it will have a tremendous impact on individuals and their economy," warned Republican Rep. Dan Burton, a strong supporter of ARENA going back to the time when d'Aubuisson was its leader.

At a hearing Tuesday on the Summit of the Americas, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher volunteered that Salvadorans should "understand the consequences" of voting for Funes.

"If an ally of al-Qaeda and Iran comes to power in El Salvador, the national security interests of the United States will require certain immigration restrictions and controls over the flow over the four billion dollars in annual remittances sent from the U.S. back home to El Salvador."

Rohrabacher cited as evidence for his accusations regarding al-Qaeda a report that some people burned a U.S. flag at a march celebrating El Salvador's independence day on Sep. 15, 2001, four days after 9/11.

All three representatives were among 46 Republican congressmen who signed a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton earlier this month expressing concerns about the "extremism" of the views of Mauricio Funes.

"We have grave concerns that an electoral victory of the FMLN could bring about links between El Salvador and the regimes in Venezuela, Iran, Cuba, and other states that promote terrorism, just as with other non-democratic regimes and with terrorist organizations," the letter asserted.

It added that, if ARENA prevails, possible claims by the FMLN of fraud could put regional security at risk.

Democrats have not been entirely silent in the face of the Republican campaign against the FMLN, however.

Some 33 representatives and one Democratic senator last week sent a letter to Obama asking that his administration should make clear that Washington will respect the election's outcome regardless of the winner - an appeal that the State Department appeared to act on late this week.

"U.S. immigration policy should not be made into a political instrument used to influence foreign elections," said the letter, which was organized by Rep. Raul Grijalva of Arizona.

In Thursday's statement on U.S. neutrality, the spokesperson referred to the Republican threats. "With regard to the letters that have been sent," she said, "the separation of powers and freedoms in the United States allows for a debate in which members of the U.S. legislature have expressed their opinion. This does not reflect the official position of the United States," she added.

(Inter Press Service)

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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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