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Mauricio Funes Becomes First Leftist President of El Salvador

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Mauricio Funes was sworn as President of El Salvador last June 1st. As Funes and his wife, Vanda Pignato, arrived at the inaugural ceremony, they were received by a cheering crowd chanting, "Yes, we did!" As the couple reached the stage, the chants turned into the traditional Latin American leftist hymn, "The people, united, will never be defeated." Monday's inauguration marks a turning point in the country's history, since it is the first time El Salvador elected a leftist president. Since colonial times, the smallest Central American country has had a troublesome history characterized by brutal repression of indigenous uprisings, decades of military dictatorship, a bloody twelve-year civil war and more recently, 20 years of right-wing party rule. Therefore, the FMLN victory represents a new era of hope and change for Salvadorans.

More than 70 foreign delegations attended the inaugural ceremony, including 16 presidents; Prince Felipe of Spain; US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; Inter-American Development Bank President, Luis Alberto Moreno; and the General Secretary of the Organization of American States, José Miguel Insulza also attended. Venezuelan and Bolivian Presidents Hugo Chávez and Evo Morales were expected to attend but they cancelled at the last minute. Daniel Ortega from Nicaragua missed the official ceremony but joined the afternoon celebration at the Cuscatlán stadium.  Nobel Peace Prize Winner Rigoberta Menchú was also present along with about 4,000 special guests.

"The Salvadoran people asked for a change and the change begins now," stated Funes at the beginning of his 50-minute inaugural speech. Referring to past ARENA administrations, Funes expressed that his government will not "govern for a few, tolerate corruption and organized crime, or agree to support backwardness in all its expressions." His government will be of national unity, he added, which will be built around "a project for national development which will be based on social inclusion, increase in opportunities, valorization of work productivity, modernization of public institutions and the guarantee of democratic freedom."

Funes stated that "to govern well is the highest expression of commitment to the people and with the memory of Archbishop Oscar Romero, my teacher and spiritual guide for the nation." All the attendees, except for the ARENA representatives, stood up and applauded when Funes mentioned Archbishop Romero in his speech; some people also waved posters of Bishop Romero. Funes visited Archbishop Romero's grave before arriving at the inaugural ceremony. Inspired by Bishop Romero, Funes expressed during his campaign that "if the people would allow him to govern, he would have a preferential option for the poor."

Funes, whose main goal is to fight poverty, pledged to generate 100,000 direct jobs in the next 18 months, to increase and improve public services and infrastructure, and to build 11,000 housing units. He also announced a System of Social Protection, which includes education, health and nutrition programs and a basic pension for senior citizens in the areas where there is extreme poverty. To finance these programs, the new government is planning to invest $474 million.

Funes also announced that El Salvador will reestablish diplomatic, trade, and cultural relations with Cuba, which had been discontinued since 1961. The announcement generated a happy response from the audience which began to chant "Cuba!, Cuba!" Cuban Vice-President Esteban Lazo Hernández was present at the ceremony, and the same afternoon he met with the new Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hugo Martínez, to sign a diplomatic cooperation agreement between the countries. With this agreement, El Salvador became the last Central American country to reestablish relations with Cuba. 

Funes also wants to maintain strong ties with the Unites States; he expressed that US President Barack Obama and Brazilian President Luis Inácio Lula Da Silva became important figures during his campaign. He stated that both Obama y Lula are an example of how progressive leaders, "instead of being a threat, they represent a new and secure path for their people." Funes stated during his campaign that he will conduct a moderate left modeled after President Lula Da Silva. "Lula showed that it is possible to have a democratic government, with a strong economy and a fair distribution of wealth," Funes added.

Funes complimented US Secretary of State Clinton, saying that she "is a woman who honors America and radiates the brilliance of women to the world." Clinton attended the ceremony dressed in a bright red, the color of the FMLN party, something that the Washington Post considered an unthinkable image in the 1980s, "when the United States poured $6 billion into El Salvador to fight the rebel group backed by Cuba and the Soviet Union." Clinton, on the other hand, expressed that Funes election was a "testament to democracy" and that she expects a positive relationship between the United States and the new elected government of El Salvador.  At the end of the ceremony, Funes joined his wife and 18-month old son, Gabriel Funes at the balcony. As the first family walked out on the red carpet, Funes wore his newly presidential sash and carried Gabriel in his arms while the little one waved to the crowd as he imitated both of his parents.

In the afternoon, about 60,000 people congregated in the Cuscatlán stadium to celebrate inaugural day. People began to arrive to the stadium early in the morning to ensure good seats and waited patiently all afternoon to see their new president. The stadium was a sea of red as the attendees wore the party colors and danced to the tunes of revolutionary and progressive songs. Presidents Inácio Lula Da Silva, Rafael Correas and Daniel Ortega spoke to the crowd followed by the new president of El Salvador. Funes reaffirmed to the attendees what he had expressed in the morning: that his government "won't be any government but one that follows a preferential option for the poor."

For English press coverage of the Funes' inauguration please check: