In an unusual show of affinity for a Central American colleague, President Oscar Arias held a one-on-one meeting with El Salvador’s President-elect Mauricio Funes, followed by a chatty, relaxed press conference with just the two of them in the Casa Presidencial auditorium.
Their meeting came the afternoon after the mini-summit between Central American presidents and representatives and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden had wrapped up, and the official delegations had departed the presidential offices.
“President Arias was one of the first Central American presidents to call and congratulate me following (my electoral victory) on March 15, and he took the opportunity to extend an invitation to participate in this important meeting as president-elect,” Funes said, who added that the gathering was the first official act he had participated in as president-elect.
A former TV journalist, Funes is the latest left-leaning candidate to be elected president in a series of elections that has pushed Latin America, and particularly Central America, to the left on the political spectrum.
Funes won the presidency for the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), the former guerrillas who put down arms in 1992, after over a decade of civil war, and formed a political party, ending what had been 20 years of rule by the right-wing Republican Nationalist Alliance (ARENA).
Speaking to journalists, Funes said that he would resist being pigeon-holed into any particular leadership style.
“Many journalists have asked me … ‘Do you define yourself as a president of the left ‘light’ or the radical left, the vegetarian left or the carnivorous left?’” he said. “I define myself based on the left that El Salvador needs.”
Funes has however made clear he is not planning to follow the firebrand, anti-U.S. styles of Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, who sat out the meeting with Biden, or Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.
“With the kind of noise that Funes has been making, most people have predicted that he will be moderate center-left, and not move his administration toward the Ortega axis,” said Kevin Casas-Zamora, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, and also a former second vice president under Arias who resigned in 2007.
Casas-Zamora said Funes’ meeting, and subsequent press conference, with Arias was “not normal.”
“It is standard practice for a presidentelect to come along when there’s a summit, but to have a special press conference with the host and the president-elect, that sends a message,” he said.
Arias said the two leaders spoke about “common problems we face,” largely the economic woes caused by the U.S. recession, such as falling exports and rising unemployment in both countries.
“I have not given him any advice. What I have given him are my opinions,” Arias said. “But if tomorrow he asks my advice, I would gladly give it – I do have some experience. But if not, I will limit myself to giving my humble opinion.”