June 1, 2009 / 9:42 PM / 10 years ago

Leftist Funes takes over as El Salvador's president

SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - Leftist Mauricio Funes was sworn in as El Salvador’s president on Monday, vowing a break with a past scarred by civil war as he brought a party founded by Marxist guerrillas to power for the first time.

El Salvador's new President Mauricio Funes (L), and his wife Wanda Pignato, wave after his swearing in ceremony in San Salvador June 1, 2009. REUTERS/Luis Romero/ Pool/

Funes, a former television journalist who calls himself a moderate leftist, led a pro-business, U.S.-friendly campaign for the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN — a far cry from the Cold War when its rebel leaders battled right-wing governments armed by the United States.

Funes focused his inauguration speech on the need to shore up a battered economy, praised U.S. President Barack Obama as an inspiration and described U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who attended the ceremony, as “brilliant.”

Clinton called Funes’ election a testament to democracy and said Washington would work with his administration as it had with a string of right-wing governments in El Salvador since the 1980-92 civil war, which killed 75,000 people.

“I take over the presidency extending the call for national unity that I made during and before the campaign,” Funes said. “El Salvador’s people have walked a long road to get to this day. It’s time to take a new road together in democracy.”

Also present were President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil, who Funes counts as a close friend and role model, and Michelle Bachelet of Chile. Venezuela’s hardline socialist President Hugo Chavez canceled his attendance, as did President Evo Morales of Bolivia.

Funes, 49, was elected in March, ending two decades of rule by the right-wing ARENA party, and last month named a cabinet with more pro-business centrists than ex-guerrilla leaders.

On Monday, he said economic backwardness had left the Central American country vulnerable to a painful slowdown and vowed to create 100,000 jobs in 18 months.

Praising Lula for combining a popular left-wing government with a strong economy and a fairer distribution of wealth, Funes said he would start a government austerity program and crack down on tax evasion and corruption.

El Salvador, which uses the U.S. dollar as its currency, relies largely on factory exports to the United States and remittances sent home by some 2.3 million Salvadorans working there.

Funes, who reported on but never fought in the civil war, said he would restore full diplomatic relations with Cuba, ending El Salvador’s status as the last Latin American holdout to normalization with the Communist-run island.

Additional reporting by John Whitesides; Writing by Catherine Bremer; Editing by Kieran Murray

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