SAN SALVADOR (Reuters) - Two decades after Marxist rebels battled U.S.-armed governments in El Salvador, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Monday celebrated the presidential inauguration of a leftist leader of the rebels’ party and called it a testament to democracy.
Clinton joined officials from about 75 countries at the inauguration of Mauricio Funes, leader of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front or FMLN, a party of former Marxist guerrillas that has softened its traditional anti-American stance under Funes.
At a joint news conference after meeting with Funes, Clinton said the United States was eager to assist El Salvador and is committed to reengaging in Latin America. She added that President Barack Obama and Funes share many concerns.
“Some might say President Obama is left of center and of course that means we are going to work well with countries that share our commitment to improving and enhancing the human potential,” Clinton said.
Clinton arrived in El Salvador on Sunday for a three-day visit to Latin America.
Funes is a former TV journalist who hosted local news programs critical of past governments. He won El Salvador’s presidential election in March.
It was a momentous victory for the left in a nation where memories of a civil war that killed 75,000 people, many by right-wing death squads, hang heavy over politics.
The inauguration of Funes ends two decades of rule by the conservative and pro-U.S. ARENA party. Clinton said in a Miami Herald editorial on Monday the peaceful transfer of power between two formerly warring parties was indicative of changes in the region.
“Elsewhere in the Western Hemisphere, democratic elections and free market economies have become the norm over the past 15 years,” she said.
“Today in El Salvador, I am joining other leaders from around the world in celebrating the historic inauguration of President-elect Funes and the promise of democracy to transform people’s lives,” she said.
Funes already has named a cabinet with more pro-business centrists than ex-guerrillas from the party’s Marxist past, and he has pledged to work with the United States on joint issues like migration, street gangs and drug smuggling.
He has said he will have his own style of leftist government and has no reason to model himself after Venezuela’s socialist President Hugo Chavez or Nicaragua’s staunch leftist Daniel Ortega -- neither of whom attended the inauguration.
But Funes also repeated in his inauguration address his pledge to restore diplomatic and cultural ties with Cuba, leaving the United States as the last country in the region without ties with the communist nation.
Clinton is expected to attend a meeting of the Organization of American States in Honduras, where other countries are expected to press for Cuba’s re-entry to the group over U.S. objections.
Some 2.3 million Salvadorans live in the United States and the money they send home is key to the economy.
While in El Salvador, Clinton witnessed the signing of an agreement for the construction of rural electricity lines and the installation of solar panels in northern El Salvador and held a round-table with women on improving economic opportunities in the region.
“The United States, under President Obama, is taking a new approach to this region,” she said on Sunday as she met with leaders on some U.S.-funded projects in El Salvador. “We are going to work together with the incoming government of El Salvador, as we have with the outgoing government.”
Editing by Cynthia Osterman and Vicki Allen