More than a quarter century ago, the U.S. government under Ronald Reagan drew a Cold War line in El Salvador and made the defeat of the leftist Farabundo Marti Front for National Liberation (the FMLN) a major foreign policy goal.
Over the next decade, El Salvador became synonymous with death squads and massacres, leaving some 75,000 dead, with the vast majority of the killings blamed on the security forces armed and supported by Washington. Finally in 1992, a U.N.-brokered truce ended the slaughter and left the FMLN on the outside of power looking in.
However, that may soon change. In a presidential election scheduled for March 15, the FMLN's candidate, 49-year-old Mauricio Funes, a charismatic television journalist long on eloquent speeches and short on legislative experience, is the odds-on favorite to win.
In the latest polls, Funes is leading Rodrigo Avila, the candidate of the right-wing National Republican Alliance (ARENA), by seven points. If Funes is successful, the FMLN will have won control of the government through the ballot box after failing to do so on the battlefield.
Campaigning on a slogan of "Change" or "Cambio," Funes has been lifted by large turnouts at his rallies and a commanding victory of FMLN candidates in legislative and mayoral elections held in mid-January.
"There's an historical opening for me to be president," Funes said in an interview. "Journalism allowed me to know the realities of El Salvador ... especially the reality of poverty. But journalism doesn't allow me to change that reality."
It has not escaped notice of Salvadoran voters that Funes campaign resembles Barack Obama's, including effective use of the Internet for campaign messages and fund-raising. FMLN ads even use the Obama slogan, "Yes, we can."
However, before the FMLN breaks out the confetti, it must overcome the troubling history of El Salvador which, as many observers note, has never had a fully fair election. Indeed, it was the violent suppression of peaceful political campaigns in the late 1970s that drove the FMLN into a guerrilla war against the government's security forces.
During the war, ARENA emerged as the chief political party representing the country's right-wing elements and has dominated politics in El Salvador for the last 20 years. With ARENA supporters owning most of the newspapers and television stations, especially in the capital of San Salvador, there has been a virtual blackout of FMLN coverage as the election nears.
Salvadorans in the United States also have reported being offered discounted airline tickets home if they promise to vote for ARENA.
And ARENA is running TV ads that claim an FMLN victory would invite retaliation from Washington and endanger the flow of funds sent home by over three million Salvadoran migrants. Money sent home from the U.S. and Canada make up about 20 percent of El Salvador's GDP.
In last fall, U.S. elections, several Republican members of Congress issued threats about what an FMLN victory might mean. Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colorado, stated: "If the FMLN controls the Salvadoran government it could mean a radical change in U.S. policy regarding the free flow of remittances from Salvadorans living in the U.S."
Hoping to head off these fears of possible U.S. retaliation, 31 members of the U.S. Congress sent President Obama a letter on March 5 requesting an assurance that Washington will refrain from any attempt to influence the choice of Salvadoran voters.
The letter - circulated by Reps. Raúl Grijalva, D-Arizona, and Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio -- noted that ARENA television ads have used statements by Dan Restrepo, an adviser to the Obama campaign, suggesting that President Obama is averse to an election result favoring the FMLN.
"We believe it is essential that the United States seize this quickly approaching opportunity to demonstrate that we will not seek to undermine democracy in El Salvador and Latin America," the letter from the congressmen said. "This is an invaluable historic opportunity to make a clean break with the past and move with our neighbors into a relationship based on mutual respect."
In the 1980s, El Salvador was the battleground for one of the largest American interventions in the Cold War. Washington sent over $6 billion to aid a Salvadoran government whose army and death squads were responsible for a wide range of atrocities - from the murder of priests and nuns to the elimination of entire villages in areas sympathetic to the FMLN.
In 1993, a United Nations Truth Commission said the government was responsible for 85 percent of human rights abuses and that the rebel forces were responsible for 5 percent.
Although the civil war was ended by truce 17 years ago, it still looms large over the presidential election. Both leading presidential parties had their genesis in the conflict.
ARENA was founded by former death squad leader, Army Colonel Roberto D'Aubuisson, in 1981 to represent the interests of a small group of wealthy landowners who monopolized coffee cultivation in the densely populated country.
As it evolved into a major political force, ARENA advocated free-market economic policies and developed close ties to the U.S. government, particularly the Republican Party.
The FMLN was formed in 1980 when five leftist guerrilla groups - confronting the murders of key political leaders and allies, including Archbishop Oscar Romero - turned to armed struggle against the ruling elite.
When peace accords were signed in 1992, the FMLN was recognized as a formal political party. Although the FMLN has won electoral control over large areas of the country and sometimes has enjoyed a majority in the Assembly, the party has yet to win the presidency.
ARENA's presidential candidate is Rodrigo Avila, former director of the National Civil Police. Avila is considered wealthy through ownership of several private security companies.
His vice-presidential running mate is businessman Arturo Zablah, who had previously been critical of ARENA's failed economic policies. His choice is seen as a move by ARENA to present itself as a party of "change." in an attempt to win over moderate voters.
Avila presents himself as a candidate concerned with social investment and generating jobs, while Zablah pushes his role as a reformer within the right wing and a businessman who knows how to encourage investment.
ARENA's slogan "Better investments, more jobs" is aimed at the country's economic concerns which are considered the main issue in this election.
The second national issue is that El Salvador has become the most violent country in Central America with an average 10 homicides per day. When addressing the security issue, Avila avoids citing his credentials as director of the National Civil Police.
Mauricio Funes is the FMLN's first presidential candidate who was not a guerrilla combatant in the civil war. Like almost everyone in El Salvador, Funes had family members killed in the war and attended a college where six Jesuit priests were slain by the Army, but he appears to distance himself from those days of conflict by symbolic breaks with his party.
At rallies, he doesn't sing the party's anthem or wear the traditional red colors. Nevertheless, ARENA has tried to paint him as a "Trojan horse," a moderate face for a party whose leaders still wear fatigues and brandish pictures of Che Guevara.
Funes, a former television host, has tried to maneuver a tricky path in politically polarized Latin America. Funes says he would be friendly with Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, especially if cheap oil is offered, but that his priority is good relations with Washington.
Both parties support pulling Salvadoran troops out of Iraq and maintaining the dollar as the national currency.
The FMLN's vice-presidential pick is Salvador Sanchez Ceren, a former guerrilla commander who has served as an FMLN deputy in the National Assembly since 2000. Ceren's background is meant to reassure FMLN supporters that the goals and principles of the party have not changed with Funes.
In 1983, during the height of the civil war, I traveled with the FMLN as a journalist, making a documentary in a mountainous area 20 miles from San Salvador called Guazapa. Fresh from covering the Vietnam War for three years, it was a revelation to be with a partisan resistance battling battalions of government forces.
What began as a peasant uprising soon became a broad-based social and military resistance, including illiterate farmers, university students, unionists and religious leaders. However, in the name of stopping the spread of communism, the Reagan administration firmly supported the government's brutal counterinsurgency war.
The searchlight of world opinion moved off El Salvador abruptly after a truce ended the civil war in 1992 and Americans largely ignored the disaster left behind. Hailed as "the final battleground of the Cold War," it was championed as one of the greatest foreign policy successes of the Reagan-Bush-41 era.
Later, as the anti-American insurgency gained momentum in Iraq, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney cited the El Salvador example as a model for a pacified Iraq. Before leaving office as World Bank president, former Bush-43 official Paul Wolfowitz declared that El Salvador had the best economy in Central America. However, the reality has never been so glowing.
Recently, I returned to Guazapa and found many of the former FMLN guerrillas still living in the area. Some once-thriving communities like Mirandilla have become ghost towns, while others like Palo Grande have flourished.
But for farmers, life is often more difficult than it was during the revolution.
"It hasn't been possible to get ahead because of the severe poverty we live in," said Jesus Landaverde. "We buy a sack of fertilizer for $37 and sell a sack of corn for say $25. We're screwed even worse than before."
Another Guazapa farmer Chepe Murillo, was captured by death squads during the war and nearly killed. He now plants trees, promotes conservation and leads the few tourists who show up on tours of Guazapa mountain.
"Like this mountain I suffered many wounds during the war," Murillo said. "Now reforestation must be nationwide. We must heal the wounds and bring back the trees and vegetation destroyed by the bombs and napalm."
View of Commanders
Three commanders of FMLN units in Guazapa are living nearby and conditioning themselves to the difficult and often fragile peace.
Morena Herrera, "Comandante Alma," said: "I chose the option of armed struggle because I could not find any other way to fight injustice. I remember I wanted to see less sadness in people's eyes. That was the motivation.
" Sometimes I question myself when I seen the same conditions of poverty, but at least now we have the possibility of talking about these things openly, freely."
Comandante Dimas Rojas: "There are just as many deaths now as there were during the war. I hope this doesn't get worse, but I don't see any outlook that this is going to stop. In this country there are more private security guards than police officers."
In San Salvador, Eduardo Linares, a comandante who has become a senior police officer, said: "The same problems that gave rise to the war have not been addressed. El Salvador has become the refuge for powerful criminal syndicates who use the street gangs from Los Angeles as a convenient smoke screen to deflect attention from their activities. Organized crime enjoys almost total impunity."
The U.S. recession will likely cause a serious drag on growth in El Salvador, particularly since the United States remains by far the largest buyer of Salvadoran exports. Economists predict the U.S. economic crisis will also negatively impact cash sent home by Salvador immigrants.
Farmers like Jesus and Chepe may find some satisfaction if a new FMLN government slows free-trade agreements that bring Guatemalan tomatoes to El Salvador at lower prices than local tomatoes. But any hope for a robust tourist industry must await new controls on crime.
The exodus of Salvadorans that began during the bloody days of the civil war has continued. An estimated 700 Salvadorans leave the country every week to seek employment, mostly in the U.S. Unofficial estimates say around a quarter of El Salvador's total population of eight million now lives outside the country.
Whichever party wins the presidency in El Salvador on March 15, there are high hopes among Americans who follow Latin American politics that the Obama administration will usher in a new era of understanding for the southern neighbors.
These observers think this attitude must include respect for democratic results and recognition of the damage caused by U.S. policies since President James Monroe declared the "Monroe Doctrine" in 1823, essentially making Latin America Washington's "backyard."
As analyst Mark Engler recently wrote: "El Salvador provides a clear example of a country in which both military and economic policies promoted by Washington under previous administrations have had disastrous results. And it now offers an opportunity for the U.S. to express a new understanding of its national interest."