September 25, 2007

Ever since Josd Napole6n Duarte's Christian Democrats were defeated in municipal and legislative elections last spring, U.S. policy-makers have faced the delicate task of transforming pub- lic perception of Salvadoran politics. Gone are the days when they had only to mention Duarte's name for Con- gress to approve another installment of the more than $3 billion El Salvador has received since 1981. Now that the winner of last year's elections-the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), founded by re- puted death-squad sponsor Roberto D'Aubuisson-is likely to win the March 19 presidential election, low- key efforts to persuade Congress and the public of the party's "moderation" are underway. ".JALZSfffI Ir.J." U" t'"'^"'-' I L7O Jeanne Kirkpatrick kicked it off last June with a Washington Post op-ed in which she called ARENA a "legiti- mate political party that espouses mar- ket approaches, private ownership, personal initiative and deregulation-the sorts of things Mar- garet Thatcher and Ronald Reagan have built their careers on." Two months later, the Heritage Foundation prepared a "backgrounder" for circu- lation at the Republican convention. It claimed that "Since 1985...ARENA has reformed itself fundamentally. It is now governed by a 14-member ex- ecutive committee and has appointed a new president, Alfredo Cristiani, a well-respected businessman and civic leader." Cristiani, who speaks fluent Eng- lish and holds a degree in business ad- ministration from Georgetown, is the key to ARENA's new image. He has no known ties to the death squads and his U.S. supporters claim he is a rela- ARENA candidate Alfredo Cristiani Ken Silverstein is a freelance journalist based in New York. He was recently hired by the Associated Press bureau in Rio de Janeiro. tive newcomer to the party. With the assistance of the Washington law firm of O'Connor and Hannan, he has been working Capitol Hill since September. According to one Congressional aide, State Department officers helped out by setting up briefings for Cristiani and holding meetings with the few liberal "troublemakers" in Congress. The ARENA candidate does a good job of selling himself and his party. An observer at a Carnegie Endowment breakfast for Cristiani said he "was very well prepared. He had clear and convincing answers to questions and his style conveys sincerity and honesty-something you don't expect from ARENA." When asked what as- surances there were that the party would not "revert to some of the darker forces associated with Mr. D'Aubuis- son," Cristiani said that since he joined the party in 1984, "there have been no appearances of dark forces in this en- terprise." Responding to a later ques- tion, he was more explicit: " By the participation of new people who are in the party it is no longer a one-man show. D'Aubuisson knows he is not going to be participating in the gov- ernment." The efforts of Cristiani and his Washington friends seem to be paying off. "Cristiani has generally been well received," said one Congressional staf- fer. "He speaks excellent English and he's not a fist-pounding ideologue." Democrats seem to be the main target of the PR effort. Last September, Dick McCall, an aide to liberal Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), surprised his.col- leagues by showing Cristiani around Capitol Hill, introducing the candidate to Senators and their staffs. Stephen Solarz (D-NY), a leader of moderate Democrats and a strong backer of Duarte, now says the United States should give Cristiani a chance and not act too hastily. By all accounts, the United States is still pulling for Christian Democratic candidate Fidel Chavez Mena, report- edly with a secret CIA slush-fund. But if ARENA wins out, the groundwork has been laid for a smooth transition of perceptions in Washington. As one aide put it, "I doubt Congress will do a dam thing if ARENA wins the elec- tion, even if killings start to rise sub- stantially."

Tags: El Salvador, ARENA, propaganda, Elections, Cristiani

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