07/02/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

U.S. watches from sidelines as El Salvador inaugurates leftist

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton greets children upon her arrival in El Salvador, where she will attend the inauguration of Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes.

An extraordinary event is taking place in El Salvador today — the peaceful exchange of power between two leaders whose parties were once adversaries unto death.

Mauricio Funes becomes the new president of El Salvador, succeeding Antonio Saca. Funes is the standard bearer of the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front (FMLN), which waged a guerrilla war against the U.S.-backed Salvadoran government in the 1970s and 1980s.

Saca is completing a five-year term. His party, ARENA, the National Republican Alliance, was closely linked to death squads during the FMLN insurgency.

Twenty years ago, the news pages in El Salvador and in the United States were soaked with stories of bloody attacks and assassinations of priests and nuns and people caught in the crossfire. The supposition by some at the time — spouted by then-President Ronald Reagan — was that El Salvador, along with Nicaragua, was a domino in the communist march toward the Texas border.

Tens of thousands of deaths (civilians took the highest losses) and billions of dollars of U.S. aid later, the war is a troubling memory. Funes was a reporter during the civil war, and unlike other current FMLN leaders, was not a combatant.

Dominoes then, the Central American wars can only be remembered as a loss of life and resources, never won, never lost, but evolving into peace only when the United States backed off and the fighting stopped.

What will we be saying in 20 years about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, which preoccupy American foreign policy now, and where lives and billions of dollars are also draining away?

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was in El Salvador for the inauguration. Will she be thinking of the comparison?

- Peter Eisner

Photo courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Department of State under a Creative Commons license. As El Salvador inaugurates its first leftist president, the U.S. has praised the peaceful transfer of power. Worldfocus blogger Peter Eisner traces the country’s troubled history and U.S. involvement.