When President Barack Obama visited El Salvador in March 2011, he found a country struggling socially and economically, and highly dependent on its rich northern neighbor to muddle through. One third of El Salvador's population lives illegally in the United States and sends approximately US$3.5 billion home in remittances. The downturn in the US economy has affected El Salvador deeply, and its economy is stagnant, with little foreign investment, little growth in tourism, and a widening trade deficit. A highly polarized political scene and a rampant crime rate are two more reasons the country is suffering. This makes it all the more surprising that President Mauricio Funes enjoys a 79% approval rating, making him the most popular president in Central America.
Funes is a youthful ex-TV journalist who was elected in June 2009 on a platform promising change. And his very election is a compelling reason to say that El Salvador has already started changing. The moderate 49-year-old was elected on the ex-rebel FMLN ticket, and he is the country's first leftist president. A peaceful transition of power from the right-wing ARENA party, which held power for 18 years, is in itself a miracle, as it was not so long ago that opposing sides were murdering each other in the streets. Politics still have a polarizing effect on Salvadoran society, as can be seen in the territorial markings of either party painted on poles, curbs, and bridges across the country, but the fact that democracy seems to have taken a hold must surely be seen as a sign of better times to come. Funes has proved to be a moderate, taking the center line on many issues, much to the chagrin of his leftist backers. However this pragmatic approach, along with some well placed social programs for the country's poor, means he's gaining support from a public that wants stability above all else.
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