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Published Sep. 14, 2009

In November 1989 the world watched one of the last Cold War battles unfold in El Salvador as uniformed rebel fighters and army troops fought to the death for control of the capital.

A Salvadoran army death squad went on the rampage, executing six Jesuit priests accused of supporting communists. I watched American families flee the U.S. Embassy as Salvadoran jets strafed rebel strongholds.

The Soviet-backed leftist guerrillas failed to topple the U.S.-backed government. The subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union drained the rebels' coffers and ultimately led to the end of a civil war that killed an estimated 75,000 people.

Now, 17 years after the peace accord, the former rebels of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) can finally claim victory.

They did it not with guns, but at the ballot box Sunday.

In a narrow victory the FMLN defeated its old enemy, the ruling right-wing ARENA party, in presidential elections by a 51-49 margin.

So what should we make of the FMLN today?

Some 46 Republican congressmen signed a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton earlier this month warning that "an electoral victory of the FMLN could bring about links between El Salvador and the regimes in Venezuela, Iran, Cuba and other states that promote terrorism."

In the past the Bush administration did not hesitate to voice its political preference in elections in Central America. But the Obama administration reacted very differently.

Instead, the State Department issued a firm statement: "We have made it very clear that this is a choice of the Salvadoran people that we will respect," said Thomas Shannon, the top U.S. diplomat for Latin America.

"The war is finally over, because the FMLN won and Washington said 'ho-hum,'" said Robert White, a former ambassador to El Salvador who now heads the Center for International Policy in Washington. "It seems we have finally grown up and learned that Central America has a right to sort out its own problems."

The FMLN today bears little resemblance to the dogged peasant army of the 1980s.

Its president-elect, Mauricio Funes, is a journalist and former host of a CNN Spanish language show. He never fought with the rebels and joined the party only two years ago. He stressed moderate economic policies during his campaign and expresses admiration for Brazil's moderate leftist President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a strong U.S. ally. (His wife is a Brazilian cultural attache in El Salvador who belongs to Silva's Workers' Party).

In fact, the FMLN has participated in numerous peaceful elections since 1992, winning 46 percent of the vote and 35 seats in legislative elections this January, more than any other party.

But it is not without its critics, including more moderate former FMLN leaders who warn that the party has not abandoned its Marxist orthodoxy.

Funes' vice presidential running mate, Salvador Sanchez, is a veteran FMLN hard-liner. Others point to another senior party official, Jose Merino, a former communist who studied at an elite Soviet military academy and was trained in guerrilla warfare in Cuba.

Merino has been linked to assassinations and kidnappings, as well as ties to the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), Latin America's oldest guerrilla army.

Funes has denounced the FARC as terrorists, but critics wonder if he will be able to hold his moderate ground against the hard-liners.

Funes got off on the right foot Sunday. In his victory speech he didn't mention Venezuela or Cuba. Instead, he singled out President Obama as the one "I would aspire to strengthen relations with."

David Adams can be reached at