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Latest update : 2009-06-02

Former journalist Mauricio Funes has been sworn in as president of El Salvador. His first act as president was to restore full diplomatic relations with the "sister nation of Cuba", which were broken off 50 years ago after the Cuban revolution.

AFP - Former journalist Mauricio Funes was sworn in Monday as president of El Salvador at a ceremony witnessed by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as Washington seeks to work with a moderate Latin American left.

As honor guards and bands playing patriotic music marked the way, Funes descended red-carpeted stairs to a podium inside a partially covered amphitheater packed with dignitaries fanning themselves in the tropical heat.

He followed visiting heads of state or their delegates like Vice President Alfredo Lazo of communist Cuba.

In his first act as new president, Funes, the first leftist leader elected here in 20 years, said he was restoring full diplomatic relations with Cuba broken since the Cuban revolution 50 years ago.

"Diplomatic, cultural and trade relations will be established immediately with our sister nation of Cuba," said Funes, as El Salvador became the last Latin American nation to restore ties with Havana.

He also vowed to renew and expand relations with the United States, with which "historically, we are bound by many ties, in particular by the presence of millions of our compatriots who live there, work there and build their dreams there."

Funes promised that his government would be marked by "wisdom and integrity" and announced the launch of an "anti-crisis plan" to create 100,000 jobs in the next 18 months.

Also present at the inauguration were Presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of Brazil and Michelle Bachelet of Chile.

But another radical leftist, President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, inexplicably canceled his attendance at the last minute. Bolivian President Evo Morales was also absent.

Clinton earlier hailed the "peaceful transfer of power" in El Salvador after two decades of US-backed rightist governments to a party of former Marxist guerrillas.

She said later Washington was "committed to helping this new administration continue (to make progress) but to also have the tools it needs to address some of the very pressing social issues it confronts."

Referring to past strained ties, she added: "Some of the difficulties that we've had historically in forging strong and lasting relationships in our hemisphere are a result of our perhaps not listening, perhaps not paying close enough attention."

A senior US State Department official said the handover from former president Elias Antonio Saca to Funes is "a dramatic moment in Salvadoran political history.

"It represents an alternation of power between political parties, the first since the end of the Salvadoran conflict" in 1992, the official said.

But analysts like Michael Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue said it also marks an end to a bitter period of the Cold War, when Washington backed a military government against Marxists rebels now in the party led by Funes.

"It demonstrates that the US has a different mindset and approach toward the region, and that the Cold War is over," Shifter told AFP.

Funes, the candidate of the ex-rebel Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), defeated Rodrigo Avila of the conservative Arena party in March with 51.2 percent of the vote against 48.7 percent.

Funes insisted his government could work well with the Obama administration when asked whether former guerrillas in it still bore a grudge against Washington for its support for the Salvadoran military government during the civil war.

"We are willing to turn the page. I am convinced that we need to turn the page," Funes told a joint press conference with Clinton later.

Funes, speaking through an interpreter, added that he and party members felt "no rancor" when they visited Washington in 2007 and met members of the US government.

Clinton did not respond directly to a question about whether a US apology for its role in the civil war would help usher in a new era.

"We're looking to the future," she said, adding she shared Funes' view.

A bespectacled former TV journalist who models himself on moderate leftist leaders in Latin America like Brazil's Lula, Funes also welcomed comparisons to US President Barack Obama during the election campaign.

He says he wants to maintain El Salvador's close relationship with Washington, but opponents fear he could be led by the FMLN old guard, like vice-president and former guerilla commander Salvador Sanchez Ceren.

During the 1980-1992 civil war, in which more than 70,000 died, his elder brother Roberto was killed by police.

In a fitting tribute to a peaceful democratic transition, an artillery cannon fired volleys of blanks after Funes took the oath of office.

Date created : 2009-06-02