El Salvador's VP Campaigns for Votes in N.Y.
A politician who celebrated the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. gets the 'key' to Long Island's Nassau County By MARY ANASTASIA O'GRADY
Like many New York City bedroom communities, the Village of Freeport on Long Island lost its share of loved ones—including police and firefighters—on 9/11. Over 340 people from Nassau County were killed in the attacks.
In the aftermath of the horror, messages of sympathy poured in from democracies around the world. But there were a few exceptions. One occurred days after the crisis when El Salvador's far-left Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) political party turned a street rally in San Salvador into a celebration of the carnage. The leader of those festivities, which included burning the American flag, was a former Soviet-backed guerrilla commander by the name of Salvador Sánchez Cerén.
It is no surprise then that many Nassau County residents were furious when they learned, earlier this month, that their politicians were fêting Mr. Sánchez Cerén in their own backyard as part of the county's observation of Salvadoran-American Day. The controversy that ensued threw Mr. Sánchez Cerén's New York hosts into full-blown damage control as they struggled to convince their constituents that they had no idea who their guest of honor really is.
More interesting is what the backlash implies for the political career of Mr. Sánchez Cerén, who is now the country's vice president and the favorite to be the FMLN presidential candidate in 2014.
Political analysts say that because there are so many Salvadorans living in the U.S., any candidate for president has to demonstrate that his government would have good relations with the Americans. This was undoubtedly what was on Mr. Sánchez Cerén's mind when he worked out his visit. But given what is now being said about him by local and national politicians, it seems to have backfired.
In Nassau County on Aug. 8, things went swimmingly for the FMLN firebrand who specialized in terrorizing civilians during El Salvador's civil war in the 1980s. Freeport's Democratic Mayor Andrew Hardwick recognized him as the "Salvadoran-American Person of the Year." Republican Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano cheered, along with Republican congressional candidate Fran Becker, at a ceremony where Mr. Sánchez Cerén received as a gift an American flag decorated with the names of the 9/11 victims. Mr. Mangano also gave him the "key" to the county. To top things off, after a meeting with House Homeland Security Chairman Peter King (R., N.Y.), he had his picture snapped with the conservative congressman.
It didn't take long for that photo and others from the day's events to turn up on Mr. Sánchez Cerén's website, showing off what seemed to be approval from the American political class. But the narrative soon broke down.
It is somewhat believable that the Long Island politicians (excluding Mr. King) did not know the truth about their guest of honor and were easy targets for a set-up because they were thinking only about votes. According to the 2010 census, there are more than 47,000 Salvadorans or Salvadoran-Americans living in Nassau County.
Mr. Mangano's office told me that Rafael Flores recommended that Mr. Sánchez Cerén be honored. Mr. Flores, who heads the American-Salvadoran Association of Long Island New York, is the brother of Herberth Flores, the deputy director of Mr. Mangano's office of minority affairs.
Rafael Flores told me in a telephone interview last week that he didn't know about Mr. Sánchez Cerén's background, and he declined to comment when I asked if he regrets the invitation. Mr. Mangano was more forthcoming in a press statement: "Had the administration known that the organization selected an individual with these principles [Mr. Mangano] would certainly not have extended a form of recognition nor attended the event."
Mr. Hardwick's office apologized to the community "if what is being said is true," and Mr. Becker told me by telephone that he would have "run as fast as I could have away" from the event if he had known about Mr. Sánchez Ceren's past.
But it is Mr. King's comments that are likely to undermine the Salvadoran vice president's campaign the most. The congressman told me in a telephone interview last week that he agreed to see Mr. Sánchez Cerén much as he "agreed to see Arafat." He described an unpleasant meeting and said that he told Mr. Sánchez Cerén that he doesn't like his anti-Americanism and doesn't approve of the FMLN's current attempt to strip the judiciary of its independence. "You'll notice," Mr. King said, "that I am not smiling in that picture."
Upon his return to El Salvador, Mr. Sánchez Cerén fired up the base by hosting an FMLN blowout celebration for Fidel Castro's 86th birthday. But the image makeover designed to paint himself as a friend of the U.S. had already begun to collapse.
Write to O'Grady@wsj.com