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Cablegate: Arena: Coena Names Three Presidential Finalists

VZCZCXYZ0000
PP RUEHWEB

DE RUEHSN #0238/01 0581943
ZNY CCCCC ZZH
P 271943Z FEB 08
FM AMEMBASSY SAN SALVADOR
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC PRIORITY 9092
INFO RUEHZA/WHA CENTRAL AMERICAN COLLECTIVE PRIORITY

C O N F I D E N T I A L SAN SALVADOR 000238

SIPDIS

SIPDIS

E.O. 12958: DECL: 02/25/2018
TAGS: PGOV PREL KDEM ES
SUBJECT: ARENA: COENA NAMES THREE PRESIDENTIAL FINALISTS

REF: SAN SALVADOR 147 AND PREVIOUS

Classified By: The Ambassador, for reasons 1.4 (b) and (d).

1. (C) Summary: Rodrigo Avila, Luis Mario Rodriguez and Ana
Vilma de Escobar were named February 26 as the three
finalists in the race to become ARENA's presidential
candidate. There is unhappiness and worry in COENA, ARENA's
executive board, over President Saca's heavy handed
management of the process. End Summary.

2. (C) COENA, the Executive Board of the ruling ARENA party,
reportedly met February 24 to agree on the final list of
three competitors to be the party's candidate for President
of El Salvador. The decision eliminates former Foreign
Minister Francisco "Pancho" Lainez and ARENA founding member
Eduardo Barrientos from consideration. Lainez' exclusion
from the list of candidates moving forward was floated in the
press February 25. COENA announced the unanimous decision
formally February 26.

3. (C) Not surprisingly, given their ties to President Saca,
former PNC director Rodrigo Avila and former Presidential
Legal Advisor Luis Mario Rodriguez made the cut. VP de
Escobar also made it onto the list of finalists, though few
observers believe she will become ARENA's candidate. ARENA
founding member Eduardo Barrientos' elimination came as no
surprise (even to him, apparently) given his low level of
name recognition and lack of a defined base of support inside
the party. ARENA still plans to select its candidate on
March 15.

4. (C) Poloff discussed ARENA's candidate selection process
with Roberto Murray Meza, COENA member, February 26. Murray
repeatedly said a significant number of COENA members are
quite upset at President Saca's handling of the process, a
sentiment shared by a number of businessmen and a large
segment of the middle class. Hours before the decision was
announced, Murray said the decision to include Rodriguez as a
third candidate was still up in the air, saying it was
possible COENA would announce only two finalists.

5. (C) Murray said he believed Saca was convinced he had
sufficient power within ARENA and access to sufficient
financial resources in order to force the selection of his
preferred candidate -- Rodrigo Avila -- and fund the
resulting campaign, even if ARENA's traditional donors
balked. Murray described himself and others in COENA as
disappointed with the process and the result. Saca, he said,
hadn't even gone through the motions of genuinely consulting
with the party. Salvadoran presidents, he continued, have
maneuvered to support their preferred candidates in the past,
but have never been this blatant. Murray said he was quite
concerned that Salvadoran business interests that have
traditionally supported ARENA will be sufficiently angered at
being expected to fund a candidate without consultation or
support that they may be strongly tempted to refuse.

6. (C) Murray said Saca has told COENA members the U.S.
Embassy and Washington support Rodrigo Avila as ARENA's
candidate. PolCouns noted that while the USG has had a long,
productive working relationship with Avila, we do not
"support" his or any other candidacy. Murray said while most
on COENA recognized that, some were probably more comfortable
supporting Avila based on Saca's assertions, even though they
strongly suspected they were false. Murray, reflecting on an
Avila run for President, said "well, we have time to teach
him to talk, but not to think." Murray said he hoped the
time remaining until the presidential vote in March 2009
would give ARENA time to heal its wounds, win the election,
and then set out to ensure this never happens again. Murray
said there were already some quiet discussions of amending
ARENA's statutes to prevent a sitting Salvadoran president
from serving as President of COENA. In the end, he
acknowledged, COENA members had no one to blame but
themselves for allowing this to take place.

7. (C) Murray said he understood businessman Ricardo Poma, a
patron of VP de Escobar, had approached Saca to argue against
excluding her from the list of ARENA finalists. Murray said
that approach appears to have paid off.

8. (C) Finally Murray was struck by the irony that when he
was considering standing as a candidate, he had spoken with
Arturo Zablah (then and once again a putative presidential
candidate for an FDR-PDC-CD alliance) who had suggested he
would throw his support to ARENA to prevent an FMLN victory.
Murray had reported this to Saca, who dismissed the offer.
Now, Murray said, it seems Saca has managed to replace a
likely scenario of everyone against the FMLN with just the
opposite. A Zablah run now would likely attract disenchanted
ARENA supporters.

9. (C) Commment: Inside and outside ARENA, most observers
believe the fix is in and Rodrigo Avila will be selected as
the party's candidate on March 15. But ARENA insiders (aside
from Saca and his inner circle, it seems) are concerned about
Avila's candidacy and eventual government. Avila is a well
known quantity to the USG; our experience suggests he would
need a strong chief of staff to make his administration
successful, given the relative weakness of his organizational
and administrative skills versus his leadership qualities.

10. (C) Comment continued: Once ARENA's improvised, cloudy,
and in many ways flawed candidate selection process, the
party will have its work cut out for it, not just in the
upcoming campaign, but in repairing the damage that has been
done inside the party. Saca's apparent manipulation of the
candidate selection process has resulted in broad resentment
inside the party, and could well diminish financial and other
support during the campaign. Under these circumstances, a
Zablah run could easily force a second round for the
presidential vote in April 2009 and ARENA might be
unintentionally incubating a future center-left force in
Salvadoran politics.
GLAZER

© Scoop Media

 
 
 
 
 
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