Wednesday, March 23, 2011

El Salvador: Funes Hosts Dinner For Obama

At the National Palace, President Obama hails courage of President Funes, cites Archbishop Romero as an inspiration for the world...
President Obama returns home to the White House today, after a three-country, five-day tour of Latin America, the first of his Administration. On Tuesday evening in El Salvador, the President and First Lady Michelle Obama were honored with an elegant dinner at the National Palace in San Salvador, hosted by President Mauricio Funes and First Lady Dr. Vanda Pignato. (Above: The President and First Lady toast during the dinner)

The First Couple of el Salvador pulled out all the stops to welcome their American guests at 8:30 PM, with the banquet room in the presidential palace dramatically lit and the sixteen tables for 10 each set with gold-leaf plates, sparkling glassware, and anchored with lush mixed-floral arrangements, with roses prominent in the mix.

The President and First Lady were accompanied to the dinner by members of the US delegation, including Chief of Staff Bill Daley, Press Secretary Jay Carney, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, Ben Rhodes, and Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett. The dinner was about three hours long.

The President wore a dark suit and white shirt with the same smokey-purple tie he had worn all day, during meeting and an internationally televised speech. The First Lady was adorned in a dress of gold-and-ivory textured fabric, with spaghetti straps and low-cut bodice. She wore chandelier earrings that hung nearly to her shoulders, and on each wrist wore large bracelets of gold and pearls (above).

President Obama's visit to the small country that has supplied the US with about 2.8 million residents was critically important for its stature. Funes was elected in 2009 with the support of a party of former Marxist guerrillas that fought to overthrow U.S.-backed governments in the 1980s. His rise to power demolished two decades of conservative rule that made El Salvador among the staunchest US allies in Latin America, and there were fears that the new government would not enjoy US support. But earlier in the day, President Obama announced a $200 million pledge to aid the fight against Central American drug cartels.

A portrait of freedom fighter Archbishop Oscar Romero hung on the wall of the banquet room. In a highly symbolic gesture, President Obama visited his tomb at the Metropolitan Cathedral shortly before the dinner, accompanied by Funes and Jose Luis Escobar Alas, Archbishop of San Salvador. Romero was assassinated in March of 1980 as he raised the Eucharist chalice during a mass, shot by Salvadoran military officer Roberto D'Aubuisson, who was educated in the School of the Americas. (Above: The Romero portrait is visible at right; the President and First Lady are seated at the head table at the far left, as Funes welcomes them to dinner)

In his dinner toast, Funes (left) thanked President Obama for affirming the bond between the two countries.

"It's a gesture that the people of Salvador will never forget," Funes said of the President's visit to Romero's tomb. "Thank you for this gesture and your solidarity."

Funes also referred to President Obama's "ethical and personal" stature, and described El Salvador as a country with "the maturity that wants to walk down the path of peace."

As President Obama took the podium, he spoke about the struggle for peace and prosperity, and the strong bonds between the two countries.

"Just about every Salvadoran has a loved one or a friend in the United States -- husbands and sons, mothers and daughters -- working hard, sacrificing every day," President Obama said. "They strengthen my country, and they mean so much to El Salvador. And they’re very much in our thoughts tonight."

Even the White House kitchen has a chef, "Reina," who comes from El Salvador, Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford pointed out on Friday, during a video chat sponsored by the US Embassy in Manila.

As the President spoke about his visit to Romero's tomb, the First Lady pulled an ivory shawl over her shoulders. (Above: The President was presented with a gift of a scroll during his visit to Romero's tomb; Funes is at right, and the Archbishop is at left)

"I was honored to visit the cathedral this evening and pay my respects to Archbishop Romero, who remains an inspiration to people all around the world," President Obama said.

"Many look at a country like El Salvador and only see the struggles," he added. "I’m proud to work with President Funes, a courageous leader, to meet those challenges together, as partners."

President Obama also hailed the citizens of El Salvador who have struggled to build their country.

"It’s the El Salvador that gets up every day and goes to work -- students, merchants, farmers, young entrepreneurs, business people -- who remind us that building a just and prosperous future cannot be the work of government alone; it must be the responsibility of all who love their countries," President Obama said.

He raised a flute of champagne as he ended his toast.

"To President Funes and the First Lady, for their outstanding hospitality and friendship, and to the peace and happiness that we seek, for our peoples, for the region and for the world," president Obama said. "May we not only achieve our dreams, may we keep them, for this and for generations yet to come."

National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, as he was for the presidential dinner on Monday evening in Chile, was in absentia, ostensibly monitoring developments in Libya.

The First Lady was also busy spreading goodwill during the visit to El Salvador. On Tuesday, accompanied by Mrs. Pignato, Mrs. Obama visited Ciudad Mujer Center in San Salvador, a support center for single mothers. After, she visited with kids at ¡Supérate!, a USAID-backed project. Mrs. Obama painted a mural with the children (above).

The President and First Lady were accompanied on the trip by daughters Malia and Sasha, First Grandmother Marian Robinson, and the girls' godmother, Eleanor Kaye Wilson, known as "Mama Kaye." The trip began last Saturday, in Brazil.

Above: The President and First Lady were greeted at the airport by school Salvadoran school children, before a formal arrival ceremony at the palace. Protesters took to the streets in both Chile and El Salvador to protest President Obama's visit.

*The full transcript of the President's toast is here.

*Top photo and last photo by Pete Souza/White House; others by Reuters, except for photo of First Lady painting; that's from AP.