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Friday, March 19, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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El Salvador race coming down to two Palestinians

The Associated Press

USULUTÁN, El Salvador — One is an aging communist guerrilla leader. The other is a young sportscaster and businessman. Yet the leading candidates in Sunday's presidential election share a remarkably similar heritage: Palestinian families that migrated from Bethlehem, birthplace of "El Salvador" himself.

"It's unusual that there is one Palestinian candidate for president," said John Nasser, an activist in the Arab-Salvadoran community. "It's much, much more unusual that there are two."

When Tony Saca's maternal grandfather set sail for the Americas in 1912, one of his shipmates was an uncle of Schafik Handal, whose father arrived a few years later.

The families opened shops across the street from one another in Usulután, a remote rural trading town in eastern El Salvador. For years they traded and socialized — and once intermarried.

Handal's father and mother were even godparents at the wedding of Saca's parents.

Now the two find themselves running for president: Saca, 39, for the conservative governing Nationalist Republican Alliance; Handal, 73, for the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front. Polls show them far ahead of other candidates.

Arab-immigrant families elsewhere in Latin America have produced presidents of Ecuador and Argentina, the richest man in Mexico and performers such as actress Salma Hayek and singer Shakira.

Yet the election here is especially sweet for the 60,000 to 100,000 Salvadorans of Palestinian heritage.

Commonly known as "Turks" because of the Ottoman passports the first migrants carried, they were long snubbed by the elite.

In the 1930s and 1940s, laws barred them from immigrating. Those already here were kept out of the best clubs, their children out of the best schools. As recently as 2000, Salvadoran political commentator Rafael Colindres wrote an essay suggesting, "Perhaps a pogrom would be the solution to the Turk problem."

"After having been in a position that was so despised, it is a point of honor to reach the presidency," Nasser said.

Palestinians began migrating to the Americas — north, south and central — in the late 19th century.

Jacobo Handal and Musa Ali Saleh made the trip together in 1912. Saleh, Saca's grandfather, soon found himself named "Moises Gonzalez."

Schafik Handal's father came a few years later. As his children recall it, he was penniless in the French port of Marseilles, stowed away on an Americas-bound ship and worked as a cook's assistant after he was discovered. He arrived in El Salvador broke and unable to speak Spanish.

Schafik Handal grew up under the dictatorship of Maximiliano Hernandez Gomez. By 14, he was active in protests and at 22 he suffered the first of several exiles for Communist Party activities.

His brother Jose Orlando said his parents "didn't agree with those ideas" and tried to talk him out of politics.

But when officials demanded that he renounce his son, "my father refused," Jose Orlando said. The father had to sell his share in the family store to avoid harassment.

Handal headed the communist faction in the guerrilla coalition that fought the government from 1980 to 1992. A brother, Antonio, was kidnapped and apparently killed by police in 1982. Relatives said he thought he was safe because he was not involved in politics.

The rest of Handal's immediate family had already fled abroad because of death threats. They did not return until 1992.

Saca, meanwhile, largely avoided the country's conflict and got into business at the same age Handal had entered politics.

Just arrived in the capital from Usulután, the 14-year-old jumped through a door to dodge a street demonstration and found himself in a small radio station. He says he was entranced.

He sold commercials by telephone to disguise his age, then did sports broadcasts. By the time he was 22, he was investing in radio stations. By 38, he was nominated for the presidency.

In Bethlehem, a few miles south of Jerusalem, cousins of both men are watching the election.

"It's great, you know," said Taufik Handal, who owns a stationery store on Manger Street. He said he'd never been to El Salvador, though his father once lived there. "Now I want to visit if my cousin wins."

Victor Saca, who runs a Bethlehem jewelry store, said he has a Salvadoran passport because his mother was born there. "Of course I am proud. He's my relative. He's my blood," he said.

"If I find somebody to sell the business," he mused, "maybe I will follow my family."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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