A demonstration Monday in Freeport is expected to attract hundreds of Long Islanders protesting decisions by several Nassau County officials to host El Salvador's vice president Salvador Sánchez Cerén at public events last week.
Cerén, who was elected vice president in 2009 and is a likely candidate for president in 2014, participated in anti-U.S. demonstrations in San Salvador four days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, in which marchers burned American flags.
He appeared with officials -- among them Nassau County Executive Edward Mangano, Legis. Francis X. Becker (R-Lynbrook) and Freeport Mayor Andrew Hardwick -- at ceremonies in Freeport and Mineola on Wednesday to mark Salvadoran American Day. The appearances sparked an outcry from residents -- including Salvadoran-Americans.
"He celebrated the destruction of the twin towers," said Uniondale resident David Renderos, who fled to the United States from El Salvador in 1981, during the Salvadoran civil war. "It's a shame to have elected officials meet with these types of people."
Cerén, who attended a reception with Long Island Latino leaders in Hempstead on Thursday night, told a reporter that he came to New York this week to try to build dialogue between the U.S. and El Salvador. There are about 100,000 Salvadorans on Long Island, according to the 2010 census.
Asked about his involvement in anti-American demonstrations, Cerén said through an interpreter he wants to "reaffirm that I am sympathizing with these people" who died on 9/11.
"What has come out of my heart is to give thanks to this wonderful country," he added.
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) said he met privately with Cerén on Tuesday in his Massapequa office -- to discuss foreign policy. "I oftentimes meet with leaders I strongly disagree with. There were no proclamations," King said.
Criticism of Mangano is unfair, spokesman Brian Nevin said. "County Executive Mangano expressed that all dignitaries are welcome in the USA to celebrate independence, democracy and equality -- all that oppose these values are not," Nevin said in a statement.
Hardwick issued a statement that the Freeport ceremony was "about a celebration of a great culture, heritage and people."
Becker said criticism of Cerén was overblown, adding, "Everybody's going to have political adversaries."
Cerén's political party, FMLN, issued a statement after 9/11 that, according to 2009 congressional testimony from Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), said "the U.S., because of its policies, was itself to blame for being attacked."
FMLN is a left-wing political party born out of a coalition of guerrilla organizations. Its candidate, Mauricio Funes, was elected president in 2009, with Cerén as his running mate.
But Cerén is much more left wing than Funes, said Peter Hakim, president emeritus of Inter-American Dialogue, a nonpartisan Washington, D.C.- based policy analysis group.
"If we want to reach out and build better relations with our adversaries, he's someone we should talk to," Hakim said of Cerén.
Edgar Vasquez, vice consul at the Salvadoran consulate in Brentwood, said criticism of Cerén's participation in flag-burning protests is a "misinterpretation," adding that he was present but did not participate.
Asociación Salvadoreña Americana de Long Island brought Cerén to Nassau, said the group's president Rafael Flores, because Cerén is "reaching out to the state of New York" and is a friend.
Monday's rally is set for 4:30 p.m. at Freeport Village Hall.