The United States has formally endorsed the former president of El Salvador to become the next secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS).  The endorsement will boost the chances of ex-President Francisco Flores, who faces stiff competition to win election to the post.

Mr. Flores appeared at the OAS' ornate headquarters in Washington Thursday to address the permanent council and present his case for becoming the institution's next secretary general.  The former Salvadoran president, who is 45, hopes to win the support of a majority of the 34 OAS member states.

Mr. Flores' candidacy received a strong boost when the U.S. representative to the OAS, John Maisto, formally endorsed him during Thursday's session.  Later at a news conference, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega, who is in charge of Latin American affairs, explained the reasons for the Bush administration's endorsement.

"President Flores represents a new generation of Latin American leaders: thoroughly modern, dynamic, forward leaning, who view the challenges of our 21st century globalized world not as threats to be shunned but as opportunities to be embraced," he said.  "He is a Central American visionary, fresh and creative in his outlook, who deeply appreciates the benefits of regional action and hemispheric unity."

The U.S. endorsement came as no surprise, since Washington had earlier made clear it would support a former president from Central America for the job.

However, the two other contenders are believed to have wide support in the hemisphere, and Foreign Minister Insulza in particular may get the support of large countries like Brazil and Argentina.

In his speech Thursday, Mr. Flores said he would seek to revitalize the OAS and emphasized the need for the institution to combat poverty, promote economic development, and develop rapid response mechanisms to natural disasters.  He also called on member states to hold the election to pick a new secretary general by the end of February.  The countries have until June to decide.

The OAS has been without a head since last October, when former Costa Rican president Miguel Angel Rodriguez stepped down less than a month into his tenure to return home to face corruption charges.