Letter From El Salvador:
At the Edges of Empire
by Peter Davis
The Nation magazine July 11, 2005
Don't expect this to make easy sense.
El Salvador is a series of issues as much as it is a country,
and to the degree it is a country it is one where contradictions
and extremes rule. As well as paradox. Take, for example, gangs.
The notorious Mara Salvatrucha gang roams the streets of the capital,
San Salvador, as well as other cities, fighting for money, territory
and control of the drug trade. But this gang is not from El Salvador
at all. Mara Salvatrucha began in Los Angeles.
Given the uncertainties, let's start
with El Salvador's facts:
Population: 6.7 million, a little larger
Area: a little smaller than Massachusetts.
Currency: US dollar, no local currency
Taxation: no property tax, 13 percent
Principal export: people; after that,
coffee, sugar, rice.
Principal destination of exports, both
legal and illegal: United States.
Principal import: remittances from Salvadorans
in the United States, known as remesas and estimated at $2.5 billion
annually, 17.1 percent of gross domestic product.
Ethnic groups: mestizo 90 percent, white
9 percent, Amerindian 1 percent or less, having been largely exterminated
in a massacre decreed by the government in 1932.
Foreign businesses visible immediately
on the streets of the capital: Wendy's (for hamburguesas), KFC
(pollo), Pizza Hut, McDonald's, Burger King, Hyundai, Isuzu, Holiday
Inn, Nine West, Tony Roma's, John Deere, Toyota, Blockbuster,
Armani, Subway, Domino's Pizza, Payless ShoeSource, DuPont, Budget
Rent A Car, not to mention Texaco and Shell stations. Emblems
of a consumer nation, or are we talking corporate colonization
here? Sorry, that's opinion, especially the left-loaded word "colonization."
Stick to facts in this section.
Emigrant population: 2.5 million, legal
and illegal, in the United States, more than one-third the total
in El Salvador itself.
Most recent war: Currently the country
is at war in Iraq, having sent 380 troops, six of whom were awarded
the Bronze Star by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on a visit
to El Salvador.
Most devastating war: The civil war lasted
twelve years, from 1980 to 1992, costing El Salvador 75,000 lives
and the United States between $4 billion and $6 billion as it
supported the rightist government against leftist rebels. The
peace accords of 1992 gave a place in the nation's politics both
to the conservative ARENA party and the FMLN rebels.
Most recent election and candidates:
In 2004 Tony Saca of the ARENA party defeated Schafik Handal of
the FMLN party, though in 2003 the FMLN won more seats in the
National Assembly. Saca and Handal are distant cousins from Palestinian
families. Don't draw any conclusions; presumably they are just
a couple of outsourced Palestinians looking for work.
Enough facts. Now for opinion. El Salvador
today is an Exhibit A casualty of the American imperium. The country
is like a friend very slowly recovering from a grave illness--a
stroke, perhaps, that paralyzed part of the body--and still re-learning
the use of limbs and powers of reasoning, occasionally suffering
frustrating setbacks. The illness was not only the civil war but
the way of the war--death squads, dictatorial regimes, massacres
of entire villages, widespread torture, the assassination of the
revered Archbishop Oscar Romero, the murder of American nuns,
a sinister aura throughout the small country. Virtually every
family has its horror story of brutality--abduction, rape, murder.
Even unprosecuted perpetrators are not necessarily free from the
emotional harvest of their acts. The cousin of a National Guard
officer who was present at the infamous massacre in El Mozote
told me his cousin is still "visited by fright and guilt."
I asked whether this officer had committed murders himself. "If
he was ordered he followed orders," the man said. "His
nightmares are uncontrollable even with drugs, and he has been
in and out of mental hospitals ever since."
The grave illness of El Salvador, this
national stroke, was also finely calibrated and to a major degree
funded, if not caused, by the United States. Our troops schooled
the Salvadoran Army and its affiliated death squads, the Reagan
Administration supported the hysterical fascism of the dictators,
and our Special Forces and CIA taught the torturers their techniques.
This was, in retrospect, spring training for Iraq.*
Like Iraq, with its own badly misunderstood
history, El Salvador has problems that preceded US policy in the
area. Beginning in the sixteenth century, the Spanish did an efficient
job of creating an unholy trinity to preside over the poor in
countries they colonized: army, church and oligarchy. El Salvador's
oligarchy consisted primarily of fourteen families who controlled
the economy and the rigid social ladder. The feudal system imposed
by the Spanish persisted until the civil war brought about (some)
land reform and (some) social mobility. The apparatus of class
is exemplified today in fashionable neighborhoods by high walls
topped with razor wire that protect the rich from the poor. Socioeconomic
poles are so far apart, El Salvador could be a laboratory for
the study of unfairness.
There is always the danger that a recovering
patient can suffer a relapse, another stroke. Professor Benjamin
Cuellar, director of the Institute for Human Rights at the University
of Central America in San Salvador, sees a slightly modernized
trinity blocking egalitarian progress the way the old Spanish
one did. "We have the divine right of wealth here,"
he told me. "God the Father is the economic power of the
rich families, the corporations and US interests. The Son is ARENA
itself, which serves the rich, and the Holy Ghost is the media
which support the rich and ARENA, who basically own them. No wonder
human rights are threatened, not only by gangs but in the home."
On the question of the Central American
Free Trade Agreement, currently before the US Congress, Cuellar
is critical but fatalistic. "CAFTA is coming and it has provisions
to expand the economy, but it will help only the rich," he
said. "The government tells lies about how we will invade
the United States with tamales and tortillas to drive out hamburgers.
Our little industries can't really compete and will be flooded
by American and Chinese products. The Salvadoran winners will
be the bankers, the big landowners who build malls and own hotels,
the Mercedes dealers. The poor will be the losers, as usual."
CAFTA advocates say it will diversify the economy, bring jobs
to El Salvador and industrialize the workforce. Crucial objections
to CAFTA are that it provides no support for labor unions, does
not guarantee even minimal working conditions, contains no protections
for the environment and will put El Salvador's small farmers out
of business by allowing cheaper corn and beans to come in from
Like other Salvadorans of all classes,
Cuellar sees the flow of immigrants to the United States as both
a social escape valve and an indispensable part of the economy.
"What would we do without 2.5 million Salvadorans in the
United States? Simple: We'd collapse. Your government looks the
other way on illegal immigrants, our government sends troops to
Iraq, a total surrender to George Bush."
Illegal immigration led to the creation
of Mara Salvatrucha, the gang that terrorizes urban El Salvador.
It originated as a defense against Mexican gangs preying on Salvadoran
immigrants in Los Angeles. When Mara Salvatrucha leaders were
arrested and deported to El Salvador, they recruited new members,
who headed north to the United States themselves, reinforcing
what has become a 100,000-member international gang. The Department
of Homeland Security catches those it can, sends them home and
the recruiting cycle begins again among the dispossessed youth
of El Salvador's poorest barrios.
At the other end of the spectrum, the
US Embassy in San Salvador is a fine and private place, a moated
compound against the country to which it is delegated, as meticulously
landscaped, tennis-courted and pooled as a Connecticut country
club. Diplomats there are more welcoming than at any embassy I
have visited and refreshingly candid. The feeling among those
I spoke with was that the FMLN would have won the last election
if its candidate, Schafik Handal, hadn't been so bombastic and
hot-tempered. They fear that ARENA President Saca's current outreach
to the poor and proposed tax reforms will be scuttled by his own
wealthy supporters. These opinions were echoed by Americans both
inside and outside the embassy.
An American with considerable experience
in El Salvador rues the tax system, or lack of one, connecting
it to the monthly remittances from the United States, out of which
the Salvadoran banks take a cut. In a lengthy conversation, the
only time I saw him agitated was when he talked about wealthy
Salvadorans. "Remittances," he said, "amount to
the poorest people in the country subsidizing the richest, the
ones with three BMWs in their garages. The 13 percent sales tax
hits the poor the hardest, and the rich pay no property tax. You
can't run a country on a sales tax. The national sport here isn't
soccer, it's tax evasion." This American, with contacts among
the Salvadoran elite, did not want to be identified; he added
that he levels these charges against the rich not as a socialist
but as a conservative Republican.
The irony of the remittances is that
they are sent by Salvadorans who are themselves near the bottom
of the US labor pool--maids, busboys, messengers, janitors. Two
hardworking mothers in San Salvador who do not receive remittances
themselves told me the payments are necessary but demoralizing.
"My cousins are in a small village on the coast and have
made their living as fishermen for generations," one said,
"but the waters are becoming fished out. So they sit around
waiting all month for their remesas to arrive from Houston and
northern Virginia. I also have farming cousins in the mountains.
When coffee prices went down they stopped planting, and now they
just wait for the monthly payments. Their cousins in America clean
houses and mow lawns. A couple of the guys found work in construction."
The other woman, who once studied medicine
but now works as a driver and tour guide, was even bleaker. "The
United States has El Salvador in the palm of its hand," she
said. "If your government suddenly decided, for whatever
reason, to deport a mere fraction of the illegal Salvadorans,
say 100,000, our lifeline vanishes and the war would start again."
Both women used exactly the same four words to describe the illegal
immigration to the north: "This will never end."
"I completely disagree that remesas
make bums of us," a villager far from the capital told me.
Maria Celina Orellana is a 51-year-old mother of ten who, remarkably,
looks a decade younger. She has struggled all her life for her
family and her mountain village, Carasque, which has usually meant
struggling against her government and its US sponsors. Orellana's
allies--and Carasque's--are American NGOs in the country, working
openly against Administration policy and continuing to try, if
possible, to help Salvadorans resist the malignant effects of
globalization without representation. Jesse Kates-Chinoy, a young
American from Bangor, Maine, who works for the Sister Cities Program
in El Salvador, took my wife and me three bumpy hours in a pickup--and
developmentally, a light-year--from San Salvador to Carasque in
the department of Chalatenango. El Salvador's pre-industrial past
materialized as the noisy, dusty capital gave way to farmland,
lush foliage, sparkling streams and hilly villages where people
were traveling on foot or by donkey.
Carasque is near the Honduran border and
has a population of about 400, making sister "city"
an ambitious designation, but Peace through Interamerican Community
Action (PICA) in Bangor has furnished, among other things, medicines,
school supplies and money for a new soccer field in Carasque.
Maria Celina Orellana, who is on the town council and twice the
age of the other members, recalls the war in Carasque as freshly
as if it had ended last month instead of thirteen years ago. Like
many villages in Chalatenango, Carasque favored the FMLN rebels
over the central government. "We hated the army," Orellana
said. "When the army came to occupy us, the men of Carasque
hid farther up in the mountains so they wouldn't be drafted against
their will. The Guardia took our pigs and chickens and never paid
us. If they asked for your ID and you didn't have it, they beat
you. When the Guardia saw a woman walking alone, they would take
her up the hill above here and rape her in a group. They would
tell her if she talked they'd rip out her tongue." Two of
Orellana's sons joined the rebels and were killed.
I asked Orellana if she herself was mistreated.
As she answered she looked away, out the window of the enlarged
tin-roof hut where the town council meets, and focused on a loofa
tree. "We suffered because we had to protect our village."
Still avoiding my eyes and continuing to use the first person
plural, she said, "We were never safe when the Guardia was
around. They were the most cruel. They took our houses, made us
sleep outside, stole anything they wanted, made us do whatever
they wanted us to do. Always when they were around we felt death
in the air."
Orellana and others said there were no
paid jobs in Carasque except for schoolteachers. Some of the villagers
belong to a sewing cooperative, and they sell tapestries to people
in Bangor and elsewhere. The men are almost all farmers, dreading
the advent of CAFTA, which they are sure will drive them off the
land. "We raise sugar and chickens," Orellana said,
"and, yes, my son in Washington, DC, sends money home from
his pay as a house painter. But no one sits back and waits here.
We have no bums in Carasque." Outside, punctuating what Orellana
had just said, three men passed carrying rakes while two women
climbed the hill from a stream with green baskets on their heads
full of laundry they had just washed. Neither used her hands to
steady the baskets, one swinging her arms and the other holding
In Carasque's only shop, a combination
general store and cafe, we ate a friendly fly-buzzed lunch while
Kates-Chinoy described his work in Carasque and other villages
as "essentially education and political advocacy." His
parents spent several years in El Salvador, and his father, Dennis
Chinoy, recently published an op-ed in which he argued that under
CAFTA public education, fire departments, libraries and even water
supplies are all "fair game for privatization." In a
worst-case nightmare, remittances to El Salvador could become
the intravenous feeding tube keeping a comatose country alive.
Even in Carasque, cognitive dissonance lives: As we ate, the shop's
television was tuned to a rerun of the Westminster Kennel Club
Dog Show in Madison Square Garden with its display of champion
borzois, Shih Tzus, corgis and bichons frisés, whose collective
grooming costs more than Carasque's citizens see in a year, remittances
included. If anyone was offended, there was no sign. As in villages
throughout the Third World, Carasque's television seemed to be
utilized less for its dramatic or informational possibilities
than for its anesthetic properties.
When I returned to San Salvador for an
appointment with the former medical student now working as a tour
guide, she told me that, at 35, she was already too old to be
hired by one of the corporations now dotting the city. As a working
mother supporting her son without remittances, she would like
at least to be eligible for an office job. "Nothing doing,"
she said. "These men, they want only young women to look
at and to serve them." We were joined by her parents, who
had lived for a dozen years in San Francisco. "Machismo is
our enemy here," her stately mother said. "It keeps
everyone down, the men stupid and the women ignorant. Educate
the women and you educate the country."
Meanwhile, security was being beefed
up all over the city because the day after I was to leave El Salvador,
Condoleezza Rice was coming through on a politicothankyoudiplophoto-op
to tell the only Central American country still maintaining troops
in Iraq how much its patron appreciated the gesture.
On my last afternoon in the country I
went to see Maria Julia Hernandez, for several decades El Salvador's
guardian of human rights. She works in an office so spare the
only ornamentation is a large cross flanked by a pair of photographs
of the assassinated Archbishop Romero, with whom she worked a
generation ago. Even when she is most critical of American policy
or of cruelties in El Salvador, Hernandez smiles indulgently.
She has the beatific visage of a Buddha or--on her own religious
compass--of a slowly aging Latina angel. "Human rights today
is a very delicate subject here," she said. "In a structural
way the majority of people are threatened every day--by the gangs,
of course, but also by bandits and even the national police, who
are very corrupt and take bribes. They also still use torture.
The problem with youth gangs is real, but the police don't try
to solve it except by force. This is no good--we have to include
young people in choosing their futures, not simply suppress them."
Hernandez pointed to a kind of violence
worse than that caused by gangs or police, which Professor Cuellar
had alluded to when he mentioned human rights in the home. "Family
crimes against women and children," she said, "this
is more serious than the gangs. Men with no jobs turn to domestic
violence. Women are killed in horrible ways. As El Salvador's
debts go up, social conditions go down. The same causes exist
that were here before the civil war--social and economic inequality,
the threat and reality of violence. The politicians are shouting
now instead of shooting, but the conditions are the same as before.
Men have so few jobs, the factories that exist exploit women terribly
and the remesas are not healthy for an economy or a people."
I asked if she had any hope.
"Solidarity," Maria Julia Hernandez
said, smiling more broadly even as she described a country on
life support. "I always have hope that enough people will
come together to work for a just society. The United States could
help by understanding that other people, not only Americans, are
human beings too, and by paying attention to international agreements
on the environment, global warming and human rights. I admire
so much in the United States--the goodness and generosity of the
people, and the values and rights you believe in--but your foreign
policy is terrible. We should bring our soldiers home from Iraq,
and so should you. Why do you have such a terrible foreign policy?"
"Why?" I said.
"You tell me," she said, still
Peter Davis is an author and filmmaker
who received an Academy Award for his Vietnam War documentary
Hearts and Minds. His most recent book is If You Came This Way:
A Journey Through the Lives of the Underclass (John Wiley). He
has reported for The Nation from Nicaragua, Vietnam, Iraq and
the Czech Republic.
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