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The Salvador Option (Part 4)
El Salvador Today
June 25, 2007

As I've tried to point last the past few weeks, any attempt to characterize the U.S. counterinsurgency effort in El Salvador as a "success" requires a very limited definition of that word. By all accounts, the best the Salvadoran government could achieve, despite a decade of military and non-lethal aid totaling over $6 billion, was a stalemate with the leftist guerillas, and the sadism and corruption of both the officer corps and the government as a whole prevented the counterinsurgency from capturing the "hearts and minds" of the populace.

But even if the Reagan policy didn't achieve "victory" in El Salvador, isn't it true the situation there has improved dramatically, as Vice President Cheney, former Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, former Undersecretary of Defense Wolfowitz, and others have stated? With peace and stability, internationally-monitored free elections, and a demilitarized judicial apparatus, cannot El Salvador be credibly described as "a whale of a lot better" now?

Consider the following:
  • Impunity from the country's civil and criminal laws continues, particularly for the politically, economically, or institutionally well-connected.
  • The concentration of economic power remains in the hands of a few. In fact, in the 1990s wealth became even more concentrated as a result of neoliberal reforms introduced by ARENA, and encouraged by both the first Bush and the Clinton Administrations.
  • Land transfer provisions dictated by the Peace Accords have suffered endless delays.
  • El Salvador ranks last in Latin America with respect to the percentage of the population that enjoys piped water, and many of the households that do have pipes installed receive no water. Water quality is so poor the populace is advised not to drink water provided by ANDA, the national water agency—whose former president was arrested, convicted and imprisoned on corruption charges in 2004. Industrial consumption of natural aquifers remains untaxed, while over 1,000 companies dump raw sewage into the country's rivers, which are the only source of water for many of the country's poor, creating a national health disaster, especially among children.
  • Child labor remains endemic.
  • El Salvador is a source, transit, and destination country for women and children trafficked for sexual exploitation.
  • Civil society is under siege due to the availability of weapons left behind by the war, the formation of shadowy crime syndicates by ex-military officers now turned businessmen, the passage of an amnesty that exonerated all human rights abusers during the war (with the infiltration by these individuals into the national police and organized crime), and the presence of transnational youth gangs founded by Salvadoran immigrants in the U.S.
  • Death squads have returned, to conduct "social cleansing," and four prominent activists, including a married couple and a student, have disappeared, with one of them last seen in police custody (see my Weekly commentary for 4/16/07).
  • El Salvador routinely has one of the top three homicide rates in the Western Hemisphere, and in 2006 had the highest.
  • The highest levels of the the Policía Nacional Civil (PNC) are controlled by former military men with dubious pasts. Corruption is widespread, and there are many ties between the police and organized crime. An attorney with the Human Rights Ombudsman stated: "When we go to the [police] Directorate for Investigating Organized Crime, we never go alone. There always has to be at least two of us, because they might do something to harm us."
  • El Salvador's leading novelist, Horacio Castellanos Moya, lives in exile in the U.S. because, after publication in 1997 of his novel El asco, a satiric look at politics in his country, persons linked to the ruling ARENA party began to make death threats, and he knew better than to dismiss them.
  • Only 15% of Salvadorans believe the country is on the right track, while 66.1% believe it is on the wrong track, according to a poll taken earlier this month (June, 2007).

The old political system was based on corruption, privilege, and brutality, and such things do not just evaporate, even in the welcome light of peace and free elections. As we know from worldwide example—Serbia, Ulster, Palestine, Thailand, Somalia, Afghanistan and, yes, El Salvador and Iraq—today's paramilitary force is tomorrow's Mafia. And so-called free elections can often mask extreme imbalances of power, which voters feel helpless to change.

Meanwhile, almost a third of the population of El Salvador has emigrated to other countries, primarily the United States. The migration wave continues today, estimated by some observers at seven hundred persons per day. These expatriates now send back to their less fortunate family members remittances (remesas) of nearly three billion dollars per year. If the country were reliably secure and prosperous, with wealth distributed reasonably among its people, it would no longer need this foreign cash machine. But the most significant form of voting in El Salvador is done with one's feet: If one can leave, one does.

Those who have stayed behind have become increasingly frustrated. The unwavering grip that ARENA has on power—with conspicuous assistance from Washington—reminds many of the oligarchy's brutal control prior to the civil war. Organized protests have turned increasingly violent, and many fear the country is once again coming apart at the seams.

On July 5, 2006, student protests against bus fare increases resulted in gunfire, with two police officers killed and ten wounded. President Tony Saca blamed the FMLN before any credible evidence was available (and subsequently retreated from this position). The FMLN responded by condemning the violence. As it turned out, a gunman caught on tape was identified as an expelled party member, now belonging to a splinter group calling itself the Limón Brigade.

Beatrice Alamanni de Carillo, the Human Rights Ombudsman, remarked, "We have to admit that a new revolutionary fringe is forming. It's an open secret."

Gregorio Rosa Chávez, the auxiliary bishop of San Salvador, stated, "We signed the treaty but we never lived the peace. Reconciliation is not just based on healing wounds, but healing them well . . . . People are losing faith in the institutions."

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