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  Number 230 | Septiembre 2000
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El Salvador

The Mayor of San Salvador Dares to Be Supported by the People

Internationally acclaimed for his activities promoting women’s rights, the mayor of San Salvador is making the Salvadoran Left proud while challenging it to move beyond its intrigues and divisions. Mayor Héctor Silva may be his country’s next President.

Ismael Moreno, SJ

San Salvador’s municipal government is among 25 in the world recognized for the most efficient urban development. It has been awarded prizes by the United Nations Development Program and by the United Nations Fund for Women for being proactive in enhancing women’s participation in local government and for implementing policies in favor of women’s rights.

envío first spoke with San Salvador’s Mayor Héctor Silva in June 1997, a few weeks after the inauguration of his municipal administration. Now Silva is starting his second term at the head of that government. When he took office, the world watched expectantly to see how the capital’s first leftist administration would unfold. These expectations have now grown, not only because Silva was reelected with impressive voter support, but also because his achievements on a municipal level have projected him as a presidential hopeful with a good chance of winning. If the presidential elections were held today in El Salvador, Héctor Silva would in fact win.

Seven priorities

In the 1997 interview, the newly elected mayor and his Municipal Council identified seven priorities, which Silva counted on his fingers. They were "the garbage problem," violence (particularly youth gangs), traffic problems and vehicular pollution, recovery of the historic city center by relocating and organizing street vendors, lack of services in marginal communities and neighborhoods, lack of citizen participation in municipal government and corruption and lack of transparency in municipal administration.
These priorities quickly became work plans. Now, more than three years later, envío went back to see how the mayor’s office had acted on them.
Finding Mayor Silva was the hard part. He was either in meetings with his staff or out of the country, since he began his second term with multiple activities.
We met with several intermediate level staff members who gave us information about the priorities, which now make up five major programs around which everyone involved in the municipal project moves, discusses and works, and in which they take great pride.

Garbage and the city center

Ernesto Ortiz, one of Mayor Silva’s aides, explained the five program areas. The first is integrated solid waste management. The municipal government has already constructed the sanitation fill, the project’s most important component, and the Mariona garbage dump is about to be closed. The newly formed Office of Environmental Hygiene Management oversees all components of the project from garbage collection to clean-up campaigns to land fill.
Restoration of the capital’s historic center and the recovery of public spaces is the second major program. Silva himself comments on its complexity: "It is not enough to combat unsanitary conditions, criminality and unfair trade. We are seeking fundamentally to give San Salvador a human face, and to do that we must help solve the problem of street children."
At this stage, Silva’s team has already restored Morazán Plaza, Barrios Plaza and Liberty Park, and has cleaned up many streets and avenues that had been a caldron of disorder and crime, always offering alternatives to the street vendors who would be affected. Popular bazaars or flea markets on municipal or private land, markets on wheels and other organized selling spaces were created. Working closely with the private sector, the mayor’s office has created the City Center Development Corporation, a planning forum that seeks alternatives for commerce, culture and recreation within the capital’s urban center.

Decentralization, participation and safety

Decentralization of municipal services is the third program. This project seeks to bolster citizen participation, democratize municipal functions and bring the municipal government closer to the people. In different points throughout the municipality of San Salvador, municipal delegations have been created and steps have been taken to correct any voids detected in implementing the two phases of decentralization. One step was to geographically divide the metropolitan area. Five administrative districts were created initially and later, in the process of filling gaps, a sixth was created. The establishment of district offices equipped to promote services filled another hole.

The next major program is citizen participation, and it is one of the mayor’s principal objectives, the essential feature of the new form of government he and his Municipal Council are encouraging. The holding of town meetings and the existence of district or zonal boards are now part of the capital’s "political landscape." The citizen participation plan is linked to decentralizing city services. The division of the city, first into zones and then into districts, has been the concrete manifestation of municipal government at the service of the people. Each district is charged with implementing a plan of consultation and consensus among the sectors within its jurisdiction.

Citizen Safety is the other program, an important aspect of which is the professionalizing of the police, known in San Salvador as the Municipal Agents Corps. After several experiments, a professional, modern, efficient police force dedicated to community service is being formed that will make San Salvador a safe and pleasant city.

Consensus-reaching in the very center

Ernesto Ortiz places the restoration of the historic center of the city and the recovery of public areas as the number two priority in this area. Ortiz works in the Reordering and Relocation Unit, which, together with the Services Unit, makes up the Local Development Sub-Management Office. This office, in turn, together with the Sub-Management for the Recovery of the Historic City Center, forms the Management Office of the Historical City Center project. It and various other managerial offices are the mayor’s implementing bodies, and coordinate with each other within a sort of cabinet that reports directly to Silva.

"My work is to apply the ordinances related to street vendors in the very center of San Salvador," Ortiz reminds us, so we will understand right away with whom we are speaking. "To put it bluntly, if one day you see on television that a group of street vendors from the central market street or El Calvario Church is being relocated, and you hear about all the hubbub going on there, you are seeing the scope of my work. My job is to implement that decision."
Ortiz is convinced of the importance of his own work and says that recovering the historic city center is going a long way towards making the streets safe for those who navigate the city center on foot each day. "This program is a precise expression of Hector Silva’s definition of consensus, based on implementing policies that respond to the interests of diverse sectors of society. The restoration of the city’s historical center is backed by big business, which stands to gain by regulating the informal trade sector. The street vendors are also winners, because their businesses are ‘formalized’ and they are organized with rights and responsibilities. The population as a whole benefits, because they can walk more easily on the sidewalks, where greater visibility makes them less likely to be victims of delinquents, who appear to be able to survive every imaginable preventive policy. Even the media are winners since they can move more easily in the streets in pursuit of news."
Ernesto Ortiz explained how his work is set up. First, the zones that are critical for recovery are identified, using criteria such as congestion level, the difficulties for pedestrian and vehicular traffic and danger from delinquents. During this phase, the beneficiary population is polled. Then talks and negotiations are held with the population sectors that would be affected and with the different vendors’ associations in order to define the best alternatives.
The Achilles heel of the process is the definition of clear alternatives for the mobile street vendors. The desires of many of them to continue selling in the street is related to the "street culture" or the "culture of the deal" so common in San Salvador. One characteristic of Salvadoran popular identity is gleaning, the constant thinking up of something to sell in order to earn something each day. Salvadorans are defined by their creativity in informal commerce. We are the "sell anything, do anything" people, said Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton. With such a big population in such a small country, the only way to create that vital niche is by competing with creativity and originality. The mobile vendors feel that this vital competition cannot be played out in a fixed place, but only in movement, in the quest, in the streets. The "concentrated and crowded" population of San Salvador is to be found wheeling and dealing like this, nearly always honestly, but wheeling and dealing just the same.

The street as an identity factor

The alternatives for mobile street vendors are sale areas away from the streets and sidewalks, fixed places in markets, out of view of the average Salvadoran walking down the street, who also prefers to buy in the streets. The vendors and small traders feel suffocated inside buildings. Ortiz says that the mayor and his team are aware that the central problem in their proposal is cultural, because it touches the deepest fibers of Salvadoran identity. He says that municipal government must struggle to win over the hearts and minds of five thousand street vendors and many thousands more consumers who consider the street and the sidewalks to be their vital space. As he sensitively describes it, it is the place "where we truly see our faces reflected and identify with who we are, a people able to squeeze the last drop from our soil, creating commercial products, even in the face of the unjust and powerful, a people who keep staking out a life with dignity."
If we add to these cultural roots the fact that the mayor’s office does not always have the material capacity or the personnel capable of carrying out this kind of process, the alternatives become even more complex. This weakness endangers the municipal policy of restoring the old city center. There is no doubt that this is the program where Héctor Silva is up against his greatest limitations.

Behind the city center are greater problems

Each day there are new mobile vendors. Says Héctor Silva, "We should not invest taxpayers’ money in a small group of citizens. We should look at how to help the street vendors get credit, so they can have their own spaces for their businesses." All relocation is done by mutual agreement between the mayor’s office and the mobile vendors. All actions have the prior approval of the Municipal Council.

One advantage is that restoration of the city’s historical center enjoys the unanimous support of the population. Big business, the mayor’s office and representatives of small businesses participate in the City Center Development Corporation. Part of the search for the best way to confront the capital’s chaotic growth is the determination to confront the major problems: lack of national planning, the political vacuum in the countryside, lack of jobs and the growing poverty of the majority of the population.

Between September 1998 and today, the mayor’s office has restored and recovered various parks, plazas and streets that had been infernos. There is no doubt that there is more order today than there was two years ago. Crime rates have dropped. The Canas passage, near the El Calavario Church, was an infamously dangerous area. "You might go there to buy a watch. You might find the brand you wanted, but you would buy the watch on one corner and have it stolen on the next. You would end up without the watch and without your money." It is no longer like that.

The hardest part of this program, says Ortiz, has been the occasional need—virtually impossible to avoid—to use violence to uproot a redoubt of vendors opposed to relocation. "I was hired to work for the mayor on this project on May 4, 1998. I told them I would accept on one condition, that violence would never be used against the mobile vendors. A mere three months later, in September, we were sending the Order Maintenance Unit to evict a group of vendors from Morazán Plaza who were resisting the measures." Did Ortiz change his thinking? "There has always been a political component to this, which is based on the confrontation in the country," he explains. "That is true here, as well. Once an agreement was reached with the vendors, some groups, incited by ARENA or PDC activists, formed pressure blocs. Although even the ARENA leadership had participated in the basic agreements, the party is still determined to undermine Héctor Silva’s credibility, so they look for ways to create problems. We can’t forget that there are always people who will take advantage of any situation for their own benefit."

"The most sensible man I’ve ever met"

Having worked for over two years in the mayor’s office, Ernesto Ortiz expressed absolute confidence that the mayor will be successful in his second term. He added that "it is hard to think of another person more ideal for the Presidency of the Republic."
During the recent electoral campaign, Ortiz was able to get to know his boss up close. As a member of the campaign’s central committee, he was the second in charge of territorial work. He planned candidate Silva’s visits to various sectors of the capital, working directly with the base level campaign organizations. Many times he walked alongside the candidate, shielding him from people’s enthusiasm or from one or another reporter. He considers himself a close collaborator of the mayor. "If you asked me how to define Héctor, I would not hesitate to say that he is the most sensible man I have ever known. And combined with his sensibility is a great social sensitivity, which makes him tremendously fit for public service. Héctor has a great ability to interpret the interests of diverse sectors of the citizenry and to link those interests to public administration. This makes him an ideal mediator between people’s interests and public management."
Ernesto Ortiz is convinced that Silva is the linchpin of the municipal administration’s success. "Héctor knows how to give each collaborator the space he or she needs to operate." In contrast to President Francisco Flores, who does not listen to people and makes even his most important decisions far from the people’s representatives, Hector Silva consults and listens. No one person’s influence on him can be said to predominate. His decisions have his own style, and each one reflects the input of many.

A sure candidate

Although Héctor Silva is seen as a sure candidate for the 2004 presidential elections, he has a long road ahead of him to maintain his profile as the efficient moving force in the capital city’s municipal government. The role played by his administration’s managerial offices will be critical, and this is a tough challenge given that they are where the interests of different party currents, especially those of the FMLN, can clash.

Nobody disputes Héctor Silva’s leadership or his ability to achieve consensus and make decisions that are independent of the political parties, including his own, the FMLN. Nonetheless, since the management of some of his programs is in the hands of political leaders identified with different party currents, this may impact on the efficacy of the programs and the relationship with mid-level staff, who play a decisive role in program implementation.

Silva: A winning card at risk

Ernesto Ortiz has admitted to envío that he belongs to the FMLN’s renovation current. He worries that Mayor Silva may eventually lose his positive profile due to stagnation of various projects to which he is committed. "Héctor is our winning card for the presidential elections, but our sectarian attitudes have enormous repercussions on the work and we could destroy this card ourselves. " Ortiz goes silent as he searches in his mind to identify his party’s errors. "There is no doubt that the municipality’s success is due largely to Héctor as a person.
And if it fails it will be because of the way we carry out the projects. The problem is that some of us put party slogans over the need to respond to the people. For some people in positions of responsibility, revenge and distinguishing themselves from their adversaries in other currents take on more importance than the achievements of the mayor’s office.
"The problem today is not the struggle of a leftwing party against a rightwing party. Silva’s success could be the Left’s success if we, the FMLN leaders who work in the municipal government, could understand and communicate with each other without regard to the currents. Unfortunately, the tendency right now is to contribute to Silva’s failure, because we don’t want to understand each other. More often than not the renovators and the orthodox exclude and trip each other up. If new people come to work, we don’t ask about their motivations or skills, we only ask what current they belong to. How we work with them is determined by their reply, rather than by whether or not they are capable in their field. What counts is their affiliation in the party. This tendency undermines Silva’s success and moves him ever further away from his mission as the architect of the future Salvadoran government.

"If we transform our attitudes and replace them with priorities, we will all participate together in Silva’s success and with Silva in the awakening of hope for the people of El Salvador. But if we don’t put our attitudes aside, Silva will fail and we will fail with him. Worse yet, worse, our failure will crush the hopes of El Salvador’s poor."

Speaking with an expert in community development

envío also spoke with Reina Vigil, a specialist in community development by virtue of her 28 years of experience in the streets, alleys, sidewalks and neighborhoods of San Salvador rather than academic preparation. She spent the war years mocking the “guardia” and other repressive forces, always organizing, always linking her experience with her faith, working with the base communities and political organizations. Much of her community organizing work was carried out through the Social Ministry of the Archdiocese, although in the conservative atmosphere of the past few years her presence and experience have been unwelcome. She immediately became involved in Silva’s project as the Human Development Coordinator of San Salvador’s first district.

Her job is to work with the people, organizing the community so it can advocate on behalf of its own needs. "This is the mission I was given by Héctor Silva. This is what distinguishes this mayor. My job is to penetrate deeply into the communities, to reach people’s hearts. And you never reach the heart of the people with development projects. These are external forces. You reach the people by living with them, relating to their day-to-day reality and their family ties. This is our task, to reach the families, and we can only do it by learning about their problems, their concerns, their arguments and their daily struggles. You define the ways in which the institution can provide service to the community based on this reality. If you don’t penetrate the hearts of the people, even projects with all the correct social components will only serve as Band-Aids, and will always be seen as external to the community. Projects in themselves do not solve community problems. If you haven’t reached the heart of the people, all your projects will be ‘developmentalist.’ You will be cutting the branches of poverty, but never getting to the roots of injustice and the people’s pain."

Human development: The heart of the people

There are three focal points to Reina Vigil’s human development work—citizen participation, local development and development of values—and they are applied in each of the municipality’s six districts. With these axes, the goal is to transform the mentality of people in the marginal communities so that they do not wait for change to arrive from the top, or solutions to come from outside. This mentality comes from a society crushed by lack of hope.

"As a municipal administration, we seek to generate a different outlook among the people. We don’t want them to view the mayor’s office as a mother or father, but rather to feel responsible for their own development. No new communities can exist without this change in mentality. The city cannot be transformed unless communities become the agents of their own programs. And I insist that for this to occur, we must reach the hearts of the people."
As with so many women committed to the community, Reina throws her whole self into her work, which sometimes creates family tensions. Reina is aware that her family responsibility and her community work are two components of the same life project, although it is difficult to combine them. "I know it’s hard to be faithful to both areas, but I also know that if you neglect either one of them, you’ll end up destroyed." Reina leaves her house at seven in the morning and is rarely home before ten at night. She takes care of things in the office, goes to bat in the many meetings requiring constant decisions and in the evenings often visits the communities. During these visits she meets with community leaders, deals with specific problems and provides support to the twelve promoters and three supervisors who work under her.

Winning "in spite of the FMLN"

Reina lets out a deep sigh when asked about Hector Silva. "Dr. Silva is one of the people most accepted by the people of the city and the nation" she tells envío. "He is accepted for his values, his coherence and his ability to respond to different types of people. He can relate to the youth. When he meets with a community, he becomes one of the people. His sensitivity blossoms when he listens to the demands and ideas of women, and he knows how it feels to be a child when he comes face to face with the problems of the children in the capital. He is opening the road to transparency, which has been hard for all of us, and he shows it to us with his humanist capacity. He puts human beings ahead of his sympathies and political preferences."
And what does Reina think of the FMLN? "I must be frank, we in the Frente are an obstacle to Mayor Silva’s project, since the different currents trip each other up whenever we can. If Dr. Silva succeeds, it will be in spite of us in the party. I believe we still have time to turn an obstacle into an opportunity. If all the political currents put their energy into the common project of municipal government, nothing will be able to stop Héctor Silva’s climb to the Presidency in 2004. But for this energy to be productive, we must reach agreement and have the courage to look towards the future, rather than continuing to sling mud at one another. If the currents stop viewing each other as adversaries, if we value each other for who we are, then the project of the mayor’s office will be an excellent model for the country, and the Left will have a long future, not only in our country, but as a model of municipal and national government for Central America and Latin America. But for this to be a reality, we must undo the Gordian knot of internal fights. And this, right now, seems further away than the craters on the moon.

All shoulders to the grindstone

Many of the municipal government’s programs are based on the participation of the citizenry. Héctor Silva defines this as "the involvement, on different levels and in different forms, of citizens and the organizations in which they come together, in the decision-making and implementation of municipal development activities in order to transform San Salvador into a safe, prosperous and healthy city." Reina Vigil reiterates this thought, affirming that it is not enough for people to state an opinion and make a decision, but that the people must "lend a hand, doing their part" to solve the problems.

Reina Vigil spoke with us about the process the mayor’s office uses, and the forums it has utilized to guarantee a participatory and democratic government and to make "putting their shoulders to the grindstone and each one doing their part" a reality. From the beginning of his administration, Héctor Silva and his government team decided to put various mechanisms in place to ensure citizen participation. They include a transparent and fluid flow of information, consultation with the citizenry, decision-making by the sectors involved in each problem and each proposed solution, people’s involvement in implementing decisions, their involvement in the administration of public goods and services, direct participation by community groups and individuals in running various services, and citizen participation in the comptroller’s office or vigilance to insure the proper use of tax funds.

The mayor’s office educates about values

The mayor’s office educates its managers, employees, coordinators, supervisors, promoters and all other people involved in the municipal project in the basic principles and values.

Inclusiveness: No one is excluded from participating in the government and municipal administration. Each person and organization has a place.

Diversity: Respect for the identity, characteristics and needs of each group. Special emphasis is placed on the participation of women and youth.

Integration: Each person and group must feel a part of the municipal administration, to avoid unnecessary disagreements between persons and/or groups.

Equity: Each person contributes according to his or her ability or training, and is guaranteed all the same rights and responsibilities independent of age, sex, religion, political beliefs or economic conditions. No one is seen as lesser, and no one use should his/her position for personal gain.

Legality: Effort has been made to construct laws that ensure, stimulate and protect the participation of all.

Legitimacy: More important than just having a legal framework is to make sure that each initiative that is launched has the support of many people, rather than governing with proposals that come from just one person or benefit only a small group.
Cohesion: All of us pull in the same direction and the policy of citizen participation moves in the same direction as the other policies of the mayor’s office.

Events unprecedented in the capital’s history

To make citizen participation something more than a conglomeration of principles and good intentions, the mayor’s office has stimulated interrelations, coordination and articulation with neighborhood organizations; trade organizations of small, medium and large businesses; professional organizations; women’s and youth organizations; universities; research centers; nongovernmental development organizations and religious organizations.

The involvement of these diverse sectors of the capital is being achieved primarily through the District Boards, which are work teams existing in each of the five districts made up of neighborhood and community representatives and representatives of social groupings. These boards gather their district’s major problems and needs then decide which to prioritize and how the municipal budget will be invested. They coordinate development initiatives and look for funding sources.

Consultant Commissions are another way in which the social sectors are involved. They are formed by individuals who represent diverse sectors of the population, and are called upon by the mayor’s office to suggest policies and actions that respond appropriately to themes of general interest such as the restoration of the historic city center, gender, environment, culture, markets, etc.

Other forms of citizen participation include sectoral-level consultative forums level, open town meetings, open-mike radio and television programs, neighborhood consultations, house-to-house visits, plebiscites, open Municipal Council sessions and suggestion boxes.

The organization of open arenas to inform the population about how the mayor’s office spends public funds, and the holding of open town meetings are utterly new to San Salvador’s history. The town meetings and other channels of citizen participation have allowed direct contact between the mayor’s office and the citizenry and have greatly helped to identify their needs. Using this as the point of departure, as Hector Silva says, "the challenge is to convert dialogue into proposals and proposals into reality." A decisive step by Silva has been to make the entire budget designated for community works available to the different zones and the organized communities.

Up for the challenge

Not everything has been a success, and not all the problems come from the Left. The mayor’s office has not stopped fighting with the business and commerce sectors, the bankers and industrialists, who hardly participate in anything that does not maximize their own economic and political gains. The challenge in seeking the participation of all sectors, including those mentioned above, in the running of the capital, is a challenge for the entire country. Until now, Héctor Silva is the person who has made the most progress in elucidating the implications of this challenge. He therefore emerges as an alternative figure who might be able to transfer the gains of the capital to the entire country.

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