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  Number 174 | Enero 1996
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El Salvador

Unemployment and Violence: A Dramatic Cycle

A vein of authoritarianism prevails in the government with regard to any labor protest. There likewise prevails a lack of creativity in the protests of the labor leaders. Meanwhile, there is no doubt that the present government is a government of businesspeople.

Juan Hernández Pico, SJ

El Salvador reveals an alarming level of extreme poverty. The country ranks 115 out of 174 nations studied in the United Nations Development Program report on Human Development. The government's economic program, unveiled at the beginning of 1995 and put into practice erratically, has not opened the way to human development. Nor do any links exist between that program and social development.

The increasing frustration of the majorities is a breeding ground for the destabilizing intentions of deposed military officers bent on discrediting the peace accords. Union led protest and struggle have not effectively defended workers' rights. Periodically, the tensions become unsustainable, triggering violence and bloodletting among the poor. Meanwhile, National Civil Police members and security agents are discredited and degraded. This dramatic cycle of poverty and violence consolidates the conviction that the only solution is an authoritarian government.

November 23: Yet Again

In October, National Assembly representatives approved the Obligatory Economic Compensation Law that opens the way for some 15,000 state sector layoffs within the state "modernization" process. The measure sparked general distress that ministers and institute directors will use the law to rid themselves of union leaders by closing out their jobs. The government agreed to designate a ministerial commission to review the 3,400 disputed job posts with union leaders before the list of layoffs is passed to the Assembly for a definitive decision. The ministers of Labor, Security, Treasury and the Interior were designated to sit on the commission.

When intransigence brought the talks between the union leaders and commission members to a halt, the unions called a state sector strike for November 23. That same day, veterans belonging to the Association of Ex Combatants and War Victims in El Salvador (AEGES) occupied the building of the Protection Fund for the Injured and took 35 employees hostage. After well directed negotiations by the Human Rights Office to resolve the situation, the National Civil Police (PNC) lost its patience, anti riot squads went into action and an excess of violence shown on television left 27 year old armed forces veteran René Pineda dead, dozens of others injured, neighbors of the Fund suffering from tear gas, and 30 detained. The latter were eventually released for insufficient cause.

Yet again, the provocative protest methods of the veterans clashed with repressive police violence, further endangering the negotiating, respectful and tolerant spirit demanded by a transition to democracy that will humanize El Salvador. And, yet again, centering attention on the issue of "public order" obscured the fundamental problem: the disorder and critical insecurity are provoked by dire poverty.

On the Outs

The Peace Accords have tried to build a peace where all political views coexist primarily through two novel institutions: the Human Rights Office and the PNC. The confrontation between these two was very negative during the November 23 incident. The UN still present in the country through MINUSAL went to the scene of the conflict. Recognizing the real reason for the protest and the dangerous situation being created, MINUSAL and the Prosecutor's Office tried to negotiate the hostages' liberation and coordinate a meeting between the veterans and the National Assembly Treasury Commission, but the PNC only seemed interested in the lawbreaking occupying a public building and taking hostages, violating their rights and in the end acted in a clearly unprofessional manner.

The two contradictory interpretations underlie two different visions of the protesters. The democratic vision justifies the protests for the deficiencies being suffered through unfulfilled accords or violated rights. It focuses on the legality or illegality of the protest methods, rejecting illegal methods that break down order, and tries to maintain negotiations and a return to order by persuasive means. The authoritarian vision puts a priority on law and order over any other consideration. It considers those who use illegal protest methods and demand that nothing except surrender be negotiated as simple criminals. "Dialogue cannot be used with those who break the law," stated the Vice President of the Republic. When the PNC said it could wait no longer violence was unleashed, even though the Human Rights Office requested more time, 11 of the 35 hostages had already been released and an agreement to end to the incident appeared near. A MINUSAL representative indignantly exclaimed, "You want to do everything the wrong way!," reflecting the frustration produced by the extremes of violent police repression just minutes later.

A Lack of Professionalism

We watched with horror on television as the anti riot squad beat on any veterans, even if they were far from the building that had been occupied; as they shot tear gas directly in the faces of people from a short distance; as they shot rubber bullets at the body of an unarmed veteran from less than five meters. The victim fell with a perforated aorta, and bled to death in the hospital. All this brutality, all these extremely violent methods that cannot be justified by the goal of restoring order and would probably have been unnecessary if there had been a little more patience, respond to an irrational and unprofessional logic. One does not keep 40 anti riot police waiting tensely at the scene in their full riot gear. One does not allow a tremendously disorganized removal operation without distinguishing the functions between the first, second and third lines of a police formation that is waiting for people to leave a building filled with tear gas. Expert police consultants confirm that anti riot squads should not be used to deal with a hostage situation; a specialized assault force is called for, and then only if negotiations become fruitless.

Escalating Repression

The most discouraging aspect is that situations like that of November 23 have been escalating since the beginning of 1995. During April's Central American Presidential Summit, anti riot police stopped the passage of a veterans' demonstration without measuring the use of violence. During the same period, they also intervened violently against strikers in a maquiladora plant. In July they stopped an AEGES demonstration that was on its way to the capital, and one veteran died in the confrontation. In September they used violence in a confrontation with workers who had occupied an INSS center. The end of the year produced yet another outbreak of disorganized and fatal violence.

Every time the PNC acts this way, reactions are just as expected. President Calderón, Security Minister Barrera and PNC director Avila always state that the police actions were within the law, that the law does not distinguish between healthy or sick criminals and that the rule of law must be maintained.

The Human Rights Office speaks of excessive violence, lack of dialogue and a police force born out of civil society and created to protect it that is now in danger of being militarized and becoming a threat to people's security. ARENA representatives justify the actions. The opposition, and especially FMLN representatives, denounce them. Human Rights organizations and the Central American University (UCA) demand a National Civil Police more respectful of human rights and more professional, a bastion of those political liberties won with so much blood.

The director of police recognizes that there always must be corrections, lessons learned, improvements and a growth in professionalism. And he is right. There have also been opposite cases. The police negotiated during the CREDISA assault, patiently allowing a Red Cross worker to mediate and calmly capturing the assaulters after they surrendered. In the October land occupations in Ahuachapán, the PNC surrounded the occupied farms, but achieved their eviction through negotiations, and the occupants were allowed to ask the Supreme Court for judgments of unconstitutionality over the farms larger than the constitutionally limited size.

Public reactions to the dramatic November 23 events at first revealed disagreement and intransigence. President Calderón evaded declaring himself on whether the PNC acted violently or not, noting only that violence is not a legal method for demanding rights. He spoke of AEGES as "groups who do not understand that these things are part of the past," without adding that police willingness to recur to violence should also stay in the past.

FMLN: "An Assassination"

The most unbalanced declarations came from Security Minister Hugo Barrera, who accused the Human Rights Office of also having responsibility for the incident, for being partial to AEGES and against the PNC. The new PNC inspector, Victor Valle, spoke with great caution, announcing that he will investigate not only the orders that were given but also the mood of the agents, calling the death of the former soldier "lamentable" since the PNC's primary function is to preserve life. The Defense Minister noted the priority of reestablishing order and authority when a sector of society violates it.

National Assembly President Gloria Salguero, from ARENA, gave the most incredible declarations by justifying the death as police nervousness and uncertainty in not knowing if the people in the crowd were carrying arms or grenades. The agent who shot the rubber bullet alleged that he had never been taught that these bullets could kill and said that tear gas had infiltrated his gas mask. The PNC director alleged that he disobeyed a direct order not to shoot at any less than 15 meters, or above the knees of the demonstrators.

FMLN coordinator Salvador Sánchez Cerén spoke of "assassination" and released a document, supposedly from a high level police officer, that had been distributed internally in the PNC claiming that between November 13 and 17 FMLN union leaders and politicians were preparing work stoppages around the state layoffs to "paralyze the country, cause instability and ungovernability, provoking an insurrection that would oblige the army to take to the streets and deal with an armed rebellion." Sánchez Cerén demanded an explanation from the government.

The most balanced statement came from the Human Rights Office. It spoke of shared responsibility between AEGES and the PNC: the veterans for taking hostages and the PNC for excessive use of violence leading to a death. The bishop of San Salvador said that the PNC should not be judged only for the death. He reaffirmed the PNC's responsibility to maintain order "when there are human rights violations and kidnappings" in a protest. He called on the PNC to review its procedures, reminded that "violence generates violence" and expressed the hope that this death would be "a call to avoid confrontation and to use democratic methods to seek solutions to problems."

The Specter of Unemployment

This major incident took place in the context of labor unrest among state workers because of the Compensation Law and the expected unemployment of thousands. The specter of unemployment is running through the country and putting workers in an extremely inflammable state of mind. When the commission created to dialogue with the unions and managers of various state executive units interrupted talks on November 22, the unions requested a direct audience with President Calderón Sol.

The responses to the breakdown of the talks did not reveal much democratic spirit. Security Minister Hugo Barrera speculated that the interruption was due to two factors: "One, they are trying to make other destabilizing proposals; or, two, they [the union leaders] have not showed up because they realized from the first meetings that arbitrary layoffs have not occurred." President Calderón Sol agreed to meet with the workers, but only reminded them that "radical" measures do not resolve problems and warned, "These leaders always want to claim more representation than they actually have."

This reaction differs notably from the President's reaction when private business leaders protested what they called a "fiscal assault" by the Treasury Ministry's General Office of Domestic Taxes in October. They claimed that the "assault" included inspectors who showed up unexpectedly at businesses demanding books and payroll accounts, reviewing them and applying fines for infractions without accepting the extensions that the businesses asked for. They are not trying to defend tax evaders, clarified the business leaders, but trying not to scare off investors through misunderstandings. Even although a balanced budget and social development plans depend on fiscal income, the President immediately responded to the demands, declaring that, effectively, fiscal "terrorism" that scares off investors' productive spirit cannot be allowed. La Prensa Gráfica suggested that the state discipline itself to avoid "tax addiction." And before the end of October, the General Director of Domestic Taxes was replaced.

One more sign leaving no doubts that this is a businessmen's government. It remains to be seen if someday it will also be the government of salaried workers and of the poor who dream of not dying as poor as they were born.

"A Strong Man"

In the last IUDOP/UCA public opinion poll, the number of Salvadorans who think the political situation has worsened since the 1994 elections is almost double (40.1%) those who think it has improved (21.7%). Nearly half (48%) say they have no interest in politics and another 37.6% manifest little interest. While 40.7% think that El Salvador is currently democratic, 45.5% think it is not. A little over half (50.9%) consider elections to have been of little use to the democratic process and only a quarter (25.4%) think they were very useful. While 54.7% want reforms in the country's social system, 36.7% want a total overhaul. Just over 76% have little or no confidence in political parties, 74.4% say the same of the President of the Republic, and 70.9% distrust the Legislative Assembly. The 43% abstention level in last year's elections makes these results no surprise.

Salvadorans pointed out once more that the primary problems affecting them are the economic situation (47.7%) and crime (37.1%). Almost one third (32.3%) do not expect politicians to resolve the country's problems, while 50.4% expect something (that they "help the poor," "improve the country," "make economic changes," "fulfill their promises," "be honest," etc.). Perhaps the most striking opinion was that 75.8% of Salvadorans believe that "what El Salvador needs is a strong and decisive man to install order."

None of the current politicians seem to fulfill this image. None of them received even a 6 on a scale of 1 to 10. Only four received more than 5: Cristiani (5.95); Kirio Waldo Salgado, the ultra right denouncer of supposed corruption in the ARENA governments (5.5); Abraham Rodríguez, PDC founder and former candidate (5.31); and Democratic Convergence leader and last year's presidential candidate Rubén Zamora (5.08). President Calderón only received 4.57, FMLN head Shafick Handal 4.47. Former FMLN leader Joaquín Villalobos with 3.86 and Gloria Salguero with 3.8 close the list with the lowest ratings.

When indicating their intentions to vote if the elections were next Sunday, those who would not vote for any party (19.6%), those who don't know who they would vote for (36%) and those who say that the vote is secret (4.7%) total 61.3%. ARENA received 15.9%, the FMLN 12.3%, the PDC 4.9% while the Democratic Liberal party (PLD) founded by Kirio Waldo Salgado got 2.6% support, a striking percentage in the current political spectrum.

The Real Problem

There were coup rumors the evening of November 23, after the television transmitted the dramatic images of violent police repression. They were immediately denied by the President and the Defense Minister. Rumor or not, it is clear that something is going wrong in El Salvador's transition to democracy, and not only because television images of indiscriminate and cruel repression have traveled around the world.

Accusations of corruption among justices as well as against PNC members and others have multiplied. Presidential ire at accusations that the maquiladora industry does not respect labor rights contained in a letter to the US congress and signed by FMLN representatives burst out uncontrollably. The President called the accusers "traitors and malcontents" who "leave thousands of workers in the streets," while they called on him to concern himself more with worker exploitation and mistreatment.

The real problem is an economy whose current structure makes it incapable of sustained growth; a politicized social compensation fund and a social development plan with no link to economic restructuring; and an educational reform, alone a fundamentally good idea. All of this is a boiling pot for the insecurity, instability and violence that is beating on the country with intolerable and cyclical rhythms.


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