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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 181 | Agosto 1996
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El Salvador

We're in the Dark and Losing the Way

In the country light is lacking to illuminate the truths that are not spoken. And leadership is lacking to speak the truth and orient the nation, which floats like a boat adrift. Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chávez has spoken with lucidity and courage about this crisis.

Letter to the Churches Team, UCA San Salvador

Two years of the second ARENA government have passed. Many speeches have spoken of the two years of government in El Salvador and also of an era that is coming to an end.

Some say that this era" closed in 1992 with the end of the war and the beginning of the peace accords. That's not quite correct since the postwar stage has been closely linked to the war period.

At one point, the peace accords appeared to be the key to definitively ending the war and smoothing out the country's course. In the last three years many people have tried to interpret fulfillment of the accords like a thermometer, but the accords are not the only thermometer by which to measure the life of millions of Salvadorans.

There is a sensation that, whether or not the accords are fulfilled, something very important has ended: a cycle that, in various ways, tried to change the country. That growing conviction comes after important changes and incidents: a new awareness on the part of the majorities, popular organization, years of repression and war, martyrs and heroes, the signing of accords, the United Nations presence and many other incidents.

The Root of Poverty

Almost everyone recognizes that the last two or three decades have been unable to resolve poverty efficiently and with dignity. Injustice, the root of poverty of which hardly anyone speaks anymore, has also not been resolved. Because this dearth of solutions persists after so many years and so many diverse attempts to resolve it, material poverty has been joined by spiritual poverty, which, while less visible, is no less real.

Gregorio Rosa Chávez, auxiliary bishop of San Salvador, dramatically expressed the two major problems we are now suffering: "We are in the dark and losing the way." The country lacks light and leadership.

On June 1, President Calderón Sol read a speech to the nation on the second anniversary of his presidential mandate. As always, there was plenty of rhetoric and demagogy, but none of the needed self criticism that all governments that respect themselves and the citizens they claim to represent should include.

There was also a lack of realism in the President's speech. Within the framework of accelerated poverty and an outbreak of terrorist practices within the rightwing groups, there is no basis in reality to sustain that the country is advancing in strengthening democratic institutions or that the government is committed to strengthening social development.

More and More Poor People

To be realistic, El Salvador has lost its way in the last two years, taking unexpected turns to one side and the other, buffeted by the individual interests that have imposed themselves within Calderón Sol's advisory team. The government has also been subjected to pressures from the most powerful business groups divided among themselves and this has been translated into improvisations and changes in the direction of the economy. The financial sector has always predominated in this battle among the business groups, shielding itself with the state, and leaving the agricultural and industrial sectors exposed.

While the financial groups devour the country's economy, the grassroots sectors have resented the impact of the neoliberal measures that the government has been implementing in such total disorder for the past two years. During these two years, El Salvador's poor have become even poorer. When one is born poor one is condemned to die poor. And now newly poor people have been added to the thousands of Salvadorans who must struggle just to live a miserable life. The basis for equitable economic and social development is becoming ever more remote.

A Lack of Strategic Vision

The government's political program has been characterized by accentuating the trends toward great inefficiency and severe loss of legitimacy, clearly evidenced from the first year of Calderón Sol's administration.

In the political section of his speech, Calderón Sol made only one vague and rhetorical reference to the country's political transition. He wanted to present as a success of his political work a process that in reality has been guided by the inertia of the institutional reforms promoted by the peace accords more than by any strong executive will to broaden the democratic framework. The political, electoral, judicial and other reforms have registered some important progress, against and despite government desire. But this progress is still not enough to truly and democratically transform El Salvador's political regime. That democratic deficit weighs heavily today, because pluralism is what offers though not fully guaranteeing authentic possibilities of concrete and efficacious solutions.

The primary criticism of the current ARENA administration's political performance is that the executive branch has no strategic vision for the nation, ranging from establishing national economic, social and political priorities to designing mechanisms to make these priorities a reality.

But coming to agreement among the different power groups around a program of national priorities, goals and vocation is not an easy task. The greatest problem is that if the President is incapable of doing it, others will, perhaps using authoritarian and exclusionary mechanisms.

"The Good and The Bad"

According to a poll by the UCA's University Public Opinion Institute (IUDOP), 36.1% of Salvadorans consider President Armando Calderón Sol's work in his two years in office to be bad or very bad. The survey asked Salvadorans to rate the government's work over the last two years on a scale from 0 to 10. Those polled gave the administration an average of 5.12 points.

They were also asked if they have noted positive changes in the country in the last two years, and 46% considered that there have been. Areas regarded as positive are, among others: fixing streets and parks (16.7%), fulfilling the peace accords (82%) and improving public services (7.3%).

At the same time, 71.2% stated that there have been negative changes in the country during the current administration. The failures attributed to the government in these two years concentrate on the economic situation and the public safety crisis. While 28.2% think that the administration's main failure is inflation, 19.4% claim that the government has been unable to detain crime and 10.4% that the government's greatest failure is lack of jobs.

Although opinions appear to be slightly improved over a similar poll taken one year ago, the general evaluation continues to be that there are more failures than successes.

"Lottery of Death"

The critical situation in the country's prisons once again has become news, showing the need to take urgent measures to resolve it. If this does not happen, the scenes that rocked the nation over two years ago could be repeated: massacred and mangled people, cadavers thrown into trucks to be taken to cemetery graves...

In June the prisoners at Santa Ana prison threatened to carry out actions to protest their situation, mentioning a hunger strike and above all a death roulette; prisoners would draw a daily lottery to decide which of them would hang themselves to protest the failure to speed up judicial process paperwork and improve the bad living conditions, particularly overcrowding and bad food. The threat is still pending and is mentioned daily in the press in macabre detail.

The symptoms of this critical "illness" that Salvadoran society complains of are not new. For a long time the people deprived of their liberty who saturate these centers with the misnomer "readaptation centers" have taken desperate actions to attract society's attention. But there is never a concrete and effective response to overcome their alarming reality.

The government is not taking charge of the problem. Officials blame each other and propose short term solutions without looking at the root causes of the crisis or content themselves with empty words: "The executive has created new inter institutional cooperation mechanisms so that the national justice system will become more efficient," said Calderón Sol a year ago.

Violence in the Prisons

Another problem lies in the precipitated and even absurd measure that are taken. The best example is the unfortunate "transitory emergency law against delinquency and organized crime," a cosmetic solution that goes nowhere near the root of the problem in the prisons, which contains important focal points of violence of all kinds: that lived daily by the detained, that exercised by the guards against them and family members who visit them, that produced when there are rebellious protests against living conditions and that which they generate when they leave, maladapted and without opportunities, to enter a society that rejects them.

Another very serious problem is that triggered by the media, which makes a morbid business of death and desperation. The "lottery of death" and the sensationalism surrounding it in the media are more symptoms of the dehumanizing nature of Salvadoran society today, accustomed to any barbarity ...and nothing changes.

Anti Abortion Isn't Enough

In the first two weeks of June, Bishop Rosa Chávez expressed important and clear truths about the country and was subsequently attacked in the newspaper El Diario de Hoy even though his words have been particularly objective and critical in the two years of Calderón Sol's government.

In his June 2 homily, the bishop described El Salvador as a country "that demands the authentic human development that is its right. The first human right is the right to life. But it is not enough to be against abortion, because there is also the right to a dignified life--that is to say, guaranteed bread, work, education, health, housing--and the right to democratic coexistence in justice, peace and liberty." Refuting the deception of trying to hide behind technical language, he added that the country "is desperately awaiting stimulating news that goes beyond macroeconomic indicators."

Anything--even the most hallucinatory--can be normal in the country. Kidnapping priests has now become fashionable, but not like before, to politically intimidate the Church; rather so that the diocese will pay ransom for them. This happened to Father Cándido, kidnapped in Santiago María, Usulután. This was Bishop Rosa's reflection:

"Perhaps the best comments were what I heard from various friends: 'If this happens to God's ministers, who are dedicated to serving the people, then no one is respected now.' Yes, the situation is very serious, especially in the departments of San Vicente and Usulután, where robbery and extorsion are daily bread. The victims don't dare denounce the actions for fear of reprisals."

In the "Mystery"

In the second week of June, El Diario de Hoy denounced the existence of supposedly terrorist type illegal actions promoted by the country's main trade unions to impede the privatization of state enterprises such as ANTEL. Government authorities rushed to learn more about the plan and denounce it. Bishop Rosa also responded to all of this.

In the first place, he considered that "the alleged terrorist plan to impede privatization of which the trade union sector is accused is a government propaganda tool." He added with irony that "if the authorities can resolve this situation, they should be able to resolve others affecting the majority of the population."

In the second place, he said, what is feared is the truth. "Relevant incidents fill the front pages and then mysteriously disappear." He referred to a car bomb explosion in an exclusive San Salvador residential neighborhood and another explosion in the SISA insurance building, both unresolved incidents related to ex President Alfredo Cristiani, because the first was close to his residence and the second in one of his businesses.

Unleashed Wild Animals

Bishop Rosa also gave extensive comments to Spanish journalists, denouncing various national problems:

* "The spirit of the peace accords has regressed with the installation of violence. Today everyone is disconcerted because it is as if wild animals will be unleashed again. We need to reach basic agreements on how we are going to build a country in democracy."

* "There is no coherence to deal with society's real problems because of the distracting measures being used. Although distractions are common in all societies, they are being used very dangerously here. Something is happening and no one wants to deal with the truth. The truth must come out, whatever it costs and whoever it affects."

* "Brothers who live between four cardboard walls boxes with four sheets of zinc to cover them is the living situation of thousands of Salvadorans. This extremely anguished drama is the product of governments who lack social policies of dignified housing for all."

* "Closing various schools to convert them into prisons is tragic and absurd for society. This represents a failure of the plan for readapting minors in society. The opposite should be taking place: for every school built, a prison should be closed."

* "Violence is installing itself in the country again. There are elements that feed the violence, such as the media, exacerbating the situation. But the roots are also found in structural injustice, corruption, impunity and cover ups."

* "El Salvador's drama today is that of an undeclared war, and though the country signed a peace accord, reconciliation has not been achieved. There is a climate of frustration, extreme poverty and a leadership gap. This country has signed peace, but is not reconciled; we find ourselves bogged down, without a political and social project. The strict application of neoliberal economic policies aggravates the poverty even more."

Bishop Rosa on the Church

In Bishop Rosa's meeting with journalists, which lasted an hour and a half and focused on the country's situation, he also responded to questions about the church, saying:

* "The Salvadoran Church has entered a process of deceleration and lives in the dark night. We will come out, but we don't know when.... There is a leadership gap in the Church and a lack of voices to orient the people.... We are losing the opportunity we had in the past of being a reference for public opinion."

* "The current archbishop of San Salvador, the Spaniard Fernando Sáenz Lacalle, does not have the flavor of the people, he is not bathed in the multitudes, he does not see things from the viewpoint of those who suffer most.... The flavor of the people cannot be improvised or bought in a supermarket."

Rosa Chávez trusts in a possible change in the archbishop's attitude. So far, however, Sáenz has kept himself to the university environment and that of Opus Dei, the association to which he belongs.

Bishop Chávez's declarations about the country and the church caused a commotion. And El Diario de Hoy fed the flames to increase the scandal.

Within his prophetic statement, Bishop Rosa also sounded a note of hope: "Despite this generally negative situation, reality can still be guided, given the human richness of the Salvadoran people, the existence of some voices in favor of the poor within the Bishops' Conference and the fact that changes are even being detected in the sensibility of the leadership class."

"A key aspect to solving the crisis in El Salvador," he concluded, "is to begin to develop peace education programs, not only in schools, but directed to society as a whole. This is the path to true national reconciliation."

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