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  Number 439 | Febrero 2018
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El Salvador

Veterans with disabilities still fighting battles in peacetime

Thousands of combatants were wounded in the war ended nearly three decades ago, and many were left with permanent disabilities. Today these veterans are engaging in civil protest and making legislative proposals to improve their lives. They’ve gone from military action to social struggle.

Elaine Freedman

The Chapultepec Accords that put an end to a dozen years of war were signed 26 years ago this January 16. As a result of that war, the Salvadoran people achieved important strides in the democratization of the country, although at a gigantic price. Among the most evident and painful costs are some 12,000 valiant men and women who were physically and emotionally damaged by the conflict, in many cases permanently.

A social debt

The Peace Accords included specific legislation for those who ended up with disabilities as combatants in the armed conflict. Point i of Accord 4 establishes that “The National Commission for the Consolidation of Peace (COPAZ) will be responsible for preparing the legislative bills necessary to procure the incorporation of all veterans with disabilities and corresponding relatives of fallen combatants of both Parties into the State social benefits system, or adequate economic compensation, as provided for in the Law.”

In December 1992, 11 months after the signing of the agreements, the Legislative Assembly approved Decree 416 to set up the Fund to Protect Those Crippled and Disabled as a Consequence of the Armed Conflict (FOPROLYD), a public institution to be in charge of “administering through the institutions it deems suitable the economic benefits programs and coordinating and/or channeling the timely concession of the benefits in currency and in services established in this Law.”

The “whereas” clauses in the decree’s preamble emphasize the following: “Conscious of the social debt the homeland has with those crippled and disabled due to the armed conflict, it is a duty of the State to incorporate them into its social benefits system or favor them with adequate economic compensation in a way that facilitates their reintegration into civil society.”

But consciousness of this social debt was very shallow and veterans with disabilities have had to wage arduous social battles to achieve each advance in the law’s application.

First battle: Set up the fund

Following the Peace Accords veterans with disabilities grouped into organizations to fight for their rights. Ex-soldiers formed the Association of Disabled of the Armed Force of El Salvador (ALFAES) while those in the FMLN created the Association of War Crippled and Disabled (ASALDIG) for ex-guerrilla fighters. Other organizations were established later, including the Foundation of Crippled and Disabled for Comprehensive Development (FUNDALIDDI) and the Association of War Disabled of El Salvador (ALGES), now the largest such organization with 3,300 men and 940 women from both bands and all of the country’s 14 departments.

Two years went by after the law’s approval before the constant pressure by the veterans, initially answered by brutal repression, led to the creation of “the Fund,” as FOPROLYD is more commonly called, and the naming of its first board. In May 1993, repression of a demonstration had left 20 newly injured, 6 arrested and 2 dead—a former FMLN combatant and a former Army soldier. Two years after that, another protest against failure to comply with the law saw two hundred veterans with disabilities arrested in a police operation that left many others wounded.

Yanci Urbina, founder and friend of ALGES, recalls: “Their struggle for their rights became hallmark of the sector. It was dramatic to see veterans holding their crutches on high as they were being suffocated by tear gas in the streets, along Roosevelt near the Francisco Gavidia University. This police reaction, a clear abuse of their force, enraged the compañeros and only reinforced their resolve to struggle.”

Second battle: Take the census

The Fund’s first limitation was the lack of any record of the individuals physically and psychiatrically affected by the war. An ALGES founder explains that “the Fund never did the registration foreseen in the law. It only had an actuary study the government had done to estimate the Fund’s expenses, but it wasn’t a complete census. People didn’t know exactly what it would be used for or what benefits they would get if they were or weren’t included. The war had just ended and many people were afraid to say they’d been combatants.”

A report by ALGES on the Fund’s compliance with the law published in 2012, titled “A paso lento y a empujones” (Slowly and only when pushed), says “there were no specialized or detailed evaluations and those first evaluations were the ones taken as valid. For example, there were people who were more than 60% disabled, but the quality of the study only recognized that they had a disability of 5%. There was no interest in publicizing and promoting even the existence of the Fund Law or completing the information about the law’s potential beneficiary population, even though it was relevant to do so.”

“Slowly and only when pushed”

The study went on to say that “in 1997, during the government of Calderón Sol, the Legislative Assembly passed Decree 1040 for obtaining death certificates for deceased combatants. That decree mentioned compensation for the parents of deceased combatants, many of them of third age. Upon receiving a single-payment compensation per parent (9,000 colons, at that time US$1,028), they were eliminated as beneficiaries of the Fund. During that period 3,395 mothers and fathers of deceased combatants were compensated. The government took advantage of the families’ immediate needs to slough off a financial burden in future years.

After that first step of compensating third-age parents, the government’s next one was to gradually start reducing the Fund’s number of veteran pensioners. The objective was to end up with only permanent beneficiaries who were between 60% and 100% disabled. The strategy applied to all those with a disability that was supposedly under 10% was to compensate them with a single payment of 6,000 colons (US$684.71), eliminating lifetime benefits for their disability.”

First reforms to Decree 416

On September 6, 2000, ALGES presented the Legislative Assembly with proposed reforms to Decree 416. The right conditions for negotiating those reforms didn’t emerge until one year and several demonstrations later and finally bore fruit ten years after the signing of the Peace Accords. .

In 2001 President Francisco Flores had invited UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to that tenth anniversary, hoping he would officially declare that the Accords had been fully met. The Secretary General responded that he could only participate in such an activity if all political parties, in particular the FMLN, were in agreement. That put the problematic situation of veterans with disabilities on the table, thanks to a demand by ALGES.

ALGES had sent the UN a letter every year since its creation in 1997 complaining that the government was not in fact fulfilling the Peace Accords. In its 2001 letter it told Kofi Annan that if he came to declare the Accords fulfilled, 6,000 veterans with disabilities would take the streets to contradict his words. As an ALGES member recalls, “At that point the government named David Escobar Galindo [a member of the government negotiating team for the Peace Accords], Óscar Santamaría [coordinator of that team] and Salvador Samayoa [a member of the FMLN team for those Accords] to negotiate with us. But from the first meeting they realized they couldn’t negotiate with us because we didn’t have legal status and didn’t therefore legally exist.”

The reason ALGES didn’t have legal status, even though it had correctly presented its bylaws more than a year earlier, was that then-Interior Minister Mario Acosta Oertel had argued that the rest of its name—Heroes of November 1989—”generates confusion by violating the axiological goals of the underpinnings of national coexistence.” For ALGES the name wasn’t negotiable as it was emblematic, a symbol of its identity, reminding it of the “final offensive” the FMLN launched on November 11, 1989, under the slogan “Until the end, period. Febe Elizabeth lives.” [Febe Elizabeth Vásquez, the 27-year-old secretary general of the National Union Federation of Salvadoran Workers, had been killed only 12 days earlier by a bomb in the union headquarters that also killed 10 other union members and injured 30]. This impasse had effectively put an end to ALGES’s request for legal recognition.

The census goes forward

When Escobar, Samayoa and Santamaría wrote up the truncated results of the negotiation effort, the Foreign Ministry, mindful of Kofi Annan’s position, pressured Acosta Oertel’s successor, Francisco Bertrand Galindo, to grease the wheels on ALGES’s request for legal status so the negotiation could reach some conclusion. The status question was resolved in less than 24 hours.

According to Jesús Avalos, ALGES’ president at the time, “It was really funny. Our legal status, denied for so long, was suddenly of interest to them. We quickly insisted on the inclusion of various issues, for example, reopening the census. Achieving that and the ongoing ability of veterans with disabilities to be admitted to the Fund is something that continues yielding returns right up to today. We’re still including new people who had been left out because we can present undebatable cases. For example, that of a compañero who suffered nerve damage in his bladder due to shrapnel that had been in his body since 1979, although he wasn’t aware it was there when the war ended. It wasn’t detected until the 1990s, when he began to suffer urinary incontinence. We were able to argue his case with a study by the Salvadoran Social Security Institute (ISSS), which created judicial precedence for the argument that any damage to a combatant’s body caused by the war could be discovered even years after the war was over. It was decisive to justifying keeping the census open permanently.”

New possibilities

On December 18, 2001, ALGES, ALFAES, FUNDELIDDI, the Committee of Third Age and Orphan War Victims, the Promoter of the Organization of Disabled of El Salvador, the New Life Cooperative and the Good Future Cooperative hammered out an agreement with the Flores government’s negotiating team.

The government agreed to restructure the Fund’s board immediately and to promote the first package of reforms to Decree 416. In exchange, the associations pledged to request that the FMLN and other political parties recognize what had been agreed to as the “definitive surmounting” of this issue in the Peace Accords.

That support never materialized because the “definitive surmounting” didn’t materialize either. The reforms, however, did open the possibility of registering new beneficiaries in the census and resulted in a change in the evaluation structure: each person with a disability would now be evaluated by specialists. At that time many pension less affiliates were evaluated and the associations were able to participate in the discussion of the cases by a special Fund commission. It was quite an achievement for affiliates without a pension to be incorporated and evaluated and for the Fund’s attention to be improved by the involvement of specialists.

Third battle: Second package of reforms

Three years later, ALGES presented a second package of reforms to Decree 416 that took up the main points that had been proposed by the different associations of veterans with disabilities since 2005. For the next three years, it negotiated with the different parties in the Legislative Assembly and with the ARENA government, presided over at the time by Elías Antonio Saca. The veterans again protested in the streets, backed by different grassroots organizations and even state institutions, among them the Ombudsperson’s Office for the Defense of Human Rights, until they finally got the package’s partial passage in 2008.

The struggle involved ongoing marches, rallies and massive vigils by the veterans. These mobilizations were needed because, despite the agreements reached five years earlier, new evaluations and pension assignments had been suspended and the evaluations already done were being used to disqualify the applicants, offer them a specific one-time compensation or simply eliminate them from the census on the grounds that they had “miraculously” been rehabilitated.

First country in the world

On July 18, 2008, the Legislative Assembly passed Decree 608, modifying 49 articles of Decree 416. An ALGES worker quoted in the organization’s report on fulfillment of the law recalls that “we got disabled veterans entered as beneficiaries who had already received a one-time compensation for supposedly having a disability range of only between 6% and 10%. We won the pension for them in this partial reform not only because some evaluations had been incomplete, but also because the injuries of many who had been recorded as having a 6-10% disability began to show complications over the years or their health worsened with the kind of work they were able to get.”

That same year El Salvador became the world’s first country to compensate individuals with injuries of less than 10%. As the report states: “A good part of the reformed articles regulate the functioning and responsibility of the Fund’s Board of Directors, General Management and Technical Evaluative Commission. Resources were created for appealing and reviewing the Technical Evaluative Committee’s findings and maximum deadlines (30 to 90 days) were established for obtaining the resolutions. Decree 608 reformed Law 698 of 2001, allowing FOPROLYD to create a rotating fund with the amount making up its Trust Fund, which would permit the creation of a productive, housing and land credit line with minimum interest relative to annual inflation.”

2009 brought winds of change

The next year marked a watershed in the relations between the population with disabilities and the Fund. The election of the first FMLN government created major expectations that something might change and the Fund might start working for veterans with disabilities, not against them. Irma Amaya, an ally of that population, was named president of the Fund and began hiring people with disabilities as technicians and other employees.

This new personnel redrafted the institution’s mission, defining it as follows: “To help establish the conditions to facilitate the incorporation of our beneficiaries into the rehabilitation process in the legal framework, into programs of economic benefits, physical rehabilitation, mental and labor health, and social and productive reinsertion through the provision of goods and services in coordination with national and international public and private institutions, with excellent quality attention in a participatory environment.”

Some of the articles agreed to in 2008 began to be implemented for the first time, particularly productive credits and support. In addition, veterans with a 6-10% disability were reincorporated into the census.

One Fund board member commented that “we began to review the case files and found so many unjust, incoherent and arbitrary explanations for the suspension of pensions that we initiated a process whereby new specialists would review them. We got rid of all the previous specialists and contracted new ones, and began referring disabled people to them. The figures speak for themselves: there were 8,000 pensioners in 2009 and now there are 13,000.”

The FOPROLYD budget went from $18 million to $33 million, an 83.3% increase. Moreover, the Mauricio Funes government responded to one of the main demands of some associations in 2010 with payment of the US$19 million back debt, equivalent to 22 months of pensions never issued by the previous ARENA governments.

Other improvements in FOPROLYD’s attention consisted of creating a new office with adequate conditions for providing service. Before that time those with disabilities had to stand in line for long hours under sun or rain. A branch of the Fund was also opened in San Miguel to reduce the transport costs for the eastern population to get to San Salvador. A new prosthesis shop has demonstrated a skill that has saved the beneficiaries time and money.

Assessment of the veterans with disabilities

While all these changes have been very well received and meant major advances, the living conditions of people with war disabilities are still very precarious given the structural problems affecting the country and most are still surviving in social exclusion.

A nationwide assessment of veterans with disabilities ALGES conducted in 2015 revealed that while a full 92.27% received a pension from FOPROLYD, only roughly half said they had any other income source, with 1.24% getting something from a social program called Solidary Rural Communities, 12.98% earning income from employment and 29.16% from their own initiatives, and 7.56% receiving family remittances from abroad.

The FOPROYLD pensions range from $100 to $120 for 59%, $120 to $200 for 23% and $200 to $290 for 12%. The lowest pensions will go up significantly this year because they’ll have to conform with the new $300 minimum wage defined in 2017, although that still doesn’t allow those with disabilities to climb out of the poverty in which they live.

Some 92% of veterans with disabilities live in rural zones, where it’s hard to get jobs as most can’t do the kind of work agriculture requires. It’s also difficult for them to study or get medical attention because transport to the city isn’t cheap.

With respect to education, 61% only has a basic level, with the majority only having reached third grade. Another 22.6% has no academic decree and only 1.33% did advanced studies. Such low education levels make it virtually impossible for them to access better-paid jobs that don’t require the kinds of physical efforts they either can’t do or that would complicate their health.

Nearly four fifths of those with war disabilities are over 49 years old and nearly half of that group (36% of the total) has a mean age age of 58, which implies greater health care needs. Only 13% is under 35, mere children during the last years of the armed conflict when they sustained the injuries they still suffer.

The assessment also investigated the types of injuries that caused their disabilities. A good part of them have more than one, frequently combining physical damage with auditory or visual impairment: 90.3% have one or more physical disabilities, 15.3% a visual disability, 14.1% an auditory disability, 5.7% a mental disability, and 0.27% an intellectual disability.

Women with disabilities suffer double discrimination

A study titled “La construcción del rol en el personaje femenino de la narrativa de guerra y posguerra civil salvadoreña” (Role-building among females in the narrative of the Salvadoran civil war and postwar periods) shows that 30% of FMLN combatants were women, while no women participated in the Armed Forces so there are none with disabilities on the government side.

Only 21% of the total population with war disabilities are women. The fact that their number in the war disabled sector is lower than in the combatant sector as a whole is probably because the kinds of tasks they usually performed at the war front made them somewhat less vulnerable than men.

While the situation of women with war disabilities has never been studied in El Salvador, it’s obvious that they have specific realities and are doubly affected. As ALGES Executive Director Olga Serrano says, “It’s more painful for women to be disabled than for men. I think the compañeras who lost an arm or a leg suffer more than men. Given machismo, men convince themselves or at least pretend that it doesn’t matter all that much, unlike women, who feel more ashamed, more embarrassed. Many years have now passed since the war ended and I still suffer because I can’t wear a skirt or dress! I feel I have to wear long pants so my prosthesis doesn’t show. I wear a dress at home, but not to go out.”

“If we were to speak out...”

Olga adds that “if we were to speak about these things with other disabled women, they would mention the need for more labor and study opportunities, independent of their age. They would also talk about the need for respect: the majority of women combatants with disabilities had grappled with 12 years of war, but then afterwards it was go back home, go to Mass, have children and care for their husband, while no one takes cares of them. It’s just like the war they experienced… who knows where they’ve stuffed that memory.”

The still-pending reforms

The veterans with war disabilities are from generations born between 1922 and 1971. They are continuing to struggle for rights that have been denied them but, unlike other social sectors, they can’t pass their struggles on to a “new generation” that has been born into a different reality.

The most recent proposed reform to Decree 416, presented by both ALGES and FOPROLYD in January, contains 35 changes. Twelve seek to harmonize the legislation with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 19 correspond to the need to update and improve FOPROLYD’s administrative processes and 4 refer to claims of the disabilities themselves.

That first group of proposals aims to replace the legislation’s antiquated and discriminatory language with that established by the UN Convention, eliminating words like “invalid, “incapable” and “disabled” from the legislation.

The second group of reforms seeks to better delimit the different responsibilities of each area within FOPROLYD, updating the names of the public institutions that appear in the law, which still correspond to the 1992 institutionality, while also unifying their notification processes to streamline the attention. The beneficiaries emphasize that both of these sets of reforms involve no resources; they only require the authorities’ willingness to improve things to make them viable.

The third group of reforms takes up the most important reforms excluded from the 2008 changes because they didn’t have the votes of any rightwing parties. It seeks to turn into law some of the benefits received by executive decree during the two FMLN governments. Since 2010, the Fund has been granting its beneficiaries a “special year-end bonus” equivalent to 50% of their monthly pension. Although this doesn’t mean a substantial change in their lives, it does offer some relief. It’s the product of an executive decree that has been applied every year for the past eight years, but isn’t legally permanent. They’re proposing it be included in the legislation so it doesn’t depend only on the President’s volition.

Heirs to the disability pension

A reform is also proposed for article 25 of the legislation, which now establishes that with the death of a beneficiary the pension will be paid to the children until age 18, or 25 should they be studying. If there are no children, the parents and spouses of the deceased person will inherit it. The veterans hope to modify this so that children who also have a disability will receive the pension for life.

They are also fighting to include in the census parents of combatants on either side who died in the armed conflict and were left out because they weren’t told in time. This wouldn’t include the parents arbitrarily expelled from the census by Decree 1040 during the Calderón Sol government, as those cases are already being reviewed by the Legislative Assembly’s Treasury Commission via a separate special decree.

Their first priority is comprehensive health care

The final demand and number one priority of those with war disabilities is the right to comprehensive health care, not only the specific care they receive for their injuries.

As FOPROLYD general manager Marlon Mendoza explains, to get treatment for chronic illnesses such as diabetes or high blood pressure, or even more serious problems such as cancer, veterans with disabilities have to present a medical evaluation that uses the term “complications from the injury,” a very hard category to justify.

All preventive care is also excluded. Today 49.24% of disability beneficiaries with chronic or serious illnesses receive no specialized medical care or even the necessary medications.

The legislative reform proposes agreements between the Fund and the entities in the National Health System to avoid duplicating efforts, while also committing the Fund to cover the costs of “the treatments, procedures, inputs, medications, special exams or other requirements that said establishments do not have, insofar as resources and conditions permit.”

Always with both proposals and protests

On this new anniversary of the Peace Accords, in the context of the campaign for the March 4 legislative and municipal elections, ALGES presented its list of 16 demands to FMLN lawmakers, whom it views as “its allies by nature.” The candidates signed a letter pledging to defend these reforms if elected.

Veterans with disabilities have learned, however, that they need much more than this commitment to see their demands turned into law. Since the FMLN won the presidency in 2009, they’ve gotten more spaces for negotiation and opportunities have also opened up for them to get the state institutions to respond to their claims. But an important lesson over these 26 years has been that they mustn’t abandon any form of struggle. So far everything they’ve achieved has come from always including in their strategies. both protest and proposals. Combining negotiation, dialogue and communication with very visible street protests has been the formula that has allowed them to make progress.

It was the street mobilizations that sealed the majority of the battles by these veterans, while also generating a permanent awareness of their rights. ALGES believes that as long as the FMLN occupies the executive branch, mobilizations should focus on the Supreme Court and Legislative Assembly, where they face greater obstacles. It also knows, however, that a good part of the sectoral claims of those with war disabilities is intimately linked to the structural transformations El Salvador needs.

ALGES member Valentín Portillo said his organization is waging a political and ideological struggle. He explains that “the reason we’re reiterating our original struggle is that we’re not only defending our own interests as war wounded; we’re defending much more, as we also did back then.”

Those who fought militarily over a quarter of a century ago are now engaging in a social struggle for justice, which the country owes them and which they require as some of El Salvador’s neediest.

Elaine Freedman is a grassroots educator and envío correspondent in El Salvador.

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