Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 238 | Mayo 2001


El Salvador

A Small Town with Big Hopes Wants to Change Business as Usual

The neoliberal economic model swallowed up the tragedy of the two recent earthquakes and everything is back to business as usual. In the small municipality of Santa María Ostuma, however, the cracks opened up by the quakes also opened up an opportunity.

Ismael Moreno, SJ

Now, four months after the first earthquake and three months after the second, one thing is tragically clear in El Salvador. The lives of all the people affected by those disasters as well as reconstruction are subordinated to economic and political interests completely removed from reality and from the needs of a society battered by so many social tremors even before these two quakes struck.

The government has not attempted to provide real solutions; it is doing nothing more than channeling materials for provisional housing. An atmosphere of uneasiness and discontent blankets the country. People have found many ways to express their distress with a government that has failed to respond and has acted irresponsibly not only towards the disaster victims but also towards international aid organizations, in whose eyes it is rapidly losing credibility. In its hypersensitivity to criticism, the government has gone so far as to threaten to close the only independent television station. It also threatened to expel a Venezuelan military delegation that is supporting reconstruction work in one of the municipalities devastated by the quakes, accusing it of working in conjunction with the FMLN, as if that were a crime.
There have been no effective political channels of expression for the affected population’s growing discontent, however. The FMLN is being ground down by its own weaknesses. It was unable to organize the country’s current demands in the May Day demonstration. Since the protests were not linked to the demands, the workers’ march was reduced to epithets and insults and did nothing to further the political expression of generalized unease felt by the vast majority of people in the country.

A small boat tossed by the storm

Salvadoran society is being tossed about like a small, fragile boat on the open sea, and must focus all of its energy on staying afloat amidst the wind and swells. The boat carries the weight of a great dilemma: it either rides the social, political and economic storms unleashed by the quakes, or it steers towards the current economic and political model, whose only seemingly calm waters have washed over the disasters without changing anything. In other words, the little boat can head straight out into the storm, knowing that it will either go down under the pounding waves or will sail through them with dignity towards the truly tranquil waters of a country that accepts its limits and its challenges. Conversely, it can avoid the storms by accepting the "normality" that today’s model wants to impose on Salvadoran society, one that sees earthquakes and a million and a half victims as nothing but a passing episode.

A pitiful argument for fleeting generosity

Impassive large capital prefers to leave the model intact, so that its grand masters, who have profited from the disaster by hiking the price of building materials and taking advantage of the construction boom, can maintain their financial security. Meanwhile, the victims will remain beneficiaries of a few provisional housing projects, a pitiful justification for the wives of bankers and big businessmen as well as the NGOs and churches to validate their social projection and even their existence.

One district in the municipality of Santa María Ostuma, department of La Paz, for example, will be eternally grateful to the wife of the largest stockholder of one of the country’s most powerful banks, since she decided to build a whole neighborhood of houses for the people affected there. The neighborhood will bear the name of this generous Salvadoran lady.

So the system remains intact, with such voluntary, passing gestures of generosity thriving on traditional individualism and the lack of grassroots organization. The comments of one resident of the town are revealing: "If all this aid is coming into the country, they should give it directly to people, with no conditions on it. Just hand it over! They shouldn’t make us work or put us in groups or anything like that. Aid is aid, and they should give it to me without bothering me about it!"
A woman in an outlying area expressed a similar opinion: "The pastor of my church is helping me. He brings me food and promised materials to build my house. So don’t come telling me what I have to give to get the aid being sought. They’ve already promised me my house. And the person I have to thank for that is the pastor, no one else. Don’t bother me; everyone should work things out for themselves in whatever way they can."

The model swallowed up the tragedy

Life is returning to "normal" for all of society, even for the victims themselves. In the end, one has to keep going. The number of poor people reported in the national statistics has increased, that’s all. Life goes on. The disaster victims are simply a justification for loans, the existence of a National Emergency Committee and some well-intentioned NGOs with projects that also justify the committee’s existence. The victims are merely fodder for the government’s proposals or the opposition’s critiques. They only matter insofar as they figure into political calculations for the next electoral campaign.

The current model simply swallowed up the tragedy. Once again, large capital’s model has triumphed; the model that excludes and the social assistance programs and emergency aid that help alleviate the excluded. The big business and financial sectors have not been the least bit affected by the earthquake, they are perfectly content to leave the little boat tossing about in a great sea of uncertainties. They see no reason to sacrifice even a fraction of their profits, securities and privileges to guarantee the disaster victims’ permanent security or develop strategic programs to decrease the country’s vulnerability as a whole.

El Salvador is being battered by a threatening storm, and the evidence can be seen in the protests that are still isolated but constantly increasing in number. The government and big business tend to minimize both the protests and the danger posed by the storm, and to respond with provisional, palliative projects. In the months since the tragedy, the elite in government, politics and business have shown no sign of any desire to take the disasters or the problem of vulnerability or even the victims themselves seriously.

The months go by and the Legislative Assembly has still not managed to elect a human rights ombudsperson. The first emergency has come and gone, and the office remains empty. The parties in the legislature prefer to defend their quotas of power and capitalize on the emergency for their own partisan interests, rather than elect someone. The Legislative Assembly continues to protect its deputies when they are discovered in flagrant acts of scandal or corruption. These same deputies reform codes and stiffen laws to mercilessly punish common criminals, but do not take a single step to clarify responsibilities or pursue legal cases against top police chiefs and government officials who are tied to organized crime or covering up for those responsible for kidnapping and other crimes.

New disasters are on the horizon as this year’s rainy season approaches. Old or new victims will motivate more public and private charity, and justify the existence of the emergency committees needed in a country shared by so few. In the end, life goes on.

Hundreds of "microwave" houses

The choice between returning to "normal" and dealing with the underlying problems can be appreciated with greater clarity from the perspective of one small municipality. In Santa María Ostuma, people affected by the quakes have been given substantial aid to build provisional houses. They cleared out the wreckage and then built hundreds of little houses with the 30 sheets of corrugated metal, corner posts and rafters given them by the Social Investment Fund for Local Development. Other international aid NGOs and gestures like that of the banker’s wife helped fill the deficits.

As you enter Santa María Ostuma, the metallic houses shine in the distance. Because of their small size and the heat that builds up inside them when the sun hits, popular sarcasm baptized them "solar microwave ovens." Official propaganda emphasizes that the houses are provisional, an expression of the government’s commitment to the victims, but even the most naïve know that the official response is unlikely to go beyond this solution and that the "microwave ovens" will most certainly shine in the landscape for many, many years to come—unless the people "benefited" by them refuse to accept them as "normal" and permanent. In Santa María Ostuma, a sector of the population is ready to resist. They want solutions that go to the root of the problems and are not willing to accept the provisional as permanent.

Holistic development: a roof and four pillars

Santa María Ostuma’s emergency and reconstruction committee members have no faith in the government’s response. "They deceived us once already," said the committee’s administrator. "We won’t be deceived again." He was referring to the government’s response after the first quake, when the municipality reported over 1,000 houses destroyed yet the government sent aid to build only 40.

"As a municipality, we want to get to the root of our problems," he explained. "The earthquakes destroyed the deepest parts of our lives, and so we have to go deep if we want true reconstruction." He told envío that the people of Santa María Ostuma are working on the draft of a holistic development plan made up of five main programs that can be compared to the basic structure of a house.

The first program is like the roof of a house: it involves channeling responses to the municipality’s reconstruction, development and production priorities. The other four programs, like pillars holding up the roof, are education and training; participation and organization; coordination, cooperation and alliances with sectors outside the municipality; and oversight, denunciation and defense of the rights of the poorest. envío saw the draft of the plan.

The roof: Resolving seven great needs

The starting point for the holistic development plan is a program that addresses the population’s priority needs as expressed in a popular consultation conducted by the Emergency and Municipal Development Committee in the first half of March. Each sector of the population, from eight-year-old children to the elderly, in all of the municipality’s neighborhoods and towns, met to express their ideas.

The population of this small municipality identified seven great needs they want to satisfy now and for the future: decent housing; land acquisition and legalization; public services in electricity, water and the protection of water tables; the construction of main and secondary roads; agricultural production as well as agricultural, technical and job training; recreation centers for children and young people; clinics and improved public health services.

The municipal government must organize its current and future work around finding solutions to these priority needs. The municipality has already given the government officials a plan, and their identity and honesty as well as those of future municipal governments will be evaluated on their ability to respond to each of these needs. Relationships and coordination with the central government and nongovernmental organizations must also be established based on the commitments made around these needs.

Ostuma’s municipal government is currently consolidating its ties with the government of Valencia, Spain, which has chosen to express its solidarity with El Salvador through this municipality. Several NGOs are working together in an organization that coordinates efforts to channel the funds provided by the Valencia government. All projects will have to take the needs expressed by the population into account, as this is to be the main criterion in municipal administration.

In the grassroots consultation that identified these seven priority needs, Santa María Ostuma’s population also defined four steps it would have to take to solve them. First is to organize the community into committees, ensuring everyone’s participation, listening to all ideas, making sure that a few people don’t make all decisions and give the orders in the community, and establishing channels for relations with government institutions and other outside sectors. Second is to draft a global action plan that addresses the needs and contributions of the community and the municipality. Third is to draft project proposals and documents on the work being planned or implemented for presentation to the government and other national and international institutions that support reconstruction and development. And fourth is to create a general coordinating committee representing all the neighborhoods and towns to analyze the work being done, present the proposals and make the big decisions so that the mayor and the committee can negotiate around them and get them going.

The communities have also identified the inputs they could offer within such a program responding to their needs: manual labor, food and lodging for those who collaborate from outside, mutual support, contribution of ideas and proposals, supervision of the work and the organization of meetings to inform, evaluate and raise awareness. "We can offer food, however little we may have, to people who come from outside to help, and can open up our houses to them so they can stay with families," enthused a Christian base community activist.

Pillar one: Education and training

One pillar holding up the roof of Santa María Ostuma’s holistic development plan is education of the whole community. The nature of this education must further people’s holistic growth: it must educate in ethics, social and political issues, gender and human rights; encourage a culture of prevention and respect for the environment; deal with psychological issues and include methodologies for grassroots organization and further education.

The idea is that putting reconstruction, development and productive programs into operation without also profoundly educating the population would be like molding a body without life, without spirit, without breath, without a brain. Furthermore, building houses and infrastructure without also building people and the community would further consolidate the authoritarianism that has always existed in power structures. Education is beyond a doubt the most effective, strategic way to prevent this and guarantee that reconstruction and development will link technical and material resources with people’s real human development.

Naturally, since education is never neutral, there are risks involved, and the older people were the first to point it out. "Some people aren’t going to be happy about us educating ourselves to understand what’s going on and see through the deceit," said an older peasant farmer, speaking with both fear and animation. "There was a massacre in 1980, on May 31, in El Carrizal, because of education, because people were opening their minds through liberation theology. Around here, educating oneself was a crime at that time, and I’m afraid it’s still a crime today."
These education projects should link the municipality with continuing community education programs that have been established in universities like the Central American University, which have pastoral theology schools, experience in political and social education and have organized education workshops for community leaders and promoters in Chalatenango, for example. To put this broad education program into effect, the projects and modules must be prepared in accord with the population’s academic level, and in some themes such as gender and psychology must be geared to the generational level as well.

Pillar two: Community organization

The development plan’s next pillar is community organization and participation that truly and progressively involves everyone affected by the disaster in the decision-making and implementation of the various programs, projects and activities. At a deeper level, the aim is to create a process that breaks with traditional organization methods based only on men—and few men at that—and on work methods where a few people decide and the rest merely implement what that small group decided.

This participation "style," encrusted in the minds and hearts of all Salvadorans over history, those who command as well as those who obey, can only be broken gradually and only by linking programs dealing with people’s needs to continuing education programs and involving people in information, consultation, decision-making and evaluation.

The goal is that everyone, including children, express their ideas and opinions on the affairs that have to do with the present and future of their community, truly participating not only in the decision-making processes but also the evaluations, so they will collectively increase their capacity to identify, take responsibility for and correct mistakes and thus improve things.

But here too, collective memory warns of real risks. One primary school teacher told me, "I’m not going to deny that this proposal to organize ourselves makes us a little afraid, because that’s how the war began in this country. Remember the Carrizal massacre. The repression came because people began to organize, and they killed the people who were organized. This makes the people of Ostuma fearful; it makes us live on the defensive, afraid of new ideas that come to us from other places."

Pillar three: Openness is the slogan

The next pillar is coordination, alliances and cooperation with other sectors outside of the municipality. This is strategically important to the municipality’s survival, because a municipality as small as Santa María Ostuma obviously cannot develop on its own. Openness is the slogan: openness to other geographic, economic, political and social sectors that can join in defining a holistic reconstruction and development strategy that will lead to real self-management and participation.

In any case, this municipality has been and is related to the life of the department and the country, but the interests of the powerful in the municipality as well as the department and the nation have always conditioned this relationship. The relationship has existed within and among the traditional power structures, which have excluded the poorest people, while the small groups of businesspeople, military officers, local politicians and medium-scale producers have used people to increase their own power and legitimate their decisions in the municipality.

Santa María Ostuma’s relationships and alliances with outside sectors have been dominated by the military, especially by one former colonel who has done as he wished, making decisions that have affected the life of the municipality. Relations have also revolved around politicians in the National Conciliation Party and ARENA, and those linked to the power groups in these two parties have enjoyed all the benefits that come from power. The relationship between the municipality and its surroundings and the rest of the country has turned around these people and these power groups.

"We’re tired of the fact that just a few people give orders in the municipality, and that it’s always the same people who represent us and speak for us, never letting us speak," one resident explained.

The Catholic Church is another power structure in the municipality, historically linked to the traditional power groups. Until very recently, the local parish priests were, at best, people with little education and with human and ethical weaknesses that robbed them of the capacity and authority to confront the power structures. Consequently, either the church leaders assented to the decisions made by the powerful, or their presence was so insignificant that it neither benefited nor detracted from the life of Ostuma’s inhabitants.

The goal of this coordination and alliances program, then, is to link the municipality’s life with outside sectors that can strengthen the municipal vision and strategies to favor the poor. This way, the structures that have already proven they do not look beyond their own advantage can gradually be broken down.

The people of Ostuma must begin to look beyond their municipality. Its history and its geographical location, where the highway ends at the edge of a hill, make Ostuma tend to look inward. As the new parish priest explains, "The parishioners here have very little education. And this parish is in a municipality with traditional roots that give it a great identity but also tend to make it close in on itself. This is a danger because it is easy to manipulate people, or the people themselves close up to the social movements that promote the liberation of the poor."
A tiny, closed-in territory will not find solutions if it does not start opening itself up and relating to other municipalities and the whole country. This policy of alliances must begin with the neighboring municipalities also devastated by the earthquakes, especially the second one on February 13. The three small departments in the central region that were most affected—La Paz (Ostuma’s own department), San Vicente and Cuscatlán—have many municipalities so tiny that you can cross through three of them in half an hour, traveling on an unpaved road.

Santa María Ostuma’s alliances and coordination with the surrounding municipalities in La Paz and San Vicente could create a whole region with its own regional reconstruction and development plan based on common methodologies, criteria, contents and policies. Such a set of alliances could help consolidate an alternative decentralized model.

In addition to these municipal alliances, Santa María Ostuma must also define its relationships with governmental institutions and, more importantly, with international and national NGOs. The goal is to create reconstruction and development programs led by the municipalities rather than the NGOs, which under this plan will carry out the role they always should have of facilitating local and regional development rather than taking the place of local leadership.

The debate is open. For one member of the committee, a great hope has been awakened: "This plan to come together, the poor with the poor, is just lovely. I hope it becomes a reality. It will depend on the sincerity of those coordinating it and on our deciding to support it all the way; and I think we will, because we can’t lose." A small shopkeeper had another opinion: "I agree with coordinating with other municipalities and institutions, but without losing our own municipal identity. We’re a people with a tradition that has made us strong when we’re in danger or facing difficulties; if we get into a regional plan that doesn’t respect what is unique to Ostuma we won’t all pull together on the right path and will end up even more divided than we are now."

Careful decentralization

Putting a municipal and regional process with these characteristics into effect would help create real alternatives in decentralization and community-based management. But decentralizing without also ensuring that the municipalities assume a new leadership role will lead to nothing but empty proposals and, in any case, borders on demagogy.

If decentralization is carelessly done, the government could easily wash its hands of many of its own functions by merely transferring the tasks to the municipalities, but it would be irresponsible to call this a decentralization process. Any functions or tasks transferred to the municipalities in which people still act according to the old centralizing, patrimonial, hierarchical, authoritarian and boss-driven principles that underpin all the structures in the country, they will only create more possibilities for corruption and influence peddling, in turn consolidating the traditional power structures. We would still have the same people who have always held power in the municipalities, but now they would have more capital. The rest of the population would remain as exploited as ever, but now subjected to even more kinds of domination and blackmail.

Decentralization must come from below, from the municipalities and the regions, and not from above, from the central government. It must come from involving the population so that the communities themselves lead the reconstruction and development process through truly communal debate and decision-making methodologies.

Pillar four: Legal aid offices

The final pillar in Santa María Ostuma’s holistic development plan is oversight, denunciation and the defense of the rights of the poorest. All the reconstruction and development programs must have community oversight bodies to supervise the use of the resources invested in the various projects. The communities must establish networks to control the resources and projects supported with outside funds to ensure their transparent use and management and prevent corruption and resource diversion.

The municipality must also organize to denounce situations and people who promote corruption, abuse of power and influence peddling. The creation of legal aid offices made up of lawyers working for the poor would be an effective way of contributing to the population’s education in human rights, denouncing injustices and corruption and protecting the interests of the poor. These denunciations must be accompanied by analysis, must have a national and regional vision and must have access to the media. People from the communities should be trained to do this so that, in addition to identifying irregular situations, they can gather the information, turn it into news and spread it through the national media.

One community promoter analyzes the municipality’s situation in this way: "Here in Ostuma no one said anything until Father Roberto came. Everyone kept quiet despite the injustice. The priests who were here before were womanizers and black eyes on the church. Father Roberto tells things as they are, without mincing words. We have to follow his example, for his sake and for ours, because if he’s the only one denouncing things, they’re going to come down on him alone. Some people are already trying to discredit him to get the bishop to replace him. If we can put together our own institution to organize our denunciations, Father Roberto won’t be the only one telling the truth. The people themselves will come out and raise their voices. And we’ll all be strong."

Writing straight with crooked lines

The mayor of Ostuma said, "I think that if we create a body in the municipality to oversee what resources and materials come in, what goes out and what’s invested, everyone’s confidence will increase, and we’ll set a great example for the whole country. What the country needs is honest people and mechanisms to control and manage public resources. Decentralization should start from there."
Will Santa María Ostuma’s beautiful plan become a reality? The earthquake opened faults and cracks but also possibilities and opportunities. It traced crooked lines across the earth, on which people can begin to learn to write straight.

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