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Central American University - UCA  
  Number 248 | Marzo 2002
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El Salvador

Images and Realities as the FTA Approaches

The peace accords were signed a decade ago, but many of their points have not yet been fulfilled. Meanwhile, a Free Trade Agreement is imminent between the United States and Central America, sparking an abundance of grandiose dreams. The problem is that there is no social movement to ensure against unwanted impositions.

Roberto Cañas

March promised to be a busy time in El Salvador. First, the Salvadoran government was planning a ceremony for the 16th, in which United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan would officially close the UN’s verification of fulfillment of the Peace Accords signed in January 1992 by the government and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). Only a week later, on March 24, US President George W. Bush was planning to visit the country for a few hours. As soon as the two visits were announced, national life began to revolve exclusively around the relevant preparations.

A successful, leading country

There is an increasingly obvious alliance in El Salvador among media owners, the governing party and the country’s economic powers, which has taken on a strategic quality given the media’s growing weight in forming public opinion. The big newspapers, radio stations and television channels use all of their power to ensure that their political and ideological choices prevail, deciding what is news and what should be hushed up.

From the very start the media went out of their way to present the visits of Annan and Bush as clear backing for the performance of President Francisco Flores and his government. They pushed the idea that El Salvador is a peaceful, forward-moving, successful country that is the best choice to lead Central America in the new Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the United States and the region. But this image is far removed from reality.

Drowning in distrust

The signing of the Peace Accords 10 years ago closed a crucial period of our history. The agreements put an end to an armed conflict whose final phase lasted ten years, upsetting all aspects of social life and leaving a tragic toll of 75,000 deaths and innumerable wounds that have yet to heal.

The accords opened the way for important political reforms through which the country passed from authoritarianism to democracy, subordinating military power to civilian power and limiting the army’s functions to the defense of national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The reforms focused on the creation of new state institutions, including the National Civil Police, the Office of Human Rights Ombudsperson, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and the National Judicature Council. Other existing institutions, such as the Supreme Court and the Office of Attorney General, underwent changes. The aim of all of these institutional changes was to establish something previously unheard of in El Salvador: a political system based on the principles of legality and legitimacy.
But the judicial and political reforms did not produce all of the expected results. In reality, the country has sunk into distrust and despondency in which the political parties, central government, Legislative Assembly and judicial system have all lost credibility in the population’s eyes.
The section on El Salvador in the US State Department’s annual human rights report states that "the judicial system suffers from inefficiency and corruption." It has been saying the same thing for years. It adds that corruption in the judicial branch and in the Office of Attorney General has contributed to impunity.

Even the entities created by the Peace Accords, which to a certain extent defined the transition, are becoming the target of increasing skepticism among the citizenry. Although they originally enjoyed strong backing and credibility, the actions of the National Civil Police and the Office of Human Rights Ombudsperson have since earned them high levels of distrust.

The most serious shortcomings in the architecture of the Peace Accords have been in the design of the economic and social issues. Ten years on, what was agreed has either not been honored or was quickly eliminated, as was the case with the Economic and Social Conciliation Forum, created as an arena in which the government, businesspeople and workers’ associations could settle post-war conflicts through dialogue and negotiations. The government and the private sector eliminated the forum in 1993 out of fear that it would urge ratification of agreements signed by the Salvadoran state with the International Labor Organization, which the political and economic powers considered damaging to their interests.

The social causes of the conflict

Ever since Annan’s visit was announced, the FMLN argued that it could not participate in a ceremony in which the government would officially conclude a process yet to be concluded and, worse still, receive the backing of prefabricated media images. The FMLN argued that important parts of at least five points had not been honored. First, there have been reversals in the development and functioning of the National Civil Police and violations of the law governing it. Second, the FMLN highlighted the government’s economic boycott of the Human Rights Ombudsperson, whose squalid budget hinders the functioning of the office and, worse still, its investigations. Third, important parts of the agreements related to former combatants with disabilities have not been fulfilled, including the provision of pensions, and the FMLN called for a new census of those still suffering injuries. Fourth, it underlined the lack of services to improve the living conditions of most of the population, and, finally, noted that a body as important as the Economic and Social Conciliation Forum was not functioning.

"They frightened off
the international community"

Everything was ready. Availing itself of the able media handling, the government had all the conditions prepared for public opinion to see the March 16 ceremony not only as the conclusion of verification of the Peace Accords’ fulfillment, but also of the Peace Accord process itself.

But in the end, its attempts went awry. Just 10 days before the event that would crown the government’s self-contrived image, Kofi Annan announced that he would not be traveling to El Salvador after all. At a press conference announcing the cancellation of Annan’s visit, Minister of Foreign Affairs María Eugenia Brizuela blamed the FMLM for sabotaging the event by "scaring the international community with their proposals." FMLN leaders had in fact traveled to New York to explain their position to Annan, but Brizuela chose to mix that information up with preposterous claims that she "had worked to repair the damage the FMLN caused to the country over the burning of a US flag and public backing of Osama Bin Laden." She was referring to confused events on September 15, when some FMLN sympathizers participated in acts of repudiation against the US government, from which the party in fact distanced itself.

With Annan’s visit cancelled, the Flores government cancelled the ceremony, sparking the feeling that it had only wanted to exploit the UN secretary general’s presence to put closure to fulfillment of the Peace Accords and thus rid itself of a commitment it now finds uncomfortable and irritating. Logically, the government had also wanted to exploit the arrival of the top international official to create a favorable media image, presenting itself as deserving of international backing.

Reality superimposed
over the image

Not even calculated, pre-packaged images, however, could hide the reality that 10 years after the signing of the Peace Accords many of the causes behind the armed conflict have still not been dealt with. The social deficits that provoked the war remain and are even accumulating. Almost half of the population still receives an income below the cost of the official basket of essential consumer goods. A high percentage of the population still cannot meet its health, nutrition, education, housing, drinking water and sanitation needs. El Salvador has one of the world’s most unequal income distributions, with the wealthiest 20% of the population receiving average incomes 18 times higher than the poorest 20%.

"Peace didn’t change the
fundamental problems"

These are the realities that the population is talking about, particularly the rural population, which suffered most from the war and feels disappointed and frustrated. Although Pablo Alvarenga, a community leader from Cinquera, acknowledges some successes of the peace process, he sums up what many people feel: "The Accords brought certain changes that should have been big, but were reduced by chicanery. Before the war our lives were controlled and now we can meet and say what we think, but the authorities turn a deaf ear; they don’t want to listen. The main change is that there is no more repression, we no longer have to be nomads in our own country, but this change is starting to dissipate and the new generations don’t appreciate it so much. Then there’s the other side... Before 1978, we lived in horrendous poverty. After the Peace Accords we’ve been economically restricted by neoliberalism, in which what we produce is worth less and less. In short, peace didn’t change the basic problems. The structure remained intact, which means that everything ends up the same as before: we’re living in poverty."

"Now there is population
and production"

The view of two women from Arcatao, another former war zone, is more optimistic. As 55-year-old Rufina Romero explains: "For me the Peace Accords have left us something. For example, women can express themselves better. Before we didn’t have the chance to talk. After the accords, we also had access to the municipal governments. During the war, Arcatao had nothing, but now there is population and production in all of the cantons. Now the municipal governments want to know what’s going on in the communities, unlike before when they were indifferent and didn’t take us into account. Now we really do have the chance to participate, at least in the municipalities of Chalatenango."
According to 19-year-old Evelia: "The accords were good because they kept more people from dying. My parents tell me that during the war you couldn’t live peacefully. The only thing that the authorities at that time understood was how to kill. The little I remember is that we were always fleeing from one place to another. At least that doesn’t happen any more. It was good for everyone who lived in this zone that that situation came to an end."

A month of martyrs

The other important date this month is March 24. It has been of enormous historical importance for 22 years for reasons having nothing to do with the fact that the President of the United States has chosen to turn his attention to Latin America and arrive in El Salvador on that day to bolster relations with Central America in the wake of the September 11 tragedy.

March 24 has a central place in our history because it was on that day that pastor, brother and friend of the people Monsignor Oscar Romero was killed. Regrettably, Archbishop of San Salvador Fernando Sáenz Lacalle announced that the Catholic Church’s official activities in memory of the martyred bishop would be held on March 23, due to President Bush’s arrival. Thus, over 20 years after that dreadful assassination, the Catholic hierarchy and the media are seeking to relegate Monsignor Romero to a lower level, just as efforts were made in days gone by to silence through violence his homilies of denunciation, prophecy and hope.

Nor do Salvadorans forget the death of Father Rutilio Grande, assassinated in El Paisnal 25 years ago, also in March. On March 1, El Paisnal’s municipal government, the Church and Christian communities remembered that good priest whose assassination so influenced Monsignor Romero’s decision to opt for life and denounce governmental repression. As Rutilio Grande announced in his homilies 25 years ago, "We want to be the voice of those who have no voice to shout against so many human rights abuses. Justice must be done, and the country and army must stop being stained by so many crimes. The criminals must be recognized and just compensation given to those families that have been unprotected." At the time, Rutilio Grande denounced serious injustices that have yet to be surmounted, injustices committed in a reality of serious underdevelopment that the media tries its best to disguise with images.

Dreaming of wonderland

As soon as it was known that Bush would visit El Salvador on his Latin American tour, members of the government and leaders of big private enterprise started dreaming. President Flores ran off to the White House in Washington to coordinate the agenda of the visit with US government security adviser Condolezza Rice and the Salvadoran press immediately started to publish "analyses" of the meeting. One such article, titled "The President finds a kindred spirit," included such in-depth comments as "Condolezza Rice and Francisco Flores found that they had things in common. Both were born into upper-middle-class homes and from their infancy their parents went out of their way to give them the best education money could buy."
From that moment on, the dreams and happy counting of chickens before they hatch have not let up. The first government projections on the impact of the signing of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the United States describe a wonderland. It mentions the generation of at least 250,000 jobs in the first five years of the agreement, the tripling of national exports and the attraction of investments worth US$5 billion. Flores has declared that the FTA represents "a new era of economic prosperity for El Salvador."

"Any more cooks
could spoil the broth"

The President also categorically argued that "any more cooks could spoil the broth," thus rejecting the idea of anyone other than "the main stakeholders" being involved in the negotiations. For him the only three to be involved are the government’s trade negotiators, the members of big private enterprise and labor.

This is one more expression of the authoritarian and exclusionary policy that is the very essence of the governing ARENA party. The "cooks" that must be kept out so as not to "spoil the broth" include all social and civic organizations with which the government should be holding broad consultations to analyze the pros and cons of a trade agreement between a highly impoverished region and the greatest economic power on earth.

For President Flores, the FTA only has pros. "It will generate more jobs in all areas, not just in industry," he promises; "Salvadorans in the United States will be able to buy Salvadoran products; the national economy will be stimulated; competition and quality will be encouraged among producers and products; the generation of jobs will particularly benefit women in the textile area; and the agreement will help fight poverty in the rural area." This truly is a wonderland.

Only with a powerful
social movement

The way things currently are in El Salvador, nothing suggests that the Salvadoran government will privilege the logic of the population’s welfare and quality of life over the dynamics and logic of trade. The ARENA government does not appear to understand—and it should be made to—that the FTA is a means and not an end; that freedom of trade cannot be put before people’s freedom, the welfare of business before the welfare of society or the realization of profits before the realization of human beings. If no strong social movement can be organized with the capacity to exert pressure, mobilize politically and develop Central American advocacy campaigns, the FTA will be imposed upon us with the logic of savage capitalism and the savage consequences that we can already imagine.

Now more than ever, we Central Americans need to be informed and unite to create, strengthen or force open arenas in which to participate and thus help ensure that the unstoppable FTA is part of a long-term regional political and social development strategy that deals with the profound social, territorial and income disparities that have been our histories.

Would it be too much to dream, to think, that Central America in the coming years will be marked by the organization of such a powerful social movement in response to the FTA?

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