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  Number 177 | Abril 1996
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El Salvador

Four Visits, Four Messages

Will the peace process pass into oblivion? Still awaiting are task, laws, agreements... Is there any economic plan to rescue the country from its crisis? Inertia and shortsightedness prevail, while the abyss between rich and poor grows and ecological destruction advances.

Carlos G. Ramos

Last year was not a very good one for El Salvador's democratization process. Many trends verified during the year pointed to a progressive distancing from the democratic ideals laid out in the peace accords. Intolerance toward social protest, unfounded accusations by the government that its political adversaries are "destabilizers" and police intimidation of or violence against any sign of social mobilization were the norms of government. The mechanisms of dialogue and negotiation, which should be the main guidelines for the country's new style of politics, were held in extremely low esteem.

A Drop at a Time

The year left doubts about the commitments signed in the peace accords. Authoritarian trends were reinforced, partly due to the inability to govern demonstrated by President Calderón Sol's administration, while the political opposition became increasingly atomized and diffuse. In the political sphere, fears about the direction of the peace process ended up having more weight than the efforts undertaken to fulfill agreed upon political commitments.

In the economic sphere, no clear course was proposed, much less promoted. President Calderón Sol's goal of making El Salvador "an immense free zone" and the unconsulted measures he proposed to that end met with head on opposition from big business organizations. An increase in the value added tax was the only aspect that began to be implemented in his supposed "economic plan" which was nothing but a series of measures whose integration into a strategic plan could never be explained. Even the tax hike was thanks not to the government's ability to negotiate or persuade, but to the backing provided by the Democratic Party's legislators nee guerrillas after the controversial San Andrés Pact was signed.

In this context, non compliance with or delayed implementation of the various obligations acquired through the peace accords once again worried the United Nations at the close of 1995. The serious occurrences in late November, when the Civil National Police killed a veteran during a protest by former combatants, increased international concern about the course of the Salvadoran peace process.

What is 1995's bottom line? Compliance "a drop at a time" as Bishop Gregorio Rosa Chávez once termed it, referring to an earlier stage as well as a serious retreat into authoritarian attitudes, dangerous inertia regarding the creation of a police state and a palpable vacuum of economic policy. It is a worrisome bottom line.

With all this baggage, 1996 began in a climate of dangerous political inertia, at whose core is the well rooted tendency toward forgetfulness demonstrated by our leadership elites. Both the letter and the spirit of the accords risk being forgotten, together with many other items on the political agenda. Amnesia is without doubt an endemic illness in El Salvador. The war, the crimes, the criminals and even their victims have been forgotten. It has been even easier still to forget the electoral promises. Now, above all, the spirit of the accords risks being forgotten.

Four Important Visits

The year also began with a number of visits. After the three magi, four other illustrious figures arrived in El Salvador. In different ways and with different motives, they reminded the country of a series of tasks that should be undertaken so the peace process can be considered irreversible and the political transition agenda can be closed.

The following visitors came to El Salvador on each other's heels: Taiwan's Vice President Li Yuan Zu (February 8 10); Pope Juan Paul II (February 8); UN Undersecretary for Political Affairs Alvaro de Soto (February 11 13); and US Secretary of State War ren Christopher (February 25 27).

Vice President Yuan Zu's logic and worries were relatively different from those of the other visitors. Rather than the vicissitudes of the political process and the advances of the transition, his concerns were linked to problems of economic growth, economic trade cooperation and the country's insertion into the world economy. Nonetheless, Yuan Zu did not fail to remind government circles of some issues that are not usually broached in the country, that are even considered anachronistic.

Li Yuan Zu:
Planning and Education

The Taiwanese politician's most important message had two basic ideas. The first, which was welcomed by Salvadoran government officials and business leaders who unconditionally support the neoliberal thesis, was that the state should be "administered like a private business." This idea was probably most attractive to the political and business groups that want to see the country managed like their private business. At the very least, it has to have been much more appealing than the President's call to make El Salvador "an immense free zone."

The second idea, in contrast, could not have been well received by the current government, since it is not fully in line with the neoliberal affiliation of its functionaries. According to Yuan Zu, two fundamental components for development are the design of correct economic planning and the growth of free, obligatory and technified education. These formulations by a top representative of the country usually proposed as a model to be followed not only stepped back from the fictions that govern the discourse and practice of the current government and ARENA, the party in power, but directly opposed them.

In fact, both of these issues have been in the recent national political debate and the Calderón administration has taken definite, but unfortunate political positions with respect to them. In his desire to justify the lack of a national development plan, President Calderón himself has publicly stated that strategic planning was a problem of the now collapsed Soviet state. To insist on state planning, according to the President, would be an anachronism that only socializing or sovietizing minds could want to return to despite its failure.

The Salvadoran government does not appear to agree with its Taiwan "model" on the state's tasks either. As presidential commissioner for the modernization of the state Alfredo Mena Lagos has publicly insisted, "The state's legitimate functions are public security and the construction of residential roads." Any other task it might fulfill is purely secondary. From that logic, education is not a "legitimate function," much less a priority of the state.

Yuan Zu's message could be relatively disconcerting for the government discourse currently in fashion, since the government cannot toss it off as the ramblings of a socializing or stale mind. But since this administration has little government to it, it is easy to imagine this call to build a responsible state with a strategic vision quickly finding its way onto the state "modernizers'" list of forgotten items.

John Paul II:
Church, State and Capital

Preparation for the Pope's visit began as early as last November and were a propitious setting for confirming the renewed ties of solidarity among Church, state and business sectors. They are the same ties that assassinated Bishop Romero was calling into question and that forcefully re emerged after the death of Bishop Rivera y Damas. The papal visit progressively turned into an almost exclusive concern of the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the government and private business.

The government launched a publicity campaign worthy of a religious state, promising to donate 15 million colóns to the building of the Metropolitan Cathedral. The President gave 5 million of that pledge to the recently created Cathedral Foundation, headed by the well known banker Archi Baldocchi and made up of six other business leaders. For his part, Fernando Sáenz Lacalle, Archbishop of San Salvador, let it be known that the government and private enterprise would continue their support to the Church and would contribute a total of 30 million colóns toward building the cathedral.

The Pope's visit was also used as an excuse to condemn the hunger strike by state workers in the cathedral installations to protest the lack of transparency in applying Decree 471, which laid off some 15,000 public employees. President Calderón and the Vatican's ambassador blamed the hunger strikers for delays in preparing and adorning the building, where the Pope would visit the tomb of former archbishops and speak briefly to the youth.

No one except the Human Rights Defense Attorney dared to mediate in the name of the workers' legitimate rights. The FMLN's representatives to the Assembly hardly made an effort to inform themselves about the state of the conflict. The political costs were probably too high to get involved in concrete actions aimed at a fair solution to the problem. In the end, the workers abandoned the cathedral after receiving government promises about which no more was ever heard.

The Pope's presence also seems to have been the moment to push for changes inside the Church without sparking deep and prolonged debate. The rector of the San José de la Montaña Seminary, considered to be close to Bishop Romero's thinking, was thus removed, along with his education team. The director of the Catholic radio station YSAX suffered the same fate. There was discontent and even some weak protest but, as could be expected, it was isolated.

Until the day John Paul II arrived, state, Church and business shared preparation efforts and mutual congratulations, each of them looking to politically milk the event for all it could. Big business wanted religious sanction from a church that until recently was not very friendly. The hierarchy wanted to get support, smooth over old barbs and move closer to the "pastorally forgotten" sectors. The government seemed more inclined to publicize itself, in hopes of rescuing its image and credibility, lost through poor governance.

No Room at the Inn

What are conciliatorily called "God's people" couldn't even find space on this stage, much less a role to play. Their only task was to wait for the day of the function. By the sheer will of Christian imagination, however, a few communities promoted their own projects, for the most part without the blessings of the Church hierarchy. That happened in the Christian community of San Bartolo, in the southwest part of the capital, which promoted the painting of murals alluding to the visit by young members of gangs known as maras. In one of these murals can be read, alongside the Pope's image: "Your Holiness, John Paul II: canonize our pastor and martyr."

The same tone that dominated the preparation period also marked the day of the visit. The government imposed a national radio and TV hook up to cover the event, but at some moments the Pope was blurred out by other images. Rather than a pastoral broadcast of the event, the hook up waffled between political propagandizing and chronicling a social event.

But what got blurred out most was the Pope's message. Apart from John Paul II's call for reconciliation and an end to confrontation, the best part of his evangelical message was the recovery of the Church's social doctrine and the need to keep the problem of justice before us as a pastoral concern. In his homily, the Pope lashed out at both Marxism and what he called "rampant capitalism." "How much could have been avoided," he intoned, "if a road of justice, fraternity and progress had been followed, renouncing selfishness and without giving way to these ideologies." Both official and officious announcers sidestepped the theme, perhaps because the papal message is seen as threatening the irrational adoption of neoliberal dogma, which is nothing other than the expression of "rampant capitalism."

El Salvador's best offering to Juan Paul II was not the memory of a well organized and costly reception. It was the prolonged applause by young people the only applause his visit received when he evoked the murdered Monsignor Romero and recently deceased Monsignor Rivera from the dusk shadowed facade of the Metropolitan Cathedral.

Alvaro de Soto:
Ratify the Reforms

UN Undersecretary for Political Affairs Alvaro de Soto came to El Salvador with a sizable list albeit not as long as Schindler's of the political commitments that must be saved to give greater substance to the Salvadoran transition process. His organization is increasingly concerned about delays in sticking to a calendar of implementation that has already been modified several times,

With only two months to go before the UN mission (MINUSAL) completes the latest renewal of its mandate in the country, the quantity and nature of the put off agreements lead one to think that this new term will end without achieving many advances. Of a total of 16 constitutional reforms approved by the 1994 legislature, barely two have been ratified. Another point of legislative bogging down is the approval of at least 10 laws: penal codes, legal penalties, penitentiary law, constitutional justice law, agrarian code, police career law, and the organizational law of the Civil National Police, which has not even been presented yet. In addition are reforms to the judicial career law and the organizational law of the National Judiciary Council, and repeal of the Police Law that dates back to 1886.

All this is stacked up alongside the shortfalls in implementing the accords on land transfer, reinsertion of veterans into productive life, and, above all, the thorny issue of human settlements. Many serious problems have also been verified in the public security sphere.

The UN envoy stressed the ratification of the constitutional reforms, many of which are related to the conclusions and recommendations of the Truth Commission and the Joint Group. After working meetings with the President and government officials linked to the accords, some measure was agreed upon to speed up their ratification, as De Soto confirmed but did not specify.

At the end of the visit, it seemed that some advance was made in assuaging the political determination to speed up the paying of debts for the peace accords. It remains to be seen how much effect the new UN pressure will have on a government that only seems to move under pressure. Perhaps that is why the UN envoy, despite confirming that a mechanism had been agreed to, announced another visit before the end of March.

Warren Christopher:
Exemplary or Laggard?

US Secretary of State Warren Christopher's two day visit to El Salvador was not only to address regional issues with Central America's Presidents or their representatives; it was also directly linked to the Salvadoran political process. His presence was publicly presented as a clear show of support for the peace process, considered as an "exemplary case" of pacification. As a demonstration of that support, Christopher and the Salvadoran government signed an amendment to a US donation agreement that will increase the original amount of $164 million by another $10 million. The funds will be earmarked for promoting the lagging Land Transfer Program and the reinsertion of veterans into productive life.

Some of Christopher's words, however, seemed to suggest that his presence also signaled US interest in a rapid consummation of the pending commitments and an unwillingness to allow the process to slide into non compliance or become distorted. In his speech to the Legislative Assembly, the Secretary of State urged the representatives to "act decisively on the vital constitutional and legal reforms that have been laid out" and, with a clarity unusual for a diplomat, attacked phenomena such as vigilantism and other legal forms of police or paramilitary action in the new Central America.

Christopher's visit seems to have wavered between public support for the process and a between the lines warning to the government of the risk of calling the "exemplariness" of Salvadoran pacification into question.

Some time will have to pass before the effects of these four visits to El Salvador can be measured. What is already clear is that some have more possibility of surviving and influencing than others, not because of their moral weight, but because of the ability that they represent to apply political and economic pressure.

“We’re Moving Toward the Destruction of the Country”

An interview with environmentalist Ricarado Navarro, president of the Salvadoran Appropriate Technology Center (CESTA)

What was 1995’s most important environmental aspect?

The Christmas gift that the government gave us was an agreement with the president of the El Espino cooperative to destroy the farm. They are trying to finish off nearly 120 acres of forest in San Salvador, where the Poma family wants to put up an urbanization project on land belonging to the Dueñas family.

The first impact we’re going to feel will be on the water. We are running out of drinking water, and the small amount of water we still have is highly contaminated. This has been the situation for the last 15 years.

There are also other threats. For example, they want to make a tourist zone in Jiquilisco Bay, which is a mangrove area basic to marine life, and they are spending millions of colons on it. The same Poma family that wants to destroy El Espino also wants to destroy Jiquilisco Bay. Regarding the contamination of rivers, there’s really serious problem: factories here throw anything and everything into the rivers, since the government puts no limitations on them. Solid waste? Garbage is everywhere, any time of the day. As a product of these mountains of garbage we have diseases like cholera and hemorrhagic dengue.

One solution that the mayor of San Salvador is thinking about is incinerating all the garbage. This is serious, because the main cause of infant mortality here in El Salvador is acute respiratory infections, resulting from the contaminated air. This whole process generates at least 25% toxic ash. They’re also going to have to find a place for the ashes. Our garbage is 80% biodegradable material, which could be turned into fertilizer, but none of this interests the government. It wants to slough off the problem quickly, by bringing in some incinerator plants that are already rejected in many countries of the world.

If we move the issue of transport, which is the main contaminator of air, we have frequently suggested to the government that it try to promote the use of bicycles, but that perhaps doesn’t seem to it like a modern solution.

Where Are We Headed? What does the future look like?

If we look at the trends, things are worse than yesterday. San Salvador’s water table is going down a meter and a half each year. We are moving toward the destruction of our country if we don’t promote measures to halt this ecological deterioration. The case of water is already a social problem, and these social problems can turn into political ones. We have already had experiencies here in which a population rises up to defy the authorities, even the army itself, for water.

We urgently need to question our development model, which only seeks to generate wealth for some sectors, and allows high levels of corruption. We should realize that this model is leading us to the destruction of our country. We have to seek a development model that thinks about nature, that thinks about people, that considers it important for us all to live in peace.

And this, what does it mean? In the case of the destruction of El Espino, it means not letting these millionaire families continue destroying the forests.

The fundamental challenge is how do we make our society sustainable? It’s not good enough to speak of sustainable development because it’s society that we must make sustainable. The ultimate objective is a sustainable society, so that’s where we must move.

(Taken from Sentir con la Iglesia
a new Salvadoran monthly newspaper.)



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