Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 192 | Julio 1997


El Salvador

A Leftwing Mayor In the Continent's Most Violent Capital

Hector Silva, a doctor with “patriotic pain” and seven strategic priorities, is the new mayor of San Salvador. The Central American left has its eyes on this man and on the historic opportunity that his election has afforded.

Ismael Moreno, SJ

Many eyes are on Hector Silva. Particularly those in El Salvador's capital city follow his every step, and with good reason. Hector Silva is San Salvador's first mayor to win this municipal office through the votes of many marginal communities. In the March elections these communities put more trust in the change offered by the left than in the "more of the same" offered by the hardened political and economic right. Since Silva's election, the major media have kept him at the top of the news.

A Great Dilemma

The media aren't watching the new mayor and his team out of interest in the popularity of his mandate, but because they want to pounce on his first misstep to begin the process of trashing the new municipal administration. From their viewpoint, the most important issue is that the new mayor not endanger the privileges put in place by the earlier municipal administrations, faithful transmitters of the Salvadoran oligarchy's interests. Either Hector Silva molds himself to the role that big capital has set out for him, condescending to their interests, or else he tries to respond to the major priorities of San Salvador, building social and popular consensus. The dilemma the new mayor faces is that he can't do both. What he chooses will define the character of his administration and the obstacles to be overcome.

Hector Silva is enthusiastic about the challenges. He knows the costs of beginning with a leftwing flag in the mayor's office of the capital of Salvador's oligarchy, as of recently the most violent capital in Latin America. The Salvadoran oligarchy is also aware of the costs. It knows that San Salvador has gotten out of hand, largely due to poor administration by its own people. If Hector Silva's administration, no matter how leftist he is, can really deal with the challenges of youth violence through proposals to organize the neighborhoods around youth-run small enterprise to collect the trash and maintain recreational spaces, the oligarchy will have no choice but to support it pragmatically. As much as anyone else, these businesspeople need a capital with a minimum of security for their investments.

"My Base is the People"

Hector Silva knows that the eyes of all social sectors are on him. He acknowledged this to envío in his office at the end of May when he agreed to an interview. He knows the risks and is committed to running them in order to strengthen the capital's popular neighborhoods. "My base of support is the people. From the people I will negotiate with big business, and with the people I plan to put in place a serious process of citizen participation."
Hearing him talk reminded us of when we saw him during the electoral campaign. It was two weeks before the elections, a Sunday afternoon, and Silva, the grey-bearded doctor, came to the Madre de los Pobres parish in an old VW to participate in a forum organized by the communities in that marginal zone of the capital. Hector Silva already knew the area from when he was coordinator of a nongovernmental organization, because he had come to meetings in support of the popular clinic that the parish had opened after the October 1986 earthquake. He had not only attended meetings; more than once he had worked as a doctor, treating mothers and their children.

But that more recent day, during the campaign, the people awaited Hector Silva as their candidate. He was late for the appointment, and was visibly tired. The campaign gave no respite and made many demands. But the people waited calmly for two hours. They knew about his exhausting campaign agenda and were confident he wouldn't miss the meeting.

Those waiting for him were poor people, who glean what they can on the buses, in the market, at the street corners, in their war to go home with a few cents every day. At night return they from the city's center, get off the buses that go along the great illuminated avenues then suddenly, like in the mysterious Bermuda triangle, disappear, taking refuge among the ravines and the smells of Acelhuate, that great long river channel that runs through the capital and daily receives over 1,600 tons of sewage from the almost two million Salvadorans who live in the departments of La Libertad, Cuscatlán and San Salvador.

Hector Silva arrived late, but didn't miss the meeting. These are the people in whom he now puts all his trust. This is his conviction a few weeks after taking office, when all eyes follow him; some with curiosity, others with hope, and others with mistrust and warning.

No Skeletons In His Closet

Hector Silva won San Salvador's mayoral elections as the candidate of a three-party coalition: the Democratic Convergence, the Unity Movement and the FMLN. No one doubts that he won through a combination of two factors: he had the FMLN's support but isn't an FMLN militant. That was the key to his success. During the campaign, Silva won the trust of tens of thousands of residents of the marginal communities and the medium urban sector, taking care not to aggravate anticipated antipathy among the commercial and financial oligarchy. For many he was the perfect candidate. Others searched for a skeleton in his political, professional and even personal closet, and are still at it, but they are searching in vain.

The People's Questions

Hector Silva returned again to the Madre de los Pobres parish communities on Sunday, May 25, now as mayor, to participate with the people in their patron saint festival. He was late again, this time because he came directly from the airport, after his first trip to the United States, where he went to win support for two of his greatest priorities: trash collection and urban reorganization of the Salvadoran capital.

He was there again with the people from the Acelhuate ravines, the same people who met him first as doctor and then as candidate. He was there with the people, this time with many doubts and questions easily perceived in their faces and their glances.

How would this man, whom they had known before he was a candidate and in whom they had placed more confidence than in anyone before, explain that his advisers had given themselves a raise of between five and ten thousand colóns as their first task in the municipality? How could he respond to the trash problem, if the waste of nearly 300 industries are deposited in the Acelhuate canals, whose vapors and chemicals are the air they breathe from the day they are born until they die? How, without earning the wrath of his very admirers from the marginal areas, can he fill his campaign promise to reorder the street merchants, if many of the people who voted for him spend every day on San Salvador's streets, no matter the weather, just to earn some change for the day's meager food? What will this mayor do to avoid going against the interests of these street sellers, if each time the authorities have taken measures to clean the streets they have done it with force? Will Hector Silva, their mayor, do the same thing?

Why Did He Win?

Why did Hector Silva win the elections? His own answer is that the FMLN had the intelligence to propose a candidate who, unlike the rightwing ones, was not chosen from among party ranks. "The right wasn't smart enough to make the same decision. It stubbornly chose its candidates from within traditional party ranks. And lost."
Doctor Silva's candidacy was the result of the opening of the Salvadoran left. Rather than choose party militants, the FMLN designated as candidates various people who had, above all, social representation. That also happened in Santa Ana, El Salvador's second city, where the FMLN chose a doctor linked to the commercial sector. And it happened in Soyapango, where the FSLN chose a candidate with great social presence. Something similar happened with the winning candidates in Mejicanos and in Santa Tecla, whose candidates were FMLN members but were never high-level leaders and are more known in society as professionals than as party militants. In San Miguel, the most important city in the eastern part of the country, and one with a strong leftwing tradition, the FMLN lost by a slim margin. Hector Silva's explanation was that there was no coalition there; the party chose to go alone and trusted too much in the candidates' party tradition and not in their social base.

Another Way of Doing Politics

Accepting that Hector Silva and the FMLN itself won not so much because of the party's history but because of its openings to other social sectors is an acceptance in practice of a new way of doing electoral politics which, in addition to being more efficient, assumes greater political commitments once one comes to power. Hector Silva has a commitment to the FMLN and the other two parties of the coalition but, above all, he has a commitment to the social sectors that voted for a mayor for his own history and not for party principles.

According to San Salvador's new mayor, this new way of doing politics, successfully tested in these municipal elections, assumes changes inside the FMLN. The left must now develop the capacity to make viable and pragmatic proposals. It must grow in its ability to provide the necessary complementarity. To be able to move forward, the FMLN must broaden out, open itself to other social sectors and also to alliances with other political forces. As the largest leftwing force in the coalition, the FMLN must respect the decisions made by Hector Silva as mayor of that coalition, in which the key is social representativity. The FMLN supported him as its candidate, but as mayor, it must allow him to govern. That's the greatest challenge. The more the FMLN tries to hold on to control, the greater the chance that the coalition will weaken internally and thus weaken the mayor's influence. In contrast, the more it respects the mayor's decisions, the more proposal capacity and insertion in the diverse social sectors the FSLN will have.

Silva for President?

History has shown that whoever governs San Salvador well is a step closer to the country's presidency. Hector Silva is aware of this trend, but avoids the inevitable rumor that he is preparing to be a presidential candidate in March 1999. He says that to behave as a candidate already would be the worst decision, because he would have to think only about his public image, ignoring the honest search for responses to the problems of his municipality.

Silva is convinced that the greatest service he can do the left is to build an effective, transparent and honest municipal government, capable of opening itself to proposals from diverse social sectors. To think now about a presidential candidacy would limit his work, frustrating the people who elected him. The left has the obligation to capitalize on the mayor's success in the capital, transferring the accumulation of honesty, transparency and opening to the national scene, so that a successful municipal experience can be the base from which to work for a leftwing government in all of El Salvador.

Is He a Leftist?

Who is Hector Silva ideologically? He offers his own answer: "The world defines as leftwing that type of leader who is unsatisfied and uncomfortable with what he/she sees, who thinks that a country can't advance without a special, intentional concern for human investment and the dedication of important resources to combat poverty. I feel that I'm one of those people."
What does it mean to belong to the left in El Salvador today? Does it assume that one is an FMLN member, or can one create a different political representation? Silva is convinced that the FMLN is an important political force with a future ahead of it, as long as it's willing to open itself to the voice of diverse social sectors. In El Salvador this doesn't mean initiating new leftwing parties. It means developing what is already in place, building on experiences of past struggle. In Hector Silva's opinion, the FMLN has a future if it can define an attractive economic formula for the population with viability for the next ten years.

Why doesn't the new mayor consider himself rightwing? What are his differences with that sector? The right with which he has had experience seeks all solutions through the market, without worrying about the future of the 60% of the Salvadoran population that lives below the poverty line. The right conceives of economic growth without ever sacrificing its large earning ratios. "As long as the right has that attitude, I can never identify with it," says Silva, aware that he will have to negotiate with it from his leftwing convictions, given that today, and throughout Salvadoran history, the commercial and financial rightwing has felt itself to be the owner of the capital and its citizens.

Ecological Gamble

Other attitudes of the right also keep Hector Silva from identifying with it. Among them is the environment, the terrain on which the new mayor has gambled his credibility and prestige. Silva's view is that the Salvadoran right talks a lot about environmental regulation, and dons ecological rhetoric, but no more. Some noted businessperson suddenly plants 1,000 trees or euphorically buys over one hundred acres to donate as a park. But the right can't fix with these ecological crumbs all of the country's ecological potential that its voracity has destroyed. Until these businesspeople demonstrate through actions that are decided and significant, for example by processing the industrial residue of their factories, all the rest will be pure image.

Hector Silva wants to go on being an unconventional person rather than be party identified. That attitude will let him feed his desire to create something new and give authentic social responses. The mayorship is a splendid opportunity to make those desires concrete.

"Because of the Country's Pain"

And who is Hector Silva the man? The Salvadoran? At 49, the doctor feels that his capacities haven't yet been taken advantage of or used to their full potential.

The new mayor comes from many years of social and political commitment. He participated in the student movement during the 1970s, believing then that Christian Democracy could respond to demands for justice. He left the PDC in 1980, disillusioned with its incongruencies, and joined the Democratic Convergence, which was born at that time as a coalition of Social Democratic parties. From 1991 to 1994 he was an Assembly representative, elected on the Convergence platform. When his term was over he left party politics until the leftwing coalition proposed him as its mayoral candidate.

"Why did you get involved in this?" his oldest daughter asked him one day. "Because of the country's pain," he answered. After the civil war that bled the nation dry, and after the 1992 peace accords, the country showed no signs of recovery and offered no hope. "I knew that I could give more. I had only been retired from politics for three years. But the country's pain forced me to search for new paths of service."
Without a doubt, Hector Silva notes, counting on his fingers, the seven priorities of his Municipal Council are: 1) the adequate collection, sorting and disposal of solid wastes and the trash problem in general; 2) responding to violence, especially by youth gangs; 3) dealing with the disorder and pollution of vehicular traffic; 4) resolving the situation of street sellers; 5) responding to the lack of services in marginal communities and neighborhoods; 6) promoting participatory incorporation of citizens in municipal projects; and 7) eradicating corruption and the lack of municipal transparency.

Trash Above All

Trash is an ongoing problem in San Salvador, which requires special attention. Dealing with the garbage that runs through the Acelhuate canals necessitates million dollar investments, audacious decisions by the capital's community and large business, and profound changes in the conduct of all inhabitants of a city that always smells like it is rotting.

Ten years ago, after the 1986 earthquake, various international organizations proposed building a channel for the Acelhuate River, at least in one of the city's marginal sectors. This implied building underground canals and providing integral education to the residents of the ravines bordering the river. The proposal should have been accompanied by the firm commitment of the mayor's office and the central government. But the government and private enterprise were more concerned about winning the war than about anything else and the project fell through the cracks.

All of the capital's successive municipal governments have made garbage their battle cry, but none have been able to control it. The war was the great excuse for a long time, and other priorities were chosen, always linked in an interested fashion to managing the municipal treasury like a den of thieves. When the war ended, the municipal government proposed, as always, to deal with the trash problem. This time, the proposal was to "gassify" the waste with special plants that would transform it into gaseous chemical residues. The environmental groups totally rejected this plan, arguing that it would actually lead to greater contamination.

Now, Hector Silva has decided to confront the problem with an integrated vision. He says he's not only talking about picking up trash, but also about producing less of it, and promoting participation in its collection by developing small businesses that particularly involve the youth sector. The plan is to throw out as little as possible, reuse as much as possible and organize projects that integrate social, productive, organizational and productive aspects.

The collection system is totally a cottage industry at this point, one that contaminates and is not productive. The challenge is to build a system that creates jobs, builds community organization—especially among youth—and protects the environment. A system like this is only possible by seeking—and finding—significant social consensus.

Reorganize the Capital

With respect to urban reorganization, San Salvador's new administration is currently working on the design of a diagnostic approach to the problem, with the understanding that this is a priority involving many sectors: informal trade, small formal trade, big business, the transport industry, and the central and municipal governments. To this end the mayor's office is seeking consensus on an agenda that defines goals, rules of the game, facilities for sales, streets that need to be reconditioned for trade and others that must be closed, transport regulation, rules for pollution control, etc. With the agenda, the mayor's office will begin a planning process, also seeking consensus, knowing that the political costs, including the mayor's own image, must be distributed among the diverse sectors involved.

A Violent Capital

Hector Silva has begun to work in the most violent capital in Latin America and one of the riskiest worldwide. According to a recent investigation by the Public Opinion Institute of the Central American University in San Salvador, Supreme Court records indicate that the San Salvador area registered a monthly average of over 200 deaths and 400 injuries in 1996 alone.

The results of a survey promoted by the Pan American Health Organization indicate even more shocking statistics: some 60,000 San Salvador residents are injured with firearms on an annual basis, while 35,000 are attacked with knives. The majority of the victims are men under 40. Hector Silva says that 70% of the victims and criminals are youths under 30, organized in youth gangs from diverse marginal neighborhoods and communities around the capital.

The new mayor is aware that an issue of this magnitude cannot be resolved with repressive measures and that the public and private sectors must demonstrate a fundamental concern to seek the most appropriate medium- and long-term preventative measures, whether economic, social, cultural or athletic, with which to respond to San Salvador's youth. The mayor proposes small youth enterprises whose tasks include the care, maintenance and vigilance of parks and recreation areas, the collection and recycling of solid wastes and the organization of athletic programs. The proposal should be integral and should respond to diverse problems: safe and healthy recreational environments, youth employment, organization of the population, environmental improvement, trash collection, etc.

The First Steps: Transparency... In the two weeks following Hector Silva's inauguration as mayor, the media publicized news of the salary increase for his closest advisors and the creation of new positions. He responds calmly to the criticisms: "What has happened is that we're putting in place an internal administrative organizational process. The previous mayor had 11 bodyguards, and I have only one on a motorcycle. From three vehicles that the former mayor had, I have just one. We're looking at an administrative adjustment. The former mayor's administration was very shady. A manager who had an official salary of 15,000 colóns received a monthly average of 43,000 in practice . What we have done, as a first step, is to make the whole situation transparent, thus the salary increase was publicized. But no one talks about the administrative regulation defining real salaries that conform to the truth."

...And Participation

Citizen participation and involvement by the diverse social sectors is at the center of the new mayor's logic. An attempt is being made to open channels for people's participation. As Mayor Silva explains, "Organizations of civil society, NGOs and parish organizations will be called on in the youth programs. They will be the ones who, within the framework established by the municipality, will coordinate the youth programs."
The new mayor is determined to put into practice a process by which the principal municipal problems and decisions will be discussed in neighborhoods, through open meetings, promoting participation in grassroots workshops. The conclusions of these meetings must serve as defining material for the major municipal decisions. "We want the culmination of this process to be a participatory municipal budget. We want large spending and investments to be decided in open meetings," he says.

Although Hector Silva explains his advisers' salaries within the framework of administrative organization, the people doubt him, above all when they get stirred up by comments like that given by one of the new mayor's closest collaborators. "We're a high-class team and we deserve to be well paid," he said, with no embarrassment.
Hector Silva must be aware of every step in his difficult beginnings. His logic of promoting participation and consultation should be put to the test from the beginning. But this administrative reorganization, which brought the first criticisms, was not consulted among the social sectors.

Historic Responsibility

As they were capable of waiting for their candidate for two hours, the marginal communities of San Salvador are now waiting for the new municipal government they elected to take the path they hoped for. They're being patient; it's just begun.

All of El Salvador, and even the popular sectors of Central America beyond our borders, are also waiting with San Salvador. Their eyes are also on the space that votes have opened to the Salvadoran left. Hector Silva and his team are very aware of this responsibility they have to Central American history.

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