Letter From El Salvador
At the other end of the spectrum, the US Embassy in San Salvador is a fine and private place, a moated compound against the country to which it is delegated, as meticulously landscaped, tennis-courted and pooled as a Connecticut country club. Diplomats there are more welcoming than at any embassy I have visited and refreshingly candid. The feeling among those I spoke with was that the FMLN would have won the last election if its candidate, Schafik Handal, hadn't been so bombastic and hot-tempered. They fear that ARENA President Saca's current outreach to the poor and proposed tax reforms will be scuttled by his own wealthy supporters. These opinions were echoed by Americans both inside and outside the embassy.
An American with considerable experience in El Salvador rues the tax system, or lack of one, connecting it to the monthly remittances from the United States, out of which the Salvadoran banks take a cut. In a lengthy conversation, the only time I saw him agitated was when he talked about wealthy Salvadorans. "Remittances," he said, "amount to the poorest people in the country subsidizing the richest, the ones with three BMWs in their garages. The 13 percent sales tax hits the poor the hardest, and the rich pay no property tax. You can't run a country on a sales tax. The national sport here isn't soccer, it's tax evasion." This American, with contacts among the Salvadoran elite, did not want to be identified; he added that he levels these charges against the rich not as a socialist but as a conservative Republican.
The irony of the remittances is that they are sent by Salvadorans who are themselves near the bottom of the US labor pool--maids, busboys, messengers, janitors. Two hardworking mothers in San Salvador who do not receive remittances themselves told me the payments are necessary but demoralizing. "My cousins are in a small village on the coast and have made their living as fishermen for generations," one said, "but the waters are becoming fished out. So they sit around waiting all month for their remesas to arrive from Houston and northern Virginia. I also have farming cousins in the mountains. When coffee prices went down they stopped planting, and now they just wait for the monthly payments. Their cousins in America clean houses and mow lawns. A couple of the guys found work in construction."
The other woman, who once studied medicine but now works as a driver and tour guide, was even bleaker. "The United States has El Salvador in the palm of its hand," she said. "If your government suddenly decided, for whatever reason, to deport a mere fraction of the illegal Salvadorans, say 100,000, our lifeline vanishes and the war would start again." Both women used exactly the same four words to describe the illegal immigration to the north: "This will never end."
"I completely disagree that remesas make bums of us," a villager far from the capital told me. Maria Celina Orellana is a 51-year-old mother of ten who, remarkably, looks a decade younger. She has struggled all her life for her family and her mountain village, Carasque, which has usually meant struggling against her government and its US sponsors. Orellana's allies--and Carasque's--are American NGOs in the country, working openly against Administration policy and continuing to try, if possible, to help Salvadorans resist the malignant effects of globalization without representation. Jesse Kates-Chinoy, a young American from Bangor, Maine, who works for the Sister Cities Program in El Salvador, took my wife and me three bumpy hours in a pickup--and developmentally, a light-year--from San Salvador to Carasque in the department of Chalatenango. El Salvador's pre-industrial past materialized as the noisy, dusty capital gave way to farmland, lush foliage, sparkling streams and hilly villages where people were traveling on foot or by donkey.