Letter From El Salvador
Don't expect this to make easy sense. El Salvador is a series of issues as much as it is a country, and to the degree it is a country it is one where contradictions and extremes rule. As well as paradox. Take, for example, gangs. The notorious Mara Salvatrucha gang roams the streets of the capital, San Salvador, as well as other cities, fighting for money, territory and control of the drug trade. But this gang is not from El Salvador at all. Mara Salvatrucha began in Los Angeles.
Given the uncertainties, let's start with El Salvador's facts:
Population: 6.7 million, a little larger than Massachusetts.
Area: a little smaller than Massachusetts.
Currency: US dollar, no local currency minted.
Taxation: no property tax, 13 percent sales tax.
Principal export: people; after that, coffee, sugar, rice.
Principal destination of exports, both legal and illegal: United States.
Principal import: remittances from Salvadorans in the United States, known as remesas and estimated at $2.5 billion annually, 17.1 percent of gross domestic product.
Ethnic groups: mestizo 90 percent, white 9 percent, Amerindian 1 percent or less, having been largely exterminated in a massacre decreed by the government in 1932.
Foreign businesses visible immediately on the streets of the capital: Wendy's (for hamburguesas), KFC (pollo), Pizza Hut, McDonald's, Burger King, Hyundai, Isuzu, Holiday Inn, Nine West, Tony Roma's, John Deere, Toyota, Blockbuster, Armani, Subway, Domino's Pizza, Payless ShoeSource, DuPont, Budget Rent A Car, not to mention Texaco and Shell stations. Emblems of a consumer nation, or are we talking corporate colonization here? Sorry, that's opinion, especially the left-loaded word "colonization." Stick to facts in this section.
Emigrant population: 2.5 million, legal and illegal, in the United States, more than one-third the total in El Salvador itself.
Most recent war: Currently the country is at war in Iraq, having sent 380 troops, six of whom were awarded the Bronze Star by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on a visit to El Salvador.
Most devastating war: The civil war lasted twelve years, from 1980 to 1992, costing El Salvador 75,000 lives and the United States between $4 billion and $6 billion as it supported the rightist government against leftist rebels. The peace accords of 1992 gave a place in the nation's politics both to the conservative ARENA party and the FMLN rebels.
Most recent election and candidates: In 2004 Tony Saca of the ARENA party defeated Schafik Handal of the FMLN party, though in 2003 the FMLN won more seats in the National Assembly. Saca and Handal are distant cousins from Palestinian families. Don't draw any conclusions; presumably they are just a couple of outsourced Palestinians looking for work.
Enough facts. Now for opinion. El Salvador today is an Exhibit A casualty of the American imperium. The country is like a friend very slowly recovering from a grave illness--a stroke, perhaps, that paralyzed part of the body--and still re-learning the use of limbs and powers of reasoning, occasionally suffering frustrating setbacks. The illness was not only the civil war but the way of the war--death squads, dictatorial regimes, massacres of entire villages, widespread torture, the assassination of the revered Archbishop Oscar Romero, the murder of American nuns, a sinister aura throughout the small country. Virtually every family has its horror story of brutality--abduction, rape, murder. Even unprosecuted perpetrators are not necessarily free from the emotional harvest of their acts. The cousin of a National Guard officer who was present at the infamous massacre in El Mozote told me his cousin is still "visited by fright and guilt." I asked whether this officer had committed murders himself. "If he was ordered he followed orders," the man said. "His nightmares are uncontrollable even with drugs, and he has been in and out of mental hospitals ever since."