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.”
The grave illness of El Salvador, this national stroke, was also finely calibrated and to a major degree funded, if not caused, by the United States. Our troops schooled the Salvadoran Army and its affiliated death squads, the Reagan Administration supported the hysterical fascism of the dictators, and our Special Forces and CIA taught the torturers their techniques. This was, in retrospect, spring training for Iraq.*
Like Iraq, with its own badly misunderstood history, El Salvador has problems that preceded US policy in the area. Beginning in the sixteenth century, the Spanish did an efficient job of creating an unholy trinity to preside over the poor in countries they colonized: army, church and oligarchy. El Salvador’s oligarchy consisted primarily of fourteen families who controlled the economy and the rigid social ladder. The feudal system imposed by the Spanish persisted until the civil war brought about (some) land reform and (some) social mobility. The apparatus of class is exemplified today in fashionable neighborhoods by high walls topped with razor wire that protect the rich from the poor. Socioeconomic poles are so far apart, El Salvador could be a laboratory for the study of unfairness.
There is always the danger that a recovering patient can suffer a relapse, another stroke. Professor Benjamin Cuellar, director of the Institute for Human Rights at the University of Central America in San Salvador, sees a slightly modernized trinity blocking egalitarian progress the way the old Spanish one did. “We have the divine right of wealth here,” he told me. “God the Father is the economic power of the rich families, the corporations and US interests. The Son is ARENA itself, which serves the rich, and the Holy Ghost is the media which support the rich and ARENA, who basically own them. No wonder human rights are threatened, not only by gangs but in the home.”
On the question of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, currently before the US Congress, Cuellar is critical but fatalistic. “CAFTA is coming and it has provisions to expand the economy, but it will help only the rich,” he said. “The government tells lies about how we will invade the United States with tamales and tortillas to drive out hamburgers. Our little industries can’t really compete and will be flooded by American and Chinese products. The Salvadoran winners will be the bankers, the big landowners who build malls and own hotels, the Mercedes dealers. The poor will be the losers, as usual.” CAFTA advocates say it will diversify the economy, bring jobs to El Salvador and industrialize the workforce. Crucial objections to CAFTA are that it provides no support for labor unions, does not guarantee even minimal working conditions, contains no protections for the environment and will put El Salvador’s small farmers out of business by allowing cheaper corn and beans to come in from the north.
Like other Salvadorans of all classes, Cuellar sees the flow of immigrants to the United States as both a social escape valve and an indispensable part of the economy. “What would we do without 2.5 million Salvadorans in the United States? Simple: We’d collapse. Your government looks the other way on illegal immigrants, our government sends troops to Iraq, a total surrender to George Bush.”
Illegal immigration led to the creation of Mara Salvatrucha, the gang that terrorizes urban El Salvador. It originated as a defense against Mexican gangs preying on Salvadoran immigrants in Los Angeles. When Mara Salvatrucha leaders were arrested and deported to El Salvador, they recruited new members, who headed north to the United States themselves, reinforcing what has become a 100,000-member international gang. The Department of Homeland Security catches those it can, sends them home and the recruiting cycle begins again among the dispossessed youth of El Salvador’s poorest barrios.
* A recent New York Times Magazine report identifies several Americans who worked with Special Forces in El Salvador and elsewhere in Latin America to promote US interests. Two of them are James Steele and Steve Casteel (such names, such Bunyanesque allegory, could be improved upon only by making the second one Castiron), who cut their teeth–and no doubt a lot of other people’s–in El Salvador (Steele) and the drug wars of the Americas (Casteel). Now they help bring Iraq’s new army up to speed on the counterinsurgency tactics they first practiced in Latin America.
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.
Carasque is near the Honduran border and has a population of about 400, making sister “city” an ambitious designation, but Peace through Interamerican Community Action (PICA) in Bangor has furnished, among other things, medicines, school supplies and money for a new soccer field in Carasque. Maria Celina Orellana, who is on the town council and twice the age of the other members, recalls the war in Carasque as freshly as if it had ended last month instead of thirteen years ago. Like many villages in Chalatenango, Carasque favored the FMLN rebels over the central government. “We hated the army,” Orellana said. “When the army came to occupy us, the men of Carasque hid farther up in the mountains so they wouldn’t be drafted against their will. The Guardia took our pigs and chickens and never paid us. If they asked for your ID and you didn’t have it, they beat you. When the Guardia saw a woman walking alone, they would take her up the hill above here and rape her in a group. They would tell her if she talked they’d rip out her tongue.” Two of Orellana’s sons joined the rebels and were killed.
I asked Orellana if she herself was mistreated. As she answered she looked away, out the window of the enlarged tin-roof hut where the town council meets, and focused on a loofa tree. “We suffered because we had to protect our village.” Still avoiding my eyes and continuing to use the first person plural, she said, “We were never safe when the Guardia was around. They were the most cruel. They took our houses, made us sleep outside, stole anything they wanted, made us do whatever they wanted us to do. Always when they were around we felt death in the air.”
Orellana and others said there were no paid jobs in Carasque except for schoolteachers. Some of the villagers belong to a sewing cooperative, and they sell tapestries to people in Bangor and elsewhere. The men are almost all farmers, dreading the advent of CAFTA, which they are sure will drive them off the land. “We raise sugar and chickens,” Orellana said, “and, yes, my son in Washington, DC, sends money home from his pay as a house painter. But no one sits back and waits here. We have no bums in Carasque.” Outside, punctuating what Orellana had just said, three men passed carrying rakes while two women climbed the hill from a stream with green baskets on their heads full of laundry they had just washed. Neither used her hands to steady the baskets, one swinging her arms and the other holding a baby.
In Carasque’s only shop, a combination general store and cafe, we ate a friendly fly-buzzed lunch while Kates-Chinoy described his work in Carasque and other villages as “essentially education and political advocacy.” His parents spent several years in El Salvador, and his father, Dennis Chinoy, recently published an op-ed in which he argued that under CAFTA public education, fire departments, libraries and even water supplies are all “fair game for privatization.” In a worst-case nightmare, remittances to El Salvador could become the intravenous feeding tube keeping a comatose country alive. Even in Carasque, cognitive dissonance lives: As we ate, the shop’s television was tuned to a rerun of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show in Madison Square Garden with its display of champion borzois, Shih Tzus, corgis and bichons frisés, whose collective grooming costs more than Carasque’s citizens see in a year, remittances included. If anyone was offended, there was no sign. As in villages throughout the Third World, Carasque’s television seemed to be utilized less for its dramatic or informational possibilities than for its anesthetic properties.
When I returned to San Salvador for an appointment with the former medical student now working as a tour guide, she told me that, at 35, she was already too old to be hired by one of the corporations now dotting the city. As a working mother supporting her son without remittances, she would like at least to be eligible for an office job. “Nothing doing,” she said. “These men, they want only young women to look at and to serve them.” We were joined by her parents, who had lived for a dozen years in San Francisco. “Machismo is our enemy here,” her stately mother said. “It keeps everyone down, the men stupid and the women ignorant. Educate the women and you educate the country.”
Meanwhile, security was being beefed up all over the city because the day after I was to leave El Salvador, Condoleezza Rice was coming through on a politicothankyoudiplophoto-op to tell the only Central American country still maintaining troops in Iraq how much its patron appreciated the gesture.
On my last afternoon in the country I went to see Maria Julia Hernandez, for several decades El Salvador’s guardian of human rights. She works in an office so spare the only ornamentation is a large cross flanked by a pair of photographs of the assassinated Archbishop Romero, with whom she worked a generation ago. Even when she is most critical of American policy or of cruelties in El Salvador, Hernandez smiles indulgently. She has the beatific visage of a Buddha or–on her own religious compass–of a slowly aging Latina angel. “Human rights today is a very delicate subject here,” she said. “In a structural way the majority of people are threatened every day–by the gangs, of course, but also by bandits and even the national police, who are very corrupt and take bribes. They also still use torture. The problem with youth gangs is real, but the police don’t try to solve it except by force. This is no good–we have to include young people in choosing their futures, not simply suppress them.”
Hernandez pointed to a kind of violence worse than that caused by gangs or police, which Professor Cuellar had alluded to when he mentioned human rights in the home. “Family crimes against women and children,” she said, “this is more serious than the gangs. Men with no jobs turn to domestic violence. Women are killed in horrible ways. As El Salvador’s debts go up, social conditions go down. The same causes exist that were here before the civil war–social and economic inequality, the threat and reality of violence. The politicians are shouting now instead of shooting, but the conditions are the same as before. Men have so few jobs, the factories that exist exploit women terribly and the remesas are not healthy for an economy or a people.”
I asked if she had any hope.
“Solidarity,” Maria Julia Hernandez said, smiling more broadly even as she described a country on life support. “I always have hope that enough people will come together to work for a just society. The United States could help by understanding that other people, not only Americans, are human beings too, and by paying attention to international agreements on the environment, global warming and human rights. I admire so much in the United States–the goodness and generosity of the people, and the values and rights you believe in–but your foreign policy is terrible. We should bring our soldiers home from Iraq, and so should you. Why do you have such a terrible foreign policy?”
“Why?” I said.
“You tell me,” she said, still smiling.