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Showing posts from April, 2005

Coming and going

There were some contrasting images at El Salvador's airports on Friday. US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice arrived for a visit on the final leg of her Latin American tour. Secretary Rice met with President Tony Saca before her return to Washington. Among the topics she spoke on in El Salvador:
The Bush administration will push for immigration reform, a topic of great interest in this country which depends on the remittances sent by Salvadorans living in the United State The Bush administration is grateful for the support of El Salvador with its troops in Iraq; El Salvador is the only country in the western hemisphere with troops still in Iraq The Bush administration will work to get CAFTA ratified in the US Congress There will be ongoing cooperation between the countries in fighting gangs The countries will support Chile's interior minister Jose Miguel Insulza becoming the next head of the OAS.
Earlier in the day, there was a confrontation at the airport as S…

Doctors Without Borders opposes CAFTA

The international medical humanitarian organization, Doctors Without Borders, released its testimony before the US Congress opposing the passage of CAFTA. Doctors Without Borders is concerned about the impact of the intellectual property protections granted to large pharmaceutical companies:
[Doctors Without Borders] has raised concerns about the following IP provisions in various free trade agreements:
New obstacles related to pharmaceutical test data, which will delay the registration of generic medicines (“data exclusivity”) and render compulsory licensing ineffective;
Rules that will confer abusive powers to regulatory authorities to enforce patents (“linkage”); andExtensions of patent terms on pharmaceuticals beyond the 20-years required in TRIPS. Each of these provisions... appear in DR-CAFTA and threaten to hamper generic competition – the only reliable mechanism for ensuring lower drug prices – and therefore restrict access to affordable medicines in the Central American region.


Corruption still plagues El Salvador

Corruption remains a problem impinging the progress of El Salvador's economy. This week, La Prensa revealed the details of a report concerning corruption in the Vice Ministry of Transportation. The report found that because of a lack of organization and reliable controls in the government body, there was an out-of-control black market for the licenses which authorize buses to run on various routes throughout the country.

The University of Central America's Proceso weighed in with a commentary proclaiming that the ARENA government was running the country for a selective group of big businesses. To succeed in business you need to know how to grease the wheels:

Generally, the businessmen interested in providing goods or services to the government, obtaining a license, or performing different kinds of procedures must do illegal expenditures on the official responsible for the transaction, which is understood as gratitude. That is how some businessmen give them presents or hand th…

Gang murders

Diario Colatino reports that officials at a law enforcement conference in Chiapas Mexico estimated that fully one third of murders in Central America are linked to the Mara Salvatrucha gang. On top of that are a multitude of other crimes including sexual assaults and violent attacks. The areas along the borders with Mexico have become a lawless zone where gangs prey on illegal immigrants trying to make their way north.

Gang members were implicated in more than 11 homicides which occurred in the most recent 24 hour period according to La Prensa. Police were particularly worried by the firepower in the hands of gang members, since one assault featured a barrage of bullets from an AK-47 assault rifle.

Political orthodoxy in the FMLN

The FMLN continues to be split between reform-minded elements and the hard-liners led by Schafik Handal. The reformers include such people as San Salvador mayor Carlos Rivas Zamora and Santa Tecla mayor Oscar Ortiz. The hard liners continue to be firmly in control which may not bode well for the party's election chances in next year's elections of mayors and legislators. Most recently the red party announced that it will have an internal commission which will evaluate potential candidates who wish to run for office to verify their militant credentials. It's hard not to view this as the hard liners' way to prevent reform candidates from making it on the ballot. Proceso had an editorial about the internal FMLN politics recently which called on the party of the left to have transparency in how it chooses its leaders and direction. The party will struggle if it does not allow governance through transparent internal elections.

Currently the division in the FMLN is pla…

Violence and rehabilitation

Since February, when US and Central American law enforcement held a high profile anti-gang conference, there have been many stories about Mara Salvatrucha and gangs in the US press. I have not been writing about all of those stories, because many cover the same ground, but this week the Houston Chronicle is running a series this week on the gangs with some extended coverage. Today's story features a profile of Quezaltepeque, described by the paper as the second most violent community in the country after San Salvador.

Meanwhile, El Mundo and other Salvadoran press carried stories about the public presentation of approximately 200 ex-gang members who have been rehabilitated. The presentation was designed to show an initial success of what the Saca administration calls Operation Extended Hand, to go along with its anti-gang policy, Super Firm Hand.

Rewards for a loyal ally

El Salvador is well known for being a US ally who closely follows the foreign policy lead of Washington, including the participation of Salvadoran troops in the war in Iraq. The US rewards such an ally. For the past several weeks, US troops have been working with their Salvadoran counterparts in the country building schools and medical clinics.

According to the US Army News Service,The New Horizons Exercise in El Salvador will provide two new schools and three clinics in areas of San Vicente that were hit by earthquakes....

Joint Task Force 'Para Los Ninos' is conducting New Horizons in Santa Clara, El Salvador. The New Horizons program started in the mid-1980s with the primary objective of providing joint readiness training for U.S. military engineering and medical units. The program brings together U.S. military units with their host-nation counterparts to build military-to-military cooperation while fostering goodwill between the U.S. and its neighbors.
The conservative El D…

Labor and CAFTA

CAFTA is on the front-burner in the US Congress this month. Stories are appearing daily about one interest group or another opposing or favoring the treaty. Sugar interests are against the treaty; the high tech industry favors it. The Chicago Tribune ran a story this week about the impact of labor conditions in El Salvador on the prospects for passage of CAFTA:
[L]abor advocates and others say there is an entrenched anti-union culture that contributes to poor working conditions in El Salvador and much of Central America, despite laws that guarantee the right to organize.

Those working conditions are among the objections in Washington to a free-trade treaty the U.S. signed with El Salvador and five other nations in the region last year. The issue will soon hit the floor of the U.S. Congress, which will decide this spring whether to ratify the Central America Free Trade Agreement, or CAFTA....

Trying to clean up that image, Salvadoran President Tony Saca last year overhauled the Labor Mi…

NPR report on Mara Salvatrucha

National Public Radio ran an excellent report this week on Mara Salvatrucha and other Central American gangs. Listen to it here.

El Salvador lowest in projected economic growth

The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) issued a report on the economic prospects for Latin America during the coming year. ECLAC is a regional economic commission of the United Nations.

The study projects economic growth in El Salvador of only 2.5% in 2005. While this compares favorably to the 1.4% growth experienced in 2004, it is the lowest of the 19 countries in the region. In contrast, the average expected growth for Mexico and Central America is 3.7% and 4.4% for all of Latin America and the Caribbean.

The study noted that the anemic growth in 2004 was caused by a decline in the level of maquiladora factory activity, high fuel prices, and a decline in investment.

Meanwhile, remittances from abroad continue to increase. Salvadorans living outside of the country have sent back $670 million in the first 3 months of this year, almost a 20% increase over 2004. Remittances make up as much as one sixth of the total economy. El Salvador's most importan…

World Food Program in El Salvador

The Executive Director of the UN World Food Program, James Morris, was in El Salvador on Tuesday. During his tour of Central America, the World Food Program reported statistics about childhood malnutrition in the region:
Malnutrition among children in Central America remains a serious problem. Guatemala, for example, has the highest rate of chronic malnutrition among children under five in Latin America – 49 percent. In El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua the figures are also high – 19, 29 and 20 percent respectively.
Morris was in the region to promote public and private efforts to fight hunger. Diario Colatino reported that Morris met with President Tony Saca and announced that the WFP would work with Saca on the government's new Red Solidaria or "Support Network." The Support Network is part of the new anti-poverty program of the Saca administration. Morris lauded the program's goal of reducing extreme poverty in the country by 50% by the end of Saca's presi…

Catholic church struggles with social justice

National Public Radio broadcast a nice piece on the Catholic church in El Salvador, social justice, and the memory of Romero. You can listen to it here.

Labor abuses in El Salvador container industry

The International Teamsters union issued a report today detailing what it claims are labor abuses in the shipping industry in El Salvador. The report focuses on Danish shipping giant Maersk and details the Teamsters' allegations that Maersk and the Salvadoran government have systematically repressed the right of container truck drivers to organize for better working conditions.

No repeal of 1993 amnesty law

Numerous social and international organizations have called for it. Last week the FMLN introduced a bill into the Salvadoran National Assembly to repeal the 1993 amnesty law. The 1993 amnesty has prevented prosecution in the country of anyone responsible for committing atrocities during the civil war, including such events as the assassination of Archbishop Romero, or the massacre at El Mozote.

But the FMLN lacks the necessary votes to get the repeal passed, and President Saca has also made it clear that he opposes a repeal. He was quoted in La Prensa Grafica saying:
I do not believe that repealing the Law of Amnesty moves the country forward, because that is like opening a wound and putting lemon in the wound, putting salt in the wound, and that is not the best way to reconcile the country.

Soto slaying back in the news

The murder of Gilberto Soto resurfaced in headlines this week. The Chicago Tribune ran a short story which did little more than repeat the fact that union leaders and Soto's family continue to doubt the government assertion that Soto's mother-in-law hired gang members to kill the Salvadoran-born Teamster.
"I regret to say that we have more questions than answers," said Roberto Burgos, an attorney with the Institute of Human Rights at El Salvador's Jesuit-run Central American University. "You have to remember the persecution of union leaders in this country during the war."

Burgos' institute was contracted by Soto's employer, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, to look into the case.
Meanwhile, the presiding officer in the criminal proceedings against the suspects arrested by the police has delayed the proceedings. The judge wants to have a larger courtroom assigned for upcoming hearings which will review the testimony of witnesses.

Catholic and evangelical churches in El Salvador

I have been writing recently about the tensions between Pope John Paul II and the proponents of liberation theology. The Dallas Morning News has another story on that subject.

Several news organizations were writing this week, however, about the growth of evangelical protestant churches in Latin America and the exodus from the Catholic churches to those denominations. The LA Times story on the phenomenon makes the point that most evangelical churches do not emphasize social activism or a focus on the poor:
[E]vangelical groups billed themselves as a haven from the tumult.

"The people don't want a polemic," said Edgardo Bertrand, pastor of one of El Salvador's largest evangelical churches. "They want God."

Many of Bertrand's flock at the Christian Jerusalem Embassy in San Salvador are converts weary of the political activism that roiled the Catholic Church in past decades. Evangelicals say their emphasis is on personal transformation through faith, not soc…

Protests in El Salvador against free trade

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Demonstrators from various social organizations protested against "unfair trade" and against CAFTA in San Salvador on Thursday and Friday. Some 2000 marchers were met by riot police on Thursday as they approached the presidential palace. A confrontation ensued with police using rubber bullets and pepper gas. Eight people were injured including two journalists.

Coverage of the protests and the police action varied predictably with the political leanings of the newspaper. Diario Colatino focused on the wide range of groups represented in the protests and their goals to have a world where human dignity is respected. Meanwhile, La Prensa Grafica illustrated the story with a photo of a protester throwing a broken piece of glass at police and headlined the government assertion that the FMLN was behind the demonstrations.

UNICEF study on school attendance in El Salvador

La Prensa Grafica reported on statistics about schooling in El Salvador:
In a country where 43% of the population lives in poverty, the children are the most vulnerable

42% of Salvadorans are children under age 18, and three of every ten do not attend school because they are working at jobs or are required to care for siblings. These are some of the indicators unveiled yesterday by Elspeth Erickson, representative of UNICEF in El Salvador. There are statistics that should light up a warning, because those who are most important to our societies and our families, the boys and girls, are not getting what they have the right to have.

In fact, only 45% of children reach the sixth grade in basic education, and 20% of children have no studies even for one grade.

Short takes

Three short items. I am not sure if there is a theme tying them together.

After Francisco Flores dropped out of the race for secretary general of the Organization of American States, the organization was deadlocked 17-17 in voting between Chilean Interior Minister Insulza and Mexican Foreign Secretary Derbez. After 5 straight tie votes, the OAS members adjourned until May 2 when they will try again. Boz has some speculations on his blog about what might happen to break the impasse.

Today, April 13, will be the first day of hearings in the US Congress over ratification of CAFTA. Forces opposing the treaty are cautiously optimistic about being able to block the treaty in the US House. April 13 is a "National Call-In Day" to contact lawmakers to protest the treaty.

Finally, Tony Saca and his administration is falling all over itself in excitement that US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice is going to visit the country at the end of the month. El Faro has an article criticiz…

Catholic social activism and the Polish pope

The Los Angeles Times ran a lengthy article with reflections on the legacy of Pope John Paul II from the viewpoint of Catholic social activists in El Salvador. The pope's actions to quash the strongest forces of liberation theology left activists disillusioned about the Church's commitment to improve the lot of the poor and oppressed. The pope's approach was strongly influenced by his anti-communism grounded in an upbringing in post-war communist Poland. From the LA Times article:
"The pope didn't understand the meaning of Romero," said former priest [Miguel] Ventura, now 59. "It indicated that Rome doesn't give aspects of the Salvadoran, the Latin American church, the attention it should."

Ventura says that at least 30 priests and nuns left the Salvadoran clergy after 1990 over disenchantment with Vatican policy. He said he knows of five other former clerics with untraditional pastorates like his in El Salvador.

Moreover, the pope moved to more …

US airlines outsource work to El Salvador

One area where El Salvador has been attracting jobs recently involves outsourcing efforts by US-based airlines. A recent article on the Transportation Workers Union web site discusses how JetBlue and AmericaWest airlines both have outsourced maintenance work to Aeroman, the maintenance subsidiary of El Salvador based Grupo Taca.
JetBlue Airways doesn't offer passenger service to El Salvador. But this year, the discount airline will fly at least 17 of its 68 Airbus A320 jets to that country. There, over six days, local mechanics working for an aircraft-overhaul shop under contract to JetBlue will inspect each plane nose to tail. They'll examine hydraulic and pneumatic systems, lubricate joints, service brakes and paint tray tables and toilet seats. Then the jets will fly back to the U.S.

America West Airlines also is sending some of its planes to El Salvador for checkups required by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration.
This week also brings stories about the decision of US …

Life in El Salvador happier than life in US

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel ran a story pointing out the results of the World Values Survey ranking countries by the subjective perceptions of well-being of their populations. The World Values Survey is a large social science research project coordinated out of the University of Michigan. According to the study, people in El Salvador were 12th happiest among 82 countries, while those in the United States were 15th happiest. According to the study, being Latino seems to be linked to happiness, all 10 Latin American countries in the survey (except Peru) rank high or medium-high, and so does high income, all 28 high-income countries rank high or medium-high on subjective well-being.

The happiest people in the world? Those living in Puerto Rico.

Flores throws in towel

The AP reports that the former president of El Salvador, Francsico Flores, has withdrawn from the race to become the next secretary general of the Organization of American States. Since Washington had strongly backed Flores, many view Flores failure to win the post as a rejection of US policy in the Western hemisphere :Flores, the U.S. government's choice to lead the Washington-based Organization of American States, withdrew his candidacy late Friday. His withdrawal means that, for the first time in the 57-year history of the OAS, Washington's candidate will not win.

Flores said a three-way race for the post had divided the region and created a 'dangerous situation.' Mexican Foreign Secretary Luis Ernesto Derbez and Chilean Interior Minister Jose Miguel Insulza have also campaigned heavily for the job.
Delegates from the OAS nations will meet Monday to cast their votes.

Review of "Opportunities"

At the beginning of March, the Saca administration launched an ambitious plan named "Opportunities" to reduce the level of extreme poverty in the country by half. The intervention starts with 15 counties and 20,000 families, identified as people that do not have the capacity to purchase a basic basket of food. Next year, another 16 counties will be added to this project along with another 20,000 families, and eventually 68 counties.

The purpose of the plan is to concentrate the resources and services of different public institutions in the poorest areas of the country. The plan includes a direct economic subsidy to families who send their children to school and place them under medical programs in the local health centers. The plan provides support for small farmers with a micro-credit plan during three years, and establishes schools and health centers with basic services (the existing ones will be improved as well) –infrastructure, electricity, potable water, and sanitatio…

Reforms or window dressing?

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It can't be a coincidence that the labor ministers of the countries who are parties to CAFTA decided to release a report this week highlighting reforms they are making in protecting labor rights, just as the US Congress prepares for a very close ratification vote for the treaty.

The five nations prepared a lengthy report with the assistance of the Inter-American Development Bank. The report portrays each country as making progress in protecting the rights of workers. The report contains the following table with its view of the history of labor protections since the civil war in El Salvador:

The Pope and Romero

My posting from a few days ago regarding pope John Paul II and Romero was probably a bit simplistic. My statement that when the pope visited El Salvador three years after Romero's assassination he "spoke in the voice of Romero" glossed over the definite antagonism of the pope towards liberation theology, despite the pope's support of freedom struggles across the world.

The PBS program Frontline broadcast a program titled John Paul II - the Millennial Pope. The transcript of the program contains these recollections of a visit by Romero to visit the pope in Rome:
MARIA LOPEZ VIGIL: [through interpreter] I am never going to forget it's in my mind the gesture that Monsignor Romero made when he was explaining that to me. He did this gesture. "Look," he said, "that the Holy Father says that the archbishopric must get along well with the government, that we must enter into a dialogue. And I was trying to let the Holy Father understand that the government a…

The beneficiaries of CAFTA

A strong anti-CAFTA opinion piece appeared on the editorial pages of the
Washington Post last week. Harold Meyerson blasted CAFTA as enriching only drug companies and other multi-national corporations and offering no benefits for workers in the US or Central America:
Though the rules laid down by the World Trade Organization permit generic competition, CAFTA imposes a five -to-10 year waiting period on generic [drug] competitors, unless they conduct their own time-and-money-consuming clinical trials for the very same drugs that have already passed such trials. CAFTA thus effectively ensures the drug companies an extension of their monopoly on high-priced medications. It also ensures that thousands of Central Americans in need of such medications will have to go without.

This is just one of a number of cautionary tales illustrating the fundamental reality of most of our trade accords: They are designed to maximize corporate profits no matter the cost to the peoples of the signatory nat…

OAS vote could be a referendum on Bush policies

Delegates from the Organization of American States will meet later this week to elect a new leader for the organization. The Bush Administration backs former Salvadoran president Francisco Flores for the position. And with the outcome of the vote depending on the votes of Caribbean nations, the US is promising economic aid to the island countries. As Washington Post columnist Marcela Sanchez points out, votes against Flores may reflect antipathy towards the Bush administration's foreign policy in the Americas:
And to promote its candidate, the Bush administration has backed a bill in Congress that promises $10 million in grants for the Caribbean, the region whose 14 votes at the OAS could deliver the job to Flores. He is running against Jose Miguel Insulza, the interior minister of Chile, and Luis Ernesto Derbez, the foreign minister of Mexico.

Not that there is anything inherently wrong with helping your friends. But in the current circumstances, Bush's endorsement of Flor…

Nostalgia and textile markets

Two stories this week talk about the prospects of El Salvador's foreign trade in two different areas of its economy. The Chicago Tribune carries a story about the hopes of small Salvadoran businesses that they will be able to export Salvadoran favorite foods like pupusas and horchata to their fellow countrymen now living in the United States. Such exports of the tastes of home are referred to as the "nostalgia market."
Salvadoran officials say that merely negotiating [CAFTA] opened trade channels that created opportunities. Some small businesses have already begun shipping corn tamales, pineapple-flavored semita pies and special black-clay pottery to the U.S., some of which are being sold in mainstream stores.

"The important thing is all these opportunities, not only for the large corporations, but little businesses too," said Yolanda Mayora de Gavidia, El Salvador's economy minister. "We have to have a clear vision about where are these products and …

The Pope in El Salvador

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The death of Pope John Paul II and the 25th anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, provide reason to remember the two visits of John Paul to El Salvador during his papacy.

In 1983, during the height of the civil war, the Pope risked personal safety to preach peace in the war torn country. As this article from St. Anthony Messenger points out, John Paul spoke in the same voice as Romero:
When the pope arrived in El Salvador on March 6, he insisted on visiting Archbishop Oscar Romero's tomb in spite of opposition. At the open-air Mass which followed, when the pope explained that he had just been to the cathedral, the crowd of 750,000 burst into applause. The pontiff went on to proclaim Archbishop Romero as "a zealous and venerated pastor who tried to stop violence. I ask that his memory be always respected, and let no ideological interest try to distort his sacrifice as a pastor given over to his flock." The right-wing groups did not want to hear that…

Holy Week tragedies

The days of Holy Week in El Salvador are filled with religious observations, vacations and trips to the beach. The time is also filled each year with tragedy and grief as the rate of fatalities from homicides and accidents surges. As I noted previously, the vacation weeks of Christmas, Easter, and the August festivals of El Salvador del Mundo, are the weeks with the highest homicide rates.

According to La Prensa Grafica, the sad statistics for Holy Week 2005 included 166 deaths:
66 from shootings19 from knife attacks47 from traffic accidents36 from drownings on the beachesThe murders combined to bring the total homicide rate for March up to 233 persons according to the National Police, with a total for the year of 785 homicides. The law enforcement authorities try to put the best spin on this number by pointing out that the number of murders in March was lower than the totals for either January or February. On the other hand, the total for the first three months is now 193 murders highe…

Addressing root causes

A former Chicano gang member from Los Angeles writes an opinion piece in the New York Times which emphasizes the role of US policy in the growth and spread of Central American gangs like Mara Salvatrucha:
MS-13 is a result of our policy in Central America, specifically the policy that fueled the civil wars that sent more than two million refugees to the United States in the 1980's. Some of their children confronted well-entrenched Mexican-American gangs in the barrios where they landed. For their protection, they created their own groups, emulating the style of older Chicano gangs like 18th Street. MS-13, for instance, was born in the crowded, crack-ridden Mexican and Central-American community of Pico-Union, just west of the skyscrapers of downtown Los Angeles.

After the Los Angeles riots of 1992, government officials declared the main culprits to be young African-American and Latino gang members. In the mid-90's as many as 40,000 youths accused of being members of MS-13, 18th …