New York Times Article regarding El Salvador's troops in Iraq
There is an article in today's New York Times which looks at the reasons that El Salvador continues to maintain a contingent of almost 400 of its soldiers on the ground in Iraq:
Officially, Mr. Saca’s government says the deployment of what is called the Cuscatlán Battalion is a way to thank the world for its assistance in helping stop the civil war here a decade and a half ago. Salvadoran officials say their country is an active part of the United Nations and believe in the world body’s effort to rebuild Iraq.
They stress the humanitarian dimension to their soldiers’ work there, like building roads, health clinics and schools, while acknowledging the dangers that have resulted in the deaths of five soldiers and the wounding of about two dozen more. They proudly note that El Salvador’s army, once linked to right-wing death squads, has been purged of its bad elements and is now one of the most respected institutions in the country.
But those arguments have not been enough to sway local critics. A newspaper opinion poll put opposition to El Salvador’s involvement in Iraq at 81 percent. In 2004, masked protesters briefly took over the country’s main cathedral and demanded an immediate withdrawal of troops. For the most part, though, Salvadorans have been preoccupied with local concerns, such as their economic woes and the insecurity that causes strains in their own country.
Every time a new contingent is sent, though, the legislature splits along party lines, with the right-wing government and its allies backing the plan and the leftist opposition voting no.
“It’s the gringos’ war,” said one critic, Olga Serrano, who is executive secretary of a group of wounded veterans from the war in the 1980s. “What are we doing over there?”
Behind the scenes, government officials sell the plan differently. They point to all the benefits they believe they are receiving from Washington as a result of their assistance, even as the Bush administration insists that it is not giving El Salvador special favors for its troop presence.
“We’re doing this to help the Iraqis but we’re also doing this for our own people,” said Carlos Rolando Herrarte Rivas, a legislator from the center-right Christian Democratic Party who went to Iraq in December as part of a government delegation to visit the troops. “The president can’t say that but that’s why we’re doing it.”
Mr. Herrarte, a retired colonel, said the Bush administration had been treating Salvadoran migrants well despite strong anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States. He pointed to the Bush administration’s decision in January 2005 to grant a one-year extension of temporary protected status for about 250,000 Salvadorans living in the United States. The status gives them a reprieve from deportation because of natural disasters or political turmoil at home.
Mr. Herrarte also cited the $461 million in antipoverty funds that El Salvador was awarded last fall by the Millennium Challenge Corporation, an American foreign aid agency, as being another outgrowth of the war effort.
“When I go to my town, they yell,” he said of his vociferous antiwar constituents. “They want to know why we are there. They say, ‘Get them out.’ Then I start explaining how this is helping our people in the United States.”
To say that El Salvador and the United States are joined at the hip is an understatement. Nearly a third of native-born Salvadorans are living in the United States, including relatives of President Saca, Defense Minister Otto Alejandro Romero Orellana and many other decision makers. Those Salvadorans abroad send home about $2.5 billion every year, which represents about 17 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.