Bajo Lempa Rejects Latest Pressures from the U.S. Embassy over the Public-Private Partnership Law

In May, El Salvador passed a Law on Public-Private Partnerships (P3 Law) to facilitate foreign investment and increase the private sector’s role in managing and providing public services. The U.S. Embassy made the law a prerequisite for their approval of a second round of Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) funding.

The Legislative Assembly, led by the leftist FMLN party, passed the Law with reforms that exempt certain public goods and services from public-private partnerships. The public assets exempt include water, education, health care, and the prison system – all of which the government deems to important to contract out.

For a few months it seemed as though the passage of the P3 Law, even with the reforms, as enough to satisfy U.S. officials, and in September the MCC board approved a second round of funding.

Last week, however, Mari Carmen Aponte, the U.S. Ambassador, said that the Legislative Assembly would have to reform the P3 Law to take out the exceptions in order to get the MCC funds. The Embassy is also requiring that El Salvador have an anti-money laundering law in place.

Sigfredo Reyes, the FMLN president of the Legislative Assembly, responded to Ambassador Aponte’s new requirements saying that the pretentions that a person would impose such conditions on El Salvador that they would not adopt in their own country was unacceptable. He also stated, we are grateful that the government, or more the MCC has granted this second round of funding, as they call it, but the Salvadoran legislative branch moves to its own rhythm that Salvadorans determine.

Communities in the Bajo Lempa of Jiquilisco, Usulután responded to the Ambassador’s latest threats with the following statement (the original is in Spanish, with an English Translation below):

APROBAR LA LEY DE APP, FUE UN ERROR, REFORMARLA  ES AGRABAR EL ERROR

Desde que surgió el proyecto de Ley de Asocios Público-Privado, las organizaciones sociales, sindicales, ambientalistas, de derechos humanos y campesinas, la rechazan debido a que los resultados serán: control transnacional de servicios e industrias estatales necesarias, incremento de los costos de servicios básicos, peores condiciones laborales para los trabajadores y la pérdida de ingresos para el Estado.

Durante el debate en la Asamblea Legislativa, los partidos llegaron a un acuerdo para proteger por lo menos varios bienes públicos, incluso el agua, la educación, la salud y los sistemas de justicia. También hicieron reformas importantes para garantizar más supervisión por la Asamblea. Estas modificaciones son positivas, pero no suficientes para evitar que bienes como el aeropuerto, los puertos, presas hidroeléctricas, carreteras y otros que actualmente son propiedad de todos los salvadoreños y salvadoreñas sean susceptibles de ser concesionados a empresas privadas; pero más grave aún es lo que puede pasar con las playas, los bosques de manglar  y las reservas naturales.

Con la aprobación de la Ley de APP, El Salvador continúa asumiendo la receta neoliberal dictada por el Banco Mundial, El Fondo Monetario Internacional y el gobierno de Los Estados Unidos, principales “asesores” y promotores de esta Ley. A pesar que las medidas neoliberales fracasaron en todo sentido, las promesas de empleo y de crecimiento económico que acompañaron las privatizaciones, la dolarización y la firma del CAFTA-DR, jamás se cumplieron y en su lugar la pobreza, la violencia, el deterioro del medio ambiente y la corrupción se incrementaron.

A pocos meses de su aprobación la gran empresa privada y el gobierno de los Estados Unidos están presionando por introducir reformas en beneficio de los inversionistas, al respecto la Embajadora de los Estados Unidos en El Salvador, públicamente ha amenazado con detener el segundo compacto del FOMILENIO, si no se aprueban tales reformas.

Este chantaje viola la soberanía del pueblo salvadoreño. Son los y las salvadoreñas,  no el gobierno de los Estados Unidos, quienes deben  determinar la política económica de El Salvador. Por lo que ante las presiones externas de reformas a la Ley, es imprescindible que la Asamblea Legislativa reaccione y comprenda  que aprobar la ley fue un error, introducirle reformas es agravar el error.

Las comunidades del Bajo Lempa, una de las regiones del país, principalmente afectadas con este tipo de leyes, claramente han manifestado:

La ley de asocios público privados y El Fomilenio II, han sido diseñados a partir de los intereses políticos de Los Estados Unidos y como tal se convierten en instrumentos de manipulación y dominación de nuestro pueblo, al mismo tiempo que destruyen los recursos naturales y generan división y conflictos entre comunidades.  Además, expresan: Teniendo en cuenta que con la aprobación de la Ley de Asocios Público Privados todos los partidos políticos han perdido credibilidad, las organizaciones  y comunidades del Bajo Lempa reiteramos una vez más nuestra determinación a defender la vida y el territorio hasta las últimas consecuencias.

English Translation:

Approving the Public Private Partnership Law was a Mistake, Reforming the Law Will Only Make it Worse

Since the beginning of the Public-Private Partnership Law project, social organizations, unions, environmentalists, human rights organizations, and peasant (campesino) communities have rejected it. They believe the law will result in the control of important state services and assets by transnational corporations; increase in the costs of basic services; worse labor conditions; and lost income for the State.

During the Legislative Assembly’s debate of the issue, the political parties came to an agreement to at least protect various public goods from the law, including water, education, health, and the prisons. They also inserted mechanisms to give the Legislative Assembly a greater supervisory role in overseeing public-private partnerships. While these modifications were positive, they were insufficient to ensure that assets like the airport, ports, hydroelectric dams, highways, and others that belong to the Salvadoran people but are now subject to concessions with private, for-profit corporations. The most serious results could be occur with the selling off of the beaches, mangrove forests, and natural reserves, which are currently targeted for tourism projects.

With the approval of the P3 Law, El Salvador continues to implement the neoliberal agenda dictated by the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and the government of the United States, which is the principal advisors and promoters of the law. The neoliberal policies have failed the people of Salvador in every sense – the promises of employment and economic growth that were to accompany privatization, dollarization, and the signing of the Free Trade Agreement have never materialized. In their place, poverty, violence, deteriorating environment, and corruption have all increased.

A few months after the approval of the P3 Law, large private corporations and the United States govenrment are pressuring the Legislative Assembly to adopt reforms to the law that will benefit investors. The U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador, Mari Carmen Aponte, has threatened publicly to withhold the second round of funding from the Millennium Challenge Corporation if the Legislature does not pass the reforms.

This blackmail violates the sovereignty of the Salvadoran State and its people. Salvadorans, not the U.S. government, ought to be the ones who determine the economic policies of El Salvador. It is imparitive that the Legislative Assembly recognize these external pressures, and state that passing the law was a mistake in the first place, and introducing reforms would only compound previous errors.

The Communities of the Bajo Lempa, one of the regions of El Salvador most affected by these types of laws and the implementation of neoliberal policies, clearly states:

 The Public-Private Partnership Law and the second round of the Millennium Challenge Corporation have been designed to benefit the political and economic interests of the United States, an as such have been converted into a tool of manipulation and domination of our communities and people, while destroying our natural resources and generating conflict between communities. We also state that with regards to the adoption of the Public Private Partnership Law, all political parties have lost credibility, and the social organizations and communities of the Lower Lempa once again reiterate our determination to defend our life and territory to the end.  

The March for True Independence of the People

Yesterday, El Salvador celebrated Independence Day. Historically, many Salvadorans have used the day as a time to ask “what independence?” This was certainly the case yesterday in the Bajo Lempa. As they have in past years, communities came together and held a march down the main road through the Bajo Lempa, to demand true independence. After the march, several community leaders came together and drafted a declaration to highlight the various ways in which the Salvadoran Government has forfeited independence to other countries and international corporations.

Marchers on the main Road through the Bajo Lempa - their banner reads, "March for True Independence for the People."

Marchers on the main Road through the Bajo Lempa – their banner reads, “March for True Independence for the People.”

We translated the declaration and have posted it along with the original Spanish below.

FOR TRUE INDEPENDENCE

THE BAJO LEMPA OUR LIFE AND TERRITORY

 With the sound of tambourines, school parades, and military exercises, yesterday El Salvador celebrated 192 years of independence. For the organized communities of the Bajo Lempa, it was a day to reflect on the current state of the country and the state of independence.

 El Salvador is dependent on food purchased abroad – more than half the population consumes meat, dairy, fruits, vegetables, and grains that are imported from neighboring countries. In addition, the consumption of processed junk food (i.e. soups, artificial flavors, soft drinks, and more) is on the rise, affecting the health of the population and resulting in the loss of food sovereignty.

 With regards to the energy sector, El Salvador consumes more than 46,000 barrels of oil a day – all of which is purchased from countries such as Mexico and Venezuela. El Salvador produces energy from geothermic plants in the volcanic regions, but the Flores Administration practically gave these resources to an Italian corporation that now claim them as their own property.

Economically, El Salvador adopted the U.S. dollar in 2001 and lost its own currency (the Colon), exposing the country to international financial crises. El Salvador has also signed free trade agreements, particularly with the United States, that opened the country to the international markets and permitting transnational corporations to continue appropriating our national resources and causing many local businesses and farmers to go bankrupt. In addition, El Salvador has given international courts jurisdiction to decide trade conflicts, sacrificing sovereignty and allowing foreign corporations to violate the rights of workers and Salvadoran communities.

 The Public Private Partnership Law and the mega-projects promoted by the second Millennium Challenge Corporation, were designed by political interests of the United States and are used as instruments to manipulate and dominate the Salvadoran people, while destroying our natural resources and generating divisions and conflict between our communities.

Furthermore, the numerous transnational corporations that operate in the country with complete liberty and limited government oversight, such as telecommunications or energy companies, charge the local population high prices for important public services. These corporations work with local media to promote consumption patters that violate our cultural identity.

Transnational corporations are also engaged in the production and sale of toxic agrochemicals, and have gotten wealthy at the expense of the population and contamination of the environment. They are able to act with impunity to promote their deadly products, and they are creating confusion among the population about the recent law regulating the sale of 53 toxic substances, most of which are already banned in almost every country in the world.

 For these reasons we affirm with complete conviction that THERE IS NO INDEPENDENCE TO CELEBRATE. On the contrary, as social organizations and the organized communities of the Bajo Lempa, we take this opportunity to once again demand our legitimate right to genuine economic, political, and cultural independence. To achieve the later we are building a process to defend our territory and our lives.

 WE ARE MOBILIZING FOR THE DEFENSE OF LIFE AND TERRITORY

THAT IS HOW THE ORGANIZED COMMUNITIES OF THE BAJO LEMPA LIVE

Bajo Lempa, September 15, 2013

And the original Spanish:

POR LA VERDADERA INDEPENDENCIA

EL BAJO LEMPA DEFIENDE LA VIDA Y EL TERRITORIO

Con sonido de tambores, desfiles escolares y maniobras militares, este día los países de Centroamérica celebran 192 años de independencia. Para las comunidades organizadas del Bajo Lempa esta fecha es propicia para reflexionar sobre la situación del país y el sentido de la independencia.

El Salvador es totalmente dependiente en lo que se refiere a la alimentación, se compra en el extranjero más de la mitad de los alimentos que la población consume; carnes, lácteos, frutas, verduras y cereales, en su mayoría se importan de los países vecinos. Además, el consumo de comida chatarra: sopas instantáneas, saborizantes artificiales, bebidas gaseosas, etc. va en constante aumento, con lo que se afecta la salud de la población y se pierde soberanía.

En materia energética en el país se consumen más de 46,000 barriles de petróleo por día, todo este combustible se compra a países como México y Venezuela. También en el país se produce energía a partir del vapor que brota del subsuelo en las zonas volcánicas, pero en tiempos del gobierno de Francisco Flores, este recurso fue prácticamente regalado a una empresa italiana, que ahora lo reclama como de su propiedad.

En materia económica, El Salvador adoptó a partir del año 2001, el dólar como moneda de circulación nacional, con lo que perdió su propia moneda y ha quedado mayor expuesto a las crisis financieras internacionales. La firma de Tratados de Libre Comerció, especialmente con Estados Unidos abrió al país al mercado internacional permitiendo que empresas trasnacionales continúen apropiándose de nuestros recursos y provocando la quiebra de muchas pequeñas empresas nacionales. Por otra parte con la firma de Tratados de Libre Comercio, el país está sometido a tribunales internacionales para resolver conflictos, con lo cual se ha perdido soberanía y se vulneran los derechos de los trabajadores y las comunidades.

La ley de asocios público privados y megaproyectos como el Fomilenio II, han sido diseñados a partir de los intereses políticos de Los Estados Unidos y estos se convierten en instrumentos de manipulación y dominación de nuestro pueblo, al mismo tiempo que destruyen los recursos naturales y generan división y conflictos entre comunidades.

Además, son numerosas las empresas trasnacionales que operan en el país con total libertad o con limitados controles por parte del gobierno, como por ejemplo las empresas de telefonía o distribución de la energía eléctrica que prestan servicios a precios elevados. Además estas empresas en complicidad con grandes medios de comunicación fomentan patrones de alienación y consumo que violentan nuestra identidad cultural.

También las empresas dedicadas a la producción y comercialización de agro químicos que se han enriquecido a costa de la salud de la población y de la contaminación del medio ambiente, actúan con total impunidad promoviendo sus productos de muerte y generando confusión en la población a cerca de la reciente ley que regula la venta de 53 sustancias tóxicas, que en su mayoría están prohibidas en casi todos los países del mundo.

Por estas razones afirmamos con total convencimiento que NO HAY NINGUNA INDEPENDIENCIA QUE CELEBRAR, por el contrario las organizaciones sociales y las comunidades organizadas del Bajo Lempa, aprovechamos una vez más esta ocasión para reivindicar nuestro legitimo derecho a una verdadera independencia económica, política y cultural. La que ya estamos construyendo mediante el impulso de procesos de defensa  de nuestro territorio y de nuestra vida.

MOVILIZANDONOS POR LA DEFENSA DE LA VIDA Y EL TERRITORIO

QUE VIVAN LAS COMUNIDADES ORGANIZADAS DEL BAJO LEMPA

 Bajo Lempa, 15 de septiembre de 2013

Funes Appoints a New Minister of Justice and Security, and New Director of PNC

Yesterday President Funes announced he has appointed Ricardo Perdomo to be the new Minister of Justice and Security and Rigoberto Pleités as the new director of the National Civil Police (PNC, in Spanish). He also announced that Francisco Salinas will now head the State Intelligence Organization (OIE, in Spanish), and that David Munguía Payés, his former Minister of Justice and Security, as his security adviser.

The changes come after the Constitutional Court’s recent decision that Munguía Payés (former Minister of Justice Security) and Francisco Salinas (former Director of the PNC) were ineligible for their posts due to their military careers.

Justice and Security Minister Perdomo is an economist and political scientist, and in January 2012 President Funes appointed him as the Director of the OIE. These are not Perdomo’s first government positions. He held several posts in the Durarte Administration (1984-1989) including the President’s Private Secretary, President of ANDA, Minister of Economics, and the President of the Elections Council.

Before being assigned as the new Director of the PNC, Rigoberto Pleités was the Director General of Migration and Foreigners, a post he accepted in January 2012. Director Pleités is an electrical engineer and has a master’s degree in business administration. He has also served as the Director of Human Development at the Ministry of Education.

During his announcement, President Funes said that Perdomo “ought to continue with the work begun to reduce crime in the country over the last ten months of his administration.” He similarly said that as the new director of police, Pleités “should continue the assignment of modernizing the police force with an emphasis on reducing the amount of extortion and organized crime, particularly related to drug trafficking.

President Funes also said that while he did not agree with the Constitutional Court’s decision that Payés and Salinas were disqualified from holding their positions due to their affiliation with the military, it was his obligation to comply with the order.

 

 

Beatriz and Abortion in El Salvador

Doctors recommend that Beatriz, a 22-year-old Salvadoran woman with Lupus, terminate her 19-week pregnancy due to the associated risks of morbidity or mortality. Her doctors are worried that because Lupus has damaged her kidneys and caused other health issues, she is at high risk of preeclampsia, pregnancy related hypertension, and other life-threatening complications. Also, her fetus has a lethal anomaly that, aside from any of Beatriz’s health issues, will result in its eventual demise, either in utero or immediately after its delivery.

We first posted about Beatriz’s case last week when Amnesty International asked the international community to write to members of the Salvadoran government on her behalf.

In 1998, El Salvador completed a series of reforms, which included changing the constitution, resulting in an absolute ban against abortion. As reported by the New York Times Magazine in 2006, the ban is so restrictive that doctors cannot remove ectopic pregnancies (when a fertilized egg stays is implanted in the fallopian tube instead of the uterus), which have no chance of survival and put the mother’s health at risk.

After years of quiet activism a growing cadre of civil society organizations and human rights activists are speaking out against the absolute abortion ban and its extreme application. Over the past several years, activists have been defending women who have been accused of having an abortion, some of which have been convicted in a court of law and sentenced to 40 years in prison. Civil society, however, has really coalesced around Beatriz’s case, which is a potentially tragic example of the impact that the ban has on Salvadoran women.

This movement, which has become more vocal in recent weeks, is being met with fierce opposition from the Catholic Church and Fundación Sí a la Vida (Yes to Life Foundation), which represents some 50 pro-life organizations.

The Catholic Church and Yes to Life oppose allowing Beatriz to terminate her pregnancy, even if it means that she loses her own life. The Archbishop of San Salvador José Luis Escobar, said, “it is my understanding that the mother of the child is not in an intensive care situation… For me, it is the baby in utero that is in more danger because there is a movement to terminate its life. Only God knows how long this baby that they want to kill will live.”

Julia Regina de Cardenal, the President of the Foundation Yes to Life said “She [Beatriz] is stable, and able to speak, what we want is her physical and emotional wellbeing; we are trying to get close to her to help her. Carlos Mayora Escobar, also from Yes to Life, said “these people, why do they want to legalize abortion in this country? For political reasons, for ideological reasons, for reasons unknown. We always try to defend the rights of the women.”

As we posted last week, doctors at the National Maternity Hospital have filed an appeal with the Salvadoran Supreme Court, asking them to give the okay on terminating the pregnancy to save Beatriz’s life. The Court has yet to respond, but the magistrates asked the National Bioethics Commission of El Salvador (CNBES, in Spanish) for its opinion, which they provided this week. The CNBES advised the Court that Beatriz’s doctors should be allowed to immediately proceed with the potentially life-saving procedure.

The Citizens Association for the Decriminalization of Abortion, which advocates for legalization of abortion in El Salvador, supports Beatriz’s case. They are using it to demonstrate why they believe abortion should be safe and legal. On Thursday, April 25th, the group is presenting Beatriz’s case before the Inter-American Court for Human Rights, asking them to intervene.

Lic. Oscar Luna, the Ombudsman for the Defense of Human Rights in El Salvador, published a statement on April 16 also supporting Beatriz’s case as a human rights issue, stressing the mother’s right to life. He wrote in 2009, “the complete ban of abortion greatly increases the pain and suffering of women and girls, including those who seek medical attention for complications that require an abortion… because the penalty for abortion causes physical pain, fear, depression, and prison. In many occasions the suffering can lead to death or suicide.”

Luna says, “During my term [as Ombudsman], I have insisted that the human rights approach to health care ought to have an integral focus, taking into account the needs and requirements particular to women during all the different stages of life; and that in all forms, it is urgent to double up the efforts to decrease the causes of mortality and morbidity in El Salvador.” He concluded that the medical team should “use all means necessary to protect Beatriz’s right to life, health, and personal integrity.

In 2006, the New York Times Magazine published a long article on the abortion issue in El Salvador called the Pro-Life Nation. In addition to detailing the experiences of women who have had abortions in El Salvador, the article discusses the constitutional ban and abortion laws, and how the doctors/police/prosecutors enforce them.

In one sense, Beatriz’s case is extreme – it is a potentially life or death situation for her. But in many ways her case is not that different from other Salvadoran women who are socially and economically marginalized, lack knowledge of or access to contraception, and have little control over when and with whom that have sexual intercourse.

If you want to help Beatriz, please visit the Amnesty International website (click here).

President Funes Visit to the U.S.

The president of El Salvador, Mauricio Funes, will be in Washington DC this week to meet with U.S. officials, business interests, and the International Development Bank (IDB). His agenda includes discussions about regional security issues, the gang truce and reduction of the murder-rate in El Salvador, as well as the temporary protective status (TPS) for Salvadorans. President Funes also said he would be meeting with business interests regarding the possibility of new investments in El Salvador.

Funes will meet with Secretary of State John Kerry to discuss, in part, security and the gang truce. Last month marked the one-year anniversary of the truce, which seems to have resulted in steep declines in the official homicide rate – the official murder rate in 2011 was 4,371 and in 2012 it dropped to 2,582. While gang leaders credit the reduction in homicides to their commitment in transitioning to a more peaceful society, the Salvadoran government has attributed the decrease to improvements in their security efforts. Funes will also meet with officials from the IDP and participate in a meeting on regional security issues.

Discussions with US officials about temporary protective status (TPS) for Salvadorans in the US are timely, as the US Congress is trying to pass comprehensive immigration reform. TPS allows many Salvadorans to live and work in the U.S., but they have limited rights and no clear path to residency or citizenship. Immigration reform is an opportunity to create mechanisms for Salvadorans to convert their TPS to a more permanent status, which will afford them more rights.

On Thursday, President Funes will meet with business interests that have “an important announcement about a multi-million dollar investment that they want to make in El Salvador.” Salvadoran officials said the meeting would be with “businesses that are willing to make important investments in the area of new technology.” The announcement comes during a time when the U.S. is encouraging the Salvadoran Legislature to pass a Law on Public-Private Partnerships (P3 Law) as a prerequisite to signing a second Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact. The P3 Law and the MCC are fairly controversial issues in El Salvador. While Funes is in favor of both, there is disagreement in his party over support of these new initiatives.

This trip is an opportunity for President Funes to convince U.S. officials that his administration is making the kind of progress (lower murder rates and more foreign investment) and reforms (P3 Law) they want before approving more aid or giving the Salvadoran Diaspora more rights.

The Debate Over Public-Private Partnership Law and MCC Funding in El Salvador

Last week Pacific Rim Mining Company announced it is seeking $315 million dollars in damages from El Salvador. It was a stark reminder that the 8-year old mining debate, which included several years of threats and violence between mining supporters and opponents, has yet to been resolved and could still result in a devastating economic blow to El Salvador.

As the mining issue continues, another debate with the potential to become just as volatile is brewing. In March the Funes Administration provided some details about its proposal for a second round of funding from the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a US aid program started by President Bush in 2004. The proposal is worth $413 million dollars, half of which will likely go towards an infrastructure project like improving the Litoral Highway that runs along El Salvador’s southern coast. The other half is likely to help finance public-private partnerships and improve human capital, which seems to mean education.

As details of the proposal emerge, opposition to a second round of MCC funding is growing. So far, opposition has opened on two fronts. The Salvadoran labor movement has been the most outspoken opponent, denouncing the proposed Law on Public Private Partnerships (P3 Law) since last year. Environmentalists and communities in the Lower Lempa region of Usulután have been less outspoken, but oppose the MCC proposal because the public-private partnerships will support tourism, which they strongly oppose. In 2011, members of the anti-mining movement also spoke out against the P3 Law fearing it would result in mining activities.

Mangrove Forests near La Tirana, a community targeted for a large tourism project

Mangrove Forests near La Tirana, a community targeted for a large tourism project

Because politicians within the FMLN are supporting the MCC, the politics of opposing the P3 Law and tourism are a little more complicated than opposition to mining was. Other than a protest outside the US Embassy in March and other small activities organized by the labor movement, opposition has remained largely behind closed doors, which may change soon.

            The Public Private Partnership Law

US Ambassador Maria Carmen Aponte said in October 2012 that approval of a second round of MCC funds relies on the passage of the P3 Law. The labor movement and their international supporters, argue that the P3 Law will privatize government operations including the airport, seaports, health care facilities, and other important services. They fear it will result in the loss of thousands of jobs, increasing the country’s already high rates of unemployment and driving wages down even further.

The labor movement and other opponents also do not want the private sector to control important resources and services like water, education, and health controlled. For example, Salvadoran civil society has fought against privatization of water for many years, making it such a toxic issue that politicians are unable to advocate for it publicly. Just like the government has not been able to privatize water, civil society organizations have not been able to pass a water law they have been promoting for over 8 years. Among other things, the law would protect water resources from privatization. Similarly, in 2002 then President Francisco Flores tried to privatize part of the health care system, but health care workers and many others took to the streets and forced the government to back off. Opponents of the P3 law fear it will make it easier for the government to accomplish what it has failed to do in the past – privatizing water and health care.

Supporters of the P3 Law, including President Funes, counter that public-private partnerships are not privatization, and the government will not privatize any important services, like health and education. They argue, instead, that public-private partnerships will result in more foreign direct investments, injecting capital into services and industries that are lagging behind.

The labor movement and other activists fear, however, that while not called privatization, the P3s are a way to accomplish the same goals. Concessions could last as long as 40 years, which means the state is essentially relinquishing control of an asset. Similarly, while capital investments are needed, the P3 Law will allow private, international investors to generate profits from basic services in El Salvador and take the profits overseas instead of re-investing in El Salvador.

Public-private partnerships are not new in El Salvador – they government has contracted out many operations to private companies over the years. One regular criticism is that these relationships prioritize profits over the well being of Salvadorans. For example, in the aftermath of the October 2011 floods, communities and organizations in the Lower Lempa blamed the CEL for washing them out. The CEL is the state-owned agency that manages the dam, generating electricity that private power companies sell for profit. The more electricity produced, the more money the companies make. In the months after the 2011 floods CEL representatives responded frankly, stating they operate the dams to make electricity and generate profits, not protect the people downstream.

FESPAD and Voices on the Borders 2012 legal interns recently published a full analysis of the P3 Law.

Tourism and other Investments

One of the public-private partnerships being proposed in the second MCC compact is tourismhotels and resorts being built along El Salvador’s Pacific coast. In December the government solicited proposals from the private sector and received 49 responses, 27 of which are tourism projects in Usulután, La Paz, and La Libertad.

Tourism is not inherently bad, but communities in the Lower Lempa of Usulután fear that building hotels and resorts in and around their important and fragile ecosystems will cause irreparable harm. One Lower Lempa community targeted for a tourism project is La Tirana, an isolated and economically poor community located at the edge of one of the most pristine mangrove forest in Central America. In addition to its immense natural beauty, the forest supports thousands of species of flora and fauna. The nearby beaches are protected as a nesting ground for several species of endangered sea turtles. Residents of La Tirana fear tourists would damage the fragile mangroves with construction of houses and resorts, jet skis and motorboats, and solid waste and sewage, while displacing local residents and their farms.

Proponents of tourism argue that resorts and hotels in places like Tirana would provide jobs and spur the local economy. They believe this to be especially important in communities, such as those in the Lower Lempa, that have had their agricultural economy diminished by free trade. But locals doubt resorts will help the local economy. They know that hotels are much more likely to hire bilingual youth from San Salvador who have degrees in hotel management than poor campesinos who barely have a sixth grade education.

Voices staff recently met with community members in La Tirana, and they are very much against outside investors building resorts in their region. Recognizing that they live in a special place, the community board is proposing that the community build a series of small, humble cabanas that would have a small ecological footprint, but provide comfortable housing for a small number of guests. They are also proposing that the community build a small community kitchen that could feed guests. The community wants to develop its own small eco-tourism industry that it can regulate and ensure does not harm the forest or turtle nesting ground. It would also mean that the money from tourism would benefit the community, and not just make wealthy investors in San Salvador or abroad even richer.

Other communities in the region are even more vulnerable than La Tirana. In El Chile and other small communities, many residents still do not have title to their land. They fear that if a private investor wants to build a hotel or resort the State could take their land and they would have no legal recourse.

Our staff also met with other communities in the Lower Lempa – Comunidad Octavio Ortiz, Amando Lopez, Nueva Esperanza – and several local organizations. They are also completely opposed to tourism projects in the region. They fear that hotels and resorts will further destroy agricultural land, use up limited water resources, and destroy local culture. The community of Octavio Ortiz even wrote in their strategic plan that they see tourism as a large threat to farming and their peaceful way of life.

While most of the public-private partnership proposals involve tourism, there are quite a few agricultural projects. According to PRESA, the government agency managing the project proposals, they received 14 requests to support production of exports in dairy, mangoes, limes, and honey. In order to be considered for a public-private partnership, investors have to have $100,000 in capital and be producing export crops. The capital requirement means local farmers will not be able to participate. And the requirement that products be grown for export means even more land will be dedicated to products that do not contribute to food sovereignty, which is a top priority for the region.

There are also civil society leaders and academics in El Salvador who oppose the MCC because they see it as the latest phase in implementing a neoliberal economic agenda in their country. They hold it in the same regard as the privatization of state assets (1990s), dollarization (1995-2001), Central American Free Trade Agreement (2006), the first MCC compact (2007-2012), and Partnership for Growth (2011). Similarly, Gilberto Garcia from Center for Labor Studies (CEAL, in Spanish) believes the

highway projects, including the northern highway funded by the first MCC compact and the Litoral Highway project planned for the second compact, are part of an effort to build a land bridge in Guatemala. The “Inter-Oceanic Corridor” will connect ports on the Pacific coasts of Guatemala and El Salvador with Caribbean or Atlantic ports in Guatemala. ODEPAL is managing the project in what they call a public-private partnership. The land bridge is located in Guatemala, but it is right on the borders with El Salvador and Honduras, giving both countries easy access.

Politics of Opposing the MCC and P3 Law

Building a strong national movement around opposition to the second MCC compact and the P3 Law may be more difficult than organizing Salvadorans against mining. While the anti-mining movement was able to reduce the debate to a single issue that all Salvadorans could understand – i.e. gold mining will destroy water resources for 60% of the country – most people believe that tourism, better highways, and other capital investments are always good. Similarly, the P3 Law is fairly abstract and difficult to reduce into a simple message that the majority of Salvadorans can relate to their everyday lives.

The politics around the MCC and P3 Law will make it more difficult to achieve the kind of nation-wide opposition that the anti-mining movement was able to garner. During the mining debate, the FMLN (leftist political party) was the opposition party and had the political freedom to take an anti-mining position. The FMLN is now in power and has to consider the economic and political interests that helped them get there. President Funes and FMLN presidential candidate Sanchez Cerén support the P3 Law and MCC compact, arguing the investments will be good for the economy. According to anonymous sources, many of the same business interests that helped Mauricio Funes with the 2009 presidential elections will benefit from the P3 Law and MCC funds. FMLN legislators have been a slower to sign on to the P3 Law. At times FMLN legislators have said it was not their top priority, and more recently they have tried to negotiate amendments to exclude certain sectors such as health and education from public-private partnerships. Officials from the conservative ARENA party have accused the FMLN legislators of not supporting the law because they want to implement a socialist economy agenda.

But the civil society organizations, communities, and labor unions that are opposed to the P3 Law and the MCC funding generally make up much of the FMLN’s base. If Sanchez Cerén and his supporters continue to embrace the P3 law and the MCC funding, while many in their base protest against it, it could exacerbate an existing split within the party in the months leading up to the February 2014 presidential elections. Many former FMLN militants and supporters, especially in the Lower Lempa, already believe the movement they once fought for no longer represents their interests and values.

Though the US and Salvadoran governments want to pass the P3 Law and sign the MCC compact before the elections, many opponents are gearing up for a long struggle. Even if the P3 Law passes, when the government wants to enter into a public-private partnership the Legislative Assembly will have to approve it. They are likely to face great scrutiny and opposition. Similarly, developers wanting to break ground on tourism projects in La Tirana and other communities are likely to face some rather significant legal and social barriers – much like Pacific Rim faced in Cabañas.

Salvadoran Legislature Reforms the Law on Access to Public Information

At 2:30 in the morning last Friday, the Salvadoran Legislature approved reforms to the Law on Public Access to Information (LAIP). Civil society representatives have reacted by calling the changes unconstitutional and a violation of basic human rights. The reforms take out any teeth the LAIP had to force government agencies to provide information requested. President Funes said he will take his time to review the provisions and decide whether to sign Friday’s bill into law or veto it.

A block of 46 representatives from the FMLN, GANA, and PCN parties voted for the reforms, while 29 representatives from the ARENA, CD, PDC, and 4 other independents voted against them.

Norman Guevara, one of the FMLN representatives who voted for the reforms, said the Legislative Assembly hadn’t approved the Bible when they created the Law [on Access to Public Information] and that it could be reformed. Monday an FMLN spokesman said that they were open to reviewing the reforms and that their only obligation is to transparency.

The Legislative Assembly passed the LAIP in 2011 with 55 votes after civil society organizations, led by Grupo Promotor de LAIP, advocated for years for greater transparency and the right to access public information. The LAIP covers most aspects of information management by government agencies – classification of information, release of information, and promoting a culture of transparency. The LAIP also creates an administrative infrastructure to facilitate citizen access to public information.

Friday’s reforms weaken the LAIP in many ways, according to Grupo Promotor. The Institute charged with implementing the LAIP no longer has the authority to resolve conflicts over what information should or should not be restricted – they can only make recommendations that government agencies can ignore.  The reforms also remove the sanctions that were to be imposed if a government agency withheld information. These reforms mean that the Institute will no longer be able to implement the law and guarantee free access of public information.

Over the weekend, Grupo Promotor said the reforms give government entities the privilege of secrecy and silence.

An article posted by La Prensa Grafica hints at a possible back-story behind the reforms. FUNDE, an organization that belongs to Grupo Promotor and has supported the LAIP, recently requested information from the Legislative Assembly about their costs related to Christmas gifts. They also requested information related to how much art the Legislative Assembly had purchased. The Legislature denied the request pertaining to the Christmas gifts and they said that a list of works of art purchased did not exist. The La Prensa Grafica article seems to indicate that the reforms were in response to FUNDE’s requests and that perhaps the FMLN was trying to hide information regarding these expenditures.

Yesterday, Voices spoke with Cristina, an environmentalists who researches and writes investigative reports about issues that affect the Lower Lempa. She told Voices that the LAIP and its implementation have been a success. As an example, she told us that for two years she tried to obtain the National Program for the Reduction of Risks. Government agencies, including the Ministry of the Environment, which she says is the most secretive, never provided her access to the document. Once the LAIP was passed she consulted with the information officials and received everything she needed.

Cristina said, “with regard to investigations, the LAIP has allowed me access to detailed information about industrial and artisan fishing, shrimping, trawlers operating along the coast, mining concessions and licenses, protocols for hydro-electric dam discharges, lists of properties greater than 100 manzanas, and more.”

Since Friday, many civil society representatives have responded to news of the reforms. The Ombudsman for Human Rights, Oscar Luna, said, “as public officials we are obliged to be transparent in our work. The reforms should not be able to affect the right to information that all citizens have.”

The Archbishop of San Salvador, Monsignor José Luis Escobar said, “the reforms are a violation of the Constitution of the Republic and the freedom of information.” He added, “I have heard that President [Funes] is going to study the issue, and is reflecting on it, and I as the President not to sanction these reforms and that the law should remain as it is, and that the diputados also reconsider their position.”

Javier Castro, who is the director of legal studies of FUSADES and a representative of the Grupo Promotor, said that group is thinking about legal actions. “We are already evaluating… the resources that we will be able to use at the moment. What we are clear about is that there is a clear violation of the constitution, and that a claim for unconstitutionality is viable.

If Funes signs these reforms into law, it will become much more difficult for activists like Cristina and communities like our partners in the Lower Lempa of Usulután and the mountains of Morazán to access information about the issues that affect them.

The reforms of the LAIP seem to be on par with the constitutional crises that El Salvador has experienced over the past couple years.Democracy is not always easy and sometimes those in power do not like the inconveniences of being transparent or not having control of courts. But it is promising to see civil society stand up to politicians and demand they do the right thing. As Funes reviews the reforms, he will surely consider the outcry from Salvadorans calling for him to veto the bill. And if for some reason he signs the bill into law, Grupo Promotor or other activists like Cristina will have recourse in the Constitutional Court. El Salvador faces a lot of complicated issues – drug trafficking, gangs, economic disparity, and so on. But each time Salvadorans go through one of these democratic growing pains, they come out stronger and better equipped to take on their more complicated problems.

Not to downplay the seriousness of this issue. Salvadorans have worked hard to secure the right to access public information and have a greater voices in their government, and they have the right to be outraged. But this is also an opportunity to solidify the country’s demand for and participation in a transparent and open government.

Voices will be following this story over the coming days/weeks so stay tuned. If you speak Spanish and are on Facebook, Grupo Promotor has a very informative page that we follow.

El Salvador’s Armed Forces Veterans Take the Streets

On January 8, 2013, Salvadoran police clashed with military veterans who had blockaded several of El Salvador’s busiest highways in protest over pensions and benefits.

For more than a year, veterans groups have been negotiating with the Funes Administration to secure benefits they believe they were due for their service during the civil war. Some veterans groups are demanding that the government pay each veteran $10,000 for indemnification and begin disbursing $700 per month pension. These groups said that if the government did not start making payments by the end of 2012 they would start protesting, which they did on January 8 and have promised to continue doing.

Among the busiest roads protestors blocked was the Comalapa Highway that runs between the Comalapa International Airport and San Salvador. After protestors had blocked the highway for a couple hours causing major disruptions the police used their batons and teargas to break them up. They arrested 37 protestors in the process.

Seven of the protestors arrested at the Comalapa Highway blockade are from Nuevo Amanecer, a small community in the Lower Lempa of Usulután that was settled in 1991 by demobilized armed forces veterans. After being detained for 72 hours, the protestors were released on probation. The Nuevo Amanecer veterans are not new to protests and blockades. In 2011, the same group blocked the coastal highway that runs through San Maros de Lempa in protest of the government’s mis-management of dams on the Lempa River and their weak response to flooding caused by Tropical Storm 12-E.

Voices staff spoke with several of the Nuevo Amanecer veterans arrested during the protests. Daniel Benavides Martinez said he is a veteran of the Armed Forces and was demobilized in February 1992 after the Peace Accords were signed. He says he never received any of the benefits promised to veterans following the war. His father, who is also a veteran, received a piece of land in the Lower Lempa, but none in the family have received any other pension payments or benefits. Mr. Benavides Martinez also recalled that towards the end of the war military leaders mistreated soldiers in an effort to get them to desert the Armed Forces without collecting salaries, pensions, or other benefits.

Another of the Nueveo Amanecer veterans arrested during the protests spoke on the condition of anonymity, fearing reprisal. He said “there were funds assigned to us (veterans) after the Peace Accords, and [former Presidents] Cristiani and Calderon Sol and other members of the Tandona (military leadership) split it up amongst themselves.”

We also spoke with Pedro Martinez, a former FMLN militant and friend of those arrested. He explained that many veterans were cheated after the war, but are just now learning how to organize and advocate for their rights. Martinez, who is part of a veteran’s association that represents both armed forces and guerilla veterans, is working to distribute resources to veterans in need through the War Wounded Fund. However Martinez says that people try to take advantage of the limited fund. He said, “now someone who maybe just got bit by a horse is out on the street saying they were wounded from the war.”

Not all of the veterans are on board with the protests. José Amaya heads a veteran’s association that has been negotiating with the Funes Administration since November 2011. He disagrees that the administration has not done anything and apologized to Salvadorans for the protests, ensuring that they were not involved.

The day after the protests, Alex Segovia, the President’s Technical Secretary, emphasized that the government had never promised the veterans monetary compensation. “They say the government has made a commitment and this is false. We are never going to accept the amount [of pension] that they are proposing because it would break the State and we are not going to bend to pressure from anyone who makes demands.”

Retired Army Colonel Ochoa Perez, who is now serving as a legislative representative, disputes Alex Segovia’s claim that the administration has not made any promises. He said that in the past few months the Funes Administration has made promises of an indemnification package (the $10,000), a pension fund, land grants, and agricultural packages, but they have not followed through on any of them. In an interview just after the protests, he told La Pagina that he has documentation that proves they made promises. Perez unabashedly supports the protests, stating that he is a soldier before he is a politician. He even visited the veterans who were arrested while they were in jail, and gave them $160 to buy food while they were detained.

In January 2012, President Funes and Segovia promised a law that would provide more benefits to FLMN and Armed Forces veterans. And the general consensus seems to be that the FMLN and Armed Forces Associations agree that since the Funes Administration took office, they have begun to receive more pensions and social and economic support, especially for the war wounds, who are represented by ALGES. The Instituto de Previsión Social de la Fuerza Armada (IPSFA) has provided pensions and services for Armed Forces veterans for over 30 years, but getting benefits can be a long and tedious process, and the resources available are quite limited. In October of 2012, IPSFA announced that they were running a $4 million a month deficit and would be selling off a lot of their assets, which include beach resorts, hotels, and other properties. (The comment sections at the end of these articles are full of interesting comments and accusations of corruption within IPFSA).

In his response to the protests, Alex Segovia alleged that the protests were an effort by other political parties to destabilize the government and the FMLN party in what is essentially an election year (presidential elections are scheduled for January 2014). This would not be the first time that the military and veterans have been used for political gains. Even Ochoa Perez said after the protests that “they have used veterans and thrown them in the trash like sugarcane pulp.”

Pedro Martinez says that anger and protests targeting the current administration are a little misplaced considering that there were four conservative ARENA governments that failed to adequately address the needs of military veterans.

Payés Takes a Bus Ride: Something Smells Bad

Yesterday, El Salvador’s Minister of Justice and Security David Munguía Payés did something most unusual for a high-ranking government official – he rode a bus in San Salvador.

Dressed in a blue polo shirt, some serious sunglasses, and a ROLEX (yes, as in a super-expensive gold watch) Payés boarded the 29-F on the Juan Pablo II (a major road through San Salvador) bound for the shopping center in Soyapango. Once he paid his $0.25 fare, the Minister of Justice and Security took his seat amongst “the people.”

Photo credit: La Prensa Grafica

Payés’ bus adventure, which lasted only 10 minutes, wasn’t really meant to be an act of solidarity with his Salvadoran brothers and sisters, many of whom travel long distances by bus everyday just to get to their low-paying jobs. Nor was it an effort to raise awareness of climate change by ditching his chauffeured, gas guzzling, SUVs for public transportation.

According to La Prensa Grafica, Payés’ excursion was meant to prove that his use of military and police have made bus routes throughout San Salvador safe. He seemed to want to show the poor, who rank security among their greatest concerns, that things aren’t as bad as they make it out to be – and he was even willing to risk loosing his gold Rolex to prove it.

Payés could have done a few things to make his demonstration/publicity stunt a little more credible. For example, he could have left his three bodyguards and the Rolex at home. I’m sure most people would feel pretty safe on a bus in Soyapongo knowing they’ve got three bodyguards with them and a security detail waiting at their stop. And the Rolex surely distinguished him from anyone else riding a bus in El Salvador yesterday.

One person indicated in the comment section of the LPG article that Payés would have more credibility if he rode the bus after 7 or 8 at night when they are a little more dangerous.

And by arguing that militarization of San Salvador’s streets have made them safer, he seems perfectly comfortable with reports indicating that what Salvadorans, especially young men, fear most are the military and police.

A woman on Payés’ bus summed it up pretty well. According to the LPG article, when Payés and his bodyguards got on the bus, she was overheard telling the young boy she was riding with, “all these men getting on the bus at the same stop – something smells bad.”

Street Vendors Ousted from Downtown San Salvador

San Salvador looks a bit like a war-zone today after mayor and ARENA presidential candidate Norman Quijano deployed 1,000 police officers and 4,000 city employees to oust 970 vendors from 33 blocks in the downtown area.

When police and city workers showed up Friday with heavy machinery and began clearing the area, vendors fought back by setting up barriers and lighting fires. They were eventually removed, but not before 10 people were injured including 6 police officers. The mayor has asked for locals to be patient as 2,500 workers clean up the area, a process he expects to continue through Tuesday. He also estimates that the clean up will cost taxpayers a whopping $200,000!

Downtown El Salvador has been the home to an informal market for many years. Venders sell just about everything – food, clothing, videos and music, school supplies, hardware, and so much more.

Vendors did not have advanced notice of the removal and many lost all of their merchandise and other capital investments including refrigerators, jukeboxes, slot machines, video games, antennas, and much more. One vendor, who lost $10,000 worth of merchandise, told La Prensa Grafica, “they did not give us the opportunity. They arrived and threw us out and we lost all of our things. The mayor is responsible for everything.”

La Prensa Grafica noted that this was not the first action of its kind. Since 2009, the San Salvador municipal government has removed vendors from 167 blocks in the city in more than 31 interventions.

The mayor’s office says the vendors are able to move to a central market in the area where there are 623 stalls available for them to use. Of course that is not enough space to accommodate for the 970 vendors removed over the weekend.

This has been a complex issue for many years (downtown street vendors organized their first union in 1962) and there are some real issues, all of which stem from the systemic exclusion of people from the formal economy. Salvadorans without jobs can generate income by selling things on the street, generally to other poor people who can’t afford to shop in the formal economy. These informal markets are a bad deal all the way around. The street vendors lack the security, rights, and benefits that their counterparts in the formal sector have (or are supposed to have, but that’s another article). But they also don’t collect or pay taxes, which has been a point of contention for the international community (World Bank, IMF, U.S, and other). Many street vendors also violate international intellectual property laws by selling pirated movies, music, software, and clothing ($10 knockoff Ray Bans). Street venders also clog downtown streets, and if you’ve ever tried to take a bus through downtown on a Friday afternoon, you know how bad it can be.

Spending $200,000 to clear street vendors with bulldozers is in no way a sustainable solution to these problems. It doesn’t help venders get work in the formal sector and it definitely doesn’t mean low-income folks will all of a sudden start buying their blue jeans at Metro-Centro (a San Salvador shopping mall).

These evictions only mean that the poor have even fewer and fewer options – but that seems to be a global trend.

Here is a link to photos of the destruction.