Rally for Citizenship

Samantha and Erica (Voices' DC office staff) attend the Immigration Rally in Washington

Samantha and Erica (Voices’ DC office staff) attend the Immigration Rally in Washington

On Wednesday, April 10, members of Voices’ staff joined tens of thousands of immigrants and activists at the Rally for Citizenship on the lawn of the US Capital. The rally called for Congress to draft and sign a comprehensive immigration reform before their summer recess (August 5- September 6).  Immigration activists want reform to include a pathway to citizenship for the estimated 11 million undocumented workers currently residing in the United States.

In addition to the DC event, which was largely organized by CASA de Maryland, other cities like Boston, New York, Atlanta, and San Francisco also held rallies in support of immigration reform.

Among the tens of thousands who attended the DC rally were immigrants, union workers, and immigrant rights groups and activists. The air above the National Mall was filled with American flags as well as flags from various Latin American countries. Attendees held up posters and signs that addressed a variety of issues, stating, “The Time is Now,” “Keep Families Together,” and “The U.S. is a Nation of Immigrants.”

Chants of “Si se puede” (yes, you can) and “Obama escucha, estamos en la lucha (Obama, listen, we are in the fight) and “Reforma, Ahora” (Reform, Now) erupted throughout the rally. The crowd had impressive energy, especially when members of Congress, for example Senator Robert Mendez (D-NJ) directly addressed the crowd about their promises to enact comprehensive reforms. Members of Congress spoke of the important contributions that immigrants make to U.S. culture and economy, and reminded everyone that the U.S. is a country historically and presently comprised of immigrants. Underlining the important role of immigrants in the U.S, (name?) stated, “without immigration, there is no vibrant American culture.” Many speakers at the rally also stressed that families are being torn apart by U.S. immigration laws.

While the majority of the attendees were Latinos and Spanish was the most prominent language spoken at the rally, groups from Asia and Africa participated in as well. Speeches by activists, journalists, Congressmen and Congresswomen, and community leaders were given in English and Spanish and at times Arabic, to address as many different populations as possible.

Voices stands in solidarity with those fighting for comprehensive immigration reform and is hopeful, perhaps naively so, that the gang of eight representatives working on immigration reform will finally achieve meaningful change.

(Voices is drafting a more detailed article about the immigration reforms proposed by the Gang of 8 – a group of U.S. Senators. We’ll be posting again soon!)

 

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.

USAID and SolucionES to Invest $42 Million in Gang Prevention Programs

The US Agency for International Development (USAID) announced that it will contribute $20 million to SolucionES, a public-private partnership led by the Foundation of Businesses for Economic Development (FEPADE, in Spanish). The program’s goal is to decrease youth violence and crime in El Salvador.

The program, which was first reported by the Miami Herald and elsalvador.com, will begin this month with a focus on youth development and in 50 communities across five municipalities. SolucionES has identified San Martin and Cuidad Arce as the first two municipalities where they will start.

The program will last five years and an alliance of Salvadoran businesses and non-governmental organizations will match the USAID funds with $22 million they will raise from “foundations, businesses, municipalities, and civil society.”

A USAID press release announcing the project focused as much on the funding and organizations involved as the projects themselves. It describes SolucionES as a new and innovative focus on prevention of youth crime and violence in Salvadoran communities through a partnership between the private organizations and municipal governments.

The Alliance of NGOs includes the National Foundation for Development (FUNDE, in Spanish), the Salvadoran Foundation for Health and Development (FUSAL, in Spanish), Glasswing International, the Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development (FUSADES, in Spanish), and FEPADE. All five organizations have strong ties to the Salvadoran business community and the right-wing ARENA party.

The Alliance will work alongside local government to provide workshops on prevention of violence, youth leadership, entrepreneurship training, and extracurricular clubs. The program will also work with businesses on violence prevention programs for their employees, and finance studies that will inform policy makers on effective strategies for crime prevention.

The USAID contribution is part of the Partnership for Growth initiative that has identified security (i.e. crime and violence) as one of the two main barriers to economic growth. The other barrier identified is low production of tradable goods.

Partnership for Growth and SolucionES are not the only ones to link economic growth to security issues. Last year, leaders of El Salvador’s gangs signed a truce to reduce violence. In doing so, they said that economic disparities and lack of jobs are main factors that drive youth to gangs in the first place. In order for the truce to hold, gang leaders called for support programs by the government for ex-gang members.

In an interview published yesterday in La Pagina, Viejo Lin, the leader of the Mara 18, said, “if we want our brothers to stop robbing and extorting, you have to create the right conditions.  The conditions that permit them to get dignified jobs.” Later in the interview he says, “our companions are not asking for thousands of dollars a month, they ask for a job that lets them work based on their strengths. It’s a right.”

USAID and SolucionES are steering clear of rehabilitation of gang members, focusing entirely on prevention – keeping youth from joining gangs.

A statement made by Haydée Díaz, the Director of the Strengthening Education Program for USAID said that “this initiative [SolucionES] is not related to the truce between the gangs, and the objective is not to eradicate the gang problem, but to prevent it.” Voices staff spoke with a USAID official who said the same thing – this is not about working with gang members, it is about preventing violence among youth not already involved in gangs.

Prevention is certainly important and a $42 million investment in youth, depending how the programs are implemented, can yield real benefits. It seems shortsighted, however, to believe that a prevention-only program will dramatically decrease rates of crime and violence in El Salvador. There will still be roughly 50,000 gang members in El Salvador who are marginalized and unable to participate in the formal economy, which will leave them few options other than crime and violence.

Gang prevention projects are pretty safe. All involved can feel good about investing in youth and sho that they are committed to helping El Salvador. Businesses look good for giving back to the communities. NGOs and their benefactors look like good, productive citizens. Politicians get to say they are taking action without worrying about looking like they are giving into the gangs. And USAID gets to report back to the American taxpayers that their money is being used to address one of the two barriers to economic development in El Salvador.

With less than a year before the 2014 presidential elections in El Salvador, these appearances matter. But we’ll see if prevention-only will actually improve the security situation.

Obama Admin designates MS-13 a Transnational Criminal Organization”

On October 11, 2012, the Obama administration designated la Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) a “transnational criminal organization,” allowing federal officials to freeze the gang’s financial assets in the U.S. The goal is to weaken the gang and make their illegal enterprises less profitable. MS-13 is alleged to be involved in drug dealing, drug and human trafficking, prostitution, smuggling, and extortion in the United States and El Salvador. Gang members in the U.S. allegedly generate large profits from these activities and send money to gang leaders in El Salvador. These illegal ventures often entail violence and have earned MS-13 a high ranking among the world’s most violent gangs.

According to the “LA Times,” U.S. financial institutions “are obligated to immediately identify and freeze property or property interests of MS-13 and to report any such blocked assets to the Treasury Department,” said department spokesperson Hagar Chemali. This will make it more difficult to use banks and wire transfers to conduct gang activity. Police in Los Angeles and Washington DC hail the Obama administration’s decision as a necessary and positive step. They believe the scope of the gang’s activities will be diminished if they have fewer financial assets and are unable to use the banking system to transfer and launder money.

Only two other gangs have been labeled transnational criminal organizations: the Mexican Zetas and Japanese Yakuza, and MS-13 is the first gang to have originated in the United States to receive this label. One thing curious about the Obama Administration’s designation is that it targets MS-13 and not 18th Street, one of El Salvador’s other large gangs.

By requiring that banks identify and freeze M3-13 assets, Government officials seem to be giving the banks a lot of authority. They are going to have to have clear guidelines in place to help banks and financial institutions distinguish legitimate targets from hardworking Salvadorans sending money home to their families. Even if there is an appeals process in place for people who believe their assets have been wrongfully seized, many who send money to El Salvador are undocumented and may be afraid to step forward.

Seizing financial assets may prove important for cracking down on organized crime, but it won’t stop illicit activities such as drug trafficking and extortion. What is still lacking is a comprehensive approach to providing legitimate economic and social opportunities for youth so that they have options beyond joining gangs. It requires treating our drug habit as a public health issue and not just a criminal justice problem.

U.S. Beef with El Salvador!

The U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF) reported this week that El Salvador has “lifted all age and product restrictions on U.S. beef, eliminating the need for an export verification program.”

USMEF regional director for Central America said El Salvador is “a potentially strong market, as it currently imports a significant amount of beef (about 28 million pounds last year) from Nicaragua.” The article reports that U.S. beef exports more than doubled between 2009 and 2011, totaling more than $1.2 million. Now that the restrictions have been lifted, exports of beef and beef products from the U.S. are expected to rise dramatically.

El Salvador’s age restrictions meant that beef and beef products had to be from cattle that were no more than 30 months old. This is a fairly common restriction meant to protect against the spread of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (mad cow disease). Japan has one of the more restrictive age-limits; beef and beef products have to be from cattle no more than 20 months old. So far in 2012, the U.S. has reported four cases of mad cow disease – the last was in April.

A report from the US Department of Agriculture Foreign Agricultural Service says that since 2008 the USDA/FAS/San Salvador has been “in an intense negotiation with the Government of El Salvador [Ministry of Agriculture] to allow full access for U.S. bovine meat and its products to the local market.” The report says that until recently, El Salvador did not recognize the U.S. mad cow disease “controlled risk status granted by the World Animal Health Organization.” As a result, El Salvador restricted access of “bone-in beef, and beef and products of animals over 30 months of age.” These products were not completely banned; they just had to go through an Export Verification program that increased the cost of the products and made them less competitive with local products.

Last year, USMEF led a campaign to promote U.S. beef consumption in El Salvador. They set up stands in “18 high-end Super Selectos retail locations” throughout the country. USMEF told customers that the majority of their meat was produced domestically or in Nicaragua, meaning that it is grass-fed and therefore “severely lacking in tenderness.” But in the U.S., there is actually a movement to promote grass-fed beef. Whole Foods Market and many others have even organized campaigns of to inform their customers about the benefits of grass-fed beef and introduce customers to their producers. The Tallgrass Beef Company has even declared, “the grass-fed revolution is here.” So either the USMEF really only likes grain-fed beef or their campaign to educate Salvadoran consumers is more an effort to run their competition out of town and sell U.S. beef.

While doing away with the age restriction may increase competition for cattlemen in Nicaragua, it probably won’t have much of an impact on Voices’ local partners in the Lower Lempa who mostly raise dairy cattle. And as in most rural communities throughout El Salvador, beef sold in local markets is from local cattle. U.S. beef will mostly end up in higher-end grocery stores that are already full of goods imported from the U.S.

Another Misleading O’Grady/Wall Street Journal Article about El Salavdor

Friday afternoon we posted about last week’s protest of Sanchez Cerén’s visit to Freeport, NY. In the post we mentioned recent op/ed pieces published by the Wall Street Journal were a little hyperbolic in their discussion of the FMLN and the threats against democracy.

The author of those pieces – Mary O’Grady – published another op/ed piece in the WSJ this morning. Using the same Cold War language, she echoed the same grossly misleading if not outright dishonest allegations that Cerén and the FMLN led an anti-American protest in the days after 9-11.

The only reason it matters what Mary O’Grady thinks and writes is that some people still read the Wall Street Journal. In the comments under the article, one reader thanked O’Grady for keeping people informed about what’s happening “down there” and that it sounded as if things are “getting worse.”

If the WSJ and Mary O’Grady are your only source of news about El Salvador, then things may appear to be getting worse. Fortunately, there are some other sources of news in English that provide a more accurate account of the situation in El Salvador.  We thought now might be a good time to share some of our favorite online news sources – please share with your friends and family, especially if you suspect they might be reading the WSJ.

English Blogs:

Tim’s El Salvador Blog  – Tim provides great news and analysis of current events in El Salvador in English.

Grit and Grace

Linda’s El Salvador Blog

A few of news agencies and blogs that have provided good coverage on El Salvador in English include:

Insight Crime

Latin Times

Al Jazeera

Huffington Post

Spanish news agencies:

El Faro

La Prensa Grafica

Diario CoLatino

Contrapunto

And for more information on Mary O’Grady, here is an entertaining writeup from NACLA. O’Grady also spoke at a conference in Puerto Rico earlier this year.  Amazingly, she argues that its the intellectuals that are responsible for undermining development and progress in Latin America over the past century.

Salvadoran VP Sanchez Cerén Greeted by Protesters in Freeport, NY

Sanchez Cerén – El Salvador’s Vice President and 2014 presidential candidate for the FMLN party – drew a crowd of protestors this past Monday when he visited the Long Island town of Freeport, New York. Vice President Cerén was in town to celebrate Salvadoran American Day with the over 100,000 Salvadorans that live on Long Island.

It appears that protestors were out for a couple of reasons. One, some residents don’t seem to like the current Freeport government and welcome any opportunity to say so. More specifically, protestors were upset that their local representatives would meet with Sanchez Cerén who they called a terrorist for participating in anti-American, flag burning protests four days after the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

Calling Cerén a terrorist is nothing new. U.S. politicians and members in the conservative media frequently use the post-911 incident as justification for supporting for ARENA candidates and denouncing the FMLN as terrorists. As campaigning for the 2014 elections gets heated up, its surely going to be a story repeated again and again.

Ceren’s involvement in the rally has to be taken in context, however. September 15th is Independence Day in El Salvador – a day when many groups hit the streets to celebrate independence from Spain and even demad independence from the U.S. It happens every year.  September 15, 2001 Sanchez Cerén and other FMLN activists used Independence Day to protest El Salvador’s adoption of the U.S. dollar as its currency, which many people saw (and still see twelve years later) as a way the U.S. maintains control over El Salvador.

Many other groups were protesting in San Salvador on September 15, 2001 as well, including a radical student group that burned a U.S. flag. It’s dishonest and wrong to say that because Sanchez Cerén and others were speaking out against dollarization and privatization a few days after 9-11 that they are anti-American terrorists that support Al-Qaeda. In fact, before participating in the rally, Cerén led a delegation of FMLN officials to the U.S. Embassy to convey their condolences for the attack on the U.S. – hardly the act of an anti-American flag-burning protester. After the rally, Cerén told reporters that he and the FMLN were marching to condemn dollarization and privatization.

The distortion of Cerén’s activities on September 15th is similar to recent op/ed pieces posted in the Wall Street Journal discussing this summer’s constitutional crisis in El Salvador. Just like Cerén’s detractors have resorted to name calling instead of engaging in policy debates, the WSJ chose to use the important struggle between the judiciary and other branches of government to characterize the FMLN as anti-democratic Chavistas (Tim’s Blog wrote a great analysis of the WSJ and a similar Washington Post article).

The FMLN and its leadership are not perfect and there is plenty of reason to engage them in policy debates, but no one is served by the kind distortions and name-calling reminiscent of cold war and post-911 paranoia.