Advocacy, agriculture, Climate Change, Corruption, Economy, Environment, International Relations, Public Health, Tourism, transparency, U.S. Relations, Uncategorized

The Case of Privatizing Happiness

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Dozens of reporters, spent an entire day, braving the heat to cover a story concerning one of the major issues Voices is currently working on. The story is about the implementation of mega-tourism, sponsored by the Millennium Challenge Corporation in the Lower Lempa Region of El Salvador. The main theme is it’s negative impacts on the communities living in and around the Jiquilisco Bay.

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IMG_0040 IMG_0055  IMG_0031 An article published by the Foreign Policy Journal said: “U.S. foreign aid is expected to promote poverty alleviation and facilitate developmental growth in impoverished countries. Yet, corporations and special interest groups have permeated even the most well-intended of U.S. policies.”

The United States has $277million in aid money to grant El Salvador and much of it will promote tourism in the Jiquilisco Bay by funding infrastructure projects like wharfs ans marinas in order to encourage private investment.

IMG_0116 IMG_0108 IMG_0092 IMG_0134Voices has been working extensively with communities and NGO’s in the Lower Lempa region to ensure that residents are bring represented, rights are being protected and those in charge are being held accountable for non-ethical practices. La Tirana and El Chile are two communities most affected by the plans and have expressed concerns about the potential threats to the land, the water, the culture and the economy of their communities. Voices even collaborated with them to create a detailed report on the situation.                >> Read the report here                                                                                                        >> Read the article here

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IMG_0149  IMG_0009“They are privatizing our happiness. They are stealing our smiles.”  La Tirana’s community leader said as he looked over the bay where kids were playing. Thanks to the efforts of leaders like him, many of these people here know what’s going on. They know that this isn’t free money coming into their communities and they are banding together to demand that their lives and rights be taken into consideration.

The day’s event was a great opportunity for exposure. Many diverse, national and international journalists were able to experience the reality these communities face. These communities have been taking good care of the natural resources through climate change, contamination and even flooding with little to no help from the government. To them, these resources are their lifeline. This is something that tourists who are primed to vacation here will never understand.

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Advocacy, agriculture, El Salvador Government, International Relations

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

Corruption, El Salvador Government, International Relations, Mauricio Funes, Organized Crime, Partnership for Growth

Decriminalization and the Impact of Drug Trafficking in Central America

Decriminalization, or legalization, of drugs in Central America is a hot topic in El Salvador and Guatemala right now. Last Friday, Inside Story Americas, an Al-Jazeera news program, ran a program on the effects of drug trafficking on Central America, touching on the pros/cons of decriminalization.

The program was in response to comments made last week by Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina, who said he would be open to decriminalizing drugs in an effort to address Guatemala’s security issues. The comments came after a meeting with Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes who also said he is also open to the idea. President Funes stated,

“Our government is open to discussion on any proposal or measure which achieves a reduction in the high levels of consumption in our countries, but particularly (to reduce) the production and trafficking of drugs. As long as the United States does not make any effort to reduce the high levels of (narcotics) consumption, there’s very little we can do in our countries to fight against the cartels, and try to block the production and trade in drugs.”

After returning to El Salvador from his meeting with President Perez Molina, President Funes backtracked a bit, saying that he does not favor decriminalizing drugs.

Saving the discussion about the pros and cons of decriminalization or legalization for another blog post, an interesting point of these recent conversations is the growing emphasis on the failure of the U.S. to curb its demand for drugs. Al Jazeera cited a recent government report that found that 22.6 million Americans used illicit drugs in 2010, nearly 9% of the population. While the number of users dropped from 2.4 million in 2006 to 1.5 million in 2010, the U.S. remains the largest consumer of cocaine in the world.

The Inside Story panelists said the heads of state in Central America, and even Mexico and Colombia who have talked about decriminalization, may be discussing decriminalization in order to pressure the U.S. into taking more actions to decrease demand. Experts from around the world agree that the “war on drugs,” as it has been fought over the past 40 years, has failed. Even President Obama has acknowledged that the U.S. needs to address the demand issue, and treat the issue as a public health problem.

U.S. policies have yet to change, though. In 2011, the National Drug Control Strategy had a budget of $15.5 billion, and the expenditures were roughly the same as in previous years. Approximately 1/3 ($5.6 billion) of the federal budget for the war on drugs was allocated for treatment and prevention – an increase of $0.2 billion from the 2010 budget. The remaining $9.9 billion was allocated for law enforcement, interdiction, and international support, the same as previous years.

In addition to the well-documented affects on Mexico and South America, the U.S. demand for illicit drugs produced in South America and trafficked through Central America and Mexico have very real consequences in Salvadoran communities.

El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala now comprise the most violent region in the world. While police officials blame 90% of the murders on local youth gangs, other government agencies, recently demoted police officials, and civil society organizations believe the violence is the result of international organized criminals who are trafficking drugs, guns, people, and laundering money. They estimate that only 10-20% of El Salvador’s murders are attributable to local gangs. The high murder rates have resulted in such insecurity in El Salvador that the U.S. aid program, Partnership for Growth, indentified it as one of the country’s two primary barriers to economic growth.

Traffickers use border communities, coastal villages, and other regions to move shipments from South American producers to North American markets. But they don’t just use these communities quietly – they often take them over, corrupting local government and police officials, making sure that local citizens and law enforcement do not interfere with their activities.

Along the coast, traffickers use small villages, ports and tourist destinations to refuel the small boats they use to transport drug shipments by sea. They also use these villages to transfer shipments that arrive by boat to cars and trucks, which then continue the journey north via land routes. Traffickers use communities along El Salvador’s borders with Honduras and Guatemala to move shipments without interference from border agents.

The cartels control these towns by putting local government and police officials on their payrolls. In turn these officials arrange for locals to move and provide security for shipments, and make sure that law enforcement agencies do not interfere. The local government and police officials maintain a culture of lawlessness that prevents political opposition and limits civil society.

One of the best examples of how traffickers work in El Salvador is the Texis Cartel, which was exposed in a report put together by El Faro in May 2011 and a companion video produced by the Washington Office on Latin America. The Texis Cartel ran a land route that trafficked drugs and other contraband from Honduras through northern El Salvador and on to Guatemala.

While it remains unclear how decriminalization or legalization would affect Central American communities, experts and even President Obama agree that the long-term solution must include a decrease demand in the U.S. Unfortunately, U.S. officials have yet to shift their priorities, forcing Central and South American governments to discuss other options. And until the U.S. can kick its cocaine problem, the violence will continue and the cartels will continue to control communities throughout the Americas.

Climate Change, Disasters, El Salvador Government, Food Security, Hydro Electric Dams, International Relations

Flood Update – Tuesday

Sorry that we’ve been slow with an update this morning, but we didn’t receive much information out of the Lower Lempa until a moment ago.

Some good news to report; the communities of Nueva Esperanza, Ciudad Romero, Zamorano and others that are completely underwater have been completely evacuated. We have been worried about a group of 57 people (last night we reported 40, but that number was revised upward this morning) were stuck on the top of the Nueva Esperanza Community center and then the bell tower of the church last night. We just received word that they reached the emergency shelter at about noon today.

The water has also begun to recede a bit. While the road is still flooded in some places it is possible to get large trucks all the way down to La Canoa, which has been cut off for the past couple of days. Our staff also met up with several people from the shelter in Amando Lopez who made their way up to the main road and rode their bicycles through the flood waters all the way up to San Marcos.

The shelters are full in San Marcos, Tierra Blanca, Angela Montano, and Jiquilisco, and the conditions are poor, but our staff reports that supplies are starting to arrive.

The weather is supposed to be clearing up today, though our staff reports that it is still raining in the Lempa. Officials from Civil Protection have warned the general public that even if the weather is nice today, the forecast is for storms tomorrow and possibly Thursday so no one should let their guard down.

The latest reports are that there are 32 confirmed deaths in El Salvador, and two people are reported as missing. Schools and universities remain closed today and probably tomorrow. El Faro.net is reporting that the official number of evacuees remains at 32,000, and that over 20,000 houses have been destroyed.

The King of Spain has sent a Boeing 727 full of relief supplies to El Salvador, and it is currently sitting at the military airport in Comalapa being unloaded.

Though the news today is not as bad as yesterday, there are many, many concerns about what’s ahead. Eduardo Espinoza, the Vice-Minister of Public Health, is warning that the greatest threat to public health at this moment is contaminated well water. He is very concerned that in rural communities contaminated water will result in high rates of gastrointestinal infections, typhoid fever, hepatitis, and other diseases. The populations most affected by these diseases are the ones living in shelters and have little or no access to medical care. The ministry is working to get doctors and public health experts to the shelters.

Before the rains started last week, the government was predicting record harvests of basic grains like corn and beans. One estimate is that 80% of the nation’s agricultural crops are lost – which will devastate the local economy and food security. The Consumer Defense agency, a private advocacy and watchdog group in El Salvador, is monitoring the prices of foods and other products, especially imports, and so far there has not been a rise in food prices, but it is a real fear in the coming days and weeks.

The Voices staff is currently drafting a couple posts on different aspects of this disaster, and we’ll have a slideshow and update from the Lower Lempa later this afternoon.

Climate Change, Disasters, El Salvador Government, Food Security, Hydro Electric Dams, International Relations, Mauricio Funes

US Embassy Announces Aid for Flood Relief

Today the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador announced an aid package worth $50,000 to support the Salvadoran Ministry of Civil Protection’s efforts to respond to the worst flooding in the country’s modern history. The package will help buy “fuel for emergency vehicles, as well as portable kitchen sets and hygiene kits for people staying in government shelters.”

The Embassy statement also says that they are “distributing equipment that was previously donated to the government of El Salvador by USAID in anticipation of this type of emergency.” The equipment includes plastic sheeting, 2800 hygiene kits, shovels, and other tools.

In a similar announcement, La Prensa Grafica is reporting this evening that the International Development Bank is releasing the first $25 million of a $50 million loan package. President Funes tonight said that the funds will be used for recovering from the disaster. The La Prensa Grafica article also reports that the governments of Spain, Taiwan, Guatemala and the United States have offered assistances, as has the Central American Bank of Economic Integration and the United Nations Development Program, but it is unclear whether any support has actually to reach those in shelters.

President Funes tonight also confirmed that there are 32 confirmed deaths in El Salvador, and that 3 other people are reported as missing, and 32,000 are evacuated to emergency shelters.

Another article in La Prensa Grafica reports that the Legislative Assembly today voted unanimously to declare a national emergency for the next 60 days. In part that waives all duties on aid coming into the country from aid organizations.

While the US Embassy’s contribution is a nice start, the international community seems a little slow to respond. The flooding, at least in the Lower Lempa region of Usulután, has reached epic proportions. There are thousands of people in shelters with no food or water, and many others are still stuck in their communities.

Perhaps the lack of international aid is linked to the lack of coverage by the international media. The AP put out a story yesterday that was carried on the Huffington Post, and the blogs for a couple major news outlets. But a quick scan of some of the major news websites (NY Times, Washington Post, CNN, BBC, NPR, Al-Jazeera English) found not one story on the flooding in Central America; forget about a story focusing on El Salvador. Maybe that will change with tomorrow’s news cycle.

This apparent lack of attention makes your contribution and support all the more important. Please help us in two ways:

1) Click on the Donate Now button and make a financial contribution to flood relief – we’ll make sure it gets directly to the community; and

2) inform others about the devastation and ask them to make a contribution.

We’ll be providing another update tomorrow morning.

 

International Relations, U.S. Relations

Sonia Sotomayor Visits El Salvador

Yesterday, August 15th, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Sonia Sotomayor arrived in El Salvador for a week-long visit. Justice Sotomayor is visiting her close friend, Mari Carmen Aponte who is the U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador. During her stay, Justice Sotomayor will meet with Magistrates on the Salvadoran Supreme Court, as well as law students in San Salvador. She also plans to meet with students from Supérate, an youth program that seeks to improve opportunities for youth to develop their professional lives.

 

Justice Sotomayor and Ambassador Aponte, both Latinas with very successful legal careers, serve together on the board of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense Fund. The two have been so close that Justice Sotomayor swore in Aponte as Ambassador in 2010.

 

The visit comes less than a month after the resolution of the constitutional crisis that began on June 3rd when the Legislative Assembly and Executive branches tried to impede on the judicial independence of El Salvador’s Constitutional Court. This seems less of an official visit in response to that crisis, than two old friends getting together.

Sotomayor and Aponte in El Salvador
agriculture, Economy, International Relations, U.S. Relations

The Cost of Free Trade: 5 Years into DR-CAFTA

The Dominican Republic-Central American Free Trade Agreement (or DR-CAFTA) went into effect March 1, 2006. After 5 years, it is time to evaluate what kind of results this agreement has produced. Like any other free trade agreement, the logic behind CAFTA was that liberalized trade leads to a net welfare gain for both countries. Furthermore, because the seven countries involved in the agreement (US, Dominican Republic, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Nicaragua) have different resources, technologies, and preferences, there are gains to be made from trade. By pursuing each other’s comparative advantage, as David Ricardo first argued, each country may specialize in that which it is relatively better at producing. This is a powerful theory, but as economics often shows, theory cannot always be reconciled with reality; many of these models make specific assumptions that do not always match the real world. Specifically in the case of CAFTA, it appears as though the Central American countries have suffered several negative consequences of this free trade agreement. The results of the agreement that weren’t clearly negative are ambiguous at best.

 

The removal of tariffs lowers the costs of trade between these countries and their main trading partner–the US. That being said, because tariffs have been removed, the governments of the Central American countries have less government revenue flowing in. While the US hardly had any tariffs on imported goods from Central American countries, the Central American nations had high tariffs on US goods in order to raise revenue for their governments. Before DR-CAFTA came into effect, about 80% of all US goods were not duty free, and the removal of the tariffs caused the governments to lose a substantial amount of revenue.

 

Additionally, because the US subsidizes its agricultural products, it has hurt the average farmers in these Central American countries. Since most Central American farmers cannot compete with the massive, more efficient farms in the US that are subsidized by the government, many of these Central American farmers find themselves out of business.  This forces them to instead try to find work in the multi-national corporations’ factories. More individuals in the cities seeking jobs in the so-called “maquilas” means that the supply of labor rises while the number of maquilas stays the same. This leads to an excess supply of Salvadorans seeking jobs in these factories. Thus, factory owners may lower their salaries because there is so much competition for work.

 

Many theorists would assert that one of the largest benefits of trade is that after lifting barriers to trade, the countries involved in the agreement will be able to consume more, leaving them all better off. In reality however, the results are neither negative nor positive, but rather unclear. Data shows that over the course of the last five years and until 2010, exports and imports in El Salvador have steadily increased. One, however, cannot say for certain that this is a direct result of DR-CAFTA. More than that, while Salvadoran exports and imports may have increased, it does not necessarily mean that El Salvador is physically producing and exporting more goods. Export and import data are calculated by value, and therefore one must factor prices into the equation. It is possible that El Salvador produced just as much last year as it did five years ago. However, because prices have risen, the value of its exports has also risen even though El Salvador is not better off in real terms. There is some evidence that suggests that increases in price levels over time account for some of the rise in exports. According to the data, El Salvador has experienced inflation since 2005. Because of the difficulty of directly attributing rises in exports and imports to DR-CAFTA the actual effect of the agreement on trade is ambiguous.

 

The effects of DR-CAFTA remain unclear when analyzing Chapter 10 of the agreement, which eliminates barriers to investment. According to the chapter, investments are very strongly protected.  This protection is provided by the most-favored nation provision (in which the countries agree to accord one another with the same favorable terms that would be offered in treaties with any other nation) the “fair and equitable treatment” clause (which refers to a country agreeing to treat foreign investors the same as domestic ones), and the “full protection and security” clause (which refers to a country’s agreement to protect one other’s investors by providing them with security).  Because of these provisions, multi-national corporations can securely conduct their business in signatory nations and employ their citizens.  Although this is positive for El Salvador and the rest of Central America, the nature of the jobs these corporations often provide is unsanitary, unsafe, and low-paying. Thus, the citizens of Central America are not necessarily better off, especially since the multi-national corporations often do not reinvest their profits within the region but instead send it back to their home country. Due to the lack of economic development from the international investors, workers do not necessarily stand to gain.

 

For all of these reasons, DR-CAFTA has no clear and significant benefits to El Salvador and the other Central American members of the agreement. Salvadorans and other Central Americans need development, and because DR-CAFTA seems to facilitate it through spurring investment, but impede it through working conditions, among other things, this trade agreement is neither a sufficient nor an ideal solution to development.  DR-CAFTA, along with its effects like poor working conditions, low salaries, US subsidized exports, etc, will continue to remain an issue of concern until further investigation and/or reforms can be completed.