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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El Salvador Government, Mauricio Funes, News Highlights, transparency

Transparency Law Passes Unanimously

(To read more on our coverage of the Transparency Law, look here and here.)

A mere three months after its introduction on December 2, 2010, the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador voted yesterday to accept President Funes’s comments on the Transparency and Public Access to Information Law. Despite minor differences in opinion among the parties on certain points of the law, it was passed unanimously (81 votes). This complete consensus comes as somewhat of a surprise, especially given the strong opposition originally presented by the PCN (National Conciliation Party), GANA (Grand Alliance for National Unity), and the PDC (Christian Democratic Party). However, commented the president of the Legislative Committee, Guillermo Ávila Qüehl (ARENA), “what’s important is that it passed.” This vote was the final step in the law-making process, and the law is scheduled to become effective in March 2012.

The law recognizes three categories of information: reserved, confidential, and public.  Reserved information, which the government may refuse to divulge, is anything that could compromise national security or the public interest. Personal information about individuals (such as any health conditions, or religious or sexual preferences) is considered confidential and will also not be available to the public. What constitutes public information has yet to be precisely defined, but may potentially encompass all information which is not reserved or confidential.

The law now requires government institutions, and private entities funded by the state, to make information available to the public by establishing an accessible database of information, in addition to supplying inquirers with their requested public information. Additionally, the law creates a new government agency (yet to be appointed), tasked with implementing the law and punishing those who do not comply.

 

El Salvador Government, Politics, transparency

Surveys on Democracy in El Salvador

Earlier this month, El Faro published the results of a November 2010 survey conducted by Analítika Research & Marketing (ARM) that highlighted the public’s willingness to sacrifice democracy for greater economic stability and publicDemo security. Almost half the respondents said they would support a military coup to replace the democratic system in place if economic and security issues are not resolved. Seventy-two percent of the respondents said that the resolution of their problems, regardless of the means, is the government’s most important responsibility.

A 2008 survey by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) reported that 61% of Salvadorans consider the most pressing problem to be their economic situation, while 34% said security was their primary concern. Combined, 95% of Salvadorans list the economy or security as their top concern. Similarly, the Latinobarómetro’s annual poll found that only 18% report that they are satisfied with their economic status.

El Salvador’s numbers are in line with the rest of Latin America. The 2006 United Nations Report on Democracy in Latin America found that 56% of Latin Americans “believe that economic development is more important than democracy, and 55% would “support an authoritarian government if it resolved economic problems.”

At first glance, these surveys might seem to indicate that half of all Salvadorans are itching for an overthrow of the current government, with the economic situation not improving and security situation only becoming more serious. Fortunately, several other factors keep extremists from organizing a coup. For one, in December 2010, President Funes still enjoyed a 79% approval rating, indicating that while people are not happy about their economic situation, they don’t necessarily blame it on the Funes Administration. In addition, of those who are willing to sacrifice democracy for a better economy, at least some of them are also among the 18% who are satisfied with their economic status, but believe that an autocratic government is better. Finally, most Salvadorans over the age of 25 or 30 remember life during wartime and would probably not support another conflict.

What is most telling about the ARM survey is that 72% believe the government is responsible for resolving their problems, possibly indicating that Salvadorans could be more proactive in solving their own problems. Similarly, the willingness to trade democracy for a better economy and higher levels of security indicate a lack of commitment or confidence in the democratic process. This is born out in the low levels of public participation in local and central governments. And arguably, it’s the lack of public participation that allows those with economic and political power to protect their interests while the majority continues to struggle. Or put another way, it’s the widespread willingness to sacrifice democracy for economic development that leaves Salvadorans without either.

While the economic and security issues have not improved much since President Funes took office in June 2009, the administration and Legislative Assembly have taken steps to eliminate corruption and make the government more transparent. Now is a good time for more Salvadorans to get involved in their local and central governments, and contribute to building the economy and improving security.

Corruption, El Salvador Government, Mauricio Funes, transparency

Update on the Transparency Law

Last week, we blogged about the status of El Salvador’s proposed transparency law and the myriad reactions to it.

Today, a Diario CoLatino piece makes us hopeful for its quick passage. Three parties (FMLN, GANA, and PCN) have united to support the incorporation of President Funes’s recommendations into the legislation. These three parties, together, have 60 votes worth of say in the matter, 17 more than the minimum needed for the law’s passage. They aim to vote and resubmit the legislation to the President quickly, so that it may become effective early in 2012, before El Salvador’s presidential elections.

The energetic effort made toward passing this law may be due in part to the recent election of a new president of the Legislative Assembly: Sigfrido Reyes, of FMLN. Reyes spoke to El Faro about his election, outlining his goal of transparency in the Assembly and executive branch, which do not have a lot of trust with the Salvadoran public.

Still too early to celebrate, but this seems to be an important step to letting the sun shine on the Salvadoran government.

El Salvador Government, Mauricio Funes, transparency

New Transparency Law Stalled

On December 2, 2010, the Legislative Assembly of El Salvador approved the Transparency and Public Information Access Law (Ley de Transparencia y Acceso a la Información Pública in Spanish), and on January 6, 2011, President Funes vetoed it and returned it with comments to the Assembly.  The proposed law would have required government institutions, and private entities tied to the state, to make information available to the public without, necessarily, a formal request, by establishing an accessible database of information. Additionally, the proposed law would have created a new government agency tasked with implementing the law and punishing those who do not comply.

The bill passed by the Legislative Assembly created three categories of information: reserved, confidential, and public.  Reserved information, which the government may refuse to divulge, is anything that, if made public, would compromise national security or the public interest. Personal information about individuals (such as any health conditions, or religious or sexual preferences) is considered confidential and would also not be available to the public.  All information that does not fall into these two categories is categorized as public and would be available to everyone.

This would be El Salvador’s first law regulating transparency and the establishment of a database of public information. Currently individuals have the constitutional right to request information from state-affiliated agencies on the municipal level, but, as there is no law to guarantee and enforce this right, it is not currently used to its full advantage. Under this new law, institutions would have 10 business days from the date of a request for information not already public to provide the inquirer with either a) the information requested or b) a response denying the request if the information is reserved or confidential. If denied, the person making the request may appeal to the government agency implementing the law. If the enforcement agency, which will be comprised of five people that the President selects from a list of nominees from five social sectors, finds that the government body was unjustified in denying the request, they may release the information and impose a penalty of up to $8300.

The law passed the Legislative Assembly with a vote of 55-30, enjoying support from representatives from both the FMLN and ARENA parties. On January 6, President Funes vetoed the proposed law and returned it to the Assembly with comments. The law that was passed by the Legislative Assembly would give Salvadorans the right to request information 30 days after the President signed it into law. In his comments, President Funes requested that they give his administration one year before people can make requests, allowing his administration to create the new government agencies. He also suggested a more clear definition of what is ‘public’ information, instead of letting it be defined simply as what is not reserved or confidential, terms that are also vaguely defined. Lastly, he proposed that the Legislative Assembly better define how government institutions must respond in the case of an inquiry. In general, the President’s comments on the law and his reasons for vetoing it seem based on improving the law and its application, and not out of an opposition to its underlying principles.

The law was returned to the Legislative Assembly, which will look over the President’s comments and decide whether to address the issues he raised.

If the President eventually signs the bill into law, it would mean increased access to information and governmental transparency, which would theoretically foster more active and effective community participation and, in turn, keep government-affiliated institutions accountable to the people they represent. However, as columnist and professor Guillermo Mejía points out, in a politically developing nation like El Salvador, the public may not recognize the importance of this law or the importance of their role in its success. If Salvadorans do not use the law or take a more active role in holding their government officials accountable, the law will not have much of an impact on the country’s nascent democracy. To illustrate this point, Mejía cites the recent Wikileaks scandal as indicative of the persistence of governmental duplicity in the face of popular apathy even in developed nations like the U.S.

Many of those who have supported the laws passage are concerned that Funes’ veto is less about making the law better, but trying to kill the bill altogether. The Promoters of the Transparency and Public Information Access Law (abbreviated GP in Spanish – a summary of the group and a list of its members can be found here), writers for El Faro in particular, have expressed such concerns , and fear that the President is trying to minimize the transparency of his administration.  Others believe that Funes is trying to slow down the implementation of the law in order to give government officials more time to reorganize sensitive documents before they become public.

Funes has responded to these accusations by noting that the previous ARENA-run administrations that were in power for 20 years blocked all previous efforts to promote a transparency law. He has pointed out that he did not veto the bill outright, but sent it back with comments and a mind toward future progress.

 

Corruption, El Salvador Government, Organized Crime, transparency

Update on Inspector General of the PNC, Zaira Navas

Since last week when we posted an article about the Legislative Assembly’s plans to form of a Special Commission to investigate the Investigator General of the National Civil Police (PNC) Zaira Navas, several top ranking officials, including Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes have spoken out on her behalf. Members of the Legislative Assembly, including Diputado José Antonio Almendáriz, accuse Navas of improperly investigating Police Commissioner Douglas Omar Garcia Funes, former Commissioner Godofredo Miranda, ex-Director of Police Ricardo Menesses, and many others for corruption and ties to organized crime and drug trafficking.

During the legislative session last Thursday, the 45 votes in favor of the Special Commission were enough to move ahead with the investigation of the Inspector General. While no left-wing FMLN diputados voted in favor of the special commission, 45 right-wing ARENA, PCN, PDC, and Gana legislators supported it.

Yesterday, President Funes expressed his support for Navas, confirming that she has only followed the guidelines he gave her in conducting a thorough “cleaning’ of the PNC. Simialrly, the Minister of Justice and Security, Manuel Melgar, has claimed that the commission may be unconstitutional and should not be permitted to go forward. Even Carlos Ascencio, the Director of the PNC, defended Navas, saying that she was simply following the lines of investigations that President Funes had ordered. The Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights has also stated “we must respect the work of the Inspector General.”

Government Agencies in El Salvador have operated in the shadows for a little too long.  A little sunshine every now and then is good for everyone, unless they have something to hide.

El Salvador Government, Politics, transparency

Political Parties Reject Public Access to their own Finances

On Monday, the Legislative Assembly began going through the proposed Law on Transparency and Public Access to Information line by line.  According to Elfaro.net, the ARENA and FMLN political parties, the two largest, have rejected the provision that would require political parties to make their financial information available to the public.

The provision is one of many proposed by the Funes Administration to limit corruption in the government.  Unless it is removed, the provision would help end the system of political debts, in which a person or institution donates to campaigns in return for political support.  The provision is not limited to political parties but includes all entities, public or private, that manage public funds.

Article 6 of the Salvadoran Constitution guarantees the freedom of expression to all citizens. Over 10 years ago the Inter-American Court of Human Rights determined that the freedom of expression includes the right to access public information. The ElFaro.net article points out that El Salvador is required to respect that decision and give people free access to public information so that they are able to express themselves in an informed manner. The only provisions in Salvadoran law that give such a right is Title IX of the Municipal Code, which requires local governments to give citizens access to information.

El Faro notes that in recent years there is evidence that organized criminals have infiltrated political parties. They cite recent examples of diputados from the PAN (National Action Party) and the PCN (National Conciliation Party) who were arrested in the U.S. on charges related to drug trafficking. In our own investigation into the mining issue in Cabañas, we found several instances in which Pacific Rim is thought to have donated to local political campaigns or paid politicians for their support.

This new provision will allow citizens and civil society organizations the tools necessary to monitor the financial interests of those who manage public funds. It will allow people to see where political parties and politicians are getting their support and to whom they might be indebted politically. The law does not provide additional restrictions on who may make political donations or limits on how much they can give.

Representatives from the two largest political parties, FMLN and ARENA, rejected the proposal outright. Mario Valiente, a former mayor of San Salvador and an ARENA diputado, “expressed his disagreement with the possibility that political parties would have to reveal their sources of funding,” though he did not say why. He indicated, however, that such a provision is better suited for the Law on Political Parties, but acknowledges that it is unlikely that they will reform that law anytime soon.