agriculture, Economy, El Salvador Government, Environment, Mining, U.S. Relations

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.

violence, Voices Developments

Salvadoran Youth: Gangs and Immigration are only Part of the Story

Media coverage about youth in El Salvador often presents a pretty bleak picture. Youth, especially males, are portrayed as either belonging to the gangs alleged to be responsible for the country’s violence and insecurity, or as migrants leaving in droves for the United States.

Right now the media in El Salvador is focusing heavily on the gang truce and the assassination of Giovanni Morales, a 33 year-old rehabilitated gang member who worked with Padre Toño in Mejicanos, a Spanish priest who has been working with youth involved in gangs. Media has also been talking a lot about the growing link between MS-13 and the Zetas, a Mexican drug cartel.

These are very important issues that affect all Salvadorans, but focusing only on the violence or immigration presents a very skewed reality of Salvadoran youth.

According to the CIA Factbook, there are 1.27 million youth in El Salvador between the ages of 15 and 24, and there are approximately 15,000 to 20,000 Salvadoran gang members. Even if all those involved in gangs fall between the ages of 15 and 24, they would still only account for between 1.2 and 1.6% of that demographic.Similarly, if El Salvador’s net rate of migration (-8.78 migrants/1,000 population) holds for those between the ages of 15-24, a total of 11,150 youth would have left the country in 2012. If these numbers are considered accurate, there are approximately 1.24 million youth who are neither involved in gangs nor migrating.

That does not mean that gangs and migration are not issues for these 1.24 million youth. It means that a lot of youth are making the most of being in El Salvador and finding more productive ways to channel their energy and talent.

For instance, in Northern Morazán, where Voices on the Border has worked since 1987, there is network of well-organized youth groups that are trying hard to improve conditions in their communities.

These groups, which are all non-profit and not affiliated with any political party, are comprised of youth between the ages of 13 and 30, with an equal ratio of male and female members. Most of the youth come from families with extremely limited economic resources, yet they share many commonalities with their peer age group from around the world. When possible, they like to attend school, play soccer, and hang out at the cyber (internet) café where they check Facebook and chat with friends. Most aspire to find work that will allow them to stay in their own communities. Some want to be artists, others want to be psychologists or doctors, and a few want to maintain their ancestral ties by farming like their parents and grandparents.

Jose, a member of OSMIJ discussing the significance of the colors in the Kakawira flag
Jose, a member of OSMIJ discussing the significance of the colors in the Kakawira flag

In Cacaopera, a rural indigenous community in the mountains of Morazán, youth formed the Youth Mission Social Organizations (OSMIJ, in Spanish). The 40 members of OSMIJ strive for integration and development within Cacaopera through community service. They are engaged in a variety of activities related to local, economic, social, and political issues. Last month, for example, the OSMIJ held a workshop for all youth in Morazán to discuss their rights under the Salvadoran Law on Youth. In February they also set up an obstacle course in Cacaopera and held a well-attended community race, providing an opportunity for all ages to have well-deserved fun.

Members of OSMIJ recently gave Voices and a delegation from Georgetown University a tour of the community and a local indigenous museum. A 13 year-old member of OSMIJ named Ah tzict Amaya Martinez was our guide through the museum. With the confidence and knowledge of someone three times his age, Ah tzict spoke in depth about the community’s indigenous history, culture, and religious traditions.  His knowledge of the native, and virtually extinct, language, Kakawira, was a testament to his dedication and intimate connection to his heritage. Many other youth in OSMIJ share his passion and commitment.

In Ciudad Segundo Montes, also in Northern Morazán, youth have formed the Open House of Segundo Montes (OSCA, in Spanish) to promote youth leadership, development, sports, and culture. They offer a wide variety of workshops and trainings on an array of topics that impact local youth. During the municipal elections in 2012, OSCA hosted a series of debates between the mayoral candidates in Cacaopera, Jocoaitique, and Meanguera. The debates were well attended and offered an opportunity for youth to voice their priorities and concerns.

Sulma, a member of OSCA, during a planning workshop
Sulma, a member of OSCA, during a planning workshop

OSMIJ and OSCA both operate with almost no financial support from outside their community. They raise a little money from local organizations and residents, and often reach into their own often-empty pockets to fund activities. The lack of money has never prevented either organization from having a clear vision of what they want for their community and organizing activities to achieve that vision. In just a few years OSMIJ has become an important player in Cacaopera’s development.

These are just two of the many strong youth groups in Morazán, which is one of the poorest of El Salvador’s 14 departments and one of the most affected by the civil war. The region’s residents struggle with immigration, machismo, and many other issues, but the members of OSMIJ, OSCA, and other organizations are an inspiring example of how some Salvadoran youth are responding to their economic and social conditions.

It is important to understand and discuss gang violence and immigration in El Salvador – they are very serious issues. But these issues should not define all Salvadoran youth or overshadow the important role that groups like OSMIJ and OSCA play in their communities.

We at Voices on the Border have partnered with members of OSCA, OSMIJ, and other groups in Morazán on a number of activities in recent years, and have several activities planned for the coming year. If you’d like to support or be involved in these activities, please contact us at voices@votb.org.

Equality, Womens issues

International Women’s Day in Morazán – More of a Rally than a Celebration

This week Voices on the Border has been hosting a delegation from Georgetown University, a group of students getting their Master’s degree in Conflict Resolution. They are exploring issues of conflict and peace in the country, beginning with several meetings in San Salvador to get a general overview of issues at the national levels, followed by several days in the mountains of Morazán, where Voices has worked since 1987.

DSCF0154
2013 Celebration of International Women’s Day at the Temple in San Luis

 

Yesterday the delegation attended a Celebration for International Women’s Day at the Temple in San Luis in Community Segundo Montes, where a few hundred women gathered to discuss issues that impact their every day lives. Even before the delegates arrived in Morazán, gender issues came up in several of our meetings in the Capital. At CONFRAS (Confederación de Federaciones de la Reforma Agraria Salvadoreña), we learned that only 1% of Salvadoran women own land! Maria Silvia Guillén, the Director of FESPAD (Foundation for the Study of Application of Law) told us of a recent case in which a woman who worked at the Legislative Assembly filed a sexual harassment case against her boss, only to be arrested for defamation. We also heard horror stories of pregnant women going to the hospital with a miscarriage, only to be arrested for supposedly trying to terminate their pregnancy. Several women have been sentenced to more than 30 years in prison. During our meetings we heard of several law reform efforts in 2012 to improve conditions for women, but few passed the Legislative Assembly, which is still controlled by men.

The celebration held at the Temple of Martyrs and Heroes in San Luis was as much a rally and call to action as it was a celebration. During the event we spoke with Father Miguel Ventura, who has been working in the region since the early 1970s. He told us that while Morazán doesn’t suffer the high rates of femicide that other regions have, they do have the highest rates of domestic violence in El Salvador. The number of men who attended the event at the Temple, approximately 5, is evidence of the persistence machismo culture. We were told that if men attended the event their male friends would ridicule them.

Speakers at the event stressed the need for women in the region to continue fighting for equality, stressing greater awareness of rights and the need to report domestic violence. While highlighting some of the successes over the years, they said that women had to keep fighting.

Traditionally men give women flowers. Perhaps next year the best gift that Salvadoran women could get would be reduction in the rates of domestic violence, femicide, and inequality.

2014 Elections, U.S. Relations, violence

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.

El Salvador Government

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.

News Highlights

U.S. Federal Judge Considers Testimony of War Crimes in Immigration Case Against Col. Montano

Col. Montano
Col. Montano

This week, El Faro posted an article about Col. Orlando Montano who is being sentenced in a U.S. Federal Court in Massachusetts on immigration fraud and perjury. The court could sentence Montano to more than 40 years in prison and a million dollars in fines. He could also be deported back to El Salvador and possibly extradited to Spain, where a court indicted him and 19 others, for their role in the 1989 massacre of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter.

Before the sentencing phase got underway, the federal judge hearing the case agreed to consider Montano’s alleged war crimes before sentencing him on the immigration fraud charges. The Daily journal quoted the judge, “my view is that, if proved, the allegations concerning Mr. Montano’s acts with the military are matters that would cause me to consider upward departure or variance,” meaning that he would consider an even greater sentence.

In January, prosecutors submitted a report from Stanford Professor Terry Karl that provides details about Montano’s military career, including his involvement in over 1,000 human rights abuses. Professor Karl is an expert witness in the case against the 20 defendants in the Spanish Court and has documented many of the war crimes that took place during the war.

Montano’s attorneys argue that by asking the judge to consider a more severe sentence, prosecutors violated the terms of the plea agreement the defendant signed in September 2012. Montano is due back in court sometime in March 2013.

Photo credit: AP
Photo credit: AP

Montano has been living in the United States since 2001 and worked as a human resource administrator for a candy factory in Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. The Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), which filed the case against Montano and 19 others in the Spanish court, reports that Montano lied about his past military service and weapons training on his Temporary Protective Status (TPS) immigration form. He also lied about his date of entry into the U.S. in order to qualify for the TPS program. He was arrested on August 23, 2011 and indicted in February 2012. He plead guilty to six counts of federal criminal immigration fraud and perjury on September 11, 2012.

The Spanish Court names Montano, who was Vice Minister of Defense of Public Security, as one of the four top commanders of the Salvadoran Military in November 1989, when soldiers massacred the Jesuit priests. Following their in-absentia indictment in 2011, the court issued formal extradition requests for Montano and the 19 others.

In her report submitted to the Federal Court, Professor Karl testified that Montano had a 30-year military career, contrary to the information he gave on his TPS forms, and that he was involved in numerous human rights abuses. The Daily Journal article quotes Montano’s attorney as admitting that Professor Karl’s report paints him “as a war criminal of epic proportions.”

El Faro quotes a summary of the allegations detailed in Professor Karl’s report. She wrote, “during his 30-year military career, Coronel Montano ordered, incited, and assisted or commanded troops that participated in a strategy of terror by the State against civilians. This included: extra-judicial executions, torture, disappearances and arbitrary detentions, rural massacres of non-combatant civilians, forced disappearance of children, and the permitting of death squads led by the military and that operated within units under his command.”

The report also linked Montano to 65 summary executions, 51 forced disappearances, 520 cases of torture, and 533 arbitrary detentions. Professor Karl’s testimony includes the names of the victims, the dates of the human rights abuse, the place and battalion or unit involved.

More than 20 years after the Peace Accords were signed, Salvadorans continue the process of healing from twelve years of civil war and decades of oppression and human rights abuses. The country’s Amnesty Law has stymied this process by forcing victims and human rights activists to seek justice outside of their own legal system. While leaders within the right-wing ARENA party, which was in power in 1989 when the Jesuit priests were killed, has condemned the Spanish indictments for dredging up painful memories, it is important for that criminals be brought to justice, even if it’s in a courtroom in Boston or Madrid.

Climate Change, Environment

The Bitter Taste of Sugar

By: Voices on the Border

Fotografía: Al Jazeera. Quema de caña de azúcar en el Bajo Lempa.
Fotografía: Al Jazeera. Quema de caña de azúcar en el Bajo Lempa.

Originally from Southeast Asia, sugarcane arrived in the Caribbean Islands on Christopher Columbus’ second voyage in 1494 and its cultivation expanded rapidly throughout much of the continent. Sugarcane is now one of the main export products from tropical countries like El Salvador, where it accounts for 2.8% of the gross national product and almost 20% of agricultural production.

Mario Salvverria, president of the Salvadoran Association of Sugar Producers and former Minister of Agriculture said that sugarcane is not only resistant to the impacts of climate change, the last sugarcane harvest (2011-2012) actually grew by 10% over the previous harvest, reaching 15 million quintals. With that, El Salvador has gone from being a major industrial sugarcane producing country in Central America to being in the ninth largest exporter of raw sugar in the world.

The Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) is one factor that has stimulated the increase in production. CAFTA assigns export quotas that increase annually. For example, the sugarcane quota for the 2011-2012 harvest was set at 645,217.38 quintals (142,246 pounds), but for the 2012-2013 harvest it will be 673,913.03 quintals (148,572 pounds).

But the economic growth enjoyed by the sugarcane sector must be contrasted with the tragedy lived out by the communities located in regions where production has expanded. One of the regions most affected by mono-cultivation of sugar is the Lower Lempa region of Usultuan. The local population has denounced the destruction of biodiversity, consumption of water sources, depletion of agricultural land, destruction of traditional campesino agricultural traditions, and the health of the people exposed to agrochemicals and the methods used to spray them.

The Confederation of Federations of Salvadoran Agrarian Reform (CONFRAS) recently completed a study that included the Lower Lempa that determined that the cultivation of sugarcane uses at least eight different pesticides. Among them are Glyphosate, which is a controversial herbicide that environmentalist around the world would like to see banned.

This is one of the reasons that the Lower Lempa reports high rates of kidney disease, a problem evidenced by the results of a 2009 study completed by doctors from the Kidney Institute of Havana, Cuba. Their investigation revealed that 11 of every 100 residents of the Lower Lempa were suffering from kidney disease, and that in the Community of Ciudad Romero 30 people had already died within the past three years. The large majority of cases are reported in men – 25.7% of men tested were positive for kidney problems, while only 11.8% of women tested were positive. Cuban nephrologist Carlos Orantes led the study explained at the time that the problem is associated with a variety of factors, among them is agrochemicals.

The real problem for the communities is the burning of the sugarcane fields, the objective of which is to increase production of the workers who cut the cane by reducing the end product to the cane by burning off the unnecessary green leaves so they are not shipped to the plant. Ricardo Navarro from CESTA/Friends of the Earth stresses that the burning process has the highest environmental costs in that it destroys the soil and biodiversity, alters the local microclimate, contaminates the air, and generates greenhouse gases. The Sugarcane Producers Association of El Salvador, however, has said that the environmental impact of sugarcane production is positive. He says on the Association’s website that “planting a hectacre of sugarcane is the same as planting two hectacres of native forest.”

While few enjoy the sweet economic benefits of sugar, many suffer the bitter impacts of its production without the Salvadoran State institutions acting to take meaningful action to prevent damage.

**This article was first published in Spanish on Tuesday as an opinion piece by the Diario C0-Latino.

Economy

Dollarization: “A Sack of Unfulfilled Promises”

In January 2001, El Salvador began the dollarization process, which changed the official currency from the Salvadoran Colon to the U.S dollar. According to an article posted on Tim’s El Salvador Blog, former President Francisco Flores and his Minister of Finance, Manuel Enrique Hinds, made the change in order to keep interest levels low, control inflation and increase foreign investment.

In the twelve years since, Salvadorans have engaged in a constant debate over dollarization – has it been good or not, and should they keep the U.S. currency or revert back to the Colon. In June 2011, we posted an article on this blog looking back at ten years of dollarization, concluding that it has not brought about the positive benefits promised.

Others have reached the similar conclusions, including the current President of El Salvador’s Central Reserve Bank, Carlos Acevedo who earlier this month said dollarization was “a sack of unfulfilled promises.” The Central Reserve Bank is a government-controlled entity that regulates many aspects of El Salvador’s economy, including its currency, and Acevedo’s opinion carries some weight.

This is not the first time Acevedo has criticized dollarization. In March 2012 he penned an opinion piece for El Faro that described the process of planning for and implementing dollarization as “hasty and improvised.” He also said that reversing dollarization (de-dollarization) would be even more detrimental. Acevedo, however, also told Contrapunto that “the next government will be forced to consider the possibility of de-dollarization to allow for a monetary policy that provides greater flexibility of public finance, and so it will be able to return to printing money and adjusting interest rates to stimulate the economy.

Bank President Acevedo made his most recent statements (reported by Active Transparency) following the release of a government study on dollarization, which reached some rather negative conclusions. The report found that many key economic indicators, including exports and GDP fell, while inflation and interest rates rose. Dollarization has failed to shield the economy from downturns and instead made El Salvador more susceptible to instabilities in the U.S. economy, as witnessed during the 2009 recession. The Economista published an article yesterday reaching very much the same conclusions.

In his statements this month, Acevedo said dollarization was “badly designed, improvised and lacking consultation,” and that El Salvador’s fiscal performance with dollarization was the worst in sixty years. He also said the performance was so poor that even proponents of dollarization could not ignore its negative impacts. Even in his most recent comments, however, Acevedo stressed that the Funes administration is not considering de-dollarization and that doing so would cause more economic hard and instability. One of his fears is that Salvadorans would make a run on the banks, withdrawing dollars before they were converted to Colones or another currency.

While President Funes may not have de-dolarization plans for the last year of his administration, Vice President and FMLN 2014 presidential candidate Sanchez Ceren said in May 2012 that dollarization was the cause of the current economic recession and that El Salvador’s currency had to be changed back to the Colon.

Norman Quijano, the Mayor of San Salvador and the ARENA party’s 2014 presidential candidate stated in the past that dollarization would be beneficial to consumers. In a more recent interview he said, “reversing dollarization would be the worst thing to do.” Former President Tony Saca, who may run as the GANA party’s 2014 presidential candidate, stated in the past that he supported dollarization and that de-dollarization would be detrimental.

Acevedo’s comments paint a pretty difficult position for El Salvador in terms of the country’s economic policy. Dollarization has been bad, but de-dollarization would be really bad. While the current slate of presidential candidates have made general statements, it is unclear whether they are open to more nuanced positions that will give government economists more tools to promote a more stable economy.

Advocacy, El Salvador Government, Politics

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.

Voices Developments

La Voz – Voices on the Border Winter 2012 Newsletter

As we close out 2012, we thought we’d provide one more update on our efforts to promote just and sustainable development in El Salvador. In addition to news from our partner communities in Morazan and Usulutan, we have some other exciting developments to announce.

One such development (detailed inside the newsletter), is that after 6 years, Rosie Ramsey is leaving Voices – she has some great things happening in her life and we are grateful for her years of service and friendship. We are pleased to announce that Jose Acosta will be taking over the field director position and implementing our new Grassroots Resource Center in the new year.

Here’s a link to our Winter Newsletter:

Winter_Newsletter_2012Also, thank you for your great response to the Matching Grant Opportunity, but we still need to raise $3000 between now and the end of the year.

You can click here to get to our Network for Good page and make an online donation – its easy and secure, and your funds will be used to directly empower our partners in Northern Morazan and the Lower Lempa region of Usulutan.

Happy Holidays to you and yours!