Advocacy, Environment, Food Security

Marching for Food Sovereignty

Last Wednesday, October 15th hundreds of people stepped out into a soft rain in San Salvador to celebrate Food Sovereignty Day and World Food Day. Perhaps more than celebrating, marchers were demanding that the Salvadoran government take specific actions so the population can achieve food sovereignty.

Food sovereignty is a fairly straightforward concept articulated first by La Via Campesina in 1996. It simply asserts the right of people to define their own food systems, placing the individuals who produce, distribute, and consume food at the center of the decisions on food systems and policies.

Marchers had some very specific policy points they want their government to address. (If this post and these demands sound familiar, they held a similar march last year making many of the same demands.)

First, marchers want the current Legislative Assembly to ratify an amendment to article 69 of the Constitution recognizing food sovereignty as a basic right enjoyed by all Salvadorans. The previous Legislative Assembly passed the amendment but to complete the process the current Assembly has to ratify it. Similarly, over the past two years, civil society has also lobbied the Legislative Assembly to pass a Law on Food Sovereignty, which would promote the sustainable production of food production and regulate other activities that affect food sovereignty.

The marchers also want the Legislative Assembly and President Sanchez Cerén to ban a long list of toxic agrochemicals. Last year the Legislative Assembly passed a bill banning fifty-three agro-chemicals (the bill amended an existing law that regulates agrochemicals). Instead of signing the bill, President Funes (2009-2014) took out the eleven most common (and harmful) agrochemicals, including Glyphosate, and sent the bill back to the Assembly. When the Legislative Assembly received the Funes’ changes, its members could have ignored them and signed the original bill into Law, or accepted them and signed it into law. Instead, they did nothing. This all occurred during the campaign for the March presidential elections, and the business sector was pressuring on the Funes Administration not to sign the ban. They argued that coffee plantations were combating leaf rust and a ban on agrochemicals would result in a loss of agricultural jobs and harm the economy. Marchers and civil society organizations, however, reject the dependence on agrochemicals and demand that the Legislative Assembly finally ban the use of all harmful agrochemicals in El Salvador.

Another important issue is the Water Law. Eight years ago civil society organizations drafted a law that guarantees all Salvadorans have a right to water. If passed, the Water Law would also ensure that the government could not privatize water resources. Instead of approving the draft law proposed by civil society, the Legislative Assembly began a long process of drafting its own. Unfortunately private interests such as ANEP (National Association of Private Business), and conservative political parties (ARENA and PCN) have been able to stall the process.

Another obstacle to achieving food sovereignty is sugarcane production. In regions like the Bajo Lempa of Usulután, sugarcane producers are buying and leasing large amounts of farmland. For example, two weeks ago Voices’ partners in La Tirana learned that a wealthy landowner that owns the land adjacent to their mangrove forests is leasing 400 manzanas (691 acres) of farmland to a sugarcane producer. United States economic policies are driving  the demand for sugarcane. The Central American Free Trade agreement is allowing the U.S. to import more sugarcane at lower prices, and Partnership for Growth is providing incentives for El Salvador to increase exports rather than grow food for local consumption.

While sugarcane will make landowners wealthy, sugarcane production has a large, negative impact on the environment. Sugarcane producers use a lot of chemicals on their crops – fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides. Just before a crop is ready to harvest, producers apply the herbicide Glyphosate (sugarcane is “Roundup Ready”) in order to ensure all the cane is ready to harvest at the same time. These agrochemicals, which are generally sprayed using a crop-duster, contaminate local water sources and nearby farmland, as well as villages, schools, soccer fields and homes. These chemicals are believed to be contributing to the extremely high rates of renal failure that has claimed tens of thousands of lives in recent years.

Sugarcane production affects food sovereignty in a few ways. First, farmland that could be used to grow food for local consumption is being used to grow sugarcane for export. This means that El Salvador’s dependence on food imports will continue to rise. The environmental impact of sugarcane also makes it harder for small farmers to produce food. Farmers complain that the spraying of agrochemicals contaminates their fields and destroys their crops. The herbicide Glysophate is one of the worst offenders. Upon contact it kills foliage, flowers, fruits, and vegetables that farmers cultivate. And large monoculture crops upset the ecosystems where farmers grow, diminishing bee populations, disrupting forests and animal life, and harming soil structures.

Marchers also demand that the government do more to protect the country’s fragile ecosystems, especially the mangrove forests along the coast. Families in and around the forests often sustain themselves by harvesting the crabs, clams, and fish that live in the mangroves. And an estimated 75% of all commercialized fish in the Pacific off the coast of El Salvador are hatched in the mangrove forests. If developers and sugarcane farmers are allowed to destroy these forests, they will also be destroying the livelihood and food source of tens of thousands of people.

Another threat to food sovereignty is mining. El Salvador currently has a de facto ban on mining. But there is nothing in place to prevent government officials from granting the extraction permits that allow mining companies to mine for gold, silver, uranium, and other minerals. Salvadoran civil society has argued for years that if the government allowed mining it would result in the contamination of the country’s farmland and water resources, greatly diminishing El Salvador’s capacity for food production.

In February 2014, then presidential candidate Sanchez Cerén spoke at an event hosted by MOVIAC to discuss environmental issues. During his comments, Sanchez Cerén said that as president he would sign legislation to ban mining. But five months into his presidency the Legislative Assembly and President Sanchez Cerén have yet to pass a ban. One reason given for the delay is that the legislatures don’t have enough votes. But some annalists say (behind closed doors) that politicians from all political parties give the impression they don’t want to ban mining, and use the lack of votes as an excuse to do nothing.

Again, none of these issues or demands is new, but people are protesting because there has been little to no action. While many celebrate the Sanchez Cerén administration as the second consecutive leftist government elected into power in El Salvador, many in the FMLN’s base are grumbling because they have not seen the kinds of changes they expected. Some have been reluctant to protest against the government officials they voted into power, believing the alternative to be far worse. But others are tired of the perceived inaction on issues related to basic rights such as food sovereignty and access to water, and are speaking up.

Advertisements
Partnership for Growth, U.S. Relations

Law on Public Private Partnerships Seems to be Moving Forward in El Salvador (Please sign the Petition Below!)

Countrapunto reported Wednesday that the Legislative Assembly’s Treasury Commission gave a green light to the proposed Law on Public Private Partnerships (P3 Law). The full Assembly should have a chance to vote on the bill as soon as today, Thursday May 23.

Since the Funes Administration introduced the bill last year, opposition has grown, in part, around the fear that if passed that State would be able to privatize important state services and assets. Members of the Treasury Committee tried to address some of those concerns with amendments. FMLN Diputado (Representative) Orestes Ortez, said “at least how it has been modified through today, in agreement with all the other diputados, the bill does not open space for privatizing those goods that have a public or social interest.”

According to the Contrapunto article, the Committee took out a section that required the Legislative Assembly to vote on a contract within 45 days of receiving it. Ortez pointed out that no country in the world imposed such tight time limits on legislative functions. The Committee also created a roll for itself in negotiating the terms of P3 contracts. The original bill only gave them the right to approve or oppose a contract, but not contribute substantively to its content.

Among the other changes, the reforms require that all contractors abide by El Salvador’s labor laws, which they would presumably have to do anyway. This seems to be an attempt to pacify the labor movement, which has been the law’s most vocal opponent. The reforms also exclude services like water, health, education, the public university, the public insurance system, and El Salvador’s jails from P3 contracts.

According to La Prensa Grafica, the bill that left the Treasury Commission should have enough support to pass the Legislative Assembly.

But the reforms seem insufficient to pacify the bill’s opponents. Estela Ramírez, a representative of the Private Sector Worker’s Union Federation (FUERSA), told a group of supporters, “we are here from the private sector to accompany public sector workers in their opposition to the P3 law, not only out of solidarity for those workers’ rights, but because of the impact that this law would have on private sector workers by raising the costs of social services and further bankrupting the state.”

Residents of the Bajo Lempa reigon of Jiquilisco, Usulután share the labor movement’s concerns about the P3 law’s affects on the labor market and access to public services. Their main concern, however, is that the P3 Law is a prerequisite for the second round of Millennium Challenge Corporation funds, which will fund public-private partnerships for developing tourism throughout the region. Residents of the Bajo Lempa have stated on several occasions that they do not want large tourism projects or other mega-development projects that will continue to disrupt their agricultural economy and peaceful way of life.

Yesterday, more than 70 residents and civil society leaders in the Bajo Lempa gathered to discuss the P3 Law and the reforms, as well as the MCC projects. Even after reviewing the changes approved this week by the Treasury Committee, the representatives at the meeting remain 100% against the P3 law and MCC. The reforms did not change their view that the P3 law was written to benefit corporations and wealthy people, and has not taken into consideration the needs of the communities.

One person at yesterday’s meeting made the point that since 2005 civil society has tried to get the Legislative Assembly to consider a Water Law they drafted. Their bill enjoys widespread support because it tries to protect the interests of communities and people. But the Legislative Assembly has never tried to move the bill forward. The P3 Law, however, appears to be zipping through the legislative process even though people, communities and civil society organizations have spoken out against it.

The labor movement is organizing a protest today outside the Legislative Assembly, presumably around the time the diputados will be debating and possibly voting on the P3 Law. They, along with residents of the Bajo Lempa, will continue to protest the law and its application if it is approved.

So far the P3 Law has enjoyed the most support from the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador. U.S. Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte has appeared in the Salvadoran news several times over the past few months calling on the Legislative Assembly to pass the law, stating that it is a prerequisite for the second Millennium Challenge Corporation grant worth $400 million.

Support for the P3 Law amongst Salvadorans doesn’t necessarily come from common sense that public-private partnerships are the key to economic growth, though there are some who are believers. It comes from the th.reat that if the law is not passed, the U.S. will withhold the $400 million MCC fund – an investment that people in the Bajo Lempa don’t want anyway

This morning our friends over at CISPES sent around a petition by CEAL (a Salvadoran Labor group) asking that members of the Legislative Assembly reject the P3 Law, which “was proposed by the Executive branch under the pressure of the United States Embassy.” Instead they call on the Legislative Assembly to approve fiscal reforms quickly that require those that have more to pay more taxes in order to finance more social projects that benefit Salvadoran communities without needing to privatize government assets and services.

Please take a moment to sign the petition – it’s an important way to let the U.S. Embassy and the Legislative Assembly know that you believe that the interests of the Salvadoran people should come before those of wealthy corporations that are already thriving in the neoliberal economic model the U.S. has been implementing since the early 1990s.

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.

Corruption, El Salvador Government

Three years of Resistence to the Coup in Honduras

This morning, activists gathered outside the Honduran Embassy in San Salvador to protest the third anniversary of the coup d’état that toppled the democratically elected government of Manuel Zelaya in Honduras. In the days, months, and now years since the coup, the Honduran government has violently repressed the resistance movement that opposed the coup, and other human rights activists. The protests in front of the Embassy will continue tomorrow, June 28th, the actual anniversary of the coup.

The 2009 coup’s aftershocks rippled throughout Latin American democracies and continue to influence countries such as El Salvador. Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes had been in office less than a month when the Honduran Military left Zelaya on a runway in Costa Rica. Rightwing extremists in El Salvador used the coup as an opportunity to warn Funes what would happen if he and the FMLN tried to exercise their new power in an extreme manner. Many of Funes’ actions over the past three years indicate that he took their message to heart.

This article will provide an overview of what happened three years ago and the constitutional crisis that led up to the coup. It will then discuss the international community’s response and arguably oversimplified accounting of what happened. The article then provides an overview of the human rights and social justice issues that have plagued Hondurans since the coup, and concludes with a brief discussion about how the coup continues to affect Salvadoran domestic policies.

Events 3 years Ago

On Monday June 29, 2009, the Wall Street Journal reported that early the day before Honduran soldiers surrounded the Presidential Palace and removed then President Zelaya from his room and flew him to Costa Rica. The article quotes Zelaya’s version of the events, which he shared with reporters while still in his pajamas standing at the airport.

“I was awakened by shots, and the yells of my guards, who resisted for about 20 minutes. I came out in my pajamas, I’m still in my pajamas… when [the soldiers] came in, they pointed their guns at me and told me they would shoot if I didn’t put down my cell phone.”

A recent NPR article quotes President Zelaya recalling the coup, “[t]he shooting started around 5:20 a.m. I went downstairs and there were about 250 masked soldiers around my house. All you could see was their eyes.” Speaking about his arrival in Costa Rica, he continued, “they took off, and there I was. The democratically elected President of Honduras, standing in my pajamas in the middle of a runway in Costa Rica.”

With President Zelaya ousted, the Honduran military took to the streets in Tegucigalpa to suppress opposition to the coup. A Foreign Policy in Focus article at the time reported that the police issued warrants for some of Zelaya’s cabinet members and other supporters, forcing them into hiding. The police and military broke up pro-Zelaya demonstrations, killing and injuring numerous people.

The Constitutional Crisis

The coup was organized by the Supreme Court and National Congress, which at the time issued a statement, “the military had acted to defend the law against those who had publicly spoken out and acted against the Constitution’s provisions.”

In the weeks and months before the coup, Honduras was embroiled in a constitutional crisis. President Zelaya had proposed that Hondurans reform their Constitution, which had been in place since 1982. President Zelaya wanted to include a referendum on the November 2009 presidential ballot to initiate the process. After getting pushback, he scheduled a non-binding referendum for June 29, 2009 to determine whether or not Hondurans wanted to have the referendum that November.

Opponents of the constitutional reforms accused President Zelaya of trying to amend the Constitution to allow him to serve a second term as President. In May 2009, Roberto Micheletti, the President of the Congress accused the President of treason pointing out that the Constitution prohibits changing constitutional term-limits by referendum pr plebiscite. The day before the coup, Al Jazeera quoted President Zelaya saying in a speech before Congress, “Congress cannot investigate me, much less remove me or stage a technical coup against me because I am honest, I’m a free president and nobody scares me.”

In a September 2009 interview with Time Magazine, Zelaya said the allegation that he was trying to change the presidential term limit was a “false pretext for a coup.” He explained the reason for reforming the constitution was “to better help the 70% of the population who live in poverty.”

In May 2009, the Attorney General of Honduras recommended that the judicial branch declare Zelaya’s referendum illegal, which it did. President Zelaya, however, went ahead with his plan and on May 29, 2009 ordered the military and police to provide logistical support for the referendum. The Supreme Court responded by ordering the military and police not to support Zelaya or the referendum, and they complied with the Court’s order. On June 24th President Zelaya fired the Military Joint Chief of Staff General Romeo Vasquez and the Defense Minister for their refusal to help with the referendum. The Supreme Court said the firing was illegal and ordered Zelaya to reinstate them, which he did not. The chiefs of the Honduran army, navy, and air force all resigned in protest.

According to Aljazeera, President Zelaya did not have the support of the military but labor leaders, farmers, and civic organizations agreed that the constitution needed to be reformed to improve the lives of the majority.

The referendum was scheduled for June 28th. Before the polls opened, however, the Military stormed the presidential palace, arrested Zelaya and flew him to Costa Rica, and confiscated the referendum materials. The Supreme Court said the Military had executed an arrest warrant they had issued for the President for his non-compliance with the judiciary’s ruling that the referendum was unconstitutional. Similarly, the National Congress passed a decree removing Zelaya from office and replacing him with Roberto Micheletti, who was the President of Congress and next in line to the Presidency. Micheletti served out the remainder of Zelaya’s presidency, which ended on January 27, 2010.

A Gallop poll taken in early July found that 46% of Hondurans opposed the coup while 41% thought it was justified.

The International Response to the Coup

The international community immediately condemned the coup. A Foreign Policy in Focus article at the time reported, “the international reaction was swift and surprisingly united.” A Congressional Research Service report said the United States, European Union, and United Nations condemned the coup and called for Zelaya’s immediate return. “Countries throughout Latin America and Europe withdrew their ambassadors… isolating the de facto regime.” The day of the coup, the Organization of American States issued a statement condemning the coup and calling for the unconditional return of President Zelaya to his constitutional duties.

In 2011, a truth commission concluded what most had been arguing from day one – the coup was illegal. Recognizing that both President Zelaya and the Honduran Congress were responsible for the events that led up to the coup, the commission concluded that Honduras did not have clear procedures to resolve power conflicts, and that the Congress and Supreme Court had overreached their power by ordering his arrest and forcing him into exile. Even if President Zelaya had broken the law, there were other processes in place to check his power. Artile 102 of the Constitution, however, says that authorities may not expropriate any Honduran to another country. But that’s what the military did – they arrested him and dropped him off in Costa Rica, and refused him re-entry.

Though U.S. officials condemned the coup, many in the international community thought the response was insufficient. The day after the coup, The New York Times wrote on July 29, 2009,

“President Obama on Monday strongly condemned the ouster of Honduras’ president as an illegal coup that set a ‘terrible precedent’ for the region,’ as the country’s government defied international calls to return the toppled president to power and clashed with thousands of protesters.

“’We do not want to go back to a dark past,’ Mr. Obama said, in which military coups override elections. ‘We always want to stand with democracy,’ he added.”

In the days and weeks after the coup, the U.S. cut off aid to Honduras and revoked the visas of Honduran officials involved in the coup. But that hasn’t stopped many from accusing the U.S. government of supporting the coup. One Guardian editorial asked, “does the U.S. back the Honduran coup?” while calling President Obama’s statements following the coup “weak and non-committal.” The article compares Obama’s measured response to stronger statements made by Lula de Silva, then President of Brasil, and Cristina Fernandez of Argentina, both of which denounced the coup and called for Zelaya’s return. The U.S. received even more criticism over the past couple of years as they helped Honduras re-enter the OAS.

Similarly, a North American Congress of Latin America (NACLA) article criticized the U.S. media for its “pro-coup bias, inaccuracies, and incomplete coverage.” The NACLA article criticized coverage for incorrectly reporting that Zelaya had been trying to reform the constitution so that he could run for a second term. They also disputed reports by the Wall Street Journal and other publications that a plurality in Honduras supported the coup, when the Gallop poll found the opposite – that 48% opposed the coup and 41% supported it. The NACLA article also alleges that the media under-reported opposition of the coup by members of the U.S. Congress, while giving Congressional support for the coup significant coverage. Finally, the article raises the important point that the U.S. media has failed to cover the human rights abuses and repression under the coup.

NACLA’s point that Zelaya was not trying to run for a second term and that the U.S. media presented a very pro-coup bias is echoed in an August 2009 Foreign Policy in Focus article. The authors summarize,

“the story most U.S. readers are getting about the coup is that Zelaya – an ally of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez – was deposed because he tried to change the constitution to keep himself in power.”

The article then says this presentation of the coup is “a massive distortion of the facts,” and that

“all Zelaya was trying to do is to put a non-binding referendum on the ballot calling for a constitutional convention, a move that trade unions, indigenous groups, and social activist organizations had long been lobbying for.”

Human Rights and Repression in Post-coup

Repression and human rights abuses against those who opposed the coup and otherwise advocate for social justice have become dramatically worse over the past three years. In July 2009 Amnesty International sent a delegation to investigate reports that the Honduran security forces were aggressively repressing those who opposed the coup. They found that an

“increasingly disproportionate and excessive use of force being used by the police and military to repress legitimate and peaceful protests across the country. Female protesters are particularly vulnerable and some women and girls taking part in the demonstrations are reportedly suffering gender-based violence and abuse at the hands of police officers. At least two protesters have died as a result of gunshot wounds.”

In August 2009, Ester Major from Amnesty International said,

“We’re seeing a deterioration in the whole respect for human rights on the whole situation in Honduras right now. People cannot count on having their rights protected if they go out on the streets. The police are sending a message, and the de facto government are sending a message to people, saying, “If you come out on the streets and peacefully demonstrate, this is what happens. We will arbitrarily detain you. We will beat you.” This is the signal they’re sending out.”

On the one-year anniversary of the coup, Gerardo Torres, who is an independent journalist and member of the National Front of Popular Resistance in Honduras, told Democracy Now “the repression is getting harder.” In May 2011, almost two years after the coup, the Committee of Families of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras reported, “a dramatic increase in the ongoing violent repression of human rights in Honduras.”

In May 2011, Jesse Freeston produced a series of video reports that detail numerous aspects of the government repression of the growing opposition movement. The four-part video series is worth watching and can be found on the Upsidedownworld.org site. The videos detail abuses against rural populations who are advocating for access to land, attacks on teachers unions, and more.

Several people who opposed the coup were forced to flee Honduras and live in other Central American countries. They live in countries such as El Salvador where they are unable to receive refugee status, study, or get jobs.

Similarly, human rights activists report that since the coup an estimated 24 journalists have been killed.  Alfredo Villatoro, for example, was a radio reporter who as abducted and murdered in May 2012. His death came days after the assassination of journalist and gay rights campaigner Erick Martinez.

These political murders and human rights abuses are part of a general trend in Honduras since the coup. In 2009, Honduras’ murder rate was 46 per 100,000 – third highest in the world. In just two years, Honduras became the most violent country in the world, registering over 80 murders per 100,000 people. During that time, drug trafficking and organized crime have flourished, making security the number one issue. Just last month, the Honduran police and U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency in helicopters killed four people, including two pregnant women and a 14-year girl, and injured four others when they fired upon a boat that was taking them to their rural community. The massacre is just the latest example of the violence and insecurity that has swept through Honduras over the past three years.

The Honduran Coup and El Salvador

A few weeks before the military ousted President Zelaya in Honduras, Mauricio Funes was sworn in as President of El Salvador – the first leftist administration to control the executive branch. Military leaders and conservative power brokers use the coup to warn the new administration that they would not tolerate extremist actions.

A NACLA article published in 2009 identifies several military leaders who justified the Honduran coup, arguing that the military did what it needed to do to uphold the constitution, and that similar actions would be justifiable in El Salvador. Former general Mauricio Ernesto Vargas went as far to say that if President Funes were to repeal the amnesty for military officials, he would face an uprising (Benjamín Cuélla, The Honduran Coup: View From El Salvador, NACLA Report on the Americas, p. 38-43, Nov/Dec 2009).

President Funes seems to have heeded their warning, and many of his more extreme actions have erred towards supporting more right-wing positions. And pacifying the Military seems to have been a top priority. Early in his presidency, Funes integrated the military into his security plan, allowing them to patrol “gang-controlled neighborhoods” and previously unmanned border crossings. In January 2012, President Funes went so far as to appoint former military leaders to top positions within the National Police and Ministry of Defense.

Funes even generated his own constitutional crisis last year by signing a law that would have crippled that Constitutional Court. Though the real reason for his going after the Constitutional Court remains somewhat unclear, Funes seems to have been trying to prevent the more progressive judges from striking down the amnesty law that protects former military leaders from being charged for crimes committed during the civil war.

Over the past 20 years, most Latin American countries, including Honduras and El Salvador, have at least tried to maintain a democratic façade, electing presidents and congressional leaders, and functioning under a constitution. Every once in a while events like the Honduran coup, and the more recent coup in Paraguay, demonstrate how thin these facades can be. Funes seems to have understood this well. Though his efforts to keep the military busy and happy have been unpopular, it may ensure that his presidency doesn’t end on a runway in Costa Rica. 

El Salvador Government, violence

El Salvador Marks 100 Days of the Gang Truce and 2nd Anniversary of the Mejicanos Bus Burning

This past Tuesday and Wednesday, June 19th and 20th, marked two important dates in El Salvador’s long struggle for peace and security. Tuesday celebrated 100 days since the country’s two primary gangs signed a truce that has resulted in a rather dramatic decrease in violence. Wednesday was the second anniversary of the bus burning in Mejicanos that killed 17 people. The horrific act, which government officials and the public blamed on members of the 18th Street gang, shocked the national conscious and arguably led to the truce that was celebrated yesterday. How government officials, civil society, and the private sector respond in the coming days and weeks will determine whether this is a turning point in the country’s history or another lost opportunity.

The Bus Burning

The morning of June 20th, 2010, an armed group stopped a small bus in Mejicanos, an urban area on the outskirts of San Salvador, doused it in gasoline, and lit it on fire. In all, seventeen people were killed and many others maimed and injured.

In response to the event, President Funes introduced an anti-gang bill that made it illegal to belong to a gang, punishable by up to ten years in prison. The law was the same kind of “mano duro” (heavy handed) law that previous administrations had employed, albeit unsuccessfully, to combat gang violence. It was also the exact kind of law that President Funes had campaigned against.

The gangs responded to the proposed legislation by imposing a nation-wide curfew and 72-hour bus stoppage, threatening to kill anyone who defied the mandate. Towards the end of the 72-hour period, gang leaders held press conferences and issued statements calling for policies of inclusion and greater opportunities for youth, and dialogue with government officials about how to end the violence. They also called on the government to improve the inhumane prison conditions and offer opportunities for personal development. The administration ignored their demands and request for dialogue, and that week President Funes signed the new anti-gang bill into law.

The curfew, 72-hour bus stoppage, and press communications were the first times that leaders from the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs worked together. Until that point, the gangs had been mortal enemies and such collaboration had not been an option. Their unity was an indication of the urgency and conviction behind their words and actions.

The bus burning and curfew left the government and Salvadoran people in no mood for talking. Government officials said publicly they would not be blackmailed into negotiating with gangs that had terrorized the population. Even if administration officials had desired to negotiate with the gangs, doing so in the fall of 2010 would have had severe political consequences. Hardliners from the conservative parties would have criticized them for being weak and unable to protect the Salvadoran people.

The Truce

Something happened, however, and this past March news broke that the leaders of MS-13 and two factions of the 18th Street gangs had signed a truce that has successfully reduced El Salvador’s murder rate, which has been among the highest in the world. Salvadorans welcome the reduction in violence but fear that it is unsustainable if the government and other stakeholders fail to address the social and economic exclusion that gave rise to the violence in the first place.

The two people credited with facilitating the negotiations between the gangs were Catholic Bishop Fabio Colindres and former FMLN legislator Raul Mijango. Government officials initially denied involvement in the truce but ex-military General and Minister of Justice and Public Security Munguía Payés recently acknowledged that the truce was “part of his strategy” to address the gang problem. Just before news of the truce broke, 30 incarcerated gang leaders were transferred from maximum-security prisons to lower security facilities, and were allowed more visitations along with other rights. These concessions were consistent with those laid out by gang leaders in 2010.

Just how much the murder rate has decreased varies depending on who is reporting it. Government officials often use shorthand and simply say that the daily average number of homicides has fallen from 14 to 6 – that would be a 57% decrease. InSight Crime reported the government’s actual numbers, which put the overall drop from March to May at 42%. The actual totals they use are:

March 2011/2012 – 377/255 (decrease of 32%)

April 2011/2012 – 340/156 (decrease of 54%)

May 2011/2012 – 368/172 (decrease of 53%)

Total March-May 2011/2012 -1085/583 (decrease 0f 42%)

The InSight Crime article points out,

“The National Police statistics on homicides have differed from those kept by the Public Forensic Institute (Medicina Legal), which has released slightly higher murder counts for each month.”

Calculating the homicide rate and the success of the truce has been somewhat complicated by reports that the rate of disappearances has risen, which would seem to indicate that gang members are just disposing of their victims. According to El Faro, these reports seem somewhat unfounded. As of June 10, the police have recorded 677 disappearances so far in 2012. Minister Munguía Payes insists that this is in line with previous years. Medicina Legal reports a much higher number of disappearances, 877 in just the first four months of 2012. There were more disappearances in the first two months of the year before the truce was signed than the second two months. Based on these numbers it is difficult to even speculate that murder victims are being buried and that the homicide rate is higher than reported.

While Salvadorans welcome the decrease in violence, many remain skeptical of its long-term sustainability. Some question whether the gang leaders were sincere in signing the truce and that perhaps other motives exist. Others are concerned that the imprisoned leaders who signed the truce do not have enough control over the extensive network of ‘cliques’ that make up their gangs to enforce it. One bus driver said recently that in his line of work he has gotten to know many gang members – he fears the kids on the street will only listen to gang leaders for so long until they start killing their rivals again. He fears that if they break the truce, the violence will be more extreme than ever. It remains to be seen whether this skepticism is warranted.

A more realistic concern about the sustainability of the truce is that it does little to address the root-cause of the violence –  social and economic exclusion. This is an issue that gang leaders mentioned back in 2010 and have stressed over the past 100 days. Salvadoran youth lack appropriate opportunities for education and work, and often have no options but to join gangs.  The truce is not the solution – it’s a break in the violence so the various stakeholders can work out a long-term solution.

The gangs seem serious about working out a long-term solution. In a statement released this week, gang leaders said they are ready to start negotiating a permanent peace treaty that would hopefully end the violence for good. According to an AP report, Oscar Armando Reyes, a leader of the 18th Street gang, said,

“We want to reach a definitive cease fire to end all the criminal acts of the gangs. But we have to reach agreements, because we have to survive. There was talk of jobs plans, but we haven’t gotten any answers, and it is time for the government to listen to us.”

A few weeks ago, President Funes announced that he had an agreement with members of the private sector that they would hire youth who had been involved in gangs in order to support their reintegration into society. The same day that Funes announced the private sector agreement, gang leaders announced that they would stop recruiting new members in schools and consider ending extortions in the near future. It is unclear that the government and private sector have taken more affirmative steps to work on long-term solutions.

Some civil society leaders have expressed support for the gangs recently and called on the greater Salvadoran community to support their reintegration. Mario Vega, head pastor at Elim Christian Mission, recently stated,

“I believe that the leaders of the gangs are earnestly involved in this process, because giving one’s word implies the highest code of respect, and they don’t speak just to speak; however, they could change a commitment at any moment if they feel they are not being listened to or respected.”

Rodrigo Bolaños, the general manager of the Salvadoran Factory League of Central America that employs former gang youth, recently said gangs are a product of Salvadoran society, and therefore the responsibility of Salvadoran society.

“The kids in the gangs weren’t born in Korea… they are from here. This is a problem of our own. They are our Salvadoran brothers. Society has to understand why all this began, and there has to be some capacity to forgive.”

Raúl Mijango, who helped facilitate the truce, recently said

“We’ve got to be frank – the gangs are waiting for a response from Salvadoran society and the state, but the most difficult part will be for society to stop looking to the past, accumulating hatred and resentment.”

While the truce is extremely important to achieving peace in El Salvador, it is not THE final solution. For too long the government and media have made young gang members, tattoos and all, the scary face of violence in El Salvador. The police, attorney general’s office, other government agencies, and media have been too quick to attribute political murders, international organized crime, femicide, and so many other crimes to gangs – neighborhood kids fighting their peers.

Job programs and reintegrating gang members into society will be an important first step, but at some point Salvadorans will also have to tackle the organized criminals that use all levels of government to facilitate their drug trafficking and money laundering. They will also have to get over the machismo culture that has led to El Salvador being the world leader in femicide.

Over the past couple of years, the gangs have taken steps to end the violence they are responsible for. Hopefully, the government, civil society, and private sector will do their part.

Thanks to our good friend Colette Hellenkamp for her invaluable contributions to this article.

Elections 2012, News Highlights

Election Results and Highlights 2012

Last Sunday, Salvadorans went to the polls to elect mayors and legislative representatives – the first elections since March 2009 when Mauricio Funes became the first opposition candidate to win the country’s Presidency. It was the conservative ARENA party’s turn to celebrate yesterday, winning back control over the Legislative Assembly and a large number of important municipal seats.

According to the Supreme Election Tribunal website, the party totals for the Legislative Assembly are:

  • ARENA: 33 seats
  • FMLN: 31 seats
  • GANA: 11 seats
  • CN: 6
  • PES/CN: 1
  • CD: 1
  • PES: 1
  • Independent Candidates: 0

Despite the clear victory for ARENA, no single party has a simple majority of 43 seats and ARENA will have to depend on GANA or other minority parties to take action. As Tim’s Blog pointed out, it’s always possible that the FMLN, GANA, and CN could form a voting bloc and control the Legislative Assembly. While GANA is a conservative party, there may be political advantage in siding with the FMLN on occasion just to keep ARENA in check.

Sunday night, ARENA officials didn’t seem too worried about uniting with GANA. In 2009 when the FMLN won the Presidency and retained control over the Legislative Assembly, ARENA seemed to have hit rock bottom. In October of that year, however, they expelled ex-President Tony Saca from the party accusing him of rigging the selection process that named Rodrigo Avila as their presidential candidate; as well as conspiring to divide the party through the creation of the well-financed GANA party.  Before the elections, ex-President Saca called on the GANA and ARENA parties to unite for the 2014 elections to ensure victory over the FMLN.

But after making such an incredible comeback on Sunday, ARENA leaders again called Tony Saca and the Areneros who left to form GANA traitors and said they do not need to unite to defeat the FMLN in 2014. And ARENA leaders are already eyeing the 2014 elections. On Monday night, Norman Quijano, who won his second term as the mayor of San Salvador by handily defeating FMLN candidate Jorge Shafik Handal, said on Channel 33 that he is definitely considering running for president. Tony Saca has also indicated that he is interested in running for another term as President. Ana Vilma de Escobar, who was Tony Saca’s Vice President, has also made it clear that she is interested in running for President again – she had aspired to be the 2009 candidate before Avila was anointed. Vilma de Escobar did well on Sunday collecting more votes in San Salvador than any of the other legislative candidates on the ballot.

In addition to losing seats in the Legislative Assembly, the FMLN took a big hit in greater metropolitan are of San Salvador, which is comprised of 14 distinct municipalities. In addition to Mayor Quijano holding on to his office in San Salvador, ARENA candidates won in Mejicanos, Soyapango, Ilopango, Apopa, San Martín, Tonacatepeque y Ayutuxtepeque, as well as Santo Tomas just south of the city. As La Prensa Grafica pointed out yesterday, the population of these former FMLN strong holds is over 984,000. Though the margins of the ARENA victories were tight, they were victories none-the-less.

In Soyapong, the FLMN incumbent Don Carlos “Diablo” Ruíz” lost by a mere 309 votes.  Many have made the joke that ARENA had to perform an exorcism in Soyapongo to get out “El Diablo”.  Others are wondering what will become of the ALBA contracts, whose operations hinge on their partnerships with FMLN municipalities.  The Mayors of Apopa and Soyapongo hold the vice president and secretary positions, respectively.

FMLN spokesperson, Roberto Lorenzana, summarized his party’s losses yesterday during a press conference, saying that ARENA won 2.9% more votes, and took some of their symbolic strongholds – Soyapango, Apopa, and Mejicanos – four legislative seats, and more than 150,000 votes that they got in 2009. He said the party is accepting the results with maturity and responsibility, and will be looking at what lessons they need to take away from the losses.

Maria “Chichilco” Ofelia Navarrete, the former FMLN guerilla featured in the 1990 documentary “Maria’s Story” and current Vice-Minister of Government, said this week that Sunday’s results were a sign that El Salvador’s voters are maturing. She points to several politicians from the FMLN and ARENA who lost offices they’ve held for many years because voters wanted change instead of voting for the same parties and the same people. She sites examples from her home region in Chalatenango. In Pontonico, the FMLN mayor who has held his seat for many years lost by 10 votes to the ARENA challenger. Similarly, in San José Cansaque the ARENA mayor who had been in office for many years lost his seat to the FMLN challenger. She says:

“This means that every day the people are maturing in their democratic development… at times the people get fed up with the same government. The leadership from all parties has to reflect, first on the direction of their internal democracy – this is an urgent call.”

Sunday’s voting was not without complaints. On Sunday, officials closed the polls in two municipalities – San Lorenzo, Ahuachapán and San Miguel Tepezontes, La Paz. In San Lorenzo, the Municipal Electoral Board stopped voting to “protect people’s votes.” One report says that election officials closed the polls because FMLN supporters from other places were trying to vote in San Lorenzo. In San Miguel Tepezontes, opposition parties accused the ARENA incumbent mayor of bringing in voters from other municipalities to vote for him, which is of course of a violation of the election code. Because voting in these communities was stopped, the TSE announced that they will try again this Sunday, March 18th.  Eugenio Chicas, the president of the TSE said that those found responsible for closing the polls could receive up to 10 years of jail time.

In other communities, political parties have not accepted the results of Sunday’s election, claiming fraud. In the municipality of La Libertad, La Libertad, activists from the GANA, ARENA, and PNL parties protested the victory of FMLN-PES incumbent, claiming that he also brought in outsiders to throw the elections in his favor. The margin of victory is almost 700 votes, which would not be an insignificant amount of people to cast fraudulent votes. The ARENA party is also questioning Sunday’s results in other municipalities where they lost seats that they once held. In Nuevo Cuscatlán, La Libertad, ARENA leaders claim that the FMLN challenger won by bringing in outsiders to vote for him, and that they bought off members of the local voting board.

Perhaps the most extreme act on Sunday occurred in San Francisco Menendez, Ahuachapan where vandals broke into the voting center as officials were counting votes and burned the ballot boxes, destroying over 90% of the ballots. The article reporting the incident says that the police and attorney general’s office are investigating and have leads. Others in the community have accused the PDC Mayor Narciso Ramirez of election fraud, saying that he bused in outsiders to vote for him.  Mayor Ramirez has made national news a couple times over the past couple of years. Last October he made news during Tropical Storm 12-E because he was out assisting with the rescue efforts during the extreme flooding when his truck got swept away by the flooding Paz River. The Comandos de Salvamento pulled him and others from the vehicle and got them to safety. In April 2010, the Mayor made national news when he was caught in a shootout over a “business deal” gone bad. Mayor Ramirez was shot three times and three others were killed.

In Pasaquina, La Union, the attorney general has charged three people with electoral fraud. Police caught the men transporting flyers that threatened people going to vote. In Ozatlán, Usulután, officials have charged a man with voting twice.

The municipality of San Fernando, Morazán is going to have to have a run-off. Candidates for the ARENA and GANA parties each received 259 votes, meaning that there is no clear winner. The FMLN and CD parties were not far behind with 236 and 238 votes respectively. The TSE announced that they would hold a runoff after the Semana Santa vacations in April.

Continue to monitor final numbers at the TSE website, or check out the Faro’s all-inclusive time-line for the elections.

Advocacy, El Salvador Government, Mauricio Funes, News Highlights, Politics

INSTITUTIONAL COUP IN EL SALVADOR

Photo Credit: El Faro's Mauro Arias

As of Friday, June 2nd, the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly and the Presidency succeeded in sabotaging the Judiciary. A legislative initiative led by the National Coalition Party (PCN) proposed to change the process by which the Constitutional Court operates, requiring unanimity among the five magistrates on the bench to approve a decision. Such consensus is rare and would essentially prohibit the court from producing new decisions. Without deliberation, debate or amendments, the legislation passed Thursday afternoon and PCN representative Elizardo González Lovo left the assembly before the session was over to take the reform directly to the presidential palace to be approved or vetoed.  To the dismay and shock of many, President Funes signed the reform within hours and it was made effective immediately.

The reform is an overt attack against four of the Constitutional Court magistrates whose term began in July 2009 following the election of current President Mauricio Funes. Their three-year term will expire in July 2012, and the drafters of the legislation included a sunset provision so that the unanimity requirement will expire in July 2012, after the four are off the bench.

Since becoming magistrates in 2009, Belarmino Jaime, Florentín Meléndez, Rodolfo González y Sidney Blanco have chosen strategic cases to strengthen national institutions and target corruption within government agencies. Over the past two years, the four magistrates have passed down some very important decisions, while the fifth magistrate, Nelson Castaneda, has mostly abstained from votes. In one example, the Court condemned a law that reallocated funds left over from the general budget to the President’s discretionary account.  They also declared as unconstitutional the practice of limiting voters to elect only a political party and then allowing the party leadership to select the people who would fill legislative or other representative seats. In a related issue, the Constitutional Court struck down a ban on independent candidates, weakening the power that political parties have over the electoral process. Members of the Constitutional Court also declared unconstitutional the absolute control that the Attorney General’s Office has over what cases are investigated and prosecuted. The decision that caused the greatest controversy in recent weeks was their declaration against the 2005 reforms that allowed the PCN and PDC parties to continue participating in elections despite their in ability to secure the number of votes necessary to be put on the ballot or have representation on the Supreme Electoral Court.

While these sentences establish clear separation of powers and support transparency, they each considerably affect the powerful grip that the country’s respective political parties have held over Salvadoran governability.

The new law requiring unanimous consent to issue a ruling essentially takes away the court’s ability to take on any of these controversial issues. The timing of the law is not accidental. The Court was about to take up the issue of the “Dividend System” that guarantees seats in the Legislative Assembly for minority political parties, specifically the PCN and PDC.

As the reform was being rushed through the legislative process ARENA representative Ávila Qüel exclaimed, “The reform doesn’t favor institutionalism at all!” and reminded the Assembly that the Constitutional Magistrates are who dictate whether the Magna Carta has been violated, and even if he isn’t in agreement with their sentences, they must be respected.  Before leaving the Assembly in protest, he cried, “Somebody should interpret the Constitution!”

This law and Funes’ support of it is wrong for many reasons. It is a settled principle of democracy that the Judiciary be independent of the Legislative and Executive branches, and left to interpret the constitution and law free from political interests. This new law is an overt action to protect political interests from actions of the court, and punish magistrates for taking on entrenched political and economic interests, as well as corruption. The law also sets a dangerous precedent that subjects the Judiciary to the will and interests of the Legislative and Executive branches.

Debate and dissent are at the very heart of democracy. El Salvador has a civil law system, yet their judicial code has always stipulated voting by majority.  Unanimous voting closes the door to dissenting opinions, because the court must present only one opinion.  Dissenting opinions create a dialogue between past, present, and future courts, in that it allows courts to rely on their predecessors when overturning precedent.

Civil society from all sectors of the political spectrum have expressed their concern.  Also, the Organization of American States is meeting in San Salvador this weekend, and civil society will present a report to the Secretary General to demonstrate that the law violates the Inter-American Democratic Letter. Tomorrow there will be a demonstration at Salvador del Mundo at 3pm, and Monday morning there will be workshops at the UCA.