El Salvador Government, Mauricio Funes

President Funes Visit to the U.S.

The president of El Salvador, Mauricio Funes, will be in Washington DC this week to meet with U.S. officials, business interests, and the International Development Bank (IDB). His agenda includes discussions about regional security issues, the gang truce and reduction of the murder-rate in El Salvador, as well as the temporary protective status (TPS) for Salvadorans. President Funes also said he would be meeting with business interests regarding the possibility of new investments in El Salvador.

Funes will meet with Secretary of State John Kerry to discuss, in part, security and the gang truce. Last month marked the one-year anniversary of the truce, which seems to have resulted in steep declines in the official homicide rate – the official murder rate in 2011 was 4,371 and in 2012 it dropped to 2,582. While gang leaders credit the reduction in homicides to their commitment in transitioning to a more peaceful society, the Salvadoran government has attributed the decrease to improvements in their security efforts. Funes will also meet with officials from the IDP and participate in a meeting on regional security issues.

Discussions with US officials about temporary protective status (TPS) for Salvadorans in the US are timely, as the US Congress is trying to pass comprehensive immigration reform. TPS allows many Salvadorans to live and work in the U.S., but they have limited rights and no clear path to residency or citizenship. Immigration reform is an opportunity to create mechanisms for Salvadorans to convert their TPS to a more permanent status, which will afford them more rights.

On Thursday, President Funes will meet with business interests that have “an important announcement about a multi-million dollar investment that they want to make in El Salvador.” Salvadoran officials said the meeting would be with “businesses that are willing to make important investments in the area of new technology.” The announcement comes during a time when the U.S. is encouraging the Salvadoran Legislature to pass a Law on Public-Private Partnerships (P3 Law) as a prerequisite to signing a second Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact. The P3 Law and the MCC are fairly controversial issues in El Salvador. While Funes is in favor of both, there is disagreement in his party over support of these new initiatives.

This trip is an opportunity for President Funes to convince U.S. officials that his administration is making the kind of progress (lower murder rates and more foreign investment) and reforms (P3 Law) they want before approving more aid or giving the Salvadoran Diaspora more rights.

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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.

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.

2014 Elections

The FMLN Chooses a Weak Candidate for the 2014 Presidential Elections

As of last week, Sánchez Cerén appears to be the FMLN’s candidate for the 2014 presidential election. The current Vice President went as far to say that he was the FMLN candidate and stepped down as the Minister of Education.

Analysts, and even high profile members of the FMLN, agree that Sánchez Cerén’s prospects for winning the presidency in 2014 are limited at best.  Recent polls show only 13% of those surveyed believe that Sánchez Cerén is the best candidate to represent the FMLN in the upcoming elections.  Party leaders are certainly aware of the challenges that a Sánchez Cerén candidacy would represent for the FMLN.  Nevertheless, they are determined to nominate a seemingly weak candidate.

Until the 2009 elections, the FMLN nominated party hardliners as their presidential candidates resulting in predictable defeats.  The rejection by the Salvadoran electorate of the party’s orthodox leaders was seen as the result of a long-standing campaign by right-wing groups to propagate fear of a leftist government, both nationally and internationally.  To assuage those fears, the FMLN created an alliance with Mauricio Funes, a moderate, center-left candidate, who commanded a strong following among a broader sector of Salvadoran society.

Mauricio Funes, however, was, and still remains, an outsider.  To many in the party, his election was an empty victory because he did not represent the orthodox-wing of the party, and was not part of the historical leadership that fought in the country’s civil war.  Most importantly, Funes does not share the party leadership’s ideology and political agenda.

Nevertheless, Funes’ election was an important step in the FMLN’s long-term strategy.  His government served to dispel all the apocalyptic consequences that many feared would befall on the country if the FMLN ever achieved the presidency.  The leadership of the FMLN seems to think that the population is now open to electing a candidate that truly represents the party’s ideological roots.

Party leaders, however, also know that they must appeal to a border cross-section of the population to have a realistic chance of winning.  They hope to do this by nominating a vice presidential candidate from outside the party who can appeal to moderates and independents.

This strategy is not likely to overcome the weakness of Salvador Sánchez Cerén as a candidate.  In the March 2012 legislative and mayoral elections, Salvadorans rejected candidates with a similar background as that of Sánchez Cerén in former FMLN strongholds of Soyapango, Apopa and Mejicanos: party loyalists linked to the orthodox-wing of the FMLN and former civil war commanders.

One of the central themes that emerged out of the March 2011 elections was that of an electorate growing more independent and less beholden to rigid ideologies and party loyalties. La Prensa Grafica’s latest poll, conducted in May 2012, showed that only 9% of Salvadorans believe that the most of important factor in deciding who to vote for was party affiliations.  Sixteen percent said the most important determinant was ideology.  In contrast, 32% considered campaign promises and 35% the candidate to be the primary factor in their voting decision.

These trends may foretell a likely defeat for the FMLN in the 2014 presidential elections.  The FMLN’s leadership is once again miscalculating the mood of the Salvadoran electorate.  Salvadorans are demanding competent leaders that respond to the necessities of voters, not the interests of the party and its political elites.

Cabanas, Mining, U.S. Relations

Oxfam Petition on El Salvador and Mining

Word on the street is that the ICSID (International Center for Settlement of Investment Disputes) tribunal hearing Pacific Rim Mining Company’s lawsuit against El Salvador will hand down a decision on the second round of preliminary objections before the end of the month. (Here is an article and a webpage with good information on the case).  Pacific Rim, a Canadian firm based out of Vancouver, filed suit against El Salvador over three years ago for not granting them the permits necessary to extract gold from their Cabañas properties. Between 2002 and 2008, Pacific Rim allegedly invested $77 million in exploring properties in Cabañas and other parts of El Salvador. When the government and people of El Salvador said the mining company could not mine, Pacific Rim sued to recover their investment, lost profits, and damages. If Pacific Rim wins, they could receive a judgment worth more than $100 million.

El Salvador responded to the lawsuit by filing two rounds of preliminary objections, asking the court to dismiss Pacific Rim’s claim on procedural grounds. The first round of objections was unsuccessful, and we should hear about the second round in the next week or so. If the Tribunal finds in favor of El Salvador, they could dismiss part or all of Pacific Rim’s case. If they find for Pacific Rim, the mining company’s suit lives to see another day.

Oxfam is currently organizing a petition asking U.S. citizens to demand that the U.S. end their support for Pacific Rim and their claim against El Salvador. The petition reads:

Act Now: Speak up for El Salvador’s Right to Decide

In El Salvador, communities are fighting for their right to decide how companies can use their lands. Many of them have made a decision: they don’t want the metal mining industry to continue to destroy the environment they live and farm in. And they’re paying the price – each day, community leaders and activists face threats of violence and death because they’re standing up to metal mining companies.

What’s making this fight even harder? Right now, Canadian mining company Pacific Rim is trying to force El Salvador to keep metal mines in business by suing El Salvador for $77 million under the US-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). This case could not only cost El Salvador a significant portion of its GDP, but it could prevent citizens from deciding which industries develop in their country.

A win for El Salvador in this case means that El Salvador could choose to stop metal mining – for good. The US government’s support for El Salvador over Pacific Rim in this case has been crucial. That’s where you come in. Will you help us make sure the US supports El Salvador in this case?

Tell Secretary of State Clinton: Support the people of El Salvador.

Please visit the Oxfam site and sign the petition!

The petition is important because some within the US State Department associate anti-mining with being anti-development. They argue that if El Salvador passes a law that bans mining, it means the country is hostile to foreign investment. In 2009, Former Chargé d’Affairs Robert Blau wrote a cable to the U.S. Secretary of State with the Subject line: “New Environment Ministry Moves to Ban Mining, Sends “Anti-Development” Signals.” A ban on mining is not anti-development, it is respecting the wishes of the people who would be most affected by its disastrous environmental impacts.

The cable is worth a read. We recognize that Robert Blau has a pretty extreme view of U.S. foreign policy and that his view may not represent everyone within the Embassy (Blau is no longer at the Salvadoran Embassy). His view, however, exemplifies how neoliberalism affects policies in countries like El Salvador. The same people who want to gut the EPA and remove the environmental regulations that protect air, soil, and water in the U.S., also want to remove any barriers that might prevent them from pillaging resources around the world. Any efforts to protect the environment and the communities where people live are called anti-development.

The petition is important because we have to make sure the State Department understands that Salvadoran communities said no to mining because they want to protect their very limited natural resources. They are not anti-development, rather they don’t want their vision of development trumped by an international corporation that is only interested in profit. The U.S. should not support Pacific Rim and other corporations, but ought to respect the wishes of the affected communities.

Oxfam’s petition is not the only anti-mining news to report. Yesterday the MESA (Roundtable Against Metallic Mining in El Salvador) released a statement expressing their frustrations with the Salvadoran government’s inaction on mining. , the government commissioned a Strategic Evaluation of the Mining Sector to determine whether mining was feasible in El Salvador. The report was supposed to inform the Legislative Assembly and government ministries on how to manage mining, and whether they ought to pass an all out ban on mining, which is what the MESA has been advocating.

The MESA is frustrated with the lack of transparency in completing the study and the release of its findings. They recently filed a request for information about the report under El Salvador’s relatively new Law on Access to Public Information. They also requested information about what mining companies have applied for or hold mining permits. Lina Pohl, the Vice-Minister of the Environment and Natural Resources recently said the only possible scenarios are the suspension of mining permits (so far for just exploration, no mining company currently has an exploitation permit), and not granting new ones. The MESA believes this to be insufficient and that the study fails to take on the most important issues concerning the impact that mining would have on the country. They call on the government to be more proactive in defending Salvadorans and banning mining altogether. The MESA has posted several interviews on Youtube detailing these issues. If you speak Spanish, they are worth watching.

Please sign the petition today!

El Salvador Government, Organized Crime

The Evolution of Gangs as Political and Social Actors in El Salvador

Foreign Affairs (Latin America edition) published a series of articles in 2011 discussing the supposed emergence in Mexico of a “narcoinsurgencia.” The term was used to describe Mexican drug cartels as a form of insurgency that could threaten the state. Most experts agreed that organized crime couldn’t be considered an “insurgency,” noting that they are motivated by profits, not by a political or ideological agenda.

Powerful criminal organizations often penetrate every aspect of the society they operate in, including politics, culture, the economy and its democratic institutions.  In certain circumstances, criminal organizations take over or replace the state—providing security, administering justice and funding social works projects for the benefit of the communities under their control. This was the case of Pablo Escobar in Medellin, Colombia in the 1980s and is the case today in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Despite significant influence in certain Latin American countries, however, criminal organizations have never been seen as legitimate political and social actors.  This may be changing in El Salvador, where gangs seem to be evolving into influential political and social agents.

Similar to drug cartels in Mexico, gangs in El Salvador are a source of instability and an obstacle to the economic, social and political development of the country.  Successive governments since the 1990s have adopted hard-line policies towards gangs with programs such as Mano Dura and Super Mano Dura.  The effectiveness of such an approach has been limited as violence has seemingly increased without restraint despite the government’s tough stance.

President Funes came to office promising a new approach—a mix of punitive measures and social and economic programs to combat the root cause of the gang phenomenon in El Salvador.  More than half way thru his five year term, Funes has failed to reduce the level of violence and improve public safety. El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates in the world (70 for every 100,000 inhabitants).

In this context, the recent dramatic reduction in the daily homicide rate of almost 60 percent has been welcomed with skepticism by Salvadoran civil society. According to public accounts, the reduction in violence stems from a “truce” between the two main gangs in El Salvador (MS-13 and Barrio 18).

El Faro first broke the story March 14, reporting that the government had held secret negotiations with gang leaders, which resulted in the transfer of some of the most dangerous prisoners in the country from maximum to lower security facilities in exchange for a reduction in the daily homicide rate.  Other media reports alleged cash payments from the government to the families of certain gang leaders. The government denied any negotiations had taken place.

Catholic Church officials later revealed that they had mediated between the two gangs.  Gang leaders and church officials also denied any government involvement, and characterized the negotiations as an extension of a long process of “reflection.” The mediators described the truce as an “act of good will” from the gangs towards society. Government officials have since acknowledged a supporting role in the mediations.

Since the disclosure of the “truce,” gang leaders have asserted themselves as legitimate political actors, issuing press releases, appearing in political talk shows from prison and even proposing national policy changes.  Their rhetoric is decisively political, arguing that gangs are a product of “misguided socioeconomic policies derived from the economic models implemented in El Salvador.”  In public comments, gang leaders talk about “social exclusion, marginalization and repression” and claim to represent the interest of their “members” and their “barrios.”

Negotiating with criminal organizations is often discussed as a policy alternative in Latin American countries afflicted by high levels of violence. Proponents argue that the state can appease violent criminal groups without breaking the law and allow for the pacification of society. The reduction in violence would bring economic benefits that would serve to reinforce a virtuous cycle that would eventually diminish the influence of organized crime.

Appeasing criminal organizations through negotiations and concessions, however, are probably unsustainable unless the government is also willing to address the socio-economic and political issues that allow for gangs to flourish. El Salvador’s civil war and its gang phenomenon grew out of the same structural inequalities that have haunted the country for much of its history. Ultimately, El Salvador will be unable to escape the violence, whether it manifests in gangs, organized crime, or civil war, until it deals with the structural causes.

It is also a struggle to consider criminal organizations as legitimate representatives of the marginalized masses, even in the areas that they control. Their legitimacy stems not from democratic elections but from violence, fear, and the victimization of society as a whole. Violence is their main bargaining chip when they sit down at the negotiating table, and their recourse is to continue holding society hostage. And if El Salvador is going to have a democracy, fear and violence cannot be allowed to serve as a route to political and social legitimacy, just like wealth should not give one person more of a voice than another.

The evolution of gangs as political and social actors reflects the failures of the Salvadoran state and the country’s democratic institutions.  The state has failed to effectively perform its most basic functions; to guarantee the security of its people. El Salvador’s democratic institutions have failed to produce policies to incorporate the marginalized masses into the economic, social and political life of the country.

While the decrease in violence is welcomed, the Salvadoran government must take advantage of the respite to begin addressing the fundamental problems they have been ignoring for generations. Otherwise, its just a matter of time before the violence begins to rise again.