Environment, Tourism

U.S. and El Salvador Ready to Sign Second MCC Compact

DSCF0220Beach in Corral de Mulas on the San Juan del Gozo Peninsula. Behind the fence is an incubator for critically endangered sea turtles. The land is owned by a wealthy investor who is allowing locals to incubate the sea turtle eggs until he is ready to break ground on a tourism project.

After more than a year of delays, the governments of El Salvador and the United States seem ready to sign a second Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact. Last weekend, Salvadoran President Salvador Sanchez Cerén said they would close the deal on September 30th.

The U.S. Embassy says the second MCC compact, which includes $277 million from the U.S. and $88.2 million from El Salvador, will “spur investment through public private partnerships and better regulations, improve the quality of education, and strengthen key logistical infrastructure.”

After the agreement is signed, the U.S. will disburse $10 million to FOMELINIO (the Salvadoran organization managing the grant) to lay the groundwork for MCC projects. From then it will take six to nine months before other funds will be released and projects can begin.

While the $277 grant from the U.S. is popular among Salvadorans and politicians, communities in the Jiquilisco Bay of Usulután remain strongly opposed to the aid package. They believe the MCC grant will help finance the destruction of the region’s fragile natural resources and agrarian culture.

As Voices has discussed elsewhere on this blog, developers want to use MCC funds to promote tourism along the coast. They are particularly interested in the Jiquilisco Bay, which they have proposed turning into the “Cancun of Central America.” The communities targeted for development argue that large-scale tourism projects will cause irreversible harm to the mangrove forests they rely on for their survival and beaches that critically endangered sea turtles use for a nesting ground.

DSCF0158A community leader speaking to a group about how land speculation and tourism projects are already affecting the health of the mangrove forests and destabilizing the community.

Hundreds of families in the Bay region make their living by fishing and harvesting crab. For generations they have cared for the mangroves and beaches, protecting them and taking only what they need to survive. In theory the Ministry of the Environment is supposed to enforce laws that protect the forests and the right for local communities to harvest what they need to survive. But residents say the State does not get down there much, and few have faith in the Ministry’s ability or willingness to enforce laws.

Community leaders emphasize that they are not against tourism; they welcome visitors who want to tour the mangrove forests, bird watch, and even surf. They are opposed only to the kind of large-scale, unregulated development that investors are planning for the region.

Most of the opposition to MCC is due to the complete lack of public consultation. Community leaders are quick to point out that MCC and FOMELINIO officials have never been to the region to discuss development priorities or what is at stake when investors talk about turning the Jiquilisco Bay into the Cancun of Central America.

Manuel Cruz, a representative of El Chile, says his community is united in their opposition to the MCC grant. He says MCC or FOMELINIO representatives have never come to the region to discuss the grant, much less ask how it might benefit (or harm) the region. All they have heard is that investors want to use funds to develop tourism and that land speculators have been acquiring land all around them, denying access to mangrove forests and beaches that are supposed to be public land.

Another community leader who wishes to remain anonymous says that the closest thing to consultation he knows of was an informal conversation he had in March 2013 with a supporter of the MCC grant. The supporter, who works for an international NGO, said his community had to support the MCC because opposing it would be going against the FMLN party, for which there would be consequences. The community leader ignored the threat and his community remains united in its opposition.

Jose “Mario” Santos Guevarra, representative of the United Communities of the Bajo Lempa and the President of MOVIAC, has voiced opposition against MCC and FOMELINIO on several occasions. His concerns also focus on the lack of consultation from MCC and FOMELINIO. He argues that if MCC and FOMELINIO were really interested in building infrastructure and had consulted with the people, they would know that one of the biggest barriers to economic growth along the coast is the poor condition of the levees along the Lempa and other rivers.

Mario and many others see the lack of consultation as an indication that the MCC grant is meant to benefit rich investors – creating conditions for them to extract value out of the coastal region. He says that if the MCC was to benefit the people, it would not require a $100,000 counterpart to access grant funds. In theory, communities like El Chile, La Tirana, and others could apply for MCC funds to finally install potable water systems or connect to the electrical grid, which they need. But they are unable to front the $100,000 needed to receive MCC funds.

Residents of Chile during a recent meeting to discuss tourism and the impact of land speculation on their ability to access mangrove forests. Residents of Chile during a recent meeting to discuss tourism and the impact of land speculation on their ability to access mangrove forests.

Over the past year and a half, Voices staff has shared these concerns over the lack of consultation with policymakers at the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador. We have extended at least three invitations to host meetings between Embassy staff, who have a role in the MCC grant, and coastal communities. The Embassy has declined each of these invitations.

According to newspaper articles, $110 million of the MCC grant will be used to expand a section of the Litoral Highway between the airport and Zacatecaluca. Another $100 million will be for education. That leaves another $155.2 million to cover administrative costs and support tourism and other development. Communities in the Jiquilisco Bay have not had a voice in the MCC planning or approval process, and it is unlikely that that they will have a voice in deciding which proposals for MCC projects get approved. That does not mean, however, communities are going to allow developers to destroy their mangrove forests, beaches and agrarian way of life. They will be paying close attention to how MCC and FOMELINIO use the funds and ensure none will be used to harm their fragile ecosystems.

Advocacy, agriculture, El Salvador Government, U.S. Relations

Jiquilisco Bay Communities Oppose U.S. Embassy Threats AND the MCC Grant

This week, U.S.-based organizations working in El Salvador published a letter opposing the U.S. State Department’s threats to withhold a $277 million Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) grant over a possible violation of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Sixteen U.S. Congressmen signed onto the letter and sent it to the U.S. Department of State, sharing their concern over the controversy.

At issue is a seed distribution program for which the Ministry of Agriculture (MAG) purchases seed corn and beans from Salvadoran cooperatives and distributes to more than 400,000 small farmers. The program is a huge benefit to rural families and the 17 agricultural cooperatives that supply the seeds. The U.S. Embassy argues that the MAG violates CAFTA by not allowing international seed producers participate in the procurement process, buying seeds only from Salvadoran producers. The Embassy will not release the $277 million grant until El Salvador is in compliance with CAFTA.

Jose Santos Guevarra (aka Mario) in a community meeting to discuss MCC and tourism issues
Jose Santos Guevarra (aka Mario) in a community meeting to discuss MCC and tourism issues

Voices on the Border, at the advice of our Salvadoran partners, did not sign the letter published by the other solidarity organizations for one simple reason. Communities and organizations in the Jiquilisco Bay oppose the $277 million MCC grant and believe the outrage over the seed program, while justified, fails to address a much bigger issue – the MCC fund will destroy El Salvador’s coastal environment and agrarian way of life.

Yes, the Embassy’s complaint about the seed program is wrong. But the impacts of the $277 million MCC grant will be worse. Here’s why:

1. FOMELINIO will fund large-scale tourism development in the Jiquilisco Bay, causing irreparable harm to the region’s fragile mangrove forests, beaches, and agricultural lands, and drain the El Salvador’s scarce water resources.

2. MCC and FOMELINIO (the Salvadoran counterpart to the MCC) have never considered how the projects they are funding will affect the targeted communities. Jose Santos Guevara, resident of La Canoa and President of MOVIAC, makes this point well. “During the design phase of the FOMELINIO [proposal], they did not consult [the communities] with respect to the type of projects needed for the development of the communities. We have a series of proposals aimed at reactivating production in the region – the construction of levees, improving roads and drainage systems. However, none of these were incorporated into the proposal that the Government of El Salvador sent to the MCC.” The only people consulted were private investors and others with financial or political interests in the outcome of the proposal.

3. In order to have a project proposal considered for MCC funds, an applicant must be able to invest at least $100,000. There are no communities or community-based organizations that are able to front those kinds of funds meaning the only people who can develop projects are outside investors.

4. There has never been a public discussion or debate about the content, objectives, and impacts of FOMELIO projects. State institutions control the information about plans and projects, releasing only vague statements to the media when it is politically expedient.

Over the past couple of years the U.S. Embassy has used the $277 million MCC grant to get El Salvador to adopt several laws and policies that promote corporate interests. Just last year the Legislative Assembly passed the Public Private Partnership Law, which the U.S. Embassy had made a prerequisite for approval of the MCC funds. The Embassy, however, did not like a couple provisions in the final draft of the law and are requiring reforms before they will release the MCC funds. The U.S. Embassy also made reforms to the Law on Money Laundering a requirement for receiving MCC funds. And of course, the Embassy is requiring the MAG to reform the seed program so that international seed producers like Monsanto can compete for contracts alongside Salvadoran agricultural cooperatives.

Just this week, Medardo Gonzàles, the Secretary General of the FMLN, said the government has done everything the Embassy wants, but it seems they will never be able to satisfy their demands. Yesterday, Danilo Perez, the Director of the Center for Consumer Protection, recommended that the Government of El Salvador reconsider signing the second MCC Compact because of all the U.S. Embassy’s conditions.

Communities and organizations in the Jiquilisco Bay see the reforms and MCC funds as a really bad deal – adopt pro-development economic policies so wealthy developers can receive financial support to take their land and destroy the region’s mangrove forests, beaches, and agrarian culture. They prefer that the Salvadoran government just say no to the MCC; maintain the seed program the way it is; and start pushing back on the pro-corporation economic policies being pushed through the Legislative Assembly.

Yes, folks in the Jiquilisco Bay are angry that the U.S. is trying to get El Salvador to change a seed program that provides so many benefits for so many families. But they are even more concerned about the long-term negative impacts that the $277 million will have on the region.

 

2014 Elections, Partnership for Growth, U.S. Relations

Momentum Against the MCC and other U.S. Policies May be Building

On May 2nd, organizations and communities representing thousands of people from the Bajo Lempa region of Jiquilisco, Usulután held a press conference in San Salvador to denounce the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), the Law on Public Private Partnerships (P3 Law), and the tourism projects they promise to support. The Salvadoran labor movement also held a press conference on May 2nd denouncing the MCC and P3 Law, which they believe will adversely affect much of the labor force.

Jose Acosta (Voices' Field Director) speaking at a press conference with Ricardo Navarro (CESTA), Jose Santos Guevara (ACUDESBAL), and Manuel Calderón (ADIBAL)
Jose Acosta (Voices’ Field Director) speaking at a press conference with Ricardo Navarro (CESTA), Jose Santos Guevara (ACUDESBAL), and Manuel Calderón (ADIBAL)

Other than opposition from the labor movement and Bajo Lempa, the MCC proposal and the P3 Law have not created the huge public outcry that other issues have in recent years – attempt to privatize health care (2002), Central American Free Trade Agreement (2006), or Pacific Rim’s efforts to mine gold (2005-present).

But momentum against the MCC and the P3 Law seemed to get a boost on May 1 when Vice President and FMLN presidential candidate Sanchez Cerén announced he and his leftist party do not support U.S. agreements like Partnership for Growth and “the project that has been presented to the Legislative Assembly.” The project Cerén was referring to is a package of laws President Funes presented to the Legislative Assembly in October 2012 and includes the P3 Law.

Cerén’s statements were qualified however, and it remains a little unclear where he and the FMLN stand on the MCC and P3 Law.

Overview of Partnership for Growth, MCC, and the P3 Law

Partnership for Growth is President Obama’s development program that is being implemented in four countries – El Salvador, Ghana, Philippines, and Tanzania. In El Salvador, Partnership for Growth identified security and low production of tradables (exports) as the two main barriers to economic development. As a result, all U.S. programs and funding in El Salvador have to address one or both of these barriers.

In 2004, the Bush Administration created the MCC as its signature development program, investing funds on infrastructure and business development in countries around the world. The first round of MCC funding for El Salvador (2007-20012) invested $463 million in a new highway that spans the northern region of the country, high school and university scholarships, and capital for small businesses. If approved, the second round of MCC funding will be worth $413 million and likely contribute to the expansion of the Litoral Highway along El Salvador’s southern coast and invest in public-private partnerships, which include as many as 30 different tourism projects.

To receive more MCC funds, the U.S. Embassy said El Salvador must pass the Public-Private Partnership Law, which has been lingering in the Legislative Assembly since last year. The bill creates favorable conditions for private investors, and would pave the way for leasing and contracting out State resources and services, including water, education, health care, prisons, air and sea ports, and much more. Critics of the bill fear it will result in the loss of thousands of public sector jobs and adversely affect wages across the labor market. They also fear it will diminish the quality of public services.

Growing Opposition?

In his remarks yesterday, Sanchez Cerén said, “with respect to Partnership for Growth, we want to say that the project that has been presented to the Legislative Assembly, we as the FMLN do not back it.” As pointed out by Diario El Mundo, Cerén was referring to a package of laws that the Funes Administration presented to the Legislative Assembly on October 18, 2012. The purpose of the laws is to implement the Partnership for Growth action plan and include the Public-Private Partnership Law that residents of the Bajo Lempa and the Salvadoran Labor Movement denounced at their press conferences.

Cerén explained that the FMLN does not support Partnership for Growth because it includes mechanisms for privatizing health, education, and prisons. The Diario El Mundo article also reports that FMLN official José Luis Merino confirmed the party’s position on Partnership for Growth adding that they want the United States to respect El Salvador’s sovereignty.

The FMLN, and Cerén, also announced they have drafted their own proposal for increasing investment and promoting public-private investments, but in a manner that will safeguard the interests of the State and ensure that important services (health social services, public security and justice, water and education, and the National University) will not be privatized. It is unclear whether their proposal will satisfy the U.S. Embassy’s prerequisites for the MCC funding. It also remains unclear whether Cerén and the FMLN would also support tourism projects in the Bajo Lempa and respect the region’s desire to protect their communities and natural resources.

During his May 1st speech, Cerén urged members of the FMLN not to abandon the party and permit the right-wing ARENA return to power. The plea was a recognition that the FMLN is somewhat divided right now, in large part over Partnership for Growth, the MCC, and the P3 Law. The FMLN can’t afford to loose the labor movement and entire regions like the Bajo Lempa and expect to defeat the ARENA candidate (Norman Quijano) in February 2014.

For now anyway, momentum against the P3 Law and the MCC seems to be growing.

U.S. Relations

Senate May Reconsider Mari Carmen Aponte’s Nomination to be U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador

Roll Call reported yesterday that Senate Democrats might bring up the nomination of Mari Carmen Aponte to be ambassador to El Salvador again, as early as this week.

In 2009, President Obama appointed Carmen Aponte to the post in El Salvador, but Senate Republicans have blocked her confirmation. When the Senate failed to confirm her in 2010, President Obama used a recess appointment that allowed her to serve until December 2011. Senate Democrats brought her nomination up for a vote in December, but failed to get the votes necessary to override the Republican filibuster.

According to the Washington Post, the difference this time may be Florida Republican Marco Rubio. They report that Senator Rubio voted against the nomination during the last vote, but later changed his mind and promised to get other republicans on board. He never did, however, and her nomination has been stalled ever since. This time around, Senator Rubio says he will support her nomination but is not going to whip other Republicans to support her.

The Washington Post article hints at the politics behind the nomination and the timing of the vote. Florida is a key state in President Obama’s plan for reelection, and mobilizing the Latino vote is a must. He is planning to be in Orlando next week and would like to be able to “tout the success of a Puerto-Rican-born ambassador, or blast the Republicans for blocking one.”

On a side note, a Huffington Post article posted last night argues that the Latino vote is a “sleeping giant” that may cause trouble for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. They report that in 8 states there are an estimated 21.5 million Latinos who are eligible to vote in November. If those voters or any portion of them registered and voted in the Presidential elections, they could have a tremendous impact on the outcome. The article reports that the 21.5 million potential voters are more than Obama’s margin of Victory in 2008. Since mid-April, the Obama campaign has spent $1.7 million on ads in Spanish in Florida, Nevada, and Colorado, while the Romney campaign has spent only $13,000. The article points out that while the Latino population is Democratic leaning, they should not be taken for granted. It’s not that President Obama and the Democrats have a great record on immigration and other issues important to Latino voters, but its not tough to have a better record than the tough-talking, Arizona-supporting Republicans.

We’ve written several articles about Ambassador Carmen Aponte. For more information about this long, drawn out drama, click here, (Senate Holding up Nomination) here, (Recess Appointment) here, (Re-nomination) and here (Senate filibustered nomination).