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Cover story

Suffering continues in El Salvador

San Salvador, El Salvador

The Peace Accords of 1992, ending more than 20 years of violence and civil war, brought about a fragile understanding between the ruling elite whose political arm is the ARENA party and the guerrillas represented by the FMLN, now also converted into a political party. The accords did not, however, address the economic issues, and ARENA, the party in power since 1992, has done little to rebuild an economy devastated by the war. Instead, guided by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, it is privatizing public utilities and slashing services. Access to health care and education is today limited to those who can afford it.

Those who can afford it are a minority. A third of the 6 million Salvadorans live in misery and another third in poverty. The average education is five years of primary schooling for men and three for women, and there are 200,000 children of school age who are not in school. Only half the working age population are employed, most of them at the minimum wage, which today buys only a third of the canasta basica, the food needed by a family of four.

As 50 percent of the population is under age 21, the ranks of the unemployed swell each year, and since the unemployed have no social benefits, they live in misery. They sell food and chewing gum in the streets, comb the garbage dumps for scraps of glass and metal to sell, wash car windows at traffic lights. Inevitably, youths experience social disintegration, turning to drugs and sniffing glue to mitigate hunger. Crime flourishes. In the typical residential street in the cities, the houses are hidden behind 10-foot-high walls topped by razor wire, with gates of heavy steel bars.

El Salvador is still almost 50 percent rural, but the rural sector has ceased to be important economically, producing only 15 percent of the gross national product. The old social relations continue. The rule of law does not exist -- only the rule of fear. The landlord can cut your throat with impunity. Conditions do not exist for free elections or, indeed, for democracy. The armed forces, which under the Peace Accords were supposed to return to their barracks, continue to patrol and terrify people in violation of the constitution. U.S. army units work with them, officially to build schools and repair roads. What the people remember, however, is that U.S. military aid enabled their enemies to thwart their struggle for radical social change. They know that the role of these U.S. troops is still to instill fear.

Survival in El Salvador, particularly in the countryside, would today not be possible were it not for the remittances from the United States where some two million Salvadorans live and work. Each year they send $1.4 billion to their families in El Salvador, $1,100 per family, as much wealth as the nation’s agricultural sector generates. What happens to these migrants is of life-and-death concern to all Salvadorans. As one political scientist said to me, “Our biggest economic problem right now is California’s Law No. 187. It has cut significantly the earning potential of the many undocumented.” The reference is to a California ballot initiative that sought to limit rights of non-citizens. Its harshest features were declared unconstitutional, but Salvadorans still use it generically to describe restrictions on non-citizen workers that reduce work opportunities and enable employers to cut wages.

National Catholic Reporter, April 14, 2000