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Solidarity maintains hope in quake-ravaged Salvadoran village

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
San Augustín, El Salvador

Nearly a month after the convulsing earth shook nearly every home in the Salvadoran village of San Augustín to the ground, José Vasquez and his 11-year old son Omar finally managed to free their front door from the rubble. The Vasquez’ house pitched forward during the 7.6-magnitude quake on Jan. 13, pinning the front door underneath.

Omar hoisted his prize on his shoulders and carried the extricated door over to the tree where the family has been camping out, using scrap lumber and plastic sheeting to protect them from the unrelenting sun.

“Someday we’ll build another house to go with the door,” José Vasquez said. He smiled and leaned on an iron bar, his tool for prying salvageable material from the jumble of debris.

“I don’t know how we’ll pay for it, but we have to dream about something. Otherwise we have no future.” Meanwhile, Vasquez added, the door would serve well as a bed in his family’s temporary refuge.

Vasquez’s house once stood at the edge of the central plaza in this small farming village of 7,000. The village nestles against sugar and sesame fields of the hot coastal plain in central Usulután. It’s a tortured land. The people here have withstood drought, death squads and the floods of Hurricane Mitch. Now, after the earthquake, it looks like a bomb fell. Vasquez can stand atop his rubble and look across the plaza, recently filled with tents, and see where the police station stood, the mayor’s office, the Catholic church. All are rubble, along with 1,430 houses in San Augustín.

Surprisingly, only four people from this village died in the quake. The death toll would have been higher but for the gentle way the 36-second quake began, giving people time to run from their houses. The death toll nationwide hovers above 840, with hundreds more still missing.

The continuing aftershocks, including the deadly Feb. 13 quake, keep alive the anguish of January. The Feb. 13 quake killed over 280 people throughout El Salvador but did little damage in San Augustín, where little was left to fall.

Most residents of the town, including the parish priest, Fr. Amilcar Perdomo, cough persistently. When the January quake knocked down the adobe walls, the dried mud and straw crumbled into a fine dust. It swirls with every whisper of wind, painting everything in town sepia.

Perdomo is one more homeless resident, living for now in a one-room plywood shelter with a jumble of clothes and personal belongings. All that’s left of the church’s sanctuary, completed just last year, and the parish residence is a communal kitchen. The priest apologized to a visitor for the mess inside his shelter. It’s obviously been a busy time.

Perdomo, 36, was in a nearby village when the quake hit. He came back to San Augustín an hour later. “I couldn’t speak for a long time. I felt small, impotent. In such a short time nature had almost done away with us,” he told NCR.

‘A forgotten land’

According to Perdomo, San Augustín is “a forgotten land.” Because it was a guerrilla stronghold during the civil war, the rightist governing party, the Republican Nationalist Alliance (ARENA), has little interest in what happens here, even though their candidate won the local mayor’s race by 15 votes. Because of government neglect, people know they have to depend on themselves.

“Hurricane Mitch affected us a lot, but people saw afterward how the government diverted the aid to its own people rather than to the most needy,” Perdomo said. “So they know better now than to wait for the government to help.” Many have lost the will to struggle against adversity, he said.

“We’ve been living in permanent crisis here, and many have come to expect nothing but suffering and pain from life. What’s happened with the earthquake is much worse than all the years of bombing, worse than Mitch. It’s left many feeling there is little space for life here. Some feel abandoned even by God.”

He stops, takes a deep breath. He coughs. “As a church we have a lot of work to do.”

The rubble of the church building has now been bulldozed away, but the churchyard has been filled with activity in the weeks since the quake, as Catholics from other places have come to help. A team of Catholic volunteers from the lower Lempa Valley, their own villages largely undamaged, arrived shortly after the disaster to help with setting up temporary shelters and distributing emergency food supplies. They were followed by a team of 27 people from the parish of Tocoa, Honduras.

Located in one of the areas hardest hit by Hurricane Mitch, the Jesuit-run parish in Tocoa became a model in Honduras for organizing victims into effective local emergency committees, which over the last two years have transformed local politics in that region. Late last year, the National Human Rights Commissioner of Honduras awarded his annual human rights prize to Peter Marchetti, the Jesuit pastor in Tocoa. (Marchetti is currently on leave from the parish after receiving a series of death threats.)

“We’ve helped the poorest of the people clean up and build their little temporary houses, at the same time sharing with them the word of God,” said Esmeralda Cornejo, the Tocoa group’s coordinator. “And we’re helping them get organized. You can achieve a lot if you can work together united.”

The Tocoa team returned home after two weeks in San Augustín, but villagers didn’t have long to feel alone. A delegation of Catholics from the Washington, D.C., area arrived in the village Feb. 11 with over $200,000 in food supplies. The money had been raised in a joint campaign between the Hispanic Catholic Center in Washington and Radio America, a Spanish language station in Wheaton, Md. The group chose the Catholic parish here as their channel.

“If we gave the aid to politicians, then some people wouldn’t get it,” said Maria de Socorro Bueno, a Salvadoran exile and member of the Sacred Heart Parish in Wheaton.

The food buckets were delivered to San Augustín by soldiers from the base in San Miguel, part of the Salvadoran military’s effort to clean up their tarnished image. M-16s clanking on their backs, sweating soldiers unloaded the buckets from army trucks as Rodrigo Cabrera, bishop of the diocese of Santiago de María, told a crowd of residents that the church had been careful not to politicize relief aid.

“It’s not important if you share my faith or my ideology or if you are my enemy. What’s important is that when I was hungry, you gave me food,” Cabrera said.

Cabrera’s diocese, which includes the province of Usulután and part of San Miguel, is the area hardest hit by the January quake. He told NCR that the church’s most important role has been “to encourage the people, to plant hope with the word of the Lord, to help people continue forward despite the tragedy.”

Widely politicized aid

Cabrera said earthquake aid had been widely politicized. “Whether on the left or right, they politicize it. That’s what I’ve seen. If you see things from my point of view, I give you aid. If not, I don’t,” he said. Yet when asked to cite concrete examples of such political manipulation in his diocese, he refused. “That’s a daring question you’re asking,” he said. “But the problem exists on all sides, from ARENA [the party of big business] to the [leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation] Front. Everything gets politicized in this country.” It’s a reproach heard often since the quake.

It’s clear in San Augustín that the government won’t be able to afford new houses for the poor. This is a poor region in a poor country. Although many families possess small plots of land received under the country’s U.S.-sponsored agrarian reform, that reform was designed primarily to keep peasants from supporting leftist guerrillas during the 1980s. It had nothing to do with empowering the poor, so there has been no agricultural credit nor technical assistance, and today families in San Augustín manage to produce meager crops of corn and beans that barely keep them alive. What capital they had accumulated over the years was invested in their simple homes, and they have no income for building new ones.

El Salvador’s economy was supposed to get a boost when it declared the U.S. dollar to be legal tender on Jan.1, but the controversial move has had little impact here. In the capital, prices at Burger King are now in dollars, and greenbacks are available from ATMs. But here in San Augustín, where illiteracy is high, people remain suspicious. Few have calculators to punch in the 8.75 to one conversion rate. At a moment when resources for reconstruction are in short supply, many believe government money spent on the conversion, reportedly as much as $1 billion, could better use its scarce resources on rebuilding devastated areas.

“Our people are never going to get accustomed to the dollar,” Cabrera told NCR. “Although it impacts all of us, the people weren’t consulted. And they won’t accept it.”

Government planners are also hoping that family remittances from Salvadorans abroad -- income that amounted to $1.75 billion last year -- will help fuel rebuilding and get the economy moving again. But analysts say remittances are more likely to go for household appliances and fast food, with little being invested in productive activity. The phenomenon has plagued micro-lenders and development organizations here for years.

What seems certain is that life in towns like San Augustín is going to be more difficult. “Much of this country is going to stop being liveable,” said Angel Ibarra, president of the Salvadoran Ecological Unity, a coalition of over 40 environmental and activist groups. “The agrarian system has collapsed. This means that it will be practically impossible to live in the countryside. So people will migrate to the cities and to the United States. And the government is betting on that, doing nothing to stop it, because the only thing that works in this country is the flow of dollars from our brothers and sisters in the U.S.”

Ibarra is one of those Salvadorans who could easily claim prophetic status these days. He led a futile fight last year to get the Legislative Assembly to set up a national civil defense apparatus that would help the country prepare for disasters. He led a valiant but also futile struggle to stop construction on the hills above Santa Tecla, hills that came tumbling down on the Las Colinas neighborhood on Jan. 13, killing hundreds.

Ignoring ‘signs of the times’

He’s resisting the temptation to say, “I told you so.” So are several church activists who have warned the government that it was ignoring the signs of the times. In the October issue of Estudios Centroamericanos, the magazine of the Jesuit-run Central American University in San Salvador, the cover story was “El Salvador: A Vulnerable Country.” The article pointed out that the country’s unresolved social and economic problems and constant natural hazards left it vulnerable to disaster.

Residents of San Augustín and similarly isolated towns face another obstacle as they try to begin reconstruction: the “invisibility” of their suffering. The tragedy here is less photogenic than the well-televised drama lived by residents of Las Colinas, where a hillside collapsed on hundreds of middle-class homes. More than half the death toll from January’s quake came from that one neighborhood, just a few minutes from the capital. Media crews from around the world could get their five minutes of tragedy and quickly commute back to San Salvador to upload their story. The scenes of bereaved family members searching for their loved ones under tons of rocks and dirt were truly dramatic and moving.

Yet for the victims in places like San Augustín, the response has been slower and more modest. Their best resource has been the church.

Before she left, Esmeralda Cornejo promised that more volunteers from the parish in Tocoa, Honduras, will return in May, and that they’ll probably “adopt” San Augustín as a sister parish. Maria de Socorro Bueno said the next task facing Hispanic Catholics around Washington is raising money to help people here build houses. She also promised she’d be back.

If such solidarity materializes, the people of San Augustín may recover somewhat from the disaster. José Vasquez may be able to build a house to match his door. And Fr. Perdomo may get the time to clean up his plywood shack.

Within hours of the disaster, President Francisco Flores realized that his military-controlled National Emergency Committee was hapless, so he turned management of the relief operation over to a National Solidarity Commission. It was composed of bankers and top party officials, the kind of people that the poor of El Salvador refer to as “the rich.”

Flores named beer baron Roberto Murray Meza, probably the next presidential candidate of ARENA, to head the group. The president had hoped that the business leaders on the National Solidarity Commission would project an image of efficiency, transparency and nonpartisanship. Yet the auxiliary bishop of San Salvador, Gregorio Rosa Chávez, quipped that the members of the National Solidarity Commission seemed indistinguishable from the executive committee of ARENA. Flores was indignant, and belittled Rosa Chávez, saying that as auxiliary bishop he could not speak in the name of the church, a role Flores argued belonged only to the papal nuncio and Archbishop Fernando Sáenz Lacalle. Yet the conservative Sáenz, pressed by journalists, came to Rosa Chávez’ defense, arguing that as vicar of the archdiocese, his auxiliary also had a right to speak in the name of the whole church. The National Solidarity Commission’s alleged efficiency also quickly unraveled when it set up a system where all arriving international aid would be brought to its headquarters in the capital, inventoried, then turned over to the National Emergency Committee for dispatching to affected areas. Such bureaucratization slowed down the relief response, eventually forcing Flores to order relief supplies dispatched directly from the airport. And the president shifted coordination of the emergency response away from the central government and the National Solidarity Commission and onto the country’s local mayors. That decentralization, while laudably moving decision-making closer to the scene of the disaster, also served handily to divert criticism from the central government.

With a flourish, Flores turned over sacks of money to several mayors to use in clearing the rubble that was over two meters deep in many streets. Some of the money was to be turned over directly to owners of destroyed houses. Yet as expectations arose among the survivors it turned out the money wasn’t as much as many thought, and it seemed the president had taken the money from funds already destined for municipal governments under the existing budget.

National Catholic Reporter, March 2, 2001