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Issue Date:  January 20, 2006

Dreaming of a better El Salvador


She stood up to speak, out of respect for her listeners. At about 55 years old, she obviously wasn’t accustomed to public speaking, much less to a group of visiting Americans. Dressed in a plain green dress, without socks, in old black shoes, she spoke hesitantly but with a conviction that broke the hearts of her listeners.

“I’m the mother of three children,” she said in the soft accent of rural El Salvador, “and I had so many dreams for my children. Now, the doors have closed on all of them.”

The woman’s speech was similar to others given by the dozen or so residents of the community of San Rafael Cedros in rural El Salvador to a group of visiting Americans from five parishes in Kansas City, Mo., and Des Moines, Iowa. The group was in El Salvador recently to establish sister-parish relationships with Salvadoran communities and renew already established relationships.

Salvadorans listed problems that are common in El Salvador and much of Latin America: high unemployment; lack of education and pitiful schools; poor or nonexistent health care; high crime; corruption among national and local politicians; high prices for materials and necessities, and low prices for crops and other products; and hanging over it all -- like a permanent, dangerous thundercloud -- a pervasive, degrading poverty that will eventually breed hopelessness and anger.

This image of Latin America is nothing new to most Americans. In the past 40 years especially, much has been written and reported about poverty in the region. Indeed, Americans seem to have tired of reading and hearing about it.

But despite Americans’ familiarity with the problems, nothing much changes. Governments here and in Latin America come and go, and the poor get poorer. An estimated two-thirds of El Salvador’s population lives in poverty -- a poverty that for many means rat-infested adobe houses, lack of electricity or plumbing and an utter lack of escape, except, of course, as undocumented immigrants to the United States. For much of the population, “remittances” from those immigrants in the United States are their only means of support. That money sent from parents, grandparents, brothers and sisters in the United States amounts to about a third of El Salvador’s gross national product.

Given these chronic conditions in much of Latin America, it’s amazing we’ve only had to contend with the likes of Fidel Castro, Manuel Noriega and Hugo Chávez, and not much more violent and imposing types. And it’s remarkable that Latin Americans will peacefully sit and talk, and even listen to Americans who visit there.

So many Americans are now nearly hysterical about the “immigration problem,” suggesting remedies like a high wall along the entire border, stricter enforcement, tougher punishments, and so on. What doesn’t seem to be understood is that when your children are dying of malnutrition, when you have no hope of improving the miserable conditions in which you and your family are forced to live, no wall, no amount of enforcement, no punishment will keep you from doing what provides hope.

As well-known as are the problems of Latin America, many Americans fail to see the relationship between those problems and immigration. Yet it seems obvious that if we want to curb immigration, we have to help give people a reason to stay where they are, which is what they want to do. Chronic poverty and other problems among our neighbors in Latin America represent a permanent crisis, for them and ultimately for us. And what we’ve been doing so far is woefully inadequate to address the problem. Massive U.S. and other First-World aid, perhaps similar to that offered by the Alliance for Progress of the ’60s -- aid that gets to the people in the form of education, health care and economic opportunity -- is the only thing that will solve the immigration problem and avoid more violent forms of escape.

Of all U.S. sectors, corporate America, and the government that supports it, should understand the positive potential of such aid. You would think that corporations would jump at the chance to make customers out of millions of people currently disenfranchised from the consumer economy, and would support massive aid.

The American listeners to the Salvadoran woman in the green dress had heard similar comments from others there, but her words cut them to the core. It was easy for the Americans, all of whom had dreams for their own children, to relate to the Salvadorans and to realize how relatively easy it is for American children to fulfill, or squander, them. And they thought about how outraged they would be if their children lacked those opportunities.

Maybe only such outrage for our neighbors, most of whom are brothers and sisters in the faith, will make us act on their behalf. Like them, you can only hope.

Tom Carney is a media consultant and former reporter for The Des Moines Register.

National Catholic Reporter, January 20, 2006

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