The tiny Central American nation of El Salvador has long been out of sight, out of mind to most U.S. residents. Once the guns of the 12 year civil war went silent in 1992, the country signed peace accords, disbanded the famously repressive National Guard, modernized the police force incorporating ex-combatants from both sides into its ranks and embarked upon a somewhat haphazard process of healing.
Recently, that process of healing has been put to the test due to the jailing of 14 local and national activists arrested July 2 during protests in and around the small colonial city of Suchitoto. Dozens of social movement organizations coalesced in Suchitoto due to plans by Salvadoran president Antonio Saca to unveil there his administration’s new “National Decentralization Policy.” Many local activists view that policy as a thinly veiled plan to privatize water resources. Among the 14 protesters arrested were four staff members from the Association of Rural Communities for the Development of El Salvador (CRIPDES) who were intercepted and forcibly removed from their vehicle.
July 7th, Ana Lucila Fuentes de Paz, Specialized Judge for Organized Crime, a new court system established by the Anti-terrorism legislation, sentenced 13 of the activists to three months of preventative detention to allow the public prosecutor to gather more evidence to support the charges of acts of terrorism, public disorder and illicit association.
Advocates for civil liberties have questioned the anti-terrorism legislation. Lilian Cotto, deputy for the Central American Parliament, noted Saturday that the right to protest is constitutionally protected. Anaite Vargas, Technical Secretary for the Inter American Platform for Human Rights, Democracy and Development’s, Ecuador Chapter, asked president Saca to not apply the Special Law Against Acts of Terrorism and Organized Crime against the detainees in Suchitoto given that these laws have become in effect a form of governmental malpractice against civil society’s legitimate right to peaceful protest.
U.S. citizens should not be startled by events unfolding in El Salvador given that the anti-terrorism legislation passed there was inspired by this country’s Patriot Act. In fact, many aspects of Salvadoran public policy are U.S. inspired, for while El Salvador has been far from the minds of most U.S. citizens, the reverse is far from true.
This Massachusetts sized nation of six 6 million residents, counts another 2 million former residents or expatriates, most of who are now living in the United States. The country dollarized its economy in 2001, giving up its local currency, the colon, in favor of the US dollar. And El Salvador is currently the only Latin America nation which still has troops in Iraq.
El Salvador followed closely the passage and application of the Patriot Act in the United States, passing its own “Anti-terrorism Law” September, 21 2006. And similarly, to the Patriot Act, El Salvador´s law was pushed through the Legislative Assembly following the widely publicized shooting of two riot police officers in front of the National University on July 5, 2006.
To date the law had been applied to leaders of the street vendors who have periodically confronted police efforts to evict them from downtown areas within the metropolitan area. Vicente Ramirez, a leader of the street vendors, was released on a plea bargain July 5, after charges were reduced from terrorism to aggravated damages, nearly 5 months after having been jailed for a protest that included rock throwing and the burning of a municipal vehicle in Apopa. Another group of street venders are awaiting trial under the new law for protests in downtown San Salvador May 12.
The July 2 detainees include social movement leaders, community residents and even a young journalism student. 43 year old Lorena Martinez is known to many in the United States due to her years of advocacy efforts on behalf of 300 CRIPDES communities made up of poor campesino families, many of them former refugees and displaced persons as a result of the civil war. As president of CRIPDES, Ms. Martinez together with the other national and local leaders, have toiled ceaselessly for basic services, housing, roads and other necessities for these communities. Many of those who have attended one of Ms. Martinez’s speeches or lectures during her frequent U.S. tours will remember her slight, almost girlish appearance and frequent, self-effacing giggles when asked how she could also be a former guerrilla combatant when she looks like a recent college graduate. Martinez’s parents, poor rural campesinos, were victims of government massacres in the southern department of Usulatan early in the war.
Martinez was captured along with CRIPDES’s 36 year old vice-president Rosa Centeno, a long time staff member of CRIPDES’s small loan programs for rural women. With them was Hayde Chicas a 24 year old journalism student at the National University who has been gaining practical experience working part time in the CRIPDES communications office. The fourth member traveling in the association’s pick-up truck was Manuel Antonio Rodriquez, 40, a shy, unassuming driver and night-watchman for the association.
What is most disturbing perhaps to human rights activists, is that while most of the other 14 individuals captured on July 2nd were, in fact, blocking highways and attempting to impede the president, governmental authorities and invited guests from reaching Suchitoto, a small, picturesque tourist village 44 kilometers north of San Salvador, the CRIPDES activists were intercepted on their way to the demonstration. Rodriquez was roughly yanked from the vehicle and thrown to the ground.
The arrests, while surprising in their preemptive nature, were not altogether unexpected within the extremely polarized political climate of El Salvador. However, when the 14 were not charged or released within the initial 72 hours, concerns grew. And on Saturday, July 7, Judge Fuentes determined evidence presented against 13 of the 14 to be sufficient to warrant preventive detention for three months. Eventual prison terms under the new law could reach 60 years.
Following Saturday’s resolution Karla Albanes, lawyer for the detainees remarked that she would limit herself to say only that political pressure had been brought to bear. That politics would play a role is not surprising for a nation suffering extreme degrees of political polarization.
Since 1989 El Salvador has been governed by the rightist Republican National Alliance, ARENA, a party many see as modeled on the United States Republican party only with even stronger nationalist overtones. The party colors, not surprisingly, are red, white and blue. ARENA founder, Robert D’Aubisson, was also founder of the death squads and is widely attributed to be one of the intellectual authors behind the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero in 1980. The hymn of the party lauds El Salvador as the tomb where “the Reds will die.”
Despite these details of its founding and the fact that the Truth Commission established that approximately 95% of the 75,000 deaths of the war could be attributed to government forces and the death squads, the ARENA party continues to enjoy broad support, especially among the country’s poor majority. This support is bolstered by initiatives such as “The solidarity Network” where families residing in 32 of the country’s poorest municipalities receive a government handout of $15-$20 every two months.
In addition to 1989 marking the beginning of what has been an unending reign of ARENA presidents, that year also marked the beginning of the country’s enthusiastic application of neo-liberal economic policies: policies designed to shrink the role of the state in the provision of basic resources such as water, electricity, telecommunications, the pension system, etc.
Not surprisingly, the country’s popular movements have responded vigorously to these measures. Most outstanding to date have been the organized public opposition to the privatization of the health care system, an opposition marked by an historic alliance between doctors and health care providers and the population served by the social security system. Those efforts came to a head during 2002-2003 and are widely viewed as having been successful in staying off of the government’s privatization efforts.
Despite that partial victory by the social movements, there have also been losses. The social movements were not able to prevent dollarization. Telecommunications and electricity have already been privatized.
Politically, the most recent mayoral elections in March 2006 showed the two leading political forces, ARENA on the right and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) on the left, practically tied in the capital city of San Salvador. While recounts showed the FMLN to have maintained the city by a handful of votes, for ARENA to have come that close to capturing the city, historically a stronghold for progressive, left leaning voters was an eye-opener to all.
ARENA will no doubt redouble its efforts to win the city and maintain the presidency in 2009 (when local and national elections converge). Many view the 2009 electoral campaign as having already begun. ARENA is also interested in distracting public opinion from the widespread discontent over ARENA’s inability to reign in El Salvador’s raging death toll from gang and other violence (the highest in the hemisphere).
The stakes are high for both sides in a country just 15 years out of civil war. For the sake of El Salvador’s political stability, it is hoped that recent attempts to outlaw public protest will not stand up in court or if so, will be challenged internationally.