Please enjoy these blogposts, written between 2011 and 2015. Another blog is on the way.

Friday, March 18, 2011

El Salvador: Presidentialism

Greta and I roomed together at the guesthouse and had a chance to chat every evening, but we were usually too tired to talk over what we’d seen and heard. Although I spent everyday with Will, Pete and Richard, apart from the plane trip down with Will I didn’t carry on a whole conversation with any of them over the ten days of the trip. Tom and Margaret were strong personalities. When we weren’t at the meetings they arranged for us, they talked and we listened.

Tom, young as he was, had a Salvadoran wife and two daughters. He wasn’t just passing through. He knew a lot about conditions, especially out in the country, and he believed he knew why these conditions prevailed.  He was angry.  Why had all those campesinos fought and died during the war? So Tom and people like him could cart around visitors from the U.S. and Europe, hoping they’d donate to a few local projects? Twelve thousand children still died every year of the gastrointestinal results of having no potable water. The Salvadoran government wasn’t going to help, and the U.S. would help only as long as Salvadorans went along with privatization, structural adjustments, free trade. These changes hurt, he and many others were convinced, more than they helped. The rich were committed to one thing only—getting richer. People like us made some difference, but not nearly enough.

Margaret’s true gifts didn’t surface until she was among her friends in COO. In the city she mainly gave instructions. She began most sentences with “I suggest”: I suggest we order pupusas and horchata for lunch.  I suggest you ask the man from the health workers’ union about the firing of elected leaders by factory owners. She deferred to Tom when it came to politics, maybe because he argued with her when he thought she was wrong.  Anyway, politics weren’t her thing.  Her favorite Bible verse was Romans 8:28: “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” 

“I’ve been bringing people down here for a long time,” Margaret said, “and as long as there are people who want to come, I’ll keep bringing them.”

Margaret was about faith. Tom was about politics. 

Here’s the big picture I was putting together as the trip progressed. The infamous “Fourteen Families,” who until the war had owned nearly all the land and planted it in cash crops like coffee, lost property in the land redistributions. Wealth had concentrated even further: now five or six families owned the banks, the insurance companies, importing, everything.  Farming wasn’t important anymore because the U.S. had plenty of food suppliers. What U.S. corporations wanted was cheap labor and large consumer markets. The FMLN had managed to elect members to some local positions, but national Salvadoran politics were “presidentialist.” And due to corrupt elections, presidents had for decades been exclusively right wing.  All those subsistence farmers in the campo would be better off, so went the free-trade argument, working at factories that foreign investors would build if conditions were right—that is, for example, if unions were kept out, one way or another.

That's all politics, isn't it?  Wasn't the Jesuit Miguel Ventura also all about politics? I was having trouble seeing where faith came into this.

On day number three we drove east and south, the temperature rising as steadily as the humidity, and stayed the night at a leadership center run by nuns. The next morning we drove further, on roads that were paved until we came within a few miles of COO.  Tom pointed out some things as we got closer—a fenced in soccer field, USAID stamps on houses and pumps—but Margaret was quiet.  When we finally reached the village, she said only, “There they are. The teachers and kids came out to meet us.  Everybody else is working."