Over a hundred riot police, two busloads of party sympathizers, and a marching band escorted right wing Salvadoran ARENA party Presidential candidate Rodrigo Avila into the tiny town of Cinquera on Feb. 6, as part of a campaign rally that has sparked national controversy. Avila’s visit to Cinquera, which has long been considered an FMLN stronghold, led to confrontations with community members and accusations by Salvadoran Minister of Education Darlyn Meza that Cinquera’s teachers incited their students to organize a counter protest during class hours.
Over a hundred riot police, two busloads of party sympathizers, and a marching band escorted right wing Salvadoran ARENA party Presidential candidate Rodrigo Avila into the tiny town of Cinquera on Feb. 6, as part of a campaign rally that has sparked national controversy. Avila’s visit to Cinquera, which has long been considered an FMLN stronghold, led to confrontations with community members and accusations by Salvadoran Minister of Education Darlyn Meza that Cinquera’s teachers incited their students to organize a counter protest during class hours. Since then, four teachers at the school have been removed from their jobs, which Salvadoran President Tony Saca of ARENA has called the “best decision.” However, according to a leading Salvadoran newspaper, La Prensa Grafica, the national teachers union ANDES 21 has denounced the firings claiming the teachers where removed without a prior investigation, which violates their rights under Salvadoran Law.
Former chief of Salvadoran police Avila and the ARENA party allege manipulation of children for political ends while linking this sort of manipulation to violence. Yet his preemptive use of riot police and decision to hold a rally in a community that his ARENA party government savaged through military repression during the Salvadoran Civil War suggests Avila may have been looking for confrontation. Reports from Cinquera point to widespread provocation and manipulation of the children by the media and Avila’s supporters. Adding to tensions is the highly contested mayoral election of January 18th, in which the FMLN party candidate lost in Cinquera for the first time since the peace accords. According to the Salvadoran Electoral Tribunal, the government entity that overseas the elections, ARENA only won in Cinquera by 22 votes of the over 700 cast. Both sides have decried the tactics of their political adversaries, and like elsewhere in the country, these confrontations have at times been violent.
Norma Arely Cartagena is president of the Rural Association for Municipal Development in Cinquera (ARDM), and a resident of the town. She says that back on November 27 2008, the ARENA party’s mayoral candidate and now mayor elect for Cinquera Rodolfo Sosa accused the FMLN incumbent mayor Guillermo Rivera Contreras of shooting at him. Incidentally, Sosa has not pressed charges since then, and Cartagena says the FMLN candidate has alibis. However, even though he never pressed charges in the shooting incident, in December 2008 Sosa reportedly sent a list to the Armed Forces with names and exact addresses of sixty Cinquera residents he considers as being potentially “armed and dangerous.” These sorts of accusations, and the confrontations they can lead to, have many people concerned about what’s to come. Amilcar Lobo is one of the high school teachers who was fired in the aftermath of the rally, and a resident of Cinquera. He spoke with the authors during an interview for WERU Community Radio.
Question: Can we start by outlining the events on February 6, when ARENA presidential candidate Avila visited Cinquera with riot police to hold a rally in support of ARENA?
Amilcar: On that day, everyone in the community was very concerned. It was the kind of environment we had experienced during the 1980s, during the civil war. At 6 a.m., riot police surrounded the entire community. One to two hundred police came on buses. They filled every neighborhood, and stood on every street corner of the community. While they were supposed to come and provide security for this supposed civic celebration, as the ARENA party dubbed it, in fact they came and terrorized the community.
At around 8 or 9 a..m., there were two buses with ARENA sympathizers that arrived in the community. They were carrying flags. They surrounded the park in the center of the town with drum sets and with speakers attached to their cars. They stood in front of the mayor’s office at the park, which is located about 10 meters from where the high school in Cinquera is located. At that time, we were unable to continue classes, because of the noise, and essentially had to suspend classes we were very clear with the students. We told the students to go home, that classes would be suspended for the day. At the same time, the teachers went back to our houses. I left around little after 10:30 a.m., and went back to my house. The elementary school in Cinquera is further away from the center of town. It is 500 meters from the center of town, and so were not as affected by the noise and were able to finish classes.
The activity that the students had in support of the FMLN was a spontaneous activity. They had gone home after classes were suspended. When they got back to their houses, they collected FMLN paraphernalia, and then returned to the plaza. It was logical to do so, since most of the student population in Cinquera are children of ex-combatants from the FMLN during the war, and as such it would be logical to opt to support the FMLN. I should emphasize this was not a violent activity. The children did not participate in any sort of violence.
Question: A clarification. The participants of the pro ARENA rally were brought in on buses?
Amilcar: None of the ARENA sympathizers were actually from the community. Most had been brought in from municipalities around Cinquera, or from other parts of the country. So I would say, almost 100 percent were not from Cinquera. Also, the young people from Cinquera who participated in the counter demonstration against ARENA, were doing so to ask these ARENA people to leave Cinquera It [the counter protest] happened immediately following their dispersion from class. We did not expect it. We teachers we did not expect that activity to happen, and we in no way took part in planning it. In the press, as you can see, if you read it, there is even a picture of two young people in Cinquera burning an ARENA flag. That was an act of protest against ARENA for the 20 years they have controlled the central government, and not providing the services that the people needed. For example, in Cinquera, our school still does not have the infrastructure that we need.
Between 11:00 a.m. and 12:30 pm, the ARENA presidential candidate arrived in the town, but at no time did he come near the small group of protesters from the community that were supporting the FMLN . Needless to say, in the press, there was a picture of a young girl from Cinquera supporting the FMLN, and making obscene gestures towards the ARENA party sympathizers. She had been provoked by the ARENA party, but that is not seen the in the press. All you see is a photo of her. Nevertheless, the Salvadoran Telecommunications Corporation, the Diario de Hoy, which is a Salvadoran newspaper, as well as the Prensa Grafica, have all published her photo, calling her a terrorist, which is violation of her rights.
The (ARENA) mayor-elect, who will take office in May, made a series of accusations against the FMLN in Cinquera, and in the press the teachers were construed as having threatened the students, telling them they had to participate in a protest against the ARENA party.
Question: Can you tell us where the situation stands now?
Amilcar: What happened next was a political show-a show that the press published all throughout El Salvador, with images from that day. The Minister of Education proceeded to make good on her threats and she is taking us to court for negligence, both the principal of the school as well as myself and another teacher. We recently had our mediation session before the formal hearing. It did not result in an agreement, so we’ll be going to the hearing. The principal of the school is being pressured to resign. The Minister of Education has asked her to resign. We are all victims of this political persecution. At no time did the teachers of the school go to the school trying to convince the students to take part in a FMLN activity. We have never gone to the school wearing FMLN memorabilia or paraphernalia, as the ARENA mayor elect has said. And now he is taking these accusations into a nearby village, where the current (FMLN) mayor’s wife is the principal. They are also going to take her to trial. So now there are four teachers in the area who are going to trial for this event
Question: Can you talk about this in the context of the elections, how ARENA is using Cinquera for their campaign?
Amilcar: And so now ARENA is using what happened in Cinquera as part of it’s dirty campaign in the media, especially the major media, which leans towards the right. They are using what happened in Cinquera, trying to say that the FMLN instigates children into acts of violence, that they use children to further their agenda. They’re saying that if the FMLN were to win the presidency in March that they would see more of this, that the FMLN would continue to recruit children to teach them hatred and violence against the other parties. So this isn’t just happening in Cinquera, this is happening everywhere right now in the country. Anywhere where they can capitalize on any sort of connection that children have with the political process, they try to associate it with violence and hatred.
Question: What is the effect that this case will have on teachers and the political race?
Amilcar: I think the political mileage ARENA is going to try to get with this, is directly in the form of continuing their dirty campaign-trying to smear the FMLN presidential candidate But basically, I think what this case does is send a clear message to teachers: telling teachers not to get involved in politics, telling teachers to stay quiet, telling teachers to keep their students quiet, and to try to keep the students out of politics, as much as possible.
Now that this has happened, they are also taking advantage of the fact that we don’t have any infrastructure in our community for our schools. We have been covering the needs of the students by allotting funds from the municipal budget for interim teachers we didn’t get from the Ministry of Education. What they are saying now is that they will fire or suspend all us, and they will bring in five new teachers for the interim. They are also promising new computer centers, more infrastructure, and a new principal.
Question: What resources have been available to Cinquera up until now?
Amilcar: This is the first year that Cinquera has a high school. Previously the students had to travel outside the town. In the past, the Ministry of Education provided 2 teachers for the school. One of them was the principal, who was also serving as a teacher, and there was one adjunct teacher. The teachers had divided the students into two sections in the high school–two different groups of students. The problem with that was one of the teachers-basically it wasn’t working out with her. She wasn’t showing up to teach her classes. So the principal went to the mayor of the town and explained the situation. The mayor has always supported the students and their studies. He supported them before there was a high school in the town by giving them scholarships, so they could travel and study outside the municipality, because the town sees that the best way to fight poverty as through education for it’s young people. So, the mayor provided the principal of the school with the money to hire three teachers to be able to give classes to the students in a range of subjects. The Minister of Education says it was negligence on the part of the principal of the school, that she hired these teachers without first consulting with the Ministry. Nevertheless, the Minister of Education never talks about why there were not enough teachers in the first place, or why there isn’t infrastructure–a building to hold classes, and why we are still in the town hall for lack of classrooms.
The community has been very affected by what has happened. There have been a number of meetings with the community members of Cinquera. They are currently in the process of writing a letter to the Ministry of Education requesting that she come to the community and meet with them face to face, so she can see the actual situation in Cinquera–not just responding to what’s going on in the media–and have a conversation.
Amy Browne, Jesse Stewart, and Meredith Defrancesco are journalists with WERU Community Radio in Maine, and have spent extensive time in El Salvador. WERU is a member of US-El Salvador Sister Cities, a grassroots solidarity network partnering US cities with Salvadoran rural communities, including the town of Cinquera.