June 1st marked the two-year anniversary of Tony Saca’s inauguration as El Salvador’s President.
The anniversary is an opportune moment to revisit two years of Saca’s term, reflect on how Salvadorans see their current reality, and ponder what the past two years mean for international accompaniment work.
Tony Saca hails from the ARENA political party, which has held the Executive office since 1989. Over the years, ARENA has proven to be a strong US ally and willing to implement US-backed pro-business policies. Saca has continued this tradition by ushering in the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and enacting fiscal reform that has shifted a greater portion of the tax burden on El Salvador’s poor.
The 48% of Salvadorans who live in poverty, and the hundreds of thousands who straddle the poverty line, have suffered serious economic blows. Campesinos, or subsistence farmers continue to work long, sweat-filled days, but crop falling crop prices don’t earn enough to buy their kids’ shoes, or pay for school supplies. In the cities, workers haven’t fared much better: more than 60% of Salvadorans work in the informal economy.
Tony Saca has created more jobs for Salvadoran workers outside the country’s border than inside. Saca’s close ties with Washington spurred President Bush in February to sign a one-year Temporary Protective Status (TPS) extension for 235,000 Salvadorans working in the US. Bush timed this move, amidst opposition from anti-immigration conservatives, to sure up ARENA’s chances during recent mid-term elections.
President Saca has also guaranteed Salvadoran jobs in Iraq. The current Battalion of 400-600 troops represents the fifth consecutive contingent that El Salvador has sent since the 2003 invasion. El Salvador is the only Latin American country to station troops there.
What’s more, many Salvadorans work for private contractors in Iraq providing support services-laundry and food preparation–to US troops. Tragically, at a salary four times the Salvadoran minimum wage of $158 per month, going to Iraq has become an attractive option. Salvadorans frequently joke that at least if a someone dies working in Iraq, insurance will pay for the loss of life, in contrast to the violent streets of San Salvador, where 10-15 people are killed daily without indemnity.
Tony Saca’s claims his biggest accomplishment to date is the implementation of CAFTA. El Salvador speedily put CAFTA into effect ahead of their Central America counterparts, but the desired impacts have yet to take effect. It’s true that many new US products are hitting the shelves of local markets. Shoppers can now buy Eggo waffles and Red Baron pizza, but these aren’t the changes promised by officials when selling the pact three years ago. The anticipated economic development and job creation has not appeared, which is more in sync with the predictions of social movement and religious leaders.
Gauging the Salvadoran perspective?
A recent poll published in a national daily paper frames the contradiction facing Salvadorans: Tony Saca maintains a favorability rating of 6.4 (on a scale to 10), many people expressed strong dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of violence, crime and the economy. A whole 62% of Salvadorans think the country is going in the "wrong direction." Some attribute this disparity to the effective use of media to promote the President’s image. Others point to history to explain the people’s reluctance to criticize a standing government.
Whatever the President’s direction, Salvadorans have chosen to go North. Two and a half million Salvadorans living in the US did not cast a single ballot in the March elections. With abstention approaching 50%, would these economic refugees have voted to continue the status quo if they had had the chance?
Meanwhile, in San Salvador, voters took to the streets to defend the electoral victory of Violeta Menjívar, the first woman mayor in the city’s 480 year history. The fervent tone of the marches exposed El Salvador’s tenuous grip on democracy, one that refuses to let go.
Last month memories of El Salvador’s recent past eerily emerged when Human Rights Ombudswoman Beatrice Carrillo reported that armed "extermination groups" are operating in the country. She stated that these groups are backed by people "whose wealth and power guarantee them impunity." Yet, despite continued impunity for the military front men and the intellectual authors of countless human rights violations, the people of El Salvador courageously continue the struggle for justice in spite of powerful forces that deny them.
Year Three and Counting
The coming year holds many challenges for the social, faith, youth and labor organizations that comprise El Salvador’s economic justice movement. Last week, Pres. Saca threatened to veto any legislation that would stall or block a proposed 14% rise in electricity rates. That equates to a $5/month increase. Bus fares are also slated to increase to 30 cents from the current 20 cents.
The government has announced that it will try to "reform" water administration and public healthcare this year. (Read: Privatizatize). Unions representing workers in these sectors are committed to stopping Saca’s plans. Meanwhile, in Chalatenango, communities working with CRIPDES and Cáritas are mobilizing to stop mining in that region.
International civil society, whose support was critical for the people of El Salvador in the 1980s and 90s, will again play a supporting role for those who defend the country from environmental decimation and natural resource exploitation. The remaining three years of the Saca presidency will reveal the effectiveness of this popular defense.
Editor’s Note: Casaca in Salvadoran slang means "fake-out" or more commonly, "BS."
Paul Pollack is an editor/writer for www.UpsideDownWorld.org and is based in El Salvador