|The Remittance Industry: El Salvador's Post-War Struggle|
|Written by Mneesha Gellman and Josh Dankoff|
|Thursday, 05 June 2008 02:37|
The 12 year civil war in El Salvador, officially from
1980-1992, facilitated an exodus from the country. As part of
its cold-war foreign policy, the US played a key role in prolonging
the war by supporting the Salvadoran military throughout the 1980s
during widespread persecution and execution of peasants, leftists,
and anyone agitating for social change (or even being suspected of
it). A rampant culture of impunity, combined with poverty and
desperation after the war has led to constistantly high levels of
migration. Strict immigration laws have punished those
looking for livelihood improvements and deportation has spawned El
Salvador's serious gang problem, further trapping the country in a
cycle of violence, poverty, and... more immigration. An
important lynch-pin in this cycle is remittances or remesas as
they are known in Spanish: money sent home by working immigrants
Leonora Hernandez squints through the fog bank to keep us on the winding trail over the mountains in Morazán Department, located in the far northeast corner of El Salvador. A guide with Prodetour, a community-based tourism association, Leonora is leading us on a hike through El Salvador`s civil war history and at the same time, giving us her assessment of its future. We make our way from a former FMLN (or Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional, the resistance group and now opposition political party) encampment to the village of El Mozote, a remote village where more than 800 people were massacred by the US-supported El Salvadoran Ejercito Nacional, or National Army in 1981 for being suspected FMLN sympathizers; a touching memorial now marks the spot. Leonora, born in 1972, grew up in a nearby village, and shares her own story.
Remittances from Salvadorans have stepped in to fill the gap in meeting daily needs that neither the government, nor the international community have managed to fulfill in the post war reconstruction process. In 2006, $2.5 billion, or roughly 17% of GDP, was sent by immigrants back to El Salvador in the form of remittances, and three quarters of this money was spent on direct consumer spending. (1) Just a year later, El Salvador received more than $3.6 billion in remittances. (2) In addition to supplementing basic household expenses such as food, electricity and water bills, much of the remittance money is going to consumer spending on imports. As the most densely populated country with the smallest slice of land in Central America, El Salvador is nowhere near self sufficient in food, and increased food imports from Guatemala, Honduras and Costa Rica have eaten into some of the remittance money, but imports from the US also gobble up a substantial portion. In fact, El Salvador spent more than a quarter of its $7.6 billion of imports on products from the US. (3) Meanwhile, El Salvador only exports $4 billion of goods, which highlights the troubling nature of relying on imports. In light of the fact that more than 2.5 million Salvadorans currently live in the US in search of greater earning power, (4) the cyclical nature of their hard earned remittances flowing back out of the country through import purchases is problematic.
While some families do set aside remittance money for home construction or small business ventures, the majority do not. As Leonora told us, `A lot of families get $500 from their family in the US on a Thursday, and on Friday they are at Pizza Hut. By the end of the weekend, there is no more money.` All of this spending on imported goods and going to international companies translates into remittance money quickly leaving El Salvador, and not circulating within the local economy. Its not just the success of marketing campaigns making those in the Global South feel they should purchase Northern goods to demonstrate their affluence and gain social status. Common in post war countries is a lack of saving culture - when people have seen everything they've worked for destroyed through war, sometimes repeatedly, it becomes easier to use resources for short term, or immediate gratification that brings status rather than planning for long term security. The near future, not to mention five years from now, can appear too uncertain for those who have had previous long term plans undermined.
Yet the use of remittances for consumer spending also indicates that poverty is just around the corner, and thus there is increased motivation for additional family members to immigrate to keep the remittance money flowing. Though the numbers are difficult to know for sure, people we spoke to said that anywhere from 400 to 750 Salvadorans leave the country each day (with or without proper documentation) in search of greater economic security.
An education specialist we spoke with who was active in the FMLN and served time as a prisoner of the National Army, told us that "if it weren't for remittances, people would pick up arms again. In real terms people are worse off than they were before the war." The minimum wage in El Salvador has decreased in real terms over the last 10 years from $96.70 per month in 1997 to $93.36 in 2007. (5) Meanwhile, the price of the canasta basica, or basic basket of staple foods to feed a family, has risen sharply. In the last year alone, the urban canasta basica, which consists of rice, beans, coffee, milk, meat, eggs and cooking oil, rose more than 12% to $159.77, while in rural areas, it rose more than 22% to $122.78 per month. This increase reflects an international trend in food prices and is in part a function of the unprecedented jump in the price of oil. (The same rise in oil and gasoline sparked a recent nationwide transportation strike in Nicaragua. Click here to read more. ) It does not take long to see that the price of food is higher than the local minimum wage, which helps explain why the almost one quarter of Salvadorans that receive remittances spend so much on consumer goods. In short, many cannot afford to meet even basic needs without remittances. Low salaries at home and the myth of money flowing easily from the US also helps explain why so many people attempt to leave El Salvador for the higher wages in the US.
The Perils of Going
This is not an easy time for Central Americans trying to get to the US. Visa applications cost a non-refundable $131, close to the price of the monthly canasta basica, and the vast majority of people that apply for a visa are denied. Those attempting to enter the US without documents face a range of challenges: from abuse by coyotes (or immigration 'facilitators' that charge thousands of dollars to get to the US), to dehydration and starvation on the Mexico/US border, to deportation if caught. There has been an overall increase in the militarization of the US Mexico border over the last 10 years, and the US government now considers being on US soil without proper documentation a federal offense, at times mandating several months of jail time before deportation. In 2006, more than 250,000 of Central Americans were deported from Mexico and another 50,000 from the US; more than 20,000 of these were Salvadoran. (6) During the same year a staggering 514,000 Mexicans were deported from the US. (7) Once a person reaches the US, their safety is hardly guaranteed, as the US Citizen and Immigration Services (managed by the Department of Homeland Security), raids border towns and work places. These raids have increased substantially over the last several months, recently demonstrated in the case of 300 undocumented workers being arrested in an Iowa factory early in May 2008.
Because of the incidence of child soldiering during El
Salvador's civil war, families that could sent their young children
(boys especially) to live abroad. In Los Angeles, California,
these children underwent adolescence far from the protection of
family and after being terrorized by Mexican gangs (itself a
continuation of gang violence as survival technique), they formed the
only community they could to afford themselves protection: las
maras, or gangs. With more than 300 gangs operating in El
Salvador, the two largest, "18th Street" and "Mara
Salvatrucha," are based in Los Angeles. (8) But since the US
government started deporting green-card holders with criminal
records, many convicted gang members were sent back to El Salvador.
Unaccustomed to life in El Salvador after years abroad, and used to
the level of power and revenue gang activities has brought them in
the US, it did not take long for these gangs to wreak havoc in El
Salvador. The gang problems have gifted the capital, San
Salvador, one of the highest murder rates in the world - roughly 10
murders per day in 2006 - and have not made average Salvadorans feel
more secure in an already rough post war transition. (9)
Now back at his job as a police officer after being deported from the US, Enrique just shrugged when asked if he would try to cross the border again. Though the risks of immigrating are great, the benefits of working in the US and sending remittances back to one's family have not disappeared, and he may try his luck again.
(1) American Public Media. One Home, Two Nations. Accessed 26 May 2008. http://marketplace.publicradio.org/features/onehome/chinameca_remittances.shtml
(2) Interamerican Bank. Remittances Map 2007. Accessed 26 May 2008. http://www.iadb.org/mif/remesas_map.cfm?language=Spanish
(3) United States Department of Trade. Fact sheet
on US/El Salvador trade relations. Accessed 26 May 2008.
(4) American Public Media. One Home, Two Nations. Accessed 26 May 2008. http://marketplace.publicradio.org/features/onehome/chinameca_remittances.shtml
(7) Federation Internationale des Ligues des Droits de l´Homme (FIDH). 'Estados Unidos - Mexico Muros, Abusos y Muertos en las fronteras: Violaciones flagrantes de los derechos de los migrantes indocumentados en camino a Estados Unidos.' March 2008.
(8) Overseas Security Advisory Council. San Salvador, El Salvador: 2006 Crime and Safety Report.' Accessed 26 May 2008. http://www.osac.gov/Reports/report.cfm?contentID=45275
(9) Overseas Security Advisory Council. San Salvador, El Salvador: 2006 Crime and Safety Report.' Accessed 26 May 2008. http://www.osac.gov/Reports/report.cfm?contentID=45275
For more information on immigration issues in Spanish, see CARECEN: http://www.freewebs.com/carecenelsalvador/