Interview: Members of University Front of Roque Dalton from the National University of El Salvador

This is Part Five in a series of interviews with members of the Salvadoran Social movement titled "What We Want: Voices from the Salvadoran Left."

Corporate media’s two-dimensional depiction of Salvadoran youth leads us to believe that most are caught up in a vicious cycle of gang violence; it has failed to convey the full picture, which involves hundreds of youth moving thousands more into political activism and shepherding a new generation of leftist thinkers in El Salvador.

ImageFor the first time in almost 20 years, El Salvador has reappeared in mainstream headline news throughout the Americas for two main reasons: recent electoral victories of the leftist FMLN party and, conversely, Washington’s growing domination of Central America’s security apparatus through the Mérida Initiative and the El Salvador-based International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA). [1] [2]

Corporate media’s two-dimensional depiction of Salvadoran youth leads us to believe that most are caught up in a vicious cycle of gang violence; it has failed to convey the full picture, which involves hundreds of youth moving thousands more into political activism and shepherding a new generation of leftist thinkers in El Salvador.

After organizing consistently in recent years to denounce State repression and cost of living increases imposed by the right wing government, various youth sectors played an integral role in the FMLN’s presidential campaign and helped the party secure significant electoral victories at the polls in January and March of this year.

The Frente Universitario Roque Dalton (FURD) has been in the forefront of student organizing in San Salvador. In 2006, the organization endured an intense fear campaign by the right wing ARENA (National Republican Alliance) government in 2006 that ordered an attack and invasion of the University by the National Civilian Police, branded some FURD members “terrorists”, and propagated false claims that students had been stockpiling weapons at the school.

Formed in 2002, the FURD works with students, campus workers, and professors to unify these sectors under the common goal of University reform. They envision a University that reflects, critiques, and transforms Salvadoran society. A compañera and I recently spoke with several members of the FURD to get a better understanding of the group’s work within the National University of El Salvador and its vision for the country.

ImageUpside Down World: Tell us first about the purpose of the FURD.

Jackie: The FURD was founded as a means to organize youth at the University to transform its goals and purpose. We consider ourselves autonomous youth, an autonomous organization. What interests us, as an organization, is the possibility that the University will return people to the path of commitment – to a society that really identifies the University as a place where people are developing new critiques and solutions. So our goal is to build an organization that engages young people who believe we can change society through our work within the University.

Oswaldo: The FURD is a space we use to analyze, debate, share, propose and question. We question the conditions we experience as young people. Some students come to the University when they’re 17 years old and might study here until the age of 29 or 30. That’s ten years of study, activism and social development. We come to this space to be able to know each other and to explore each other’s experiences in society. Later we plan to create projects that help other youth do the same.

Sonia: We all come from different places and realities, different conditions. It’s really beautiful… the FURD is a family. We debate, we share and we laugh. Many here in the organization are from different places and have varying backgrounds that we can put into practice within the organization. We have a holistic formation because we take time to understand each other. Each of us arrived with different motives but when we came to know the organization, how it worked and organized, we were able to unify around similar ideas and a common means of struggle.

UDW: What are some of the critiques your organization has of the University’s method and curriculum and what are some of the changes you’re working to implement?

Sonia: Most urgently, the university needs a change in structure and to develop more creative programs. I will call it "The Purpose of the University" for the moment. In fact, the University should have three main goals on which it rests all of its stock and its entire policy – that students receive quality instruction, have opportunities to do extensive research, and are given support to do more outreach. In order to actually achieve this, all of the University’s programs or areas of study have to be integrated and encouraged to give life to the University as a whole, if it is to serve society. That is the role of the University, after all.

The University should be geared to meet these goals and create programs that truly seek the integration of various perspectives. The University has to be fairly comprehensive in terms of the careers it steers people toward. Every student has something to contribute to society. To the extent that we succeed in describing what each program brings to the University, we achieve a social mission and that is that we begin to outline a model or proposal for the University that can help it truly carry out its purpose.

Jackie: One factor that has been forgotten – because the point is that young people come to study here – is that the purpose of the University it is not to merely create professionals. If one does not truly get involved at the University, they will not know or be able to be involved in what is happening in society. Colleges used to play a very important role in societal events, not only inside the University but outside too, nationally. Universities had a role in solving problems people were experiencing at the time.

Now the University creates professionals who go out and do nothing more but work. We need to reawaken the commitment we have to others – not only to ourselves. Many people have forgotten that we have to be interested in this country in its entirety, not just dependent upon the system for our own needs. Then we only live superficially and never create a more objective look into what is happening and consider, as a young person, what we can truly give to society.

Mauricio: It’s true, what this compañera is saying. When youth enter the University, they don’t understand the importance of solidarity and social integration; they’re only looking for a title. So it’s difficult to organize at the University and that’s why we only receive one percent of the national budget. This is a very important factor that hinders the development of the University. The reality is the market absorbs people and since private universities have a much larger budget and are more modernized, we are at a market disadvantage in competing with them.

UDW: What do you think of the media’s portrayal of Salvadoran youth?

Sonia: It’s really unfortunate. The media sensationalizes youth with tattoos and tries to convince people that the majority of youth live violent lives or belong to the gangs. I recently heard about an 18 year-old who went to jail for killing someone. What is interesting is that this particular person was a rich kid, an artist. Much of the violent crime in El Salvador is committed by upper-class youth but the media doesn’t explore this tendency. Many believe that poor people are to blame.

Jackie: There is no positive media representation of our communities, the barrios, the neighborhoods we come from. When they do come to our communities, they look down upon them. They claim that our communities are saturated in violence, danger and drugs. There is very little space in the media and the public for youth participation. All of this power is concentrated in the hands of the Right. When there is a little space it is because of our own efforts and demands.

Oswaldo: As politically conscious youth, we have a lot of distractions. We’re bombarded with issues and are also victimized, criminalized and faced with the threat of violence. There is a lot of insecurity that threatens us outside of the University. We can easily be killed. We carry a lot of fear when we’re in the street or on the bus because youth are the main victims of crime in El Salvador. At the same time we are thought of as criminals. Random young people without fault are often blamed for the deaths of compañer@s, friends and gang members. This is a very complicated society and rarely does the media shed light on our situation.

UDW: Prior to the elections, El Salvador hosted two summits exploring the condition of youth both nationally and regionally. What did you think of the issues and discussions that were raised?

Jackie: The Youth Summit was solely focused on students from private colleges and the themes discussed were far too general. They didn’t talk about the lived reality of the majority of Salvadoran youth. At no moment did we see a student from a public institution say, “These are the problems I face.” Many students at the National University have to work AND study and support our families. Sometimes we don’t eat because we don’t have money. We would like to know why the youth have not been entrusted to be the directive force of the summits and to put our own issues forward.

Sonia: The regional summit of Latin American states is always a more formal affair. It is something that has long been established by Heads of State to act as a screen for true debate. There is only one theme – the general state of Latin American youth – and we never expect these discussions to go anywhere. In the University, we organized what was called an Alternative Summit in which we discussed several themes that involved youth and extended this into discussion about how we can support society in terms of labor, education and culture.

For all of these themes, we tried to generate debate so that we could create a solid proposal that would be in the interest of all youth who live different realities: there are rural youth who depend on small farming communities, there are privileged youth who have their lives already figured out, and there are urban youth who have to struggle to survive. There should be thorough research on all of these sectors so that we can come to an agreement based on the proposals of each.

Mauricio: The organizers of these State-sponsored summits refuse to invite youth from the National University or from social movement organizations; they won’t do it because then they would have to hear our stories and have a critical debate with us on our issues. Instead, the organizers talk with youth who might not have a real political and social consciousness, youth who don’t know the rural reality; nor do they live in San Martin or other dangerous neighborhoods in urban areas.

Sonia: The summit profiled youth who already have all their lives planned, whose studies are guaranteed, and who will live off of large inheritances. The problem is that they put these faces out to the world to show that the youth of El Salvador are doing well. But if they really came and started to explore our communities, they would see that many people aren’t able to access more advanced education programs. If someone has only a basic education, they will probably not work in the formal sector. A youth who only has studied through ninth grade has little opportunity; you have to be lawyer, a doctor or a professor to even be considered for a much smaller position.

So this is the problem: we see ourselves represented by people who really don’t know the situations of youth in El Salvador. Personally, I would like to see the State guarantee good conditions for youth to generate professions. But if they just parade out these capitalist-conforming youth, no one will see the need to create something in which we really have a space in the culture, in education, in labor. It’s just a smokescreen.

Jackie: Few youth organizations exist and there is far too little support for those groups to expand their bases. Furthermore, young Salvadorans, overall, have had very few opportunities to develop a political analysis. What often happens is that older generations in society, including people on the Left, want to support youth but they also want to impose their ideas on our thinking, processes and agendas.

UDW: What are some of the challenges you think the Funes Administration will face in their first term?

Jackie: These elections are historic because they present a scenario of probable change. As a social organization we are promoters of this change. The party, in a certain manner, has been converted into an instrument of the needs the population.

Social organizations are a very important element in El Salvador’s transition. We are going to be the promoters of this change the FMLN is advocating and we will also be the ones to sustain the change, not those who are at the top of the party or within the party, the functionaries or future functionaries. Power originates in the people, in the social organizations – not a blind people, rather a conscious people. Conscious people will channel the transformation.

One challenge that the new government faces is to truly turn over power to the people so that the people can defend what they have achieved. The FMLN must help people to understand how the consequences we’ve faced have been generated by political, economic, and repressive means. Through an education where people are truly empowered, the lights won’t come from above; rather the lights from below will rise upwards. This is a big challenge for the FMLN. Hopefully they will be able to visualize this.

Sonia: I believe that what the compañer@s have said really corresponds to the people of each nation. The people really do have power but we know how the situation is – that governments don’t give the people the opportunity to lead. This is one of the challenges that we anticipate in the case of Mauricio Funes.

The real challenge before the FMLN is to know the people – to know the real needs – because only from there can they start to transform society. If the government doesn’t know the people, it will be really difficult to generate these conditions, which is what has happened with the different governments we’ve had.

We can see that the militant members of the FMLN have more consciousness because they were part of the armed conflict and have been through each part of this long, difficult transition. More people, little by little, are developing this level of consciousness.

Jackie: It’s a project. We needed a good project and now the FMLN has presented us with one. We need to be conscious that we can generate change.

UDW: What are the first, most critical issues the FMLN government should focus on?

Jackie: I think the FMLN should have a few areas of focus right now. The first proposal the party highlighted is this idea of returning to self-sustainability by creating investment in agriculture and giving us the ability to produce from the land… for El Salvador to become an agricultural country. Another idea is to completely reform education in a way that will give the new generation of youth the potential to think differently. This is what I understand to be the basis of our work for the next couple of years – to generate sustainability by means of internal production and to reform the education system.

Sonia: If we have a good, holistic education system and are self-sustaining, we can generate work because we will be a producing country once again. A good educational system, on its own, will generate much more employment. For example, we could have more painters, actors, and ballerinas and open more of these kinds of opportunities. Our culture would grow again. We could generate employment by creating art centers and other places for painters to show and sell their work; of course we will make social art too.

Not only do we need these new opportunities for our own culture to emerge but under these conditions, we will have to avoid other countries’ cultures, well, transnational cultures from coming in. We are going to draw up our own plans for education and the regeneration of agriculture – corn, beans, rice, sugar, coffee, all of this.

If we recuperate these agricultural activities, we will find ways to live sustainably. We are a country that lives from grains and should not be exporting them to other countries. It’s really a shame. The platform of the FMLN proposed the stimulation of the agricultural sector. We can visualize it but, as we said, it can’t be guaranteed without their support.

Finally, we will see what happens in the United States and what Obama’s approach to El Salvador will be. Will it just be a continuation of the pattern of U.S. dominance and exploitation?

[1] Mérida Initiative (or Plan Mexico)

[2] International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) and FBI in El Salvador

This is Part Five in a series of interviews with members of the Salvadoran Social movement titled "What We Want: Voices from the Salvadoran Left."

Erica Thompson is a media correspondent for CISPES, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador.  She can be reached at  To organize with CISPES to stop U.S. intervention in El Salvador or find more information:

Thank you Amanda Blake and Alexis Stoumbelis for many hours of work in transcribing this important interview with the FURD.