What We Want: Voices from the Salvadoran Left – Carlos Alarcón

This is Part Four of a Series of Interviews with members of El Salvador’s social movements titled "What We Want: Voices from the Salvadoran Left."

Carlos Alarcón is a public high school history teacher, community activist, and board member of ANDES 21 de Junio.  His work spans three decades of turmoil and uprising in El Salvador – specifically in Santa Ana, the second most populous department in the country, which borders Honduras and Guatemala.


Illustration by Equipo Maiz

Carlos Alarcón is a public high school history teacher, community activist, and board member of ANDES 21 de Junio. His work spans three decades of turmoil and uprising in El Salvador – specifically in Santa Ana, the second most populous department in the country, which borders Honduras and Guatemala.

Alarcón has helped build a community-owned and operated water distribution system that services 4,000 families in rural Santa Ana and is joined with broad community resistance to mining and water privatization in the five states of El Salvador’s northern zone – Santa Ana, Cuscutlan, Chelatenango, Cabañas and Morazán. He’s a vocal and active critic of the Central American Free Trade Agreement – a set of laws that weaken Central American governments and empower transnational corporations in this accelerated phase of U.S. colonialism in Central America. [1]

Alarcón’s organizing experience began in 1974 when, as a high school student in the small town of Chalchuapa, known as la Cuna de la Revolucion (Cradle of the Revolution) he joined MERS (Movimiento de Estudiantes Revolucionarios de El Salvador). MERS was one of many groups who formed the BPR (Bloque Popular Revolucionario), a highly visible and radical social movement organization that included two large unions of peasant and rural workers, public school teachers, a shantytown dwellers association, and various leftist student groups. [2]

For its efforts in organizing to oppose the military junta of 1979, MERS was branded a ‘guerilla front’ by the Salvadoran government. After a series of student strikes, marches, and the shutdown of Mexican and Venezuelan Embassies to protest the expulsion of 7 student activists including Alarcón, the group’s members and their families were profiled extensively by the Salvadoran military and death squads.

In 1981, after receiving repeated death threats, Alarcón and his family fled El Salvador. In the same year, he co-founded CARECEN (Central American Resource Center) in Los Angeles, California with other Salvadoran refugees. [3] Alarcón returned to El Salvador in 1986 in to finish college at the University of Santa Ana and teach history. He immediately re-engaged in the popular struggle and joined ANDES 21 de Junio, a radical teacher’s union that sparked a popular revolt against the military government in 1965. ANDES strengthened its position as a vanguard of the social movement in the 70s and 80s and began restructuring at the end of the civil war in 1992. [4]

From 1992-1996, ANDES facilitated political education workshops in rural communities throughout Northern Santa Ana and the state of Chalatenango to help


Mélida Anaya Montes (Comandante “Ana Maria”; historic leader of ANDES 21 de Junio)

former FMLN combatants earn high school diplomas and to teach peasant communities the people’s history of El Salvador. Because of its historic community-based role in the leftist struggle and its insistence on popular education and militant resistance, ANDES is commonly known as la Madre de la Revolución Salvadoreña. The union has suffered numerous setbacks in continuing to organize teachers in the post-war era of privatization and forced migration, including right-wing attempts at infiltration and division.

UDW: Tell us about the state of public and private education in post-war El Salvador.

CA: First, as you know, education has never been a priority for the ruling class. Since the mid-90s, hundreds of private education projects have been approved with the absurd opinion that Salvadoran teachers are lazy workers and only private institutions will solve the education problem. At the same time, the ARENA government has punished teachers, claiming we are to blame for high illiteracy and student drop out rates. Because of the laws Congress has passed over the past decade, teachers no longer feel as though their jobs are secure.

Teachers’ salaries continue to be the lowest in Central America. We have no right to health care; teachers can only get sick within the first three days of each month. Why? Because medicine is only available to us within those three days. If a teacher is sick the law turns them away without pay until they are able to work. Can you imagine this – you’re a teacher for 25 years and this is how the government treats you? Many Salvadoran teachers have very serious health problems. The Ley de la Carrera Docente (National Teacher’s Law) says that we’re supposed to have health benefits but they’re rarely given.

Just as they’ve tried to privatize water, health care, pensions, social security, and everything else under the sun, the U.S. and the Europe have helped the ARENA party to practically destroy public education. As foreign aid has increased, so have the number of foreign teachers and education programs. One example is Escuela Americana, which is a corporation based in the United States that runs dozens of schools throughout the country at every level of education. [5] They’re also teaching teachers. I use the term ‘teaching’ lightly because they say that they teach methodology and all of this stuff but they mostly teach very basic concepts through free market principles.

All of the Escuela Americana teachers I’ve seen are gringos and they’re politicized. Their organization, FUNDESAM, is a right wing institution [yet there is virtually no public information to be found about the organization, nor do we know the source of its funding]. During the election period, we (the teachers who were enrolled in the class) were talking a lot about the campaign and reminding people to vote. The teacher came up to me and said, “Ok, Carlos, so what. If Funes wins you will have nothing. Is that what you want?” [Alarcón is referring to Mauricio Funes, then-candidate now Salvadoran president-elect of the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front party].

UDW: How does Escuela Americana recruit teachers?

CA: They go through the Salvadoran government, the Minister of Education. The Minister of Education sends you a memo saying “You are a teacher, so you have to go through this program. They will train you to be a better teacher.” That’s the way they come to you. And if you don’t do it, you’re in violation of the Teachers Law and you can be punished. We’re supposed to be the best teachers in El Salvador now (laughs).

The teachers from Escuela Americana try to put all of these corporate things in your head. One day they told me, “Well you don’t have to be very strict in English classes. They can learn English in the United States. They just have to be prepared to go to work.” We have been taking classes there for one year. We’re supposed to be receiving international credentials, which will allow us to work anywhere. They’re graduating 600 teachers in El Salvador every year.

We tried to support the elections but the government was supervising us very strictly through the school. I think the school was trying to keep us busy so that we couldn’t work as much as we wanted to on the campaign. Salvadoran teachers are known for being in the streets, talking to people and trying to get them involved. We’re paying a very high price for the FMLN victory. ARENA is punishing teachers right now; they’re saying that we’re the ones who gave the Salvadoran people the direction to vote for the FMLN, as they always do.

UDW: Recently there has been some confusion surrounding the health and cohesion of ANDES 21 de Junio. Can you explain what’s happening?

CA: Some members of the union have been trying to sow division within the group. This is happening throughout various public sectors right now, such as STISSS (the public health care workers union) and ANDA (the public water sector). Our official Board election was last December but some members held a separate election two months later, which was recognized by the ARENA government. These people are trying to divide us.

Maybe the whole point is that someone wants to be General Secretary of the union and has to get other people out of the way. People fight for positions. Remember when the KPFK board in Los Angeles held elections? They were doing the same thing. So many people want to be in the front. And maybe, as I said, some people are most interested in dividing us.

Now that the FMLN is in office, we will be able to resolve some of these issues. We’ll have a new Minister of Education. Also, the FMLN can’t have two different ANDES at the table making conflicting demands. We want one ANDES – the one chosen by the union, not the government. After the inauguration in June, the new government will have to call both groups and say, “Build a strong organization.” We are not going to fight each other within ANDES. We are going to keep organizing in our communities to fight the right wing agenda.

UDW: What are your thoughts so far about the transition of government from ARENA to FMLN?

CA: We’re very concerned. The outgoing ARENA (National Republican Alliance) government is making sure that they leave the country bankrupt so that the FMLN has no money to work with. Here’s just one example: after the elections were over, the ARENA government announced that they could no longer pay subsidies to the public sector to offset costs of electricity, bus fare and gas. For months, people were paying $15 per month for electricity. Now we’re paying $40-50. They’ve just announced that they are going to raise the rates even higher.

The energy bill I received for March says “Customer, the Corporation didn’t charge you for the adjustment of commercialization or distribution in this month’s bill. In April, this charge will be applied.” Can you imagine? This bill says that I owe them $78. I haven’t even received April’s bill yet. How much will they charge me? It says: “If you consume more than 99 watts per month, the adjustment for distribution will be approx. 21 cents per watt.” Imagine how much this would cost a big company who uses 25,000 watts per month! They’re not going to pay that money. So we’re essentially paying for the energy wealthy people and large industries are using.

I have the impression that the companies who were big contributors to ARENA’s electoral campaign are recovering the money they spent on the campaign through these rate increases. People were paying $15 per month and now they’re paying $50 – millions of people. This will go on until at least the end of May, when the new government discovers this. In one month, these private companies can collect $100 million from this little country. They lost the election but they didn’t lose their money.

There’s no way for people to denounce this because the old government is going and the new one is coming. The economic situation is crazy. People don’t know what they’re going to do. Let’s say that in the very beginning of June when the new government comes in, everything will be great. Let’s hope! But we don’t know if that is going to be true. Right now, there’s a problem with the transition. There are 4,000 ARENA party functionaries that have to be removed from their positions and replaced by FMLN functionaries. Who are these new people going to be? We don’t know. How long will it take for changes to be implemented? It might be 100 days or maybe one year.


Illustration by Equipo Maiz

UDW: What are your expectations of the FMLN government?

CA: Well, here is a statement we’re bringing to the FMLN as the International Forum of Teachers, Janitors, and other Workers in the Education System. Let me read it to you. It says:

Salvadoran Peoples’ demands of the FMLN government in its transition to power:

The electoral victory on March 15th ended a long historical process – hopes, fears, victories, defeats, blood, work and tears that our people have suffered in the historical process. Step by step we’ve opened another path in our country and the possibility of justice, human rights, life and peace.

The electoral victory is resonant of the people’s will. But politically, the victory by itself doesn’t ensure anything. The new government must do things differently. The Salvadoran people have to see tangible change. The economic situation in our country right now is that the system subjugates the people.

The FMLN victory represents the will for change in this country. It represents the demand for medicine in the hospitals and more doctors, schools, teachers, jobs, food, opportunity, dignity and respect.

The only way out for Latin America, in particular for El Salvador in this moment, is to deepen relations with the United States with respect and self-determination. Without submitting our country, we must also look for relations with new power poles such as Brazil, popular China, Russia, India, and Venezuela. If we don’t do this, the FMLN government will be a suicide project.

The Salvadoran people demand a strong fight against corruption. This means that we need honest public workers and for justice to prevail. During this time in which the new government is sharing the cake (making new appointments, allotments and concessions in its transition to government), the FMLN must share it equitably among the people and all of us should pay taxes, even the wealthy.

To save El Salvador, the FMLN must never compromise the social and human dimension of our people to neoliberal exploiters. This historical moment is unbelievably favorable for the Salvadoran people. The defeat of hegemonic, uni-polar Yankee imperialism will allow us reduce the overexploitation of transnational corporations and open the opportunity for multilateralism.

This is Part Four of a Series of Interviews Titled "What We Want: Voices from the Salvadoran Left."

Erica Thompson is a media correspondent for CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador).  To find out what you can do in the U.S. to support the people’s movement and to take action against U.S. intervention in El Salvador, visit: www.CISPES.org or call (202)521-2510.

[1] Neocolonialism in Central America: An Analysis by economist Raúl Moreno: http://www.cispes.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=523&Itemid=60
[2] Mélida Anaya Montes (Comandante Ana María) and BPR, ANDES 21 de Junio: http://eltorogoz.net/melida_anaya_montes.htm
[3] CARECEN: http://www.carecen-la.org/
[4] History of ANDES 21 de Junio: http://www.ecumenico.org/leer.php/1284