What We Want: Voices from the Salvadoran Left – Oswaldo Natarén

This is Part Three of a series of interviews with members of El Salvador’s social movements titled “What We Want: Voices from the Salvadoran Left.”

Oswaldo Natarén is an artist, activist, and co-founder of the University Front of Roque Dalton (FURD), a leftist student group at the National University of El Salvador (UES).


Autonomia Mural: Oswaldo Natarén

Interview with Oswaldo Natarén of the University Front of Roque Dalton, National University of El Salvador

Oswaldo Natarén is an artist, activist, and co-founder of the University Front of Roque Dalton (FURD), a leftist student group at the National University of El Salvador (UES). Formed in 2002, FURD’s purpose is to actively challenge the University’s approach to administration, organization, admissions, and curriculum, as well as its overall role and participation in society.

The UES is El Salvador’s only public University and the school admits 45,000 students each year. Part of the FURD’s work is to help gain admissions for students who’ve been rejected by the University for various reasons, typically concerning lack of money and low test scores. The group also organizes with current students, campus workers, and professors to unify under the common goal of University reform. They envision “a University that reflects, critiques, and transforms society.”

A more in-depth interview with current members of the FURD is forthcoming. The purpose of this interview with Natarén, recent graduate and veteran youth organizer, is to give U.S. activists a brief introduction to the FURD’s analysis in a long history of oppression and resistance at the UES, a closer look at El Salvador’s coyuntura (situation, or combined political and social forces in play), and an understanding of organized leftist youth expectations of the FMLN.

UDW: Tell us a little bit about the founding of the FURD and why you chose Roque Dalton as a historic figure to identify with?

ON: The FURD was envisioned as a new chapter in the ongoing response of students in the National University to organize ourselves and to uncover the UES’ historic role in El Salvador’s revolutionary movement. The political project of the FURD arose in 2002 out of a collective need to continue that struggle. The group continues to explore and affect the life of the University through these objectives: to examine the other side of the history that is taught to us; to discover that there are many of us who think differently than the way society has trained us (as this is the case, we often think differently than one another); and to articulate both what the University’s role in society is at the moment and what it could be.

The group’s name is inspired by the revolutionary Salvadoran poet, Roque Dalton Garcia. Roque was an untiring social fighter, poet, and important political architect of the revolutionary movement in El Salvador. He completed his University training at the UES and then went on to create a great literary legacy in his time of struggle throughout the 1960s and 1970s, until his assassination at age 39. It was necessary to recover the name of this poet and his struggle because of the political and personal essence of his work.


Dalton Stencil: Oswaldo Natarén

The FURD was created with a clear leftist ideological intention – we wanted to be identified as part of the anti-imperialist struggle, in connection with academic political struggle. Our project changed measurably when we began to delve into the study of diverse theories that have guided different people’s struggles for human rights, but we have maintained our leftist essence. Our idea is to form a political student FRONT that incorporates University youth from various disciplines as well as University workers and faculty into the struggle. To me, the word UNIVERSITY implies our potential to come together in this institution and continue the historical legacy of the glorious Salvadoran student movement.

UDW: Describe El Salvador’s coyuntura leading into elections earlier this year. What are the social realities and political frustrations in the country that, for the present time, have translated into major political gains for the leftist FMLN party?

ON: Well, throughout the 20 years that ARENA
(National Republican Alliance) has ruled the country, Salvadorans have faced a very difficult situation. Poverty has increased under the ARENA government and policies of social exclusion have been maintained. When the government began implementing neoliberal policies in the mid-90s – including the privatization of banks, electricity, pensions and other institutions of social benefit – El Salvador entered a new period of economic crisis. Many compatriots have been forced to leave the country in search of a basic means of survival.

Dollarization and free trade – new instruments of the neoliberal agenda – have created fallout and have enhanced the crisis. Unemployment is a determining factor. We have a very large rate of unemployment this year, exceeding the rates of previous years. This is to say that every year, the ARENA government has increased unemployment in this country and, by extension, increased violence.

Violence in El Salvador has risen as a result of the disintegration of families and local economies. The government has not had a logical response. When violent crime increases, it is the role of the government to create plans to address root causes, not new ways to fight crime. The increased levels and the types of crimes being committed are the results of previously failed plans.

The Super Mano Dura (Iron Fist) plan has only increased violence and could not have had any other outcome. As a result of Mano Dura, more people have become gang members and the prison population has exploded. Criminal actions have become more complex, so that now we see a big rise in organized crime, which is one of the determining factors of how the ARENA party has governed.

This gives us a more complex picture of the conditions the four hundred thousand families in our country have to face. The informal sector is the largest source of work, which cannot be considered a generator of employment but rather a last resort for the unemployed.

During elections, political parties offer alternative solutions to social problems and this year the Left in the country, the FMLN, presented to the people a better plan. People like us-who are social activists and have been emerging throughout the many years of social struggle-have generated good expectations among the population as we have moved through and beyond the hard years of war by continuing to organize.

UDW: Given the history of State violence and economic sabotage in El Salvador, the political entrenchment of the right wing, and pressure from industrialized nations, what can the FMLN reasonably accomplish over the next five years that would be a marked shift away from the status quo and towards greater autonomy?

ON: The new government should be focused on throwing out the old schemes implemented by ARENA. ARENA has created a neoliberal system – a system that gives priority to individualism. The market gives priority to profit before anything


Illustration Courtesy of Equipo Maiz

else and the FMLN must change that. I was a child when the war was over, so I have lived through 20 years of neoliberalism. Now that the FMLN has won, they must focus on reversing the social abandonment policies of previous governments. They will have to wrestle with various perspectives to determine how that can be done.

With the creation of laws that undermine our power and by signing commercial treaties like CAFTA and big contracts for private megaprojects (U.S.-funded dams, mining projects, and the construction of a transnational highway – plans established through the Bush Administration’s Millennium Challenge Corporation goals), ARENA has violated El Salvador’s sovereignty. They have told us, rather than asked, what we want to develop in this country. So the new government must prioritize the social factor. It should be close to the people and respond to our interests.

At this point, the FMLN has said it will not consider breaking away from CAFTA or the U.S. dollar. I understand that this is an immediate strategy for the FMLN to accept real constraints of the existing power structure – but we hope that future FMLN governments will continue to investigate the loss of benefits we’ve experienced as a result of free trade and privatization, and soon determine another course.

UDW: What are some of the specific steps you think the FMLN government should take in the next five years?

ON: As a social activist who’s part of the leftist struggle, I don’t just want the FMLN government to lead for the next five years; I want it to govern for many more. But that possibility is not going to depend as much, at first, on the population as it will on the actions of the party. The party has to focus on educating people so that the people have the power. Mauricio Funes should know that only five years of an FMLN government would be a failure. The FMLN needs to lead for many more years in order to effectively transform El Salvador.

There are three fundamental aspects that should be a priority for the new government:

We need to return to and revive the agricultural sector – agriculture being an essential element that can bring about the development of rural families and can also change the troubled course this country is on. ARENA completely abandoned this sector, even while poverty increased. Because of this neglect, the country isn’t self-sufficient. We consume but do not produce. Through the agricultural sector, the FMLN government could guarantee food to the whole population while generating more jobs – and better jobs -so that people will no longer be forced to migrate.

The FMLN government must then move the foundations of education and create a structure for strengthening the population as a whole. Our country can be transformed through education. People must be educated – and be educated here, in El Salvador. If it is shown that the FMLN government is giving priority to social issues and is working for the people, the people will continue to support the FMLN.


Oswaldo Natarén

Third, the FMLN should strengthen the political system and teach people how the government works so that they know what the government is doing and why. People have to be informed of their rights – then they can understand and inform the system. You can see the example of this in Venezuela. The Venezuelan government has given priority to social issues. Because it has worked in the interest of the people, the people have supported the government.

By coming into consciousness, people can move the entire government system to benefit the whole population. We can create health brigades, literacy programs and crime prevention programs. We have to focus not only on writing these ideas down and knowing how to analyze the issues at hand but on actually reaching out to more people and moving awareness into collective action. This is the same population that, in later years, will be a strong social and political force.

We believe the need for change is great and that it will take some time for the FMLN to turn things around. But we also have immediate demands. We want to know that we will have protection and support when things go wrong. We want real social benefits, which to us are more than just political strategies. These basic expectations have been neglected by all of the previous governments. Now that the FMLN has an opportunity to lead, it must ensure our welfare; we believe that this will require, in addition to the things I’ve already mentioned, El Salvador’s integration with other countries in Latin America that are also on a path of social change: Bolivia, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Ecuador and Paraguay.

This is Part Three of a series of interviews with members of El Salvador’s social movements 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.