Water

One of our nine days in El Salvador was set aside for field trips. I chose to visit Isla Espiritu Santo, a large island in a tidal estuary two hours southeast of San Salvador. Our mission: learn about the CIS sponsored water filtration program for the 375 families that call the island home.

The further from the city we went, the flatter the terrain became: We were entering the coastal plain where the dominant crop is sugar cane. San Miguel volcano loomed in the not very far distance, the ash falls of recent months on hiatus for now.

The thing about an island is that it’s surrounded by water, which necessitates a boat ride. You know what a stretch limousine is, right? In Puerto el Triunfo we boarded a stretch row boat, the Karen Elizabeth I, with rows of planks for seating, a canopy overhead, and an outboard motor for propulsion.

boat  We skimmed across the water, grateful for the breeze that tempered the piercing sun and humid air.

quayTwenty minutes later we maneuvered alongside a concrete quay surrounded by thick mangrove forests.

Luis, a CIS staff member and our guide for the day, led us along a dusty track to the village where most families lived. Housing ranged from poor to modest.  IMG_1520

Brightly painted evangelical churches stood out by comparison.IMG_1521

Bikes, not cars or trucks, were the most common wheeled conveyance. Carts attached to the front carried all manner of things–including pigs.

pig

As has been the case in almost all the community development projects I’ve visited in my two visits to El Salvador, women were in charge.

mujeres

We sat on plastic chairs in Marta’s bare dirt yard as she and Luis talked H2O. With a water table only four feet below ground level, no sewage system, and flooding during rainy season, residents had been drinking murky, contaminated water that resulted in chronic diarrhea, parasitic illnesses, and bacterial infections.

Luis 2

It took a couple of tries before CIS found what the community needed: a simple water filter that was long-lasting, easy to clean, and could quickly produce 3 to 4 gallons of clean water. Most of the island’s families now use them.

spigotAnother NGO, Water for the World, provided two, large-capacity UV sanitizing systems–one for the neighborhood school, another for the state run medical clinic.  Anyone can access the water at these sites. This is one of the spigots at the school.

The clinic’s MD told us that having clean water has significantly reduced the incidence of diarrhea among community residents.

el medico

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Several of the women involved with the water filtration program have started another venture. The primary employer on the island is a coconut cooperative that’s been in business since 1979. Though the crop is primarily used to produce oil, with microfinancing help from CIS, a small collective has begun using some of the coconut to make dulces–sweets–which they hope to market on the mainland. Getting their kitchen certified and transporting their product are just two of the challenges they face.IMG_0245

 

 

 

 

 

The milk they use in some of the dulces is local–very local: the cows live across the street from the candy kitchen.IMG_1515

lunch  We returned to Marta’s house for lunch, cooked in her outdoor kitchen: freshly made gorditas (thick corn tortillas), rice and fish probably caught that morning.

coconuts   After lunch, they opened young coconuts for us to sample the fresh “milk.” Much better than the packaged product found in our natural food stores!

Our visit left me with the realization that clean water is critical for reducing poverty in developing countries. Bad water means children become ill and can’t concentrate or miss school altogether; they suffer from nutritional deficiencies because of malabsorption; they may be prone to other debilitating illnesses. The technology exists; we just have to make it possible for people to use it.

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Election Day album

Some photos that didn’t fit into my report on Sunday’s election.

baby

[Voters are assigned to JRV tables alphabetically. Here a family scans the list posted outside the centro de votacion for their names.]

lists  [Voter lists for each JRV were posted outside their assigned site. Vigilantes helped get voters to the correct room.]

 

waiting[Lines formed and people waited patiently in the heat. No JRV has more than 500 registrations and wait times weren’t long.]

elderly  [Boy and Girl Scouts helped voters find their names on registration lists and aided the elderly and infirm. (At some sites, poll workers and police officers had to carry wheelchair-bound voters up flights of stairs. El Salvador isn’t very far advanced in the accessibility area.)]

dog & baby

[Everyone shows up on Election Day!]

Election Day

Sunday was Election Day; we hit the road at 4:15 a.m., hoping to arrive before the centro de votacion opened at 5.

Due to illness, our team had been reduced to five, which left us down to just one person conversant in Spanish. We decided to stay together at one site, the Centro Escolar P. Nicolas Aguilar, located in Tonacatepeque proper.

Delayed by an unexpected ramp closure, we arrived at 5:15 to find the school gate unlocked, lights blazing and at least eight police officers guarding the front door. Inside, scores of red vested FMLN volunteers buzzed through the school’s central, open-air pavilion and along the corridors leading to the sixteen classrooms designated as polling stations.

We introduced ourselves around, then each of us selected a classroom and joined the waiting FMLN vigilantes and election officials.

JRV #2509

[JRV #2509, 5:15 a.m., February 2, 2014]

Then we waited, too. Nothing could move forward until all the JVR members and vigilantes (monitors) from the three major parties were in place and their credentials examined. In my room, the ARENA monitors arrived at 5:40. We didn’t have all members of the JRV (Junta Receptor de Votos, credentialed poll workers) until 6 and the UNIDAD vigilante waltzed in at 6:12.

certifying

[JRV president inspects vigilantes’ DUIs.]

Finally, at 6:40 a.m., the JRV president and vigilantes of all the parties accompanied the paquete—sealed box with ballots, forms and other supplies—to our room with much fanfare.

paquetes

[Sealed storage room is opened & paquetes distributed.]

Open the polls at 7 a.m.? Not a chance. Among other things, the JRV secretary had to count all 500 ballots–8 1/2 x 11 sized-sheets imprinted with insignias of all the parties– and complete a complicated form then signed by all officials and vigilantes.

opening

[JRV secretary counting ballots; president contemplating complicated forms.]

Because police at the school were assigned to our room to vote, and they vote after poll workers but before all others, the first civilian didn’t get in until 8:05. (N.B. Regulations say officers are to leave their guns outside the room and they all complied.)

voting

[Voting begins at JRV #2509.]

But tardiness is different from coerced votes and stolen ballots, none of which we saw. Registration lists include every voter’s DUI photo and DUIs were carefully scrutinized; people trying to vote with lapsed DUIs or late registrations were turned away. We saw at times confusion about exact procedures; multiple layers of supervision by the parties, attorney general’s office, TSE, the local and departmental electoral boards meant that questions were  answered. (Sometimes  after loud, though rarely antagonistic, discussions.)

[The dozen teams in other municipalities later confirmed this  general observation as well as shared our concerns about overly aggressive vigilantes, voting booths with inadequate privacy, accessibility issues for the elderly and handicapped, and the need for more thorough training of JRV members.  The  only electoral aspect that completely flunked the test was the external voting schema for Salvadorans living outside the country: only 10,000 potential voters managed to jump through all the hoops necessary to register; half of those did not receive ballots and of the 3,000 or so ballots returned, many, many were annulled because the process so confused voters, and the JRVs back in San Salvador made inconsistent decisions about how to process not-quite-right  ballots.]

The team took a nap and lunch break midday, then we checked in on two other polling places. That empty picnic pavilion we visited Friday in the neighborhood of Libertad? It had been magically transformed into a working, six-table site complete with port-a-potties and TSE workers equipped with scanner, printer, and laptop with internet hot spot.

picnic

TSE

[TSE workers at Libertad. Note the electronic gear: nothing special for the US but a miracle in El Salvador.]

We were back at Aguilar school by 4:10 to watch the vote count –what they call the escrutinio, the scrutiny– when the polls closed at 5 p.m.

Monitoring can sometimes feel like watching paint dry, but I felt honored to be present as the JRV president unfolded ballots one by one and held them up to all to see, front and back so that we could verify each had the JRV secretary’s seal and signature.

counting

Little more than 25 years ago, the Salvadoran government was killing its own citizens and the FMLN was shooting back. Yesterday, though everyone was hot and tired, they worked together agreeably following rules that prevented fraud.

If only that were the end of it! Before anyone left, the secretary had to fill out several complex forms; one had 8 carbon copies! Try doing that after a 14 hour day. Eventually, forms completed, ballots and other paraphernalia were sealed back into the paquete, which was marched to the TSE office along with the official, signed tally for transmission to TSE HQ. At 7:20 p.m., we were done.

Preliminary results:  Sanchez Ceren (FMLN): 48.9 %, Norman Quijano (ARENA): 38.9%  Since the constitution calls for a 50% + 1 win, a second round of voting will take place in early March.

Reality bites

sign

If yesterday was the electoral ideal, today was the reality.

After a morning spent with vice-presidential candidates, our team grabbed a sack lunch (Subway sandwiches!) and boarded a minivan for Tonacapeteque.

First stop: a meeting with el presidente and his alternate –president of the Junto de Electoral Municipal, that is. He and his committee are responsible for organizing elections in their district; positions are split among the various political parties. (The idea being that since no one trusts anyone else, one party will keep the other honest.)

Both were ordinary joes, welcoming and friendly. If they had party loyalties, they kept them hidden and focused on the task at hand.

Several locations worried them, they said; would we like to check them out? We were there to troubleshoot, so sure. Pablo, the alternate, jumped in the van with us and we took off.

Twenty minutes later we were in suburb called Alta Vista at what looked like a construction site along side a collection of small shops under a common roof. The open air pavilion up the hill was to house six of the site’s nine voting stations. But the only evidence of a pending election was a “Vote Here” banner and prohíbe de fumar signs.

alta vista

[Pablo, Tom Nagle, our team leader, and Dorothy Christ.]

A few lights had been installed but weren’t live, tables and chairs weren’t on site, and the cardboard voting booths, which should have arrived Wednesday, hadn’t.

At a second site in a neighborhood known as Libertad there was even less: an empty picnic pavilion, no bathrooms and no water. The good news was that when I flicked a switch, two naked overhead bulbs —just installed– flashed on.

libertad

Things were better in town. Pablo led us into a school: the roofed inner courtyard would be able to accommodate the 13 voting stations; water, electric lights, and bathrooms were at hand.

The classroom sealed with masking tape (no lock, just the tape) was the really important piece, however. Peering through a window, we could see stacks of paquetes electoral, boxes that held numbered ballots, registration lists, official stamps, and the indelible ink used to mark voters’ thumbs, enough for every voting station at all 12 centros de votacion.

boxes

That’s why the two uniformed officers of the national police force were standing by and why two party volunteers—one from ARENA, one from FMLN—had being hanging around all day: to make sure no one did anything they shouldn’t with the ballots. They would watch through the night, too, and until the room opened at 3 a.m. Sunday morning when boxes would be distributed to the centers.

vigilantes  Los Vigilantes.

We’ll return to Tonacatepeque tomorrow for courtesy calls on the mayor and other officials and strategize about how to distribute team members among the voting sites. Then we’ll go back to the hotel and get as much sleep as we can before we leave for the polls at 4 a.m. Sunday.

Training day

Thursday morning, officials of the Tribuno de Supremo Electoral (TSE) walked us through El Salvador’s legally-required voting procedures and in the afternoon, we role played with actual voting booths and equipment. TSE’s head man, Sr. Eugenio Chicas Martínez, even stopped by to give us a pep talk.

Chicas

Mind-numbingly detailed though the procedures are, I found the process fascinating. Winner-take-all elections may not be the best form of democracy, but I felt good knowing how hard the TSE has worked to assure every citizen a vote. Check out their website: http://www.tse.gob.sv/

We’ve been divided into observation teams scattered across six of El Salvador’s 14 departments [states]. Sunday morning at 4 a.m. I leave for Tonacatepeque –about 45 minutes northeast of San Salvador— with the other members of my seven-person team. (I’m still working on pronouncing Tonacatepeque.)

Tonacatepeque will have 12 voting centers. Each center could have as many as 12 voting stations. Clearly we can’t look over everyone’s shoulders, but the political parties will also have their vigilantes. (That’s what their monitors are called, really.)

The Centros de Votacion will open at 7 a.m. and close at 5 p.m. We’ll arrive in time to oversee set-up starting at 5 a.m.and stay until counting is completed after polls close. Since only presidential candidates (who run on a single ticket with their vice-presidential hopefuls) are on the ballot, we may finish before midnight.

Here’s something cool: Every municipal election board has facilities to scan or fax vote tally sheets to the TSE. These will be posted on the internet in real time. (Or should be: Their dry run produced a 12% failure rate.)

No Salvadoran can vote without presenting their official, photograph ID, the Documento Unico de Identidad, usually referred to as a DUI, which is pronounced doo-ee. I hear that and try not to to think of Donald Duck.

Other initials I ought to know: JRV, JEM, JED, JVE, PNC. Of those, the three person JRV (Junta Receptora de Votos) is the one I’ll be most involved with. They’re the team that presides at every voting station to certify voters and shepherd them through the voting process.

A final note: Estimates are that 60% of El Salvador’s registered voters will turn out. Would that we could expect the same in U.S. elections!

*****

Our mock Election Day. role play

vigilante  Some of the players really got into their roles.

Elections, human rights & pupusas

Electoral politics and human rights were our topics today, led by Antonio Martinez-Uribe, political science professor at the Universidad de El Salvador, and David Morales, the Salvadoran Human Rights Procurator.

Election  basics: There are 5 presidential candidates.  Two from minor parties I’ll dismiss right now to keep things simple. The three major parties are ARENA, FMLN, and UNIDAD.

ARENA (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista)is the party of the Right, which was in power before, during, and after the civil war (1979-1992). Their candidate is Norman Quijano, currently mayor of San Salvador.

FMLN (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional) was the coalition of Leftist guerrilla forces during the civil war that became a political party after the peace accords. The FMLN won its first presidential election in 1999 by a slim margin of 70,000 votes. The current Vice President, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, a 70-year-old former guerrilla comandante, is FMLN candidate.

The UNIDAD candidate is former president Tony Saca, (2004-2009).  In the wake of the 2009 FMLN election, Saca was expelled from ARENA and formed another party, which has since merged with two other center-right groups to form UNIDAD.

The country’s Supreme Court has heard challenges to the candidacies of both Tony Saca and Sanchez Ceren, but says they will not rule until after the election.

This counter-intuitive decision has led to various conspiracy theories, according to Martinez-Uribe, the most obvious being that should Sanchez Ceren win, the court will invalidate his victory. There is also fear that should they lose, ARENA has a Plan B: a military coup, as occurred in Honduras and Paraguay after elections in 2009.

Are these paranoid fantasies or active conspiracies? It’s hard to know, but both Martinez-Uribe and El Salvador’s Human Rights Procurator, David Morales, noted that any such tendencies are balanced by the obvious maturity of the country’s civil institutions and electoral process.

The peace accords established the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE), tasked with guaranteeing fair elections. Since then, the TSE has initiated a series of reforms that now include country-wide voting in local municipalities (instead of regional centers), registration with standardized photo identity cards, and allowance for voting by Salvadorans living abroad.

Established at the same time as the TSE, the procurator’s office investigates and reports on human rights violations, though it has no power to prosecute perpetrators. They are closely monitoring this election and Morales disclosed that his office will shortly place newspaper ads critical of how ARENA and UNIDAD are using internal security as a campaign issue. “They are calling for a return of ‘Mano Duro’ [the militarization of anti-gang enforcement]. This did not work for El Salvador when tried before and they are playing upon fears with simplistic arguments.”

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Morales, however, spent most of his two hours with us discussing the 1993 amnesty law, which protects those who committed human rights violations during the civil war, and the Tutela Office for Human Rights, abruptly dismantled in December by the Catholic archbishop.

Of the former, the procurator noted that in 2000 the Inter-American Court ruled that the amnesty law violated the Inter-American Charter of Human Rights and, more recently, determined that the law should not apply to the most serious violations, such as the El Mazote massacre. El Salvador’s own Supreme Court has called for nullification of the law, but, Morales said, even if the law is nullified, new legislation could not be applied retroactively, a conundrum.

The Tutela Office, which investigated and pursued human rights violations, held valuable archives documenting abuses; victim advocates have feared for the security of these materials. Morales told us that neither his office nor victims have been able to gain access to the documents. The Attorney General’s office, however, was given two weeks to comb through the files, panicking victims of gang violence who feared their testimony would be leaked.

Because of protests, the archbishop has been forced to re-establish an office for human rights. The Tutela Office was funded by international NGOs; the new entity will not be as independent and it remains to be seen what that means for victims and their allies.

*****

A day full of this sort of talk called for a respite. We left at 4 p.m. for Cafe Miranda, located on a former coffee plantation on the side of the San Salvador volcano.

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I’ve had better pupusas in L.A., but the view was lovely and we had time to socialize with other members of the CIS delegation, some 80 strong from 14 different countries. Here are four of the Pasadena group: Roland Christ standing next to his grandmother Dorothy Christ, me, and Pam Brubaker. A good example of the wide age range in this group!

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Gracias

“Gracias por ayudarnos,” the students said as they stood, one by one, to introduce themselves.  Thank you for helping us. They addressed their remarks to the nine-member delegation from Pasadena, who had traveled the 60 km. northwest from San Salvador to the municipality of San Pablo Tacachico to meet  them. image

Recognizing that access to education was one of El Salvador’s persistent problems, CIS  four years ago inaugurated a scholarship program in Tacachico. This year, 23 people –7 university students and 16 high school students– have been able to attend high or college because of the scholarships. A dozen communities benefit from similar CIS-facilitated programs. Each is supported  an international solidarity partner that raises the funds. A Pasadena area group, a number  of whom attend All Saints Church, partners with San Pablo Tacachico.

The scholarship students attend  monthly meetings, are shepherded by a committee of peers and CIS staff, and participate in CIS youth formation program that includes a social action project. Judging from the  bubbly, dark-haired young women and rather more somber young men we met, their formation is proceeding well. Ten students graduated last year; 27 students will  receive scholarships next year. That’s $25 a month for high schoolers, $75 for university students who have to pay for transportation into San Salvador. image Just as the group was about to break for lunch, a member of the Pasadena group leapt to her feet and signaled to the organizer that she had something to say.  “On behalf of all of us, I want to say that just as you thank us, we thank you for being the future of El Salvador.” Once the words were translated, the students smiled.

*****

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CIS, concerned to foster financial autonomy for women, first came to San Pablo Tacachico seven years ago to help women form a co-op: Asociacion Municipa de Mujeres Guadalupana ADEMGUAPE. The coop now has 100 members who run a small farm and maintain 1,000 egg-laying chickens. At lunch we discovered what the coop does with hens past their prime: image

*****

After our not-from-KFC lunch, we had a chance to visit the local public high school. Notice the uniforms: light blue pants or skirts and white shirts. Under the FMLN administration, every student in K-9 receive free uniforms, shoes, and school supplies. Older students must buy their own, but here’s the upside: Their uniforms and shoes are not made in maquiladoras but by local cooperatives. Should the FMLN keep the presidency in this election, uniforms for older students will be free–and still co-op produced.

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We finished our day with visits to the homes of three scholarship students. They were as expected, only more so: adobe bricks, corrugated tin roof, old wells and newer outdoor spigots, chickens pecking in bare dirt yards, stacks of wood for the traditional outdoor stoves, skinny dogs, cats lounging in the oppressively humid heat, trash, and tiny, tiny dark living spaces.

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Idalia  lives with her younger sister and mother in a corner of her uncle”s house. One one side of their cubicle is a work space for Idalia; on the opposite wall is   a shelf a 2 burner propane cooker and dishes. Beyond a sheet draped as curtain the three women sleep. image image image image Morena’s mother welcomed us to their house, thanked us for the scholarship, adding, “Necessitamos mucho,”  we need much. To visit Jose’s house, the bus dropped us at the side of the paved road, and we walked down a dusty rocky rough road. He lives with his abuela, mostly blind but sitting on the patio to greet us, and six others. His mother died when Jose was 12. As with Idalia, a father wasn’t even mentioned. image These were not just simple but harsh circumstances. Yet they were tucked into El Salvador’s beautiful landscape and surrounded by large green and flowering tropical plants. The smell of wood smoke lingered. Some of us weren’t entirely comfortable with the visits. These are very, very poor people. How did they feel about 20 gringos looking into their limited quarters and outdoor sanitation facilities? We haven’t yet found an answer to that question.

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Final score: SOA Watch 2.5, SOA 2.5

For my final post, I’ll return to the core purpose of our delegation: Persuading Salvadoran government entities to help us close the School of the Americas by refusing to send members of their military to Fort Benning.

In addition to meeting with the Legislative Assembly’s Human Rights Commission, which I wrote about earlier, delegation members visited the military High Command and all of the candidates in next February’s presidential election (one of whom is the current vice president of the republic).

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Tony Saca Elías Antonio Saca González –more commonly known as Tony Saca–was president of El Salvador (2004-2009), but before that a radio personality who built a small media empire.

At headquarters for that empire, factotums ushered us into The Ultimate Conference Room, it’s dark paneled walls covered in plaques and photos of Saca with various presidents, prime ministers, and sheiks. One one wall hung an enormous photograph of Saca in full presidential regalia.

The vast glass conference table could seat 12 on a side in high-backed, black leather, executive swivel chairs, with more chairs against the walls. While we waited, a server brought us water or coffee along with trays of cookies and Health Valley granola bars.

I will say this: Saca knows how to work a room. When he entered, he shook hands with each of us, but I couldn’t help noticing that his brown eyes were dull.

Saca seated himself at the head of the table and assumed a practiced listening posture as Lisa and Roy explained the reason for our visit.

I typed copious notes as he spoke–everyone had earpieces through which we heard simultaneous translation–and afterwards was left with the impression of having heard a lot yet  very little.

His response to our requests re. the SOA: “I understood that the school was closed. Any Salvadoran military office going to the SOA is going there for professional training, with the new mindset of democracy. I don’t know what they teach or if anyone [from El Salvador] is there. President Obama must resolve this matter.”

He seemed to think that since the military was now under civilian control, there was no problem with having officers trained at the SOA, though he also seemed to suggest that when he was president again, his administration could review the country’s participation in the SOA.

I decided to score this as .5 for SOA; .5 for SOA Watch.

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Portillo Cuadra Since the ARENA party candidate had broken his foot, the vice presidential candidate, René Portillo Cuadra, met with us. The conference room at the ARENA office was no match for Tony Saca’s,* but central casting appeared to have conjured this candidate: He was handsome, photogenic, and oozed sincerity.

Portillo remains a puzzle. He had been attached to the FMLN; now he is running with the conservatives. He took great pains to explain that he is an attorney–his J.D. earned in Barcelona, he let us know–not a professional politician.

Portillo talked a good line about human rights and when asked, said that in his administration, El Salvador would send no troops to conflict zones (a handful of Salvadoran troops are now in Iraq), but then maintained that Salvadoran soldiers occupying Haiti were there for humanitarian aid (they’re actually armed members of a U.N. occupying force).  When asked if he supported the 1993 amnesty law that has provided cover for many human rights abusers, he said only that ARENA would support a national dialog to establish a consensus on the matter. “We have to analyze this as an administration.”

He was similarly vague about El Salvador’s relationship with the SOA. “Under law, we can investigate an individual if he is involved in criminal act or human rights abuse. But I have no way of knowing if an SOA participant is criminal or if SOA grads have committed crimes.”

Well, they have–and are.

Chalk one up for the SOA.

+++++++++++++++++++

The entire delegation could not attend our two other appointments so we designated small groups to be our representatives.

We sent the veterans in our delegation to meet with the military High Command. I was told that they politely listened to our emissaries, but clearly did not agree with our position and said so. They want a professionally trained officer corps and they believe sending soldiers to Ft. Benning is one way to accomplish that.

That they met with us at all was a coup (of the right kind), but SOA gets the win.

+++++++++++++++++

Sanchez Ceren  Vice President Salvador Sanchez Ceren is the third presidential candidate. I’m told that his conference room in the Presidential Palace wasn’t as grand as Tony Saca’s either, but Ceren was described to me as warm and gracious, even grandfatherly.

Unlike the current president, Carlos Mauricio Funes Cartagena, Ceren was an FMLN commandante during the civil war. Ceren is said to be much more in line with FMLN ideals than Funes.

Regarding the SOA, Ceren was definitely on the same page as we were and stated that under his administration, Salvadoran soldiers would no longer attend the SOA.

SOA Watch: 1

[Photo is from Ceren’s Facebook page]

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As you can see, much depends upon the outcome of next year’s presidential election. Father Roy visited El Salvador three years ago and we may have to return, either to hold the FMLN to its promises, persuade Tony Saca that a decision re. the SOA is not just Mr. Obama’s, or to chip away at ARENA’s infatuation with military power.

Even so, we left believing great progress was made.

 

*The ARENA food was better, however. Portillo rushed off after our meeting, but waiters handed us fruit drinks as we emerged from the conference room, then brought us small croissant sandwiches with an elegant chocolate crepe dessert. I felt some guilt as I ate food provided by an entity I neither liked nor trusted, and swear it did not influence my opinion. It was awfully good though.

Radio Victoria FM 92.1

IMG_0522 When we were in San Isidro with the activist lawyers, I thought we were in the country, but after lunch we went even further into the mountains, to a town almost on the border with Honduras: Victoria, home of a community-run FM radio station.

On the third floor of Radio Victoria’s substantial brick building, we met with Oscar Beltrán. No, he’s not the managing director or anything like that; he’s a member of the coordinating team. Radio Victoria has banished vertical power structures.

Oscar told us that Radio Victoria was founded in 1993, after the peace accords were signed, more or less modeled on Radio Venceremos, the FMLN’s medium of communication during the war. Perhaps that’s why the government labeled FM 92.1 and others like it “communist,” which made the community wary.

IMG_0520“We wanted to make a contribution to the democratization of the nation and that meant talking about all the problems that remained. The government said ‘Peace has arrived!’ and we said, ‘How can that be? There’s no health care, no clean water. Where is the psychological treatment that survivors need?’”

The station made great effort to go to surrounding communities to ask what they needed and to invite them to participate. “We walk where the community walks,” Oscar said. “If you can read and write, you can come here and learn how to work in radio. ”

People were beginning to trust the station when, in 1995, the government ordered all  community radio stations to close shop. The government confiscated all the equipment, knowing it would be expensive to replace.

“People wanted to know what had happened, but we couldn’t explain because we couldn’t broadcast.”

Even so, a protest march in San Salvador drew three busloads of people from their part of Cabañas. Members of the U.S. Congress wrote public letters in support. The ban was reversed.

But now the government decreed the stations would have to bid on broadcast frequencies, an expensive proposition. Foreign donors helped the stations raise $300,000. Then the government said, sorry, no frequencies are available.

So the stations sent three colleagues dressed as businessmen to the capital to apply for a broadcast frequency–and they were able to obtain FM 92.1.

By working together through the Association of Participative Radios and Programs of El Salvador, multiple stations –there are now 17– have been able to share that one frequency.

Since 2006, staff and people associated with Radio Victoria have received numerous death threats because not only did they report on the mining controversy in Cabañas, but took a position against mineral mining.

In 2007, Pacific Rim Mining Corp. tried to buy off the radio station by offering to finish constructing Radio Victoria’s building and to purchase $8,000 in advertising time (the station was operating on $1,000 a month at the time).

The station turned them down. “We said that people make the radio, not money,” Oscar told us.

Threats and harassment became epidemic in 2009: text messages, phone calls, emails, notes slipped under the door, stalking, stake-outs at the station and home. The station’s transmitter was sabotaged. In midyear, Marcelo Rivera was murdered and the danger escalated. For the last six months of 2009 at least 15 people slept at the station every night and patrolled outside.

The threats continue to this day.

About this time in Oscar’s presentation, I reflected on the infighting that goes on around our local Pacifica radio station in the U.S. Most of these arguments are ideological. What if people had to deal with the life or death stuff that the Radio Victoria staff and volunteers deal with? Those other squabbles sure look puny by comparison.

As if death threats weren’t enough, money has always been a problem for Radio Victoria as for Pacific stations. They do take advertising, but are very selective. No alcohol ads, for example.

Even if they could afford to hire journalists, they couldn’t afford a vehicle to transport them, so they turned to youth and trained them in news gathering. Youth are the core of their reporting staff. Twenty-three staff members get only small stipends for food and transportation.

Yet, somehow, Radio Victoria stays on the air, broadcasting from 4 a.m. to 11 p.m. at FM 92.1 and radiovictoriaes.org.IMG_0521

El Dorado

imageA second grassroots struggle for justice engaged us on Saturday, March 23: fighting against mineral mining in Cabañas department, which is in the northeast of El Salvador bordering Honduras.

Our guides to the region were two attorneys embroiled in the struggle: Hector Barrios and Zenayda Serrano, who, along with their young daughter, accompanied us from San Salvador on the 90 minute drive to San Isidro, Zenayda’s home town.

The specific target of their campaign is Pacific Rim Mining Corp., a Canadian firm that has been prospecting in El Salvador since 1993. Their quest? Gold!

Which they found in abundance. Pacific Rim designated its find “El Dorado,” inadvertently suggesting the gold rush fever that enveloped certain sectors of the country.

But not others, such as the communities who would have to live with the consequences.

Getting gold out of the ground is a highly toxic process, using cyanide to extract the metal from ground rock. The 75 square kilometers for which Pacific Rim has an exploration permit lies within the Lempa River watershed. Almost half of El Salvador is covered by the Lempa river basin and more than three-quarters of the country’s population is located there. Damage to the river’s water quality would profoundly affect the nation.

Additionally, El Salvador is water-poor and exploration activities alone have resulted in local wells and water sources drying up. There is concern that mining would further deplete these limited resources.

IMG_0502Hector and Zenayda walked us through hilly San Isidro, a town of about 1100, past several beautiful murals created when a man named Marcelo Rivera was director of La Casa de Cultura.

imageThey told us how Marcelo used art and music to educate the citizens politically. He was something of a pied piper, drawing in the youths who blossomed under his nurture.

image Here is Wilfredo, one of those youths. Marcelo encouraged Wilfredo’s interest in rap music; an album of protest songs in rap was the result. Later on he gave us a sample of his work.

In front of La Casa is a large, paved area used in part as a basketball court. “Marcelo would get 1,000 people here,” Hector told us. “Which is why he was killed.”

In 2009, Marcelo was kidnapped, tortured and murdered, his body found at the bottom of a well, the first in a string of anti-mining activists who have met similar fates. Townspeople took what they had learned and used it to memorialize him in a mural on La Casa de Cultura. image

“The strength and conviction he had we continue,” Hector assured us.

Hector and Zenayda are affiliated with Movimiento Unificado Francisco Sanchez – 32,* known by its acronym MUFRAS-32, founded in 2001 to address social and environmental challenges. Because of their advocacy, they were victims of a home invasion by thugs who tied them up, took all of their documents and electronic equipment (cell phones, video camera, computers, etc.).

Protests and grassroots organizing by groups such as MUFRAS have turned the tide in El Salvador against mineral mining. Pacific Rim submitted an environmental impact statement to the Salvadoran environmental authorities in 2006, but a mining concession has yet to be granted.

Pacific Rim cried foul and, under CAFTA and El Salvador’s own investment laws, forced El Salvador to accept arbitration before the World Bank tribunal established to adjudicate international investment disputes.

The parties wrangled over jurisdictional issues for four years, with the government of El Salvador arguing that the company was not covered by CAFTA provisions, a point they eventually won.

It’s worth exploring this point in order to show how Pacific Rim operates. The company is Canadian and Canada is not party to CAFTA. For the Salvadoran project they  established a subsidiary located in –wait for it– the Cayman Islands, AKA, the biggest tax scam on the globe where there is neither income tax nor capital gains tax.

But when their concession application languished, PacRim suddenly moved the subsidiary to an office in Reno, Nevada. Their attorneys tried to argue that this made PacRim a U.S. business and thus eligible to file a complaint under CAFTA.

In 2012, the investment tribunal decided PacRim’s claim for damages can go forward, but only under Salvadoran investment law.

Eight Salvadoran environmental groups working on mining issues have come together in a coalition: the El Salvador National Roundtable on Mining. MUFRAS is one of the eight. The group filed an amicus brief in the case, prepared by the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL). It argues that Pacific Rim doesn’t actually have a legal dispute with the Salvadoran government, but a “disagreement with general, universally applicable shifts in Salvadoran public policy.”

In the interim, PacRim has ceased all but maintenance operations at El Dorado.

* Francisco Sanchez was a Salvadoran indigenous activist in the uprising of 1932.

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A coalition of North American groups has joined the anti-mining struggle as an ally. You can get more information here.

imageZenayda in front of a mural yet to be finished.

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