Speaking Out to a Crowd that Won’t Listen

Speaking Out to a Crowd that Won’t Listen

Photo by René Mayorga

On December 11, 1981, approximately 1,200 people gathered in the town of El Mozote. They rushed in from different parts of the country in response to a notification that food and medical aid would be distributed. However, at five in the morning, the Atlacatl Battalion stormed in and separated the people into groups of men, women, and children.  In that order, the Battalion murdered twenty individuals at a time, moving the dead bodies into huts and then burning them. The children, left for last, were murdered and burned in the church. Only one woman survived the massacre by running away after her baby was taken from her arms and murdered in front of her.

While this terrible atrocity was committed by Salvadoran citizens, their training came courtesy of the United States. At one point in the 1980s, the United States funneled $1,000,000 per day to El Salvador. These funds directly translated into military support the right-wing government during its twelve year long civil war against the left-wing guerilla army known as the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN).  Additionally, the United States sponsored government overthrows and rigged elections in order to ensure the suppression of the FMLN, a policy that came at the cost of 75,000 Salvadoran lives.

Thirty years later, the United States continues to have a significant presence in El Salvador. Although we are no longer directly funding military campaigns to slaughter groups of citizens or to murder Jesuit priests, our economic presence has the potential to come at the detriment of the people in the Bajo Lempa region of El Salvador.

Currently, the economic structure of the country is in a transitory position. El Salvador is waiting to see if their second compact from the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) will be signed. A compact is a grant from the corporation that is designated for certain development projects.  In order to receive the funding, U.S. Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte said that the passage of a Public-Private Partnership (P3) Law would be required. The law permits the government to outsource some services to private companies.On May 23rd, 2013, the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly passed the Public-Private Partnerships (P3) Law with all but one vote. Although El Salvador should be on its way to receiving the $277 million dollars in development aid that was promised, the United States is currently requiring amendments to the law. The second compact for El Salvador was approved by the MCC in September of 2013.  If it is signed, that money will be used for enhancing the investment climate, developing human capital to match skills of students with those demanded by international firms, and improving a critical coastal highway.

At first glance, all of these initiatives seem to strive towards a goal of improving El Salvador. However, I have learned from personally speaking with many groups in the Bajo Lempa tjat there is tremendous cost to these initiatives that is not being acknowledged. Communities are worried about access to certain public goods should they be included in the P3 law and are frightened by the possibilities of increased foreign investment if MCC compact is signed.

One of the first hesitations relating to the initiatives that many people in the Bajo Lempa were eager to discuss was the demand to amend the already passed Public-Private Partnership Law.  As of now, certain public goods – such as water, education, and health-care – are excluded from the requirements of the P3 Law. Should they be included, there is a valid fear that the privatization will result in a monopoly of these goods and make them even less accessible than they already are to some of the most marginalized communities.

Privatization schemes in El Salvador tend to affect the poorest sectors the most because private firms charge profit-maximizing prices which tend to make their product financially inaccessible for lower-income individuals. For example, El Salvador’s privatized landlines cost the public $30 per month. Meanwhile the neighboring country of Costa Rica has kept landlines public and at a lower monthly cost of $11.

Many people living in the Bajo Lempa spent years in refugee camps in Honduras or held positions in the FMLN guerrilla army.  As a result, many of the individuals living on the land feel that ownership came at the price of blood and are thus skeptical of privatizing water, education, and health care. Even now, before privatization, access to these goods is mediocre at best. Water is contaminated from years of cotton growth, access to free healthcare clinics is dependent on weather conditions, and education is plagued with quality and access issues. Increased health care, education, and access to clean water are all things that will improve the economy as a whole by creating individuals that have the physical and mental capacity to work at a higher level.  However, this type of economic reward is hard to turn into immediate profits for a company; the lack of incentive to ensure quality and affordable service to these communities can easily translate into reduced access to the few resources they have been able to attain. Thus, many small communities are against amending the 3P law to include education, health-care, and water.

Furthermore, the very idea of introducing more foreign investment through steps designed in the second compact of the MCC  is absolutely terrifying for some of these communities. Certain communities, such as El Chile and La Tirana,  live on the most extensive mangrove forest on the Pacific Ocean. To foreign development investors, this precious resource is seen as a prime tourism spot.  These communities argue that their methods of living off the forest is sustainable, but they cannot afford a legal team or scientists to prove that overdevelopment via tourism will destroy their forest and their livelihood.

The response by government has been to inform communities that they are welcome to be investors in these tourism projects.  In 2005, a law was passed that provided 100% tax breaks for ten years to those who make a minimum investment of $50,000 to tourism-related projects. However, multiple community presidents reiterated the lack of initial capital the community can accumulate to be such investors.  These small communities are not opposed to the idea of tourism, but most want to have the ability to control their own land, maintain their livelihood, conduct tourism in an ecofriendly way, and create a business that is beneficial to community needs.  If the second compact for the MCC is signed and the investment environment attracts foreign investors, these small communities living on the coast of El Salvador are scared that the land on which they live will be purchased and developed without their input and the natural resources they protect will be damaged.

Representatives from ACUDESBAL, the intercommunity association of united communities for social and economic development in the Bajo Lempa, noted that among the few government officials that have met with them, there was a strong emphasis that the citizens of this area simply needed to learn more about the benefits of foreign development. If these same officials had the opportunity to hear Naun speak about he reveres the mangrove forest as a symbol of God or with Don Chevo about his desire to plant organically and sustainably, perhaps they would recognize the communities’ abilities to analyze their own issues and brainstorm communal solutions focused on the most evenly distributed benefit for the community. Perhaps instead of using just under 300 billion dollars to increase foreign investment through a Millenium Challenge Corporation compact, we could help these communities find someone to listen to their voice.

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