By Leigh Barrick and Sean O’Neill
Dominant media representations of Central America paint an overwhelmingly negative picture of the region, focusing on violence, gangs, and the travails of migrants headed north.
In the summer 2014, it was hard to miss the news that tens of thousands of unaccompanied children from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, as well as from Mexico, were being apprehended at the U.S.-Mexico border.
While media narratives capture some of the depth of these struggles, they still perpetuate the racist myth that Central Americans are either dangerous criminals or helpless victims.
The root causes of migration are generally framed as a Central American pathology, unconnected to an extensive and ongoing history of destabilizing U.S. political and economic interventions. We also hear very little about the strides being made towards greater social equality and democracy in the region — most notably in El Salvador.
We saw some of fruits of these progressive changes that have taken root over the past five years under the leadership of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). During a delegation earlier this month to San Salvador, El Salvador with the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), we met with social movement leaders and made election process observations that illuminated many underreported aspects of U.S.-Central American relations.
From the Monroe Doctrine up till today, the United States has ruthlessly shaped the political and economic reality of Latin America. El Salvador is no exception in this history. Spending over $1 million a day on military aid between 1980 and 1992, the Reagan administration made El Salvador a primary front for the Cold War. Between death squads and torture, the United States fueled the Salvadoran government’s program of militarized repression, including the infamous murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero.
With the signing of the Chapultepec Peace Accords in 1992, El Salvador entered a complicated stage of peace as the country entered the neoliberal global economy. The most glaring example of the U.S.’s economic relationship to the region manifests in the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which passed by only one vote. CAFTA helped privatize public services, trample on labor and environmental protections and rapidly escalate migration due to an increase of landlessness and poverty.
Under Obama, the legacy of the Monroe Doctrine has continued, albeit with a new arsenal of tactics. The Obama administration has normalized relations with Cuba while simultaneously accusing Venezuela of being a “national security threat.” As Obama makes dramatic policy decisions toward Latin America, El Salvador continues to be a neoliberal laboratory for the United States.
In El Salvador, the U.S. State Department has implemented the Partnership for Growth (PfG), which has been leveraged to pass the Public Private Partnership (PPP) law in El Salvador. Under the auspices of the PfG and the PPP law, there has been a major push to privatize public education, health care and water.
After a decade of armed struggle, the Peace Accords moved the social justice movement to a new stage of struggle. One of the primary reforms included honoring the leftist FMLN alliance as a legitimate political part. Before this, the FMLN was underground and deemed a “terrorist” organization. Since the Left in El Salvador entered the electoral arena, they have been able to achieve significant victories, most recently winning the presidency in 2014 and San Salvador’s mayoral seat in 2015.
In addition to winning political offices, a series of social reforms have served to advance the social movement’s vision. This has included the creation of a grassroots education program, community-based health care clinics, dignified services for women, as well as electoral reforms to curb corruption and expand participation.
The Family Agriculture Plan (FAP) is a powerful example of how grassroots-initiated policy is serving a vision of food sovereignty. Prior to this program, over 75 percent of corn and 85 percent of beans were imported, rather than grown domestically. Driven by corporations like Monsanto, El Salvador’s food system was in crisis, resulting in unsustainable and undemocratic farming practices.
To address this, the FAP reshaped the nation’s agriculture industry to prioritize domestic and non-GMO seeds for small-scale cooperative farms. Despite this program’s success, in 2014 the U.S. Department of State threatened to withhold development aid if changes were not made to the program (prioritize multinational corporations in the seed bidding process). This was met with on-the-ground resistance in El Salvador as well as a CISPES-led solidarity campaign, which resulted in the U.S. backing off.
Since 1980, CISPES has supported the Salvadoran people’s struggle to live and work with dignity — whether engaging in direct action protesting harmful U.S. foreign policies, or sending delegations and material aid to accompany and support the popular movement.
Most recently for us as CISPES organizers, solidarity means testifying to the transparency we observed in El Salvador’s electoral process, as well as the professionalism and dedication we encountered. At each voting table, poll workers from opposed political parties navigated a new voting system together, in which they calculated fractions of votes by hand.
Many poll workers spent a full 24 hours sitting at their tables. But as the long night wore on, we saw a remarkable level of cooperation in the meticulous counting process at the tables. The workers passed around snacks, commiserated about their fatigue, laughed together and gracefully finished their jobs.
We also witnessed a largely fair and accessible mayoral National Legislative Assembly and Central American Parliament (PARLACEN) election that spoke to the strengthening of El Salvador’s democratic institutions in recent years.
Solidarity with El Salvador continues to require a critical eye on the United States’ enduring role in the region – for example, how Obama’s nascent Alliance for Prosperity might support or undermine the wellbeing of Central Americans.
With the Tacoma Northwest Detention Center located squarely in our backyard, the Seattle CISPES chapter is also strengthening its work and connection with the vibrant grassroots struggles for migrant dignity and justice.
A great opportunity for Spanish speakers to get involved is CISPES’ upcoming July 2015 literacy brigade, which will support the Salvadoran Ministry of Education’s revolutionary National Literacy Program.
As we have learned from Salvadoran social movement leaders, the root causes of migration from Central America have extensive and complex histories that cross borders.
With popular media still influencing U.S. perceptions, it’s easy to forget the many reasons to be optimistic about the progressive changes going on in El Salvador — changes that promise to make migration a matter of choice, rather than an obligation, for young people.
To learn more, join us for “Lessons From El Salvador: Celebration and Report Back,” on Sunday, March 29 from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. in the Salvador Allende Room at El Centro de la Raza (2524 Sixteenth Avenue South in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood).
For more information, visit http://seattlecispes.org/ or email firstname.lastname@example.org.