American Friends Service Committee
Patrica Watson, Editor
Sara Burke, Assistant Editor
Pat Farren, Founding Editor
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Peacework has been published monthly since 1972, intended to serve as a source of dependable information to those who strive for peace and justice and are committed to furthering the nonviolent social change necessary to achieve them. Rooted in Quaker values and informed by AFSC experience and initiatives, Peacework offers a forum for organizers, fostering coalition-building and teaching the methods and strategies that work in the global and local community. Peacework seeks to serve as an incubator for social transformation, introducing a younger generation to a deeper analysis of problems and issues, reminding and re-inspiring long-term activists, encouraging the generations to listen to each other, and creating space for the voices of the disenfranchised.
Views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of the AFSC.
El Salvador: A US "Forward Operating Location"
John Lamperti, who taught mathematics and statistics at Dartmouth College, is a member of AFSC/NERO Regional Program Committee. He is working on a biography of Enrique Alvarez.
In El Salvador's history there are plagues which repeat, with variations, decade after decade. An ancient plague is that of earthquakes. A contemporary plague is United States intervention.
The US military is back. An agreement signed with the right-wing ARENA government last March allows the United States to establish a "Forward Operating Location" (FOL), in the form of a military airbase, at El Salvador's Comalapa international airport. In July the National Assembly approved the agreement by a narrow majority, and construction of the base, which will cost more than $10 million, began in early fall.
US forces stationed in El Salvador will maintain a low profile, at least in the beginning. Only a few aircraft will be based there, supposedly to fly anti-drug patrols. But under the agreement the US military presence is virtually open-ended. Already US trainers are working with El Salvador's civilian police, and US military helicopters ferry police units to rural locations throughout the country. North American military personnel may wear uniforms and carry arms, and there is no limit to their numbers, the type of weapons they can have, or to the number of US aircraft which can be based at Comalapa. US personnel will enter and leave El Salvador without immigration formalities or control by national authorities. This agreement is to last for ten years, and can be renewed.
What's in it for the United States? The rationale is that the new FOL is for fighting the drugs which circulate in and pass through Central America, but broader purposes are easy to make out. Since the end of the Cold War and the loss of its bases in the former Panama Canal Zone, the US military has needed new excuses and new tactics to maintain its influence in Latin America. The "war on drugs" has been the key. According to the head of US Southern Command, "We realize in a diplomatic sense this plan [the El Salvador base] is counter-drug only. As a practical matter, all of us know the agreement will give us a superb opportunity to increase the contact with all our armed forces in a variety of ways." In particular, the Salvadoran FOL is an important part of "Plan Colombia" and will help the United States keep a close watch on that nation's guerrilla forces.
It is less clear why Salvadorans would welcome this sort of US presence. In fact, a great many of them don't. El Salvador's largest opposition party, the FMLN, has fought against the base agreement, insisting that it violates the spirit of the country's 1992 peace accords. The FMLN also charges that the Assembly's approval was unconstitutional since agreements affecting national sovereignty require a 3/4 vote; a formal complaint is pending before the Salvadoran Supreme Court. Many popular organizations and NGOs oppose the base too, while its support comes from the political right and the military. To understand why this is so we need a glimpse at recent history.
Twenty year ago, as El Salvador descended into a decade-long civil war, the US was backing that nation's repressive military and "security" forces despite the pleas of Archbishop Oscar Romero and others not to send military aid. Efforts at reform were defeated and the leaders of the Armed Forces held the real power of government, operating behind a thin civilian facade. During the devastating and bloody war of the 1980s, the United States provided training, weapons, money, and political support to the government's army and police. The women and children massacred at places like El Mozote (1981), and the Jesuit priests murdered in 1989, faced US trained and advised "elite" troops armed with US weapons. Villages were bombed by US aircraft; troops were airlifted in US helicopters. Today the same A-37 bombers and helicopters are flying overhead once again.
The 1992 peace treaty offered hope that real change might at last be possible. Among other things it was agreed that the military would be curbed and reduced in size, while a new, civilian, police force was to take over internal security. The Army's only function would be the defense of El Salvador's borders against threats from (non-existent) external enemies. And, of course, there would be honest elections.
Some of that has happened, but not all. The army was greatly reduced, the most abusive units were disbanded, and the civilian police created. But there was no G.I. Bill of Rights to help the tens of thousands of ex-soldiers and ex-guerrillas rebuild their lives, and they found few opportunities in the dysfunctional peacetime economy. The predictable result has been extremely high levels of violent crime. The new civilian police is unable to respond adequately, and on grounds of a "national emergency" soldiers have again been helping "keep order" in the countryside.
And elections? The rightist ARENA has held the presidency since the civil war, and has clearly failed to solve the nation's critical problems of crime and wide-spread poverty. But the ex-guerrillas of the FMLN have organized an effective political party which now holds a large minority of seats in the national legislature and controls many city governments, including the capital and its suburbs. The FMLN has a strong chance to take over the presidency in the next election.
Meanwhile, the majority of Salvadorans continue to live in poverty
and to lack the basics for a dignified life: adequate nutrition,
housing, education, medical care. They are traditionally a hard-working
people, but decent jobs are scarce. Ten years of right-wing government
have produced little progress, and new approaches are urgently
needed. The Salvadoran people may be preparing to make some fundamental
changes. The very least the United States can and should do for
them is to get out of their way. The US FOL at Comalapa airport
is a giant step in the wrong direction.
Picking up after Disaster
Here in El Salvador, the ruling conservative government of ARENA brought no recovery plan to the donors meeting recently in Madrid. The position of the government here is steadfastly neoliberal: market forces will automatically organize reconstruction and recovery. Hence the package of aid from Madrid is a series loans for further privatization of the economy, that, among other things, makes no allowance for small farmers or small businesses.
To help market forces to do this, the government has abolished the Ministry of Public Works, idling nearly 7000 workers and technicians and hundreds of pieces of equipment. With the rainy season now only weeks away and roads, culverts, retaining walls, and major drainage works all in desperate need of repair, cleaning, and maintenance, the government has at a stroke slowed such activity to a snail's pace. In theory private contractors here will eventually take over all these functions of a Ministry of Public Works. But not before flash floods ravage a population that has already suffered hurricane Mitch, cholera and dengue epidemics, la Nina drought, forest fires, and the recent series of earthquakes.
You do not have to be a rabid "globofobico" (globaliphobe--as neoliberalism contraries are referred to in Mexico) to see that this is an insane policy.
--Ben Wisner, Oberlin, Ohio
For further commentary along this line, see the RADIX web site, <www.anglia.ac.uk/geography/radix>