Stepping outside of the air-conditioned airport at San Salvador one enters another world — a sultry land of tropical forests and volcanoes where thunderheads billow toward the heavens. The atmosphere itself seems to rise up from the verdant landscape of rolling coffee fields, banana trees, mangos and coconut palms, moisture steaming off la tierra, rolling all around you.
Once you catch your breath there is an unusual aroma, a virtual potpourri of tropical fruits, flowers and jungle. But there is something else in the air as well, vaguely suggestive of marijuana. No matter where one goes in El Salvador, one is engulfed by that fragrance: It is the scent of a smoldering fire.
My family and I spent nine days in El Salvador in 1997, staying with relatives in the working class barrios of Santa Ana and San Salvador. My wife, a Salvadorean, left her family in 1977, immigrating “illegally” to the United States where she hoped to earn enough money to support her mother and three brothers. When she arrived at the airport in San Salvador it was an emotional reunion: She had not seen one of her brothers for twenty years, and met many of her nieces and nephews for the first time. Her family had suffered incredible hardships in El Salvador during her absence, as had the entire nation.
During the civil war –which began in 1980 and did not end until December 31, 1992 — members of the National Guard roamed the working class neighborhoods and countryside in their fatigues and battle helmets, murdering entire families suspected of supporting the guerrillas of the Farabundo Martí Liberación Nacional — the FMLN (also known as El Frente). There was a curfew at night back then, and the songs of crickets were often drowned out by the screams of men and women who were tortured and mutilated by death squads who did their work with impunity. Children walking the dusty streets of their barrios on their way to school would often encounter the bodies of those they had heard screaming in the dark of night.
But things have changed since the peace treaty was signed five years ago. The National Guard has been disbanded, replaced by a National Police made up of former soldiers and men who had fought with the FMLN. The death squads have, with a few exceptions, disappeared as well, though many of those who organized them, including the man who murdered Archbishop Oscar Romero, remain free men. Policemen patrol the streets now, dressed in starched-white shirts and blue pants and caps, armed with pistols instead of M-16’s. Though there are still some officers who are corrupt (as there are in all nations) for the most part the only people who fear the National Police are criminals, which include members of gangs, many of whom were raised in the United States.
Gangs are a growing problem in the cities of El Salvador: Graffiti is often scrawled on walls in English, and members pledge allegiance to groups with names like the 18th Street Gang. Though there is no longer a curfew, most people dare not venture into the streets after dark, frightened by the activities of these criminal groups as well as others that are homegrown, composed of former soldiers and disgruntled guerrillas.
What Has Changed Since The End of the War?
Yet if you ask most Salvadoreans, many things have changed for the better since the end of the war. People can now say what they think without fear of reprisal. In fact, in the municipal elections of March 16, the FMLN — now a legal political party — won stunning victories across the nation, including the mayoral positions in the countries two largest cities, San Salvador and Santa Ana. In 1980, at the beginning of the civil war, the FMLN was characterized an evil agent of international communism. Now, seventeen years later, the most popular politician in the country is Hector Silva, the young, handsome and charismatic mayor of San Salvador elected as the candidate of the former guerrillas. If the national elections were held today, Mr. Silva, a doctor born in the United States, would very likely be elected president.
But despite such political changes, some things remain the same as they have for a century. Women still carry large, heavy baskets full of fruits and vegetables on their heads, walking calmly down the street, their arms at their sides. They pause in the dusty barrios and struggle to lower the baskets to the ground where neighbors buy tomatoes and chiles, celery and parsley, jocotes, lemons, papayas, and green mangos, all in plentiful supply. And in the countryside — even in a city like Santa Ana — it is not unusual to see men leading a pair of oxen down the street as they haul hand-made carts full of corn, sugar cane, wood, and other goods.
Even The Parrots Have Disappeared
Then there are the changes. Before the war, flocks of parrots babbled madly across the sky in huge, green clouds. They are gone now, having fled the country during the war to havens in nearby countries like Costa Rica. Iguanas, once a common sight, are rarely seen now, as are armadillos. No one knows if they were captured and sold in foreign countries or if they were simply the main course at dinnertime for one too many poor families. Dormilona, a fragile magical plant that appears to fall asleep when touched, is also difficult to find these days, though before the war it was as common as weeds.
Deforestation has become major problem facing El Salvador and is blamed for changes in the climate, including diminishing rainfall. Many mountains and hillsides that were once covered by pristine forests have been clear cut, thousands of acres leveled by the government during the war in an effort to deny guerrillas cover. Much of what remains of the forests is gradually being leveled to clear the way for cultivation, while other tracts of land are cleared by industry, especially foreign corporations building new factories in “special economic zones.” Cotton, once one of El Salvador’s leading cash crops, is another casualty of the changes that have affected the country.
Another thing that has changed since the war is the virtual disappearance of the Pipiles — descendants of the Mayan people who built pyramids and great cities long before the Spanish Conquest. Prior to 1980, in towns and villages like Sosonate and Panchimalco, descendants of the Pipiles sold their wares in the town squares and on the streets. They wore brightly colored clothing and spoke the same tongues as their ancestors — indigenous languages with names like Nahuatl. The Pipiles were one of the main targets of the Matanza of 1932, a massacre of 32,000 peasants by General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez, one of El Salvador’s many dictators. General Martinez murdered peasants in the tens of thousands in order to crush a planned revolt organized by Farabundo Martí, the Salvadorean revolutionary from whom the FMLN derived their name.
Despite the Matanza of 1932 and other acts of repression, the Pipiles still managed to survive. But during the 1980’s, many were finally forced to conceal their backgrounds once and for all, fearful of the brutal persecution exacted against suspected enemies by the government and its soldiers. Rather than risk extermination, many Pipiles learned to speak Spanish and to dress as other Salvadoreans do, the men wearing button-down shirts and slacks, or cotton pants and tee shirts, the women simple blouses and skirts. With the exception of certain areas in the countryside controlled by the guerrillas during the war, the only visible remains of the once great Pipil people are the pyramids, ruins, and digs visited by tourists and studied by archaeologists.
During the war, a broad spectrum of people opposed to the dictatorship supported the FMLN. One of them was Marvin Galea, who broadcast from Radio Venceremos (We Shall Win), the clandestine radio of the guerrillas. Mr. Galea lived in the mountains in close proximity to the high command of the Frente. Today he works in San Salvador, still broadcasting from Radio Venceremos, which like the FMLN is legal now. However, Radio Venceremos is no longer affiliated with the former guerrillas, and Mr. Galea, an independent journalist, is critical of some of his former comrades. While in San Salvador, my wife and I interviewed him.
Mr. Galea and the station where he works is yet another example of the changes in El Salvador. Though one might expect revolutionary portraits of Che Guevara in the lobby of a station that broadcasts Radio Venceremos, there are none. Instead, there are album covers and pictures of Elvis Presley, The Beatles, and many popular salsa groups.
Though critical of what he referred to as “some corrupt members” of the FMLN, Mr. Galea is hardly a supporter of ARENA, the right-wing party whose leaders — in particular, the late Roberto D’Abuison — were the architects and directors of The Repression. Once a target of the National Guard and death squads himself, Mr. Galea can now broadcast his thoughts freely throughout the country — not an insignificant change for a man who once was forced to seek sanctuary with the guerrillas in the mountains.
The Twelve Apostles of Santa Elena
Mr. Galea points to the recent arrest of Roberto Mathies Hill, one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in the country, as further evidence that things have changed. Mr. Hill was arrested for bilking at least $155 million from depositors who participated in what has been described as a savings and loan scam. Mr. Galea reminded me that for a century, his country was ruled by an oligarchy commonly referred to as the “fourteen families.” Up until the elections in March of this year, it was inconceivable that a rich man would ever be charged, much less arrested, for a crime, especially if it involved corruption. Mr. Galea suggested that the arrest of Mr. Hill and others implicated is not simply the result of political changes that have occurred. In our interview, he said the unfolding scandal reveals a growing split between what was the ruling oligarchy and a “new elite” commonly referred to as “The Twelve Apostles of Santa Elena,” a name coined from an elegant neighborhood in San Salvador where many members of the new rich live.
According to Mr. Galea, investment bankers created new financial institutions when the formerly state-run banks were privatized during the administration of Alfredo Cristiani. They made their fortunes from investments which were the result of millions of US dollars sent to El Salvador by ex-patriots living in the United States, and by personally appropriating US tax dollars sent as aid to the right wing government during the war. Mr. Galea also speculated that these financial institutions may have profited by the laundering of hundreds of millions of narco dollars.
As these new financial institutions grew, interest rates soared. According to Mr. Galea, if a small businessman was to go to a Salvadorean bank and apply for a loan today, the interest rate could reach levels as high as 25%, though banks pay only 7% interest to those with savings accounts. Credit card holders are charged as much as 60% interest, an amount that Mr. Galea pointed out would be illegal in the United States. Such extraordinary rates are do, in part, to the fact that there are interlocking board of directors in El Salvador, meaning that a banker can sit on the boards of two or more different banks. Another reason Salvadorean banks are virtually free to do business as they choose is that there are no foreign banks in that nation.
The first case of massive fraud involved a company named Fumi Export, according to Mr. Galea. He alleged that 40 million Colones, or roughly 4 1/2 million dollars, “disappeared.” Many people who had invested their life savings were devastated by the scam, and some committed suicide. But it wasn’t until a financial institution called Finsepro/Insepro went broke that the banks and other establishments began to be investigated. Apparently, in the Finsepro scam, many of El Salvador’s most illustrious families lost millions. Mr. Galea believes that the growing investigation of fraud reveals a rift between what remains of the so-called “fourteen families,” and the “Twelve Apostles of Santa Elena.” This breach is also reflected in the ARENA party.
In any event, many working people and the poor credit the FMLN for the investigations and can barely contain their joy at the prospect of wealthy men going to jail. Visiting the working class barrios and slums, one can understand why.
A Smoldering Fire
Across the nation there is a fire burning at a very low flame, smoldering like the piles of leaves swept up by women in the dusty barrios and set ablaze. Despite the end of the war and the political freedoms that have resulted from the Peace Accords, it is as difficult as ever for a worker or a peasant to make a living. In many ways, life is more difficult than it was before the conflict. In that sense, many of the social and economic conditions that gave rise to war still remain.
Wherever one goes one is stunned by the contrast between rich and poor. Along the highways families build huts of bamboo and cardboard, pieces of corrugated metal laid on top the shacks as roofs, held down by rocks and boulders. Inside, fires burn in pits built of stones and clay bricks. Pots of beans boil on blackened grills balanced precariously over makeshift stoves while tortillas made from scratch toast over the open flames. Men stagger home down the roads and highways, their backs bent by enormous bundles of wood they carry that will be used to cook their meals.
Many of the nation’s urbanized poor live in mesones, small one-room apartments that line the streets of San Salvador, Santa Ana, and most urbanized towns. A typical meson has a courtyard where flowers and jocotes, oranges and mangos grow. Usually in the courtyards there are toilets and showers as well, shared by all the tenants. While in Santa Ana, we visited the meson where my wife spent her childhood.
The courtyard of the meson, once alive with fruit trees and flowers, is covered in concrete now. The only thing that remains unchanged in the yard are the toilets — stalls erected where a middle class North American might build a barbecue or a swimming pool. The commodes are much like one might find in a public restroom except they are terribly dilapidated and empty into deep pits that drain into a huge sewer down the street. Showers are built alongside the stalls, providing a minimum of privacy, swinging half doors secured with a latch. At the other end of the courtyard is the pila, a double cement sink. One side is a deep basin filled with water from a faucet (running water is not always available). Just adjacent is a slanting sink where clothes are washed by hand, bowls of water dipped from the pila and poured on clothing or pots and pans.
While visiting my wife’s childhood home, we met doña Bertha, a woman who after all these years still lives there. Bertha was nearly blind, milky cataracts covering her pupils. Dressed in a tattered blouse and skirt, she was incontinent and smelled of urine. My wife embraced the frail old woman and asked her if she remembered her. But Bertha was nearly deaf and could not answer. She complained that she was very sick and that the only food she could hold down was milk. Bertha talked about all the people who used to live in the meson and how they had all left for the United States, including Lolita, a little girl she had not seen in oh so many years. My wife tried to tell Bertha that she was Lolita and that she had returned to visit. But the old woman did not understand and continued to tell us about how lonely and difficult her life is now. There was little we could do for the old woman but give her fifty colones, which would buy her the powdered milk she needed and a few other things.
As I gazed into the darkness of her one room apartment, I was stunned by doña Bertha’s poverty. She had virtually nothing. What she did have appeared to be things she had carefully preserved for many years — a battered old table, a chair that had been mended, pots and pans and plastic bowls.
After saying goodbye to my wife’s old friend, we went to visit another meson nearby where other members of the family once lived. The roof was low enough that an averaged-sized North American male could easily reach up and touch it. These are apartments built for small people — folks whose diet consists almost exclusively of beans and tortillas, fried platanos, fresh fruit and coffee, (though there are many families who cannot afford to buy coffee despite the fact that it is the largest export from El Salvador). Powdered milk is another luxury for many working people: those who can afford it often prepare atol de elote, a milky pudding made from corn, sugar, milk and cinnamon. The dry milk is stored in large covered cans to protect it from mice and the almost ever-present roach — insects that are often as large as four inches across. (Though most North Americans are astonished by the size of the pest, what many find even more disturbing is that many species of Central American roaches have wings and can fly.)
A Typical Workday
During the weekday, everyone in the cities is in a hurry. Those who are not going to work or coming home are selling something — blue bags of fresh water, peanuts, fresh cut fruit, hats, toys, or the culinary specialty of El Salvador, pupusas. Along the highway are shacks where women and children peddle fresh coconuts, lopping off the end so one can drink the milk with a straw. Men roam the streets selling cloth, or pushing white carts full of paletas — popsicles made from oranges, pineapple or coconut.
Brightly painted buses hurtle down the narrow streets of the cities, their windshields and dashboards decorated with tassels and pictures of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. Men walk up and down the aisles, collecting fares from the passengers, notifying the driver with a loud whistle when they spot potential fares waiting at the curbs up ahead. Many of the busier buses employ another man who stands to the rear, often leaning out the open back door. When the bus stops, his job is to help women and children down once they have reached their destination.
Another common mode of transportation in El Salvador, especially on the highways that connect towns and cities, are Honda pick-up trucks with racks welded to the beds. As many as twenty passengers stand in the beds and hold on to the racks for dear life as the truck speeds down the highway, the driver racing with the bus drivers as they take turns passing each other. Along the highway are small huts built of bamboo and palm fronds where people stand in the shade or to escape the rain as they wait for their rides.
El Salvador’s Maquiladoras
Though it would appear on the surface that everyone in El Salvador is working, unemployment is widespread and as bad as it was before and even during the war. The only new jobs are those that have been created by foreign companies that have been awarded special contracts to build in industrial areas called “Zonas Francas” or “French zones,” apparently taking their name from the one of the first nations to create such industry.
Enjoying special tax benefits and paying low wages, companies from the United States, France, Germany, England, Japan, China and Korea do business in these special zones much like the maquiladoras on the U.S.- Mexican border. Workers are paid the minimum wage to assemble products made from raw materials that are generally imported. The commodities they manufacture are then exported. Many of the maquiladoras pay workers a monthly salary, generally equal to what they would make earning the minimum wage. (The minimum wage for factory workers is around 1000 Colones a month — the equivalent of about 29 US dollars a week. This is in a nation where a Coke costs 5 colones, a scarf costs 30 Colones, and a small single room in a meson runs 250 Colones a month.) Many workers have complained that they have been forced to work overtime without overtime compensation.
There have been disputes arising from such conflicts, some involving Salvadorean labor unions, many of whom are heavily influenced by the FMLN. In one such case, it was reported in the Salvadorean press that one foreign company left the country rather than pay workers overtime. Members of the ARENA Party claimed that the FMLN was interfering, and that their actions resulted in people losing jobs. The FMLN maintained their position despite such protests and insisted that workers should be paid for overtime even in the so-called “special economic zones.”
Another bone of contention between ARENA and the FMLN is the proposed privatization of the national phone company ANTEL (Asociación Nacional de Telecomunicaciones) now owned by the state. There are many areas in El Salvador where telephone service is simply not available. It is said that even the mayor of San Salvador does not have a home phone. ARENA claims that by privatizing ANTEL, more and better phone service will be available.However, the FMLN opposes such a move. It claims that the phone company has been poorly managed, just like the municipalities that were until recently controlled by ARENA. The FMLN contends that privatization will result in a windfall of profits for the wealthy, much as the privatization of the banks did. They also worry that privatization will mean the demise of the ANTEL union, one of the strongest in the nation.
Such rivalry reveals the bitter resentment that still exists between the FMLN and the rich, most of whom belong to ARENA. When I spoke to a manufacturer at his beach house in San Diego, his eyes burned at the very mention of the Frente. He did not trust those who he still considered to be communists bent on establishing a socialist government.
Asking that he not be mentioned by name, the capitalist had criticisms of the way leading members of the ARENA Party conduct business. He seemed particularly angry by the manner the banks operate and what he considers their generally backward business practices. He decried the lack of computers and other modern systems of communication at Salvadorean banks, and the fact that they (the banks) do not even have an internet connection with North American financial institutions.
I told the manufacturer of the difficulty we experienced trying to cash American Express travelers checks at the Bank of Cuscatlán, one of El Salvador’s largest. He appeared to grow angry and suggested that such problems have a negative impact on tourism. He explained that a tremendous amount of money is sent to Salvadoreans by family members living in the United States. As a consequence, he said, there is a growing problem of fraud, one which he emphasized could be easily solved if the banks modernized, installed computers, and joined “the rest of the business world.”
When I asked the capitalist about the political changes that have occurred in the country in the past five years, he said he was glad the war was over and that people could express themselves freely. However, he expressed concern about the economy and blamed its sluggish state on the FMLN, though they had only recently won seats in the municipal elections and had yet to play a major role in the government.
A Beach House at San Diego
The manufacturer, who resembled Yule Brynner, invited many of his plant managers in San Salvador to spend the weekend at his beach house, just a short walk from the sea at San Diego, Sonsonate. His vacation home was a complex of rooms that surrounded a large pool. The grounds were immaculate, with well-tended lawns, coconut palms, banana trees, fuscias, and roses. My family and I owed our presence there to my wife’s nephew, an employee of the industrialist.
Though self-assured and confident when among family and friends, my wife’s nephew underwent an instant metamorphosis when in the presence of his boss. Even his body language changed, his posture and facial expressions meek in deference to the man for whom he worked.
The manufacturer had the mannerisms of a man who wielded great power. He sat at a table and chain-smoked cigarettes as we spoke, his wife waiting on him hand and foot though he employed a servant. When he stood suddenly and placed his hands on his hips, the nephew seemed to recoil. He glanced at us as if to plead that we, too, should stand.
In El Salvador (as in most Third World nations) workers and peasants are expected to kowtow to a rich man. There are few demands he can make that they are not expected to satisfy. This caste-like system is a legacy of the Spanish Conquest which still makes its presence felt today. The extent of this dominance and old world influence is apparent even in the faces of the wealthy: throughout Latin America, the rich and famous are generally European in appearance, many direct descendants of the Spanish conquistadors.
All Salvadoreans Are Class Conscious
There is not a man or woman in El Salvador that is not class conscious. The peasantry and working class are acutely aware of their class and social position and generally have nothing but contempt for the rich. The rich are likewise cognizant of their privileged status and, as mentioned, generally expect to be treated like royalty by others not from their station.
You will rarely hear a wealthy man say a good word about working people. The manufacturer was a case in point. When I asked him why he thought so many people were poor, he replied angrily “Because they are lazy and don’t know what they’re doing!”
Then there are those who are the most poverty stricken people in the nation — the families who live in casas de carton. I stopped one day to ask two men who lived in a shantytown if they would mind if I took their picture. My brother-in-law, who is a good-hearted man from a working class background, did not give me the chance: He took the men by their arms and led them to the place where we could take a good photograph. There were no questions to be asked: they would pose and that was that. Still, the men were not the least bit ashamed, and I even detected a certain pride that they felt, a foreigner taking their picture. It seemed to me that the men were simply being courteous and could not imagine denying a favor asked of them. Yet I was ashamed that my brother-in-law would treat them so thoughtlessly.
No Bad Karma
Throughout Latin America, the poor, peasants, and most working people will quite literally give you the shirt off their backs if you ask them. From birth they have been raised to follow The Golden Rule, and, for the most part, truly love their neighbors — even foreigners from the United States. Still, once you talk to a poor man or woman it is clear that they do not accept their condition as a given: They don’t believe their poverty is the result of bad karma.
El Salvador has a history of bitter class struggles, and poor people have a memory that goes back a hundred years. They can recite to you when their families lost their land, which among them were murdered for standing up for their rights, and exactly who was guilty for the crime. Invariably they point the finger of blame at a rich man. In the wake of the March 16 municipal elections, many expect the FMLN will do something to change their condition. And if the Frente does not deliver, leading members of the Frente can expect some bad vibes from working people and the poor.
Militancy In The Working Class
Those who tend to be the most class-conscious workers are individuals who were adults during the civil war. Their disdain of the rich is at least as strong as the wealthy’s scorn for the laboring classes. However, most working people don’t tend to show their anger. Years of repression have taught people to be careful what they say, despite the new political freedoms they enjoy. Yet once they begin to express themselves, many will talk for hours on end, telling stories about atrocities committed by the National Guard and the death squads during the war. Since it is widely understood that the rich rule the nation and that the death squads were Special Forces organized by the wealthy, the bitter stories told by many workers and peasants are vivid reminders that though the war is over, they have not forgotten what happened, nor have they forgiven those who committed crimes against them.
A Former Soldier
While staying in Santa Ana, I spoke for an hour with a man who served as a soldier in the Salvadorean Army for eight years. He pushes a white ice cream cart now, walking down the dusty streets ringing a bell and crying “Paletas!” Like many others who enlisted, he joined the army because he considered it “the best way to make a living.” During the war, he spent a short time in North Carolina, trained by the U.S. Army in counter-insurgency tactics. When I tried to get details about what he learned there, he shrugged his shoulders and answered “Just how to kill communists….” The former soldier showed me where he was shot by guerrillas of the Frente, a scar just below his left shoulder, an exit wound above his shoulder blade. During the war, he believed that if the FMLN won, there would have been a dictatorship, and that all the soldiers in the army and many civilians would have been exterminated. He sighted as proof of his fears one battle during in the eighties where one entire company was slain by the guerrillas.
While a soldier, the ice cream man was promised that if he fought, he would receive land in compensation. He said that he never received a thing: The “jefes” in the army were the ones who received the land promised by the government, he explained. Though the ex-soldier did not appear to be bitter, he complained how difficult it was to make a living selling paletas for another man who paid him a commission on sales. I asked him if he had it to do over again, would he join the army and fight? Showing little emotion, he calmly answered that no, he would not.
The ice cream man told me that during the war, a missionary befriended him and offered to help him to get to the United States and, once there, to find a job. But he was afraid to go. He was afraid that he might be caught and deported by la migra. If that would have happened, and if he had returned to El Salvador, he would have been shot as a deserter. The former soldier told me since the war ended, he has made many friends who fought with the FMLN, and now they get along just fine. They have a lot in common, he explained: Men from both sides are having a difficult time making a living.
Before the former soldier left, I asked him one final question: Is there a political party in El Salvador that you support? He smiled and said yes, the Democratic Party. I asked him which party was the democratic one. He answered “The FMLN.”
I bought a paleta from the ice cream man and we shook hands and said goodbye. Then he pushed his cart down the dusty street of the barrio, ringing a bell with one hand and crying to people as they walked home from work, “Tengo Paletas! I have ice cream!”