El Salvador is a country where supermarket prices are comparable to those in developed countries, yet a sugar cane cutter earns $5 a day.
This small, predominantly rural, yet densely populated country has a violent history of colonial oppression and the attempted genocide of the indigenous people. More recently, it went through the 1980-92 civil war.
“La Lucha” is a phrase you hear a lot in El Salvador. It means “the struggle”.
The civil war resulted in 80,000 deaths — widespread terror and dislocation sparked by thousands of death squad assassinations. In 1982, the United Nations estimated a third of the work-force had left the country,
By the end of the war, one million refugees or displaced persons had been created.
The courage of the left-wing rebels of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) undoubtedly helped create the strength and perseverance of the popular movement — leading to the election last year of an FMLN-backed government.
Men and women, old and young, fought for more than a decade against the military dictatorship and the infamous National Guard, who were supported by the US with training, weapons and billions of dollars.
The US framed its support as part of the Cold War fight against communism. In reality, it was supporting a brutal and self-serving oligarchy and business owners (often foreign) that enjoyed cheap labour and monopoly control over.
The war ended in 1992 with the signing of the Chapultepec Peace Accord and the establishment of a truth commission by the UN. This accord, however, didn’t solve the main cause of the civil war: extreme inequality.
But the accord did create a more democratic electoral system with greater opportunity for political representation.
Nonetheless, bribery is easy when people are starving. Since the war, vote-buying by the far-right party, the Nationalist Republican Alliance (Arena) has been widely reported by villagers. The going rate for a vote was two pounds of kidney beans.
In 1993, five days after the publication of the truth commission’s report, the Arena government decreed an amnesty law covering all violent acts committed during the conflict years.
People who ordered or carried out massacres of entire peasant villages or forced 12-year-olds to become government soldiers are still in positions of power.
The FMLN guerrilla front transformed itself into a political party. Despite the hostile power structures, this democratic socialist party has steadily grown in support and influence.
In January 2009, the FMLN won the most seats in the National Assembly. In the March 2009 presidential vote, the FMLN-backed candidate Mauricio Funes won despite corruption and suspected electoral fraud.
Eyewitness reports indicated thousands of Guatemalans and Hondurans being bussed across the border to vote with false identification cards.
It was the first time in El Salvador the right wing had lost power.
FMLN members argue that for the first time, their country has a legitimate government — governing for all people of El Salvador, not merely a small elite.
The Funes government has inherited a run-down country, effectively bankrupt, with corrupt and dysfunctional institutions.
The post-war Arena government adopted the neoliberal template for “rebuilding” the shattered country: dropping tariffs, privatising public industries and creating export processing zones.
Dropping tariffs created a flood of imports, mostly from the US, that destroyed hundreds of small businesses and local culture.
Export processing zones caused a proliferation of exploitative sweat-shops.
While the largest group in parliament, the FMLN does not hold a majority — making rapid or radical change difficult.
The government has achieved some gains in health care. It has abolished a long-standing “voluntary” charge for visiting public health clinics, which has dramatically increased visitation rates in poverty stricken areas.
Another priority has been to stimulate agricultural production. The new government has also begun the essential task of cleaning out corruption from the police and the judicial system.
As with the peace accord, the new government can’t instantly solve El Salvador’s ingrained problems. But it can be a step towards fundamental change.
Recently, I interviewed an elderly man named Jacinto who was captured and tortured during the civil war. We talked for a long time about the war and about the politics of his country.
Eventually, he pointed to the hammock where he normally lay and lamented: “I often think the struggle is for the people not the politicians.”
[James Dryburgh is editor-at-large of Tasmania Times.]