El Salvador: School meals, uniforms made free as right attacks

September 12, 2009

The article below is a September 11 update released by the US-based Committees in Solidarity with the Peoples of El Salvador. It is reprinted from Cispes.org. President Mauricio Funes, a candidate for the left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), was elected in March, ending the 17-year long neoliberal rule of the right-wing Arena party. The FMLN waged an armed struggle in the 1980s against the US-backed military dictatorship, which ended with peace accords in 1992. Funes has a mandate to promote the development of El Salvador to the benefit of the poor. However, the elite are seeking to destabilise his government.

On August 24, El Salvador's vice-president and education minister, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, officially opened the bidding process for some 7 million yards of fabric for the production of school uniforms. This is a first step to implement President Mauricio Funes' plan to distribute two school uniforms, one pair of shoes and a set of school supplies to every public school student in the country.

The program will benefit 1.3 million students and create jobs for small- and medium-sized Salvadoran businesses.

Fabric will be purchased from Salvadoran businesses and production will be carried out at a local level, with each municipality contracting local businesses and collectives to make the uniforms.

Sanchez Ceren also inaugurated the expansion of the school meal program at a public school in the town of Soyapango in August. The previous school meal program was limited to rural areas with high incidences of poverty. The newly extended program, however, includes students in impoverished urban areas.

More than 450,000 students from kindergarten to ninth grade in 764 schools will benefit from the expansion. This raises the total number of students participating to more than 1.3 million at 4931 schools.

The school meal program provides a daily serving of rice, beans, oil, sugar, milk, and a fortified drink to students.

Meanwhile, on July 31, Funes distributed property titles for small farming lots to over 900 families in the La Paz department. On August 14, Funes presented titles to 489 additional families.

The families have been living on and cultivating state-owned lands, many for decades, without official property titles to their lots. One of Funes's campaign promises was the presentation of these titles, which allows these families to be eligible for loans, technical assistance, and government projects and programs.

These were the first steps in Funes's promise to deliver 3500 property titles in his first 100 days as president.

Destablisation tactics

In the coming months, the legislative assembly will begin to discuss and vote on US$1.5 billion in international loans negotiated by the Funes administration, designed to fund a variety of projects.

The votes of both primary parties — the right-wing Arena and the left-wing FMLN — are necessary to approve the loans and next year's national budget.

However, Arena's legislative fraction said on August 20 it will not vote for the loans unless the FMLN agrees to provide state financial support for San Salvador Mayor Norman Quijano's Metrobus project, turn over three national movie theatres to Arena mayors and ends the firing of federal employees.

In response, FMLN legislative deputy Norma Guevara said her party is not "susceptible to extortion". She reminded Arena of its promise to be a constructive opposition.

The Metrobus project was a primary campaign promise of Quijano, the recently elected mayor from Arena, despite the fact that municipal mayors do not have authority over public transportation.

Funes has said he wont outright dismiss Quijano's proposed project, but that comprehensive improvements to the national public transport system are necessary and there is no reason to limit a transport overhaul to San Salvador.

The Brazilian government has offered to provide credit and technical assistance to modernize the public transport fleet and revamp the entire system.

In response to the demand to stop the firings of federal employees, Funes said there was simply no policy of mass firings.

Arena has also been accused of orchestrating demonstrations, cloaked as community actions, resulting in blocked highways across the country during the last week of August.

The protesters claimed the Funes administration is not fulfilling its promise to distribute seeds and fertiliser, and demanded these items be distributed immediately.

The agricultural ministry is in the process of delivering 177,000 packets containing 25 pounds of bean seeds and 100 pounds of fertiliser to farmers throughout the country.

There have been some delays in distribution, generally due to the condition of the ministry when Funes took office on June 1.

Farming equipment, seeds, fertiliser and other supplies had been stolen from the ministry — presumably by members of the previous administration — burdening the ministry with $15 million in debt.

The organisations participating in the road blocks include the General Agriculture Centre (CEGAS) and the National Rural Agro-industrial Association (ANCA), both of which are recently created.

Equipo Maiz, a popular education collective, said in a flyer: "These protests were widely covered and praised by the major communication media, but this time without the typical qualifiers of 'vandalism' [used in most coverage of popular demonstrations]."

Salvadoran social movement leaders have expressed concern that right-wing forces are organising groups disguised as popular movements to destabilise the Funes administration.

Popular protests

Genuine popular protests have continued. One example is the protests by local communities since the beginning of the construction of the El Chaparral dam in October 2008.

Recently, local communities camped in front of the Presidential Home, shut down portions of the PanAmerican Highway and demonstrated at the dam construction site to demand Funes stop the dam's construction.

The Executive Lempa River Commission (CEL) is the autonomous government institution in charge of the execution of the hydro-electric dam.

The project was begun during the administration of President Tony Saca, from Arena. It is being financed by a $163 million loan from the Central American Economic Integration Bank (BCIE) as well as a $56 million contribution from the state.

It is located in the north of the department of San Miguel. The local communities oppose the project, saying it will flood and destroy valuable farmland, thereby displacing many families living near the site.

They also criticise the project's bidding process and the manner in which construction was conceded to the Italian-based Astaldi Construction Corporation.

On July 22, over 200 citizens of nearby municipalities protested outside the construction site and met with El Salvador's Human Rights Ombudsman, Oscar Luna.

Luna has called on the government to thoroughly review the project and offered to mediate between the communities and government officials.

He cited a report released by the Electricity and Telecommunications General Superintendence (SIGET) that concluded that the dam's construction should be suspended due its controversial nature and the likelihood for conflict if construction continues.

The report cites many irregularities, including: anomalies in the bidding and concession process; failure to conduct a thorough consultation with the surrounding communities; and deficiencies within the environmental impact report presented by the CEL.

Commission for the Disappeared

In another new measure by the Funes government, foreign affairs minister Hugo Martinez said the government would create a Commission for the Disappeared to investigate cases of children forcibly disappeared and separated from their families during the 1980-92 civil war.

Martinez will ask Funes to decree an executive order for the creation of the commission during the 15th anniversary celebration of the non-governmental organisation Pro-Busqueda. Since 1994, Pro-Busqueda has investigated cases of disappeared children and reunited 214 people with their families.

Reyna Portillo of Pro-Busqueda said this will mark the first time their organisation has had a relationship with the government.

During the civil war, the armed forces and other state security forces were responsible for the separation of many children from their families. Pro-Busqueda has said some children were literally torn from the arms of their parents, although the majority became orphans after state-sponsored massacres and armed confrontations.

Such children, found among the bodies following military massacres, were given away, sent abroad for adoption, or eventually enrolled in the military.

Martinez said that he believes the government should recognise its responsibility to the separated families. He said previous administrations refused to acknowledge the disappearances and emphasised the importance of these investigations for the historical memory of the country.

Martinez said: "Forgetting is laying the groundwork for other boys and girls in our country to continue being [forcibly] disappeared."

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