What people in power think about reality…

Two weeks ago two Sister Cities delegations were in El Salvador at the same time, and took advantage of the coincidence to schedule a meeting with the US Embassy to discuss some important issues.  The 6 gringas from sister cities were met by the press representative for the US ambassador  a representative of US AIDE, and representatives of the Peace Corps.  It was productive in some moments, and eye-opening in others, revealing the kinds of thoughts that people of influence have about this country that has captured my heart.

Mauricio Funes, current president and winner of the 2009 elections.  He is the first FMLN president in El Salvador

Mauricio Funes, current president and winner of the 2009 elections. He is the first FMLN president in El Salvador

First, the gringas came with the request (demand, order…) that US declare neutrality in the upcoming 2014 elections in El Salvador.  The right wing party is highly favored by the United States, largely because it is the party that has historically played the puppet to the United States, supporting trade policies that open doors for US businesses to make money off of El Salvador and maintain a political environment that was pleasing to the US.  Previous governments have publicly stated that if elections in El Salvador did not go in favor of the right wing party, the US would withdraw certain supports.  This kind of threat undermines the sovereignty of El Salvador and continues the cycles of oppression that maintains the rich in power and the poor with nothing.   In 2009 Obama promised that the US would respect the decision made by the Salvadoran people in the elections, and the result was the first president from the FMLN (left wing party formed during the war by guerrilla forces). The good news is that the embassy sees no difficulties in declaring neutrality again, we just hope they are punctual in making that declaration.

Don Tonio of the community council with an elderly community member who has no children to take care of him.  The community works to make sure he has water and tortillas to eat at the very least.

Don Tonio of the community council with an elderly community member who has no children to take care of him. The community works to make sure he has water and tortillas to eat at the very least.

Another key issue the gringas wanted to discuss in this meeting is the US support of the Public Private Association Law, which would open the doors to privatize important public institutions such as water systems, public universities, health systems, and more.  Based on the outcomes of privatization here and other latin american countries in the past, this is the sort of policy that benefits those who are already wealthy and brings suffering to the poor, limiting access to important services needed by all, regardless of income.

Smooth, newly paved highway in San Jose Las Flores, Chalatenango.  This is a major trade route to deliver goods from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador

Smooth, newly paved highway in San Jose Las Flores, Chalatenango. This is a major trade route to deliver goods from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador

The United States gives large amounts of foreign aid through the Millennium Fund, funds that in El Salvador have generally gone to building better roads (to transport maquila-made products, mining products, sugar cane, etc).  It is a sum of money that the country would regret to lose.  But the US government is now saying that if the Public Private Association Law is not passed, they will not approve funds for the Millennium Funds to El Salvador.  This kind of manipulation undermines El Salvador’s sovereignty, using fear of international pressure to undermine the democratic process.  The representative from the embassy saw no problem with that.  The representative said that since it is US tax payer money, the US has every right to make whatever conditions they want for who will and will not receive the funds.  I wonder if China told us they would only loan us money if the US approved a law allowing Chinese companies to privatize our water and electricity systems if the US would see anything wrong with that…

The US AIDE representative told them her vision for El Salvador.  “37% of El Salvador isn’t suitable for farming, so we don’t see a future in agriculture for El Salvador,” she began.  I chuckled hearing that.  I wonder if she has ever driven across this country or met any of the thousands of farmers for whom agriculture is, as a matter of fact, survival.  What she meant and didn’t say is that she sees more of a future in things like maquilas — large factories that make mass quantities of textiles or parts to be exported and that generally have horrible wages and even worse working conditions.

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Millet harvest

“But what about all the people already in the agricultural sector?” they asked her.  “We’re thinking cocoa,” she responded.  Because having a cash crop — especially the highly controversial, highly exploitative crop of cocoa — has proven a viable economic solution for economically struggling countries. The Peace Corps representative eagerly chimed in to mention the ways that Corps volunteers would be serving the region.  “We’re focusing on instilling a sense of volunteerism and democracy,” she said eagerly and without irony.  But the irony is that, from what I have seen, these people who take communal issues into their own hands and have ownership in the political processes on local, regional, and national levels — and all without pay — know a bit more about volunteerism and democracy than even the best intentioned Peace Corps volunteer.

The community corn mill, run by the totally volunteer-based Women's Committee in Guajoyo

The community corn mill, run by the totally volunteer-based Women’s Committee in Guajoyo

I wasn’t in the meeting myself, but when I heard about all that was said, I was struck by the overwhelming impression that these very important people who make very important decisions know very little about the people in the country they are making decisions for.  The United States continues to exert great power in El Salvador, in more ways than are directly visible.  These people do have influence.

But if they had lived in Guajoyo for a few weeks they would realize that it’s not transitioning to export cash crops that will help poor farming families, it’s the ability to grow the food they themselves eat rather than being bought out by foreign mega-companies.  They might realize also that turning services like water, electricity, and university education into a business means turning them into yet another monopoly card for the uber-rich of El Salvador to control and benefit from, pulling the greatest profit possible, whatever the cost.  They might even notice that the fact that small communities come together to put in a system of potable water or to decide how to deal with community security issues or to educate their neighbors about health threats means that these kinds of systems might know a thing or two about democracy and volunteerism.

So what is it that happens then, do only ignorant people make it into positions of power, or does their power make them ignorant?

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One thought on “What people in power think about reality…

  1. Another great post. Thank you for making these international systems a bit more personal and a lot easier to read about. These systems and the people who “run” them frustrate me as well. One of the things you said especially struck me: “But if they had lived in Guajoyo for a few weeks they would realize that it’s not transitioning to export cash crops that will help poor farming families, it’s the ability to grow the food they themselves eat rather than being bought out by foreign mega-companies.” I think the main difference between yourself and the Sister Cities delegations, and the US AIDE, Peace Corps, and US Embassy representatives is of perspective. While the later claims to want to “help” poor families, their goals are only to grease the wheels of international trade for the benefit of the US. This in some ways is extremely reductionist but if you look at their policies and programs you can see it shining through. Another big difference lies in how each of you views/considers the people in the communities. If I had to guess, you view these people as equals and people with knowledge, who can make their own decisions and pretty impressively govern themselves democratically. While the later group of representatives may claim to see everyone as equal and with rights, it takes a lot of privilege to go into someone else’s community and say you know better what democracy and volunteerism is than that community. A lot of that has to do with El Savladorians not actually being seen as equal to those reps. Also known as the “white” or “western” savior complex, it is institutionalized racism at its finest, blanketed in long documents about equality, aid, and rights. These people think they know what’s best, what democracy is for everyone, and how they would be “happier” spending their days. I have loved reading everything you have written because instead of going into this community with an expectation of what aid means, you have gone in with only the hope of learning something from these people who make up the community you have found yourself in.

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