Hi. My name is Catie, and I am from Austin, TX. I will be living in El Salvador for several months this year as a volunteer with US El Salvador Sister Cities, an organiztaion that has promoted solidarity for over 20 years between communities in the United States and in El Salvador. I’ll be working with a couple of different groups that have some UH-MA-ZING projects going on, like scholarships for high school students who are up and coming young leaders, promoting sustainable development in rural areas, and human rights advocacy, and anti-mining campaigns that promote environmental protection. I’ll also be picking the brains of these incredible people who have done so much in the way of activism and organizing, and try to figure out how it is they manage to be so stinkin awesome. So check back in to see whats new!
Why El Salvador?
There are poor countries all around the world, many of which are in much higher risk situations than El Salvador, so why is it important for the continued relationship between people who care in the United States with people in El Salvador even now, 20 years after the end of the civil war? There are tons of reasons, but here are a few:
1) In the US we have the luxury of ignorance when it comes to how connected people around the world are to us. Here in El Salvador, not only is the national currency the US dollar, but 2/3 of working age Salvadorans are in the United States producing the country’s greatest source of income: remesas, or money sent from the US to support family back home in El Salvador. When our economy suffers, their economy suffers. When our political picture shifts, theirs shifts. Our realities are deeply connected to one another, even though they might feel light years apart.
2) The United States gave the weapons to the Salvadoran army that were used during the war to massacre over 30,000 campesinos and destroy entire towns under the political perspective that saw Latin America as the US’s back yard that needed to be whipped into shape. The process of restructuring and rebuilding in which El Salvador finds itself today is a result of that war that the US backed, so I think there is something to be said for being a part of that rebuilding process as US citizens. But even beyond that, US foreign policy with Latin America hasn’t really changed much since those days, even though the region is no longer in a state of war and uprisings that allowed the US’s presence to be shown for the spectacle that it is. It is important to remain attentive to our attitude towards our Latin American neighbors and measure those politics against the American promise for “Liberty and Justice for all.:
3) One word: CAFTA. The Central American Free Trade Agreement was signed by the president of El Salvador in 2006, after which he was quoted saying he had never read the agreement, but he signed it anyways. Using scare tactics, the US convinced Central American countries to open up free trade with the US – plus some extra add-ons. For example, the US can subsidize products that are exported, thus pushing prices down to unnaturally low prices that developing countries can’t compete with. The US also uses more pesticides and genetic modification of crops that are exported so they can produce in unnatural quantities, thus adding to the competitively low prices. In essence, the US uses this free market to expand our own market and all but destroy the economies of smaller developing counties. All’s fair in love, war, and the free market. But we in the US are largely unaware of this devastating agreement, and it is important that we interact regularly with the negative effects of US trade policies so that we, the people, can advocate for policies that are more just.
What is the difference between solidarity and charity? Well, for one, charity is much much easier.
Charity is when an entity with certain resources decides to give of those resources as a gift to another entity that is believed to be in need of such resources. Solidarity is when two entities interact in a way that promotes awareness of each entity’s reality and provides space for the sharing of resources as each entity is able and motivated to share.
U.S. El Salvador Sister Cities, as well as all the organizations we work with here, believe firmly in solidarity over charity, believing that the relationship matters much more than the transfer of material or financial support. Let’s use this example. You are out for a run when you trip on the sidewalk and find yourself on the ground with a large, gravel-y gash in your shin. Which scenario would you prefer:
a) someone happens to walk by who is a trained physician, and they quickly give you a fully stocked first aid kit and explain to you how to use each piece in it before going along their way.
b) someone happens to walk by who notices you are hurt, and they stop to see if you are ok. They have a bandaid in their back pocket, which they offer you, but they continue to sit with you while you clean your wound and recover from the surprise. After a little while they help you up and the two of you continue to walk together.
Neither option is bad, but one certainly seems to embody the principles of love, respect, and shared humanity. That’s the whole idea of my being here – to live out this relationship of solidarity between Austin and Guajoyo so that we in Austin know what the struggles are in Guajoyo, but also so we can learn from our sisters and brothers in El Salvador. Giving is only a one-way exchange when we cut it short.