Thursday, October 01, 2015

A discussion about democracy in El Salvador

On August 12, I posted a long piece critiquing an article by Hilary Goodfriend published by The Nation on August 8 with the provocative title How El Salvador’s Supreme Court Is Undermining Democracy—With Washington’s Help, and subtitled WikiLeaks has exposed US government collusion with the chamber’s destabilization strategy.   Ms. Goodfriend has sent me a reply to the points I made in that post, and rather than relegate them to the comment section, I am publishing them here (in italics) along with my replies.   I appreciate Ms. Goodfirend's reaching out to me with her point of view, and I hope this can be a springboard for discussions.

HF:  I never claim that the Wikileaks cables cited in my article, in which the US Embassy blatantly establishes its support for ARENA and acknowledges the right-wing party’s Supreme Court-led strategy to regain power, are “a brand new revelation,” as you write. Rather, my article draws from those cables as evidence that escalating Supreme Court interventions have their origins in a strategy established by ARENA as a back-up plan should the FMLN come to power, with the State Department’s knowledge and support.

Tim:  There may have been a plan, but the plan described did not work, as I pointed out.   You also don’t deal with the fact that the US had a conservative George Bush administration at the time of the cable, and that by the time Mauricio Funes was elected, Barack Obama was president and there was a much different relationship with the FMLN than in the past.   

HF:  Even if ARENA’s hopes for Supreme Court nominations in 2009 fell short of stacking the entire bench with sworn party allies, my article outlines the numerous occasions on which the magistrates have demonstrated their allegiance to the political Right: they ousted the Constitutional Chamber’s loan progressive magistrate, and they have repeatedly undermined administration-led policy. That some of these decisions are based on dubious procedural technicalities hardly bears on their political nature.

Tim:  My problem with that response is that you base your views on whether the outcome had the result the FMLN wanted, and not whether or not the court correctly applied the law.   I would submit that El Salvador needs a court and judges who follow the law in order to be an effective democracy.  You also don’t deal with the fact that the Court has also issued rulings which the right did not favor.

HF:  You write that “there is no basis to think that gangs have a partisan interest to help either political party,” but while the magazine El Faro may disregard connections between the right-wing opposition and organized crime, there is in fact ample evidence to the contrary. It’s worth disclosing, incidentally, that El Faro is owned by the oligarchic Simán family, which has deep ties to the right-wing opposition. In recent days, in fact, the bodyguard of the head of the ARENA legislative group was arrested with several known gang members, and a wake was held in the ARENA party headquarters in the town of Apopa for a dead gang member who had murdered a police officer. Furthermore, the Attorney General has confirmed that he is investigating the mayors of Apopa and Ilopango, both from the ARENA party, for ties to gang structures, and municipal employees in Apopa and Zacatecoluca, also governed by ARENA, have been charged with conspiring with gangs.

Tim:  By every account, El Faro has the most integrity of any journalistic outlet in El Salvador and has won a great number of international journalism awards for its work. and that work has included the investigation of ARENA figures like Francisco Flores and has investigated ties of public officials to narco-trrafficking. El Faro published the WikiLeaks cable which you start with.  But more than that, it does not make sense to claim that the gangs have a love for ARENA, the party which brought us mano dura and super mano dura and anti-gang and terrorism laws.   Certainly the situations of local governments which you raise are things which should be investigated, but I’ve been around El Salvador long enough to know that situations like those are seldom what first appears in the press or in partisan tweets.    I think it is also worth noting the political parties coming together to commit themselves to a common approach to the gang problem at the end of August.

HF: Finally, you claim that I merely echo the FMLN and Sánchez Cerén administration, but you ignore the numerous Salvadoran civil society groups that have denounced and continue to denounce the Supreme Court and other right-wing destabilization tactics (including violence) publicly: The International Democratic Federation of Women of El Salvador (FEDIM), which includes well-known and respected feminist and women’s organizations like Las Mélidas; the broad-based Social and Union Coordinating Committee (CUSS), which includes public and private sector unions, community organizations, agricultural cooperatives and more; and the Social Alliance for Governability and Justice, of over 30 groups, including youth organizations and community media groups like ARPAS, just to name a few. Margarita Posada, of the National Healthcare Forum, said in June: “The Constitutional Chamber is not a super power; but it has disrespected the Executive power and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. Those four magistrates act in parallel with the protests of the ARENA party, when they should strengthen the country’s democratic system.”

Frankly, and in closing, your unconditional support for the crown of El Salvador’s judicial branch, which remains ridden with corruption despite repeated calls for judicial reform from political and civil society alike, surprises me; certainly, you must recognize that the regional Right has in recent years focused much of its oppositional efforts to undermine progressive governance by way of Supreme Courts, giving rise to the infamous “constitutional coups” that ousted democratically elected leaders in Honduras and Paraguay in recent years. I wrote my article precisely out of concern that the State Department-lead discourse of “institutionality” is blinding otherwise well-intentioned progressives to the political nature of the Court’s interventions, and in hopes of contributing to a critical analysis of the complex issues facing El Salvador today. As someone who shares your commitment to the cause of justice in El Salvador, I hope you can be receptive to my arguments.

Tim:  Fundamentally, and probably because I am a lawyer, I think we disagree about the importance of the rule of law and the role of courts.   If a country is to operate under its laws and its constitution, then its supreme court has to have the last word on what those laws mean.    I do have criticisms of the Constitutional Chamber, which I hope to write about in a future post.   For example, the court needs to decide cases in a timely manner  -- the recent decision on the anti-terrorism law dates back to the Saca administration, while the case involving the validity of the amnesty law is still languishing in the court. Nor do I agree with the court’s legal reasoning justifying its refusal to extradite military officers to Spain in the Jesuits case.   But an appropriate critique of the court starts with analyzing its actual reasoning, and not by counting how many organizations on the right or left are upset.   

Thanks for sharing your rejoinder with us.   

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

The caldron of El Salvador

The online periodical El Faro has published an overview of gang violence in El Salvador and the government's "super iron fist" response to the violence under the title Más represión, más asesinatos, más armas, más reclutamientos (More repression, more murders, more weapons, more recruits) .  The article has been translated into English at the InsightCrime website and is worth a read.   Here's the introduction:

The demand for illicit weapons in El Salvador has surged to such an extent that it has impacted the black market in neighboring Guatemala. Raul Mijango, perhaps the last supporter of a dialogue between the government and gangs as a tool for stopping the rising violence in El Salvador, has stepped aside. Meanwhile, the government is apparently convinced that its bet on Super Mano Dura (“Super Iron Fist”) is the correct path, which it considers to be a lesser evil compared to the country's highest homicide rate since the turn of the 21st century. These are some of the ingredients for the explosive cauldron that is El Salvador.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Government proposes cell phone tax to pay for security

The government of president Salvador Sanchez Ceren has introduced a bill to add a 10% tax to all cell phone, internet service and cable bills to pay for increased public security efforts.

The proposal is widely unpopular and is only supported by the FMLN in the National Assembly.  A decision by the country's telecommunications regulator SIGET to lower rates which phone companies could charge by 13% and which would offset the cost of the tax on phone service (and essentially transfer the tax to the phone companies), has not changed the public's view.

 The FMLN is introducing another bill in the legislature which would raise the penalties for tax evasion in the country, but it is not clear how much money this measure would raise.   El Salvador has long been challenged by low levels of tax compliance.

The government has been struggling to find the funds to fight its public security efforts and combat against gangs since the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court invalidated a measure to permit the government to borrow $900 million from foreign investors.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A vision of what could be

The New York Times published an El Salvador Journal piece headlined "At Salvadoran Factory, Helping Troubled Youth Makes Business Sense." It is the story of a T-shirt factort in Ciudad Arce, El Salvador, where workers, including several dozen ex-gang members, sew t-shirts and make a living wage with benefits such as day care and education:

Mr. Amaya said he spent seven years in the gang before he joined an evangelical church and was allowed to leave. He began working at the League plant two years ago. There, his boss, Mr. Bolaños, brims with ideas: “Our goal is to get people back in society, get them back on track,” he said.

Every worker spends half an hour on a computer each workday practicing English through an online course. The factory pays for high school equivalency classes and has just arranged with a local university to offer a two-year engineering degree. The company subsidizes a clinic, day care, breakfast and lunch, adjusts schedules for employees studying for a college degree, and has even set up a plan to lend money to people who want to raise tilapia in tanks at home for extra income.

The efforts raise labor costs — to some $500 a month for each worker overall, compared to the average wage of about $300 a month in garment plants. But the benefits eliminate turnover, Mr. Bolaños said, which ultimately generate savings.

“Other companies are barely making it because they are training people every month,” he said. His efficiencies mean he could sell to a customer demanding the tightest margins. “If I worked for Wal-Mart, could I do this? The answer is yes.”  (more).
WBUR also published a story on the League Collegiate Wear factory which you can read here.

This factory is only one isolated instance, yet it shows what might be possible.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Minimum wages in El Salvador

El Salvador has minimum wage laws which vary depending on the area of the economy. Minimums in the agricultural sector are significantly lower than urban employment. It is also important to recognize that these wages only apply to people in a formal employment relationship; the significant percentage of Salvadorans in the informal economy do not have any guarantees. Minimum wages are calculated on an 8 hour day and a 44 hour work week.

Current minimum wages in El Salvador:

Area of economy
Daily minimun wage
Maquilas -- Textiles and clothing
Retail and service
Coffee harvest
Sugar cane harvest
Cotton harvest

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Happy Independence Day El Salvador!

El Salvador celebrates September 15 Independence Day with a variety of parades, civic events, and military displays.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

An asteroid named Romero

Carlos at the Super Martyrio blog reports that martyred Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero now has an asteroid named after him:

The naming of the celestial body, formerly known as “13703 (1998 OR13)” (based on the year of its discovery), for Romero was quietly announced at the end of last month by the Committee on Small Body Nomenclature of the International Astronomical Union in a publication called a Minor Planet Circular, dated August 29. A page on the website of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory confirms that 13703 Romero was named for Archbishop Romero.
Romero was beatified earlier this year by the Roman Catholic church.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Gold mining - a recap while we wait

The international arbitration between the government of El Salvador and Australian mining company OceanaGold continues to wait for a decision.   (OceanaGold bought the company formerly known as Pac-Rim).    It is now a year since the arbitration hearing took place in September 2014 before a panel of arbitrators at the International Centre for the Settlement of Investment Disputes.

This week Lynn Holland at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs published an excellent summary of the moratorium on gold mining in El Salvador and the resulting arbitration titled For the Love of Water: The Ban on Mining in El Salvador.

She concludes with a discussion of the current plans of the anti-mining movement:

While Salvadorans await the outcome of the case, a new action plan for passing a nationwide ban has begun to unfold. In just the last year, several rural communities have passed their own prohibitions against metal mining. San Jose Las Flores, San Isidro Labrador and Nueva Trinidad, have all held popular consultations, which resulted in overwhelming approval for a ban in each case. As San Jose Las Flores mayor Felipe Tobar explained, “I want to encourage other municipal governments to ban mining in their territories and also encourage members of the legislative assembly to approve legislation to ban mining to ensure the long term sustainability of our environment.” Ten other municipalities have been targeted for future consultations.
Read the rest of the article here.

Sunday, September 06, 2015

Celebrating El Salvador's national artistic treasure -- Fernando Llort

At right now they have a special section devoted to Salvadoran artist Fernando Llort.  It's a great collection of images from the artists' life and work.    Go to the site and enjoy.

The image above is from the Facebook page of the Fernando Llort Foundation which is a good spot to find out what Fernando Llort is up to today.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

The dueling fields of crosses

This week has seen dueling fields of crosses in El Salvador as forms of protest.   First Tuesday dawned with the appearance of hundreds of crosses at Redondel (traffic circle) Sandino, named for the Nicaraguan leftist hero:

A banner in the midst of the crosses proclaimed  "We are the 895 dead in August.   How many more must there be before they do something?"  

Partisans on the left were outraged at what they saw as an attack on the government's efforts at confronting the gang problem.   Municipal employees from the city of San Salvador soon arrived to clear away the crosses.

Crosses would reappear Thursday morning.   This time they were at Redondel D'Aubuisson, in Antiguo Cuscatlan, named for the founder of ARENA and leader of death squads Roberto D'Aubuisson:

This time a banner said "In honor of the founder of the party that created, permitted and let grow the gangs who kill us today."

Frankly, I admire the creativity.   It beats yet another march down the streets with hand-painted banners.