Monday, July 14, 2014

Economists judge El Salvador's economy

Fitch Ratings, an agency which issues ratings to the investment community regarding the quality of bonds issued by national governments, recently published its current rating of "BB-" for El Salvador.   Fitch reviewed El Salvador's economy in support of its rating:
  • El Salvador's ratings are supported by its macroeconomic stability underpinned by dollarization, its adequately capitalized financial system, and solid repayment record. The government has a strong track record in implementing tax reforms despite the low economic growth environment.
  • A dialogue between the new FMLN government and main private-sector organizations has the potential to define a national strategy for sustainable development and social inclusion. This comes after five years of confrontation during the previous administration. However, it is too early to predict that such dialogue could result in improved investment and growth prospects over the forecast period. Risks for a break-down in this discussion process remain due to the high levels of mutual distrust and alternative views on fundamental issues, including public sector participation in the economy and public finances.
  • Economic growth in El Salvador remains low relative to its peers in the 'BB' category. Key structural weaknesses, including low competitiveness, relatively high energy costs, low investment ratios, weak human capital and high crime rates preclude El Salvador's economy from growing faster. In Fitch's baseline scenario GDP growth could average 1.6% in 2014-2016.
This low forecast for economic growth suggests the economy will continue failing to provide sufficient jobs to raise the incomes of many households in El Salvador.  

Sunday, July 13, 2014

LGBT in El Salvador's prisons

Rev. V. Gene Robinson, a retired Episcopal Bishop from New Hampshire, recently visited LGBT prisoners held in a Salvadoran prison.  He wrote about it in an essay on the Daily Beast website titled Out and Proud in El Salvador's Gangland
 It is the transgender prisoners that touch my heart the most. Amazingly, many of them are quite stylishly dressed and wearing makeup, which is surprising, given the conditions in which they are detained, and even more surprising considering the environment in which they are currently living out their lives. Consider, just for a moment, what it takes to be in the body of man and to wear high heels, make up and earrings in a place like this which is the epitome of machismo. It takes an enormous amount of courage for any person, born into the body of one gender but feeling on the inside like the opposite gender, to live her life authentically. To do so in a Salvadoran prison defies comprehension and inspires respect for their grit and determination.
I am awed by the resilience of these people whose sexual identities are literally a matter of life and death. 
On the outside, transgender people here endure the highest murder rate. Most have been kicked out of their homes for their identification as transgender, losing family, friends and any hope of support. Many turn to sex work or drugs to sustain themselves, being virtually the only ways to survive—which not only puts them in dangerous places with dangerous people, but leaves them easy targets for the police, who are all too happy to throw them into the prisons, like the one I am visiting. (read more).
Read more about the status of LGBT rights in El Salvador where some progress has been made, but where much homophobia and discrimination still exists.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Chaparrastique volcano watch

The Chaparrastique volcano near San Miguel, El Salvador continues to show significant levels of internal seismic activity.   Authorities are on a high level of preparedness should actions be needed. The activity since yesterday has been at the highest levels seen.   The chart below shows activity during July -- the average, normal level is 50, and current levels are above 1100.

This graphic shows the location of micro-quakes on the northern slopes of the volcano:

The environment ministry continues to have a live camera feed focused on the volcano:

Price of beans doubles and absence of rain causes more concerns

In April of ths year, the price of a pound of beans in El Salvador was 50 cents;  last week the price had risen to levels between $1.10 and $1.35 in markets around the country according to La Prensa.Grafica.   The price rise is blamed on a shortage of beans.   Linked to the shortage is a lack of rain in some parts of the country, a weather problem blamed on the El Niño climate phenomenon.

(Meanwhile the ARENA party is alleging that any scarcity of beans is being caused by the FMLN government sending beans to Venezuela to pay for oil received from the socialist government there).

Farmers are concerned about periods during this rainy season when no rain has fallen for extended period of time in various parts of the country.   The most recent dry spell began on July 4.

The government has denounced hoarding of bean stockpiles by speculators and announced plans to buy beans on international markets to reduce shortages.

The government will spend $4.6 million to send additional seed packets to farmers affected by the dry conditions in 77 municipalities.

 Map of moisture levels in soil shows eastern third of country impacted by lack of rain:

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

Coverage of why children are migrating in great numbers

The flow of unaccompanied children from Central America across the US southern border has produced a flood of news coverage.  Many in the US may be learning for the first time about the situations in El Salvador and the rest of the region which prompt children as well as adults to make the perilous journey north.  Because as many as 50,000 minors have recently been apprehended by US border authorities, the Obama administration faces a humanitarian and political crisis.

A good overview of the issues is provided in this piece at 14 facts that help explain America's child-migrant crisis.    Also providing an overview was today's article from the Guardian titled ‘Flee or die’: violence drives Central America’s child migrants to US border, which looks at many facets of the crisis including interviews with children who fled the violence of Honduras.

Much of the coverage focuses on telling stories of gang violence in El Salvador as one of the reasons why so many children are leaving their homes.  An example was this article from a Dallas TV station, Poverty, murder propel teen Salvadoran girl to Dallas, which tells the story through one family's attempt to hire a human smuggler to get their daughter out of harm's way in their community in El Salvador.

To similar effect was El Salvador gangs kill teachers over as little as a failing grade in the Los Angeles Daily News:
 Gang members in El Salvador recruit even in grade schools, where parents themselves are often involved with gangs, known here as “maras.” Principals are forced to collect money from teachers to pay “la renta,” the cynical term for extortions, and many have found themselves caught between opposing gangs trying to extort the same school. 
Zetino said one MS-13 gang member recently offered to provide his school protection from the rival Barrio 18 gang. “It’s a sick joke,” he said. “What security can they offer me? But they are that bold now.” 
Educators under threat often keep family members in the dark about it, so as not to involve or alarm them.
Tim Johnson of McClatchy has written a few longer articles from El Salvador interviewing those living with the ever present fear of the gangs.  His articles include:

 2 street gangs divide up El Salvador’s capital, bringing chaos to all:

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador -- Every day, as she travels to the food stall she operates, Mirna Isabel Villalta crosses an invisible but dangerous boundary. 
Her modest home is in a part of San Salvador controlled by the Mara Salvatrucha, a gang so ruthless and sprawling that the Obama administration has labeled it an international criminal organization. Her food stall is in the city center in an area controlled by Barrio 18, a gang that despises the Mara Salvatrucha. 
She knows she’s breaking an unspoken rule. 
“You can’t go from one barrio to the other,” Villalta said. But she does. Every day. And she keeps mum to those around her food stall about where she lives.  “They don’t know we live in Mara Salvatrucha territory,” she said.
 For Salvadoran family, clash with gang takes a heavy toll:
Parents are particularly distraught over the gangs’ power to recruit adolescent boys and to co-opt girls, often forcibly, into becoming partners of gang bosses, sometimes simply kidnapping them. 
Minors from El Salvador compose 21 percent of the more than 52,000 unaccompanied minors who’ve crossed into the United States since Oct. 1, according to Department of Homeland Security figures.
Tim Johnson alse wrote about how the US was trying to deter more minors from trying to make the journey in a story titled U.S. amps up warning to parents of child migrants:
Since the weekend, newspapers, radio and television stations and websites in Central America and Mexico have aired U.S. warnings to parents that their children would be deported if they make their way past the Rio Grande into Texas. 
Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson issued a statement Sunday, widely printed in Monday’s newspapers in the region, calling on parents to heed the dangers of letting their children go off alone to cross international borders. 
“To the parents of these children I have one simple message: Sending your child to travel illegally into the United States is not the solution,” Johnson said in the statement. 
“The criminal smuggling networks that you pay to deliver your child to the United States have no regard for his or her safety and well-being,” Johnson said. “To them, your child is a commodity to be exchanged for a payment. In the hands of smugglers, many children are traumatized and psychologically abused by their journey, or worse, beaten, starved, sexually assaulted or sold into the sex trade.”
The publicity over the US warnings was described by Bob Ortega of The Arizona Republic, in an article titled Media in Central America to migrants: Don't go to U.S.:
SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador -- The news vendor threaded her way through a traffic-snarled boulevard in this humid, tropical city, hawking tabloid papers. The message she carried was clear: 
"The U.S. will not give asylum to migrant children," blared Thursday's front page of La Prensa Grafica, one of the largest papers in El Salvador. 
Other newspapers sported similar headlines. It has been all but impossible in this country in recent days to look at a newspaper, listen to the radio or watch a TV newscast without hearing this message. The same message that Vice President Joe Biden delivered in Guatemala City on Friday at a meeting with leaders from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Mexico. 
Much of this past week, evening newscasts either led with or prominently featured reports that minors apprehended in the United States would be deported back to El Salvador. In neighboring Honduras and Guatemala, too, recent news coverage could scarcely have stated more clearly that the U.S. government says it will deport migrant children who cross the border illegally.
Some of the perils of the trip north were described by PBS in Migrants seeking security often encounter violence along their route:
Many migrants from Central American countries report being mugged, raped or threatened with other violence as they try to make their way to the United States, according to a survey recently released by Doctors Without Borders. 
The aid organization has set up clinics along migration routes to the border in southern and central Mexico to provide medical and mental health services. Fifty-eight percent of the migrants said they experienced one or more incidents of violence on their journey north, according to 396 patients surveyed from July 2013 to February 2014.
Looking for solutions, Carin Zissis of AS/COA searches the 2012 gang truce in El Salvador for indications of possible strategies to combat gang violence in Learning From a Troubled Gang Truce.

Researcher Sonja Wolf takes a look at the history of public security challenges in El Salvador in The security agenda for El Salvador's new president and proposes some steps which need to be taken to lessen the violence.

Finally, fellow blogger Linda reflects on The Journey North:
We see and hear the stories of thousands of Salvadoran children who left their homes or were sent from their homes by their parents.  They leave with a small bundle of clothes.  They carry no phones nor phone numbers so that drug thugs or gang members cannot track down their families and demand ransom.  They depend on the kindness of family and strangers in Guatemala to give them food and shelter.  They sneak across the border into Mexico.  They hop onto moving freight trains.  The girls fear being raped.  They move forward, hanging onto the dream that in the United States they will find work.  No matter how hungry they are or how many nights they sleep out in the cold, they are not deterred.  They know hunger, and a night in the cold can be safer than a night in a Salvadoran community held captive by gang violence. 
These are the driving forces of the journey:  the desire for work and the desire to live free from violence.

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Mosquito-borne disease in El Salvador

The rainy season in El Salvador always brings outbreaks of mosquito-borne diseases in El Salvador, primarily dengue.   This year, El Salvador has also had cases of chikungunya fever, a tropical disease with origins in Africa:

From an International Red Cross report:

Chikungunya fever is an emergent disease transmitted by mosquitoes and caused by an alpha virus - the chikungunya virus - which is transmitted mainly by Aedes aegypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes (the same species involved in dengue fever transmission).... 
El Salvador is the first country in Central America with a chikungunya outbreak. Several cases of fever and particular clinical symptoms have appeared since early June 2014 in the municipality of Axutuxtepeque in the Department of San Salvador. Given the situation, the Ministry of Health determined that the clinical picture of patients corresponded to chikungunya virus. 
According to Ministry of Health data to date, 1,300 suspected cases have been reported, distributed over 6 departments and 20 municipalities, with the possibility of spreading to the rest of the country due to the population's high susceptibility to this disease, as they have never come into contact before with the virus. 
 A National Geographic report on the virus describes the symptoms of the disease:
Chikungunya got its name from the phrase "which bends up" in the local dialect in Tanzania where it was first identified in the early 1950s. The term described the posture of someone with the disease, bent over with pain. 
Most victims suffer extreme joint pain for 5-12 days, making it hard for them to grasp things with their hands or put weight on their legs. The pain usually subsides by the two-week mark, but a small number of patients "continue to have sporadic bouts of joint pain, and we really don't understand why that is," Heise says. 
People middle-aged and older and those with preexisting medical conditions tend to suffer more than children and young adults, says Heise, whose research focuses on why the virus replicates in joints and why it causes an overreaction of the immune system. 
There is no vaccine or medication that can change the course of the disease, though patients are given painkillers and told to drink a lot of fluids, Morse says.
Meanwhile, cases of dengue have doubled since last year:
Cases of classic and hemorrhagic dengue have risen by 101% and 56% respectively this year in El Salvador compared to 2013, according to Health Vice-Minister Eduardo Espinoza. 
Up to July 6, classic dengue has "5,698 confirmed cases compared to 2,386 last year," Espinoza told reporters.
The government in El Salvador has been combating the duel threats of chikungunya and dengue with programs of fumigation to kill mosquito populations and public education campaigns to encourage households to eliminate sources of standing water where the disease carrying mosquitoes breed.

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Presidential residence turned art gallery

El Salvador's new president Salvador Sánchez Cerén has turned his official residence into an art gallery, and shared the experience of the art for the first time with victims of the country's civil war.   The BBC reported:
 The new president of El Salvador has opened his official residence as an art gallery, welcoming what his office described as the socially excluded. The president's office said visitors would be able to see Salvadoran art and reflect on the country's reality. 
President Salvador Sanchez Ceren, a former left-wing rebel leader who took office a month ago, said the residence would be open every two weeks.  He said he would continue living at his private home during his term of office. 
"The residence will become a space where we can share with those who have been excluded," said Mr Sanchez at the opening of the new gallery. 
Among the first guests to his official residence were human rights activists and relatives of victims of the civil war in the 1980s and 1990s.
A statement from the Salvadoran president indicated that 45 works of art from Salvadoran painters and sculptors have been installed in the presidential residence turned art gallery.  The pieces of art come from the National Collection of the Arts.

Saturday, July 05, 2014

US bows to pressure on El Salvador seed program

The US will apparently relent on a condition which was holding up the signing of the next round of Millennium Challenge compact funding for El Salvador.   The US had reportedly been insisting that El Salvador open up a seed purchase program to a Monsanto subsidiary, rather than keeping the program limited to purchases from local Salvadoran farmers and seed producers.  This round of funding from the US would be a five-year, $277 million compact, focused on projects in southern El Salvador along the Pacific coast.

The New York Times reports the change in US position:

MEXICO CITY — The United States and El Salvador said this week that they had settled their differences over compliance with the fine print of a trade agreement that threatened to hold up aid to the small Central American country, but the timing of the dispute has become an embarrassment for Washington. 
The surge of Central American migrants to the United States over the last few months has been a stark reminder of the poverty and violence they face at home. To some, Washington’s haggling over a program to help poor farmers in El Salvador has looked tone-deaf. 
At the heart of the dispute is the way the Salvadoran government buys corn and bean seeds for subsistence farmers. Washington had objected to moves that favored small, local seed producers on the grounds that they violated the Central American Free Trade Agreement. 
But on Wednesday, after articles about the dispute appeared in the media and 16 members of the House of Representatives called on Secretary of State John Kerry not to use changes to the food program as a condition for aid, the United States Embassy in El Salvador said that the dispute had been resolved.... 
In 2012, the Salvadoran government excluded foreign seed companies from a program known as the Family Farming Plan in an effort to encourage local producers. A subsidiary of Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company, had been a major supplier.
The dispute had shown a clear bias of US trade policy towards favoring multi-national companies like Monsanto in the name of "fair trade" -- even at the expense of policy initiatives like El Salvador's Family Agriculture Program which aimed to alleviate rural poverty and increase food security and food sovereignty in the country.  Sometimes "buy local" serves important policy objectives such as strengthening local producers, providing local jobs, and lessening dependence on the wide swings of international markets.   US trade policy, however, tends to reject all such "buy local" initiatives as protectionism closing off markets to competition and inflating prices.

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

US Government response to child migration -- a "surge" of enforcement and deportations

The Obama administration has announced its response to the tens of thousands of unaccompanied children from Central America who are finding their way across the southern US border, and it is not a humanitarian one.   The Washington Post reported:
The Obama administration, in a dramatic escalation of its border-control strategy, will seek
more than $2 billion in emergency funds to help stem an influx of Central American women and children entering the country illegally, as well as new measures to more quickly deport those already here, the White House confirmed Saturday.
President Obama intends to notify Congress of his request on Monday, and the administration will ask lawmakers to modify existing statutes to make it easier to return unaccompanied children to their home countries, an administration official said.
The letter the President sent on Monday includes the following measures:
 • providing the DHS Secretary additional authority to exercise discretion in processing the return and removal of unaccompanied minor children from non-contiguous countries like Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador; and

increasing penalties for those who smuggle vulnerable migrants, like children.

In addition, [the White House] will request congressional action on emergency supplemental appropriations legislation to support:

• an aggressive deterrence strategy focused on the removal and repatriation of recent border crossers;

• a sustained border security surge through enhanced domestic enforcement, including interdiction and prosecution of criminal networks;

• a significant increase in immigration judges, reassigning them to adjudicate cases of recent border crossers, and establishing corresponding facilities to expedite the processing of cases involving those who crossed the border in recent weeks;

• a stepped up effort to work with our Central American partners to repatriate and reintegrate migrants returned to their countries, address the root causes of migration, and communicate the realities of these dangerous journeys; and

• the resources necessary to appropriately detain, process, and care for children and adults.
Immigration reform advocates have strongly criticized the proposal:
 Immigration advocates responded to the president’s proposal with immediate concern, warning that the move would force potentially endangered children into an untenable situation. 
“Children will arrive traumatised, hungry, unable to speak the language, and yet they will be expected to articulate some fear of return if they’re to be allowed to come in to the U.S. That is grossly unfair and fails to recognise their capacities as children to negotiate these processes,” Wendy Young, the president of Kids in Need of Defense, a group that offers legal assistance in such situations, told journalists Monday. 
“These children will have no access to counsel – nobody to advise them. It takes [Young’s office] hours and even days to understand the proceedings they’re facing, but to do this at the border with no assistance is simply impossible.”
Today US Secretary of State John Kerry met with Salvadoran president Sanchez Ceren and other Central American leaders for ongoing discussions of the issue.   Kerry released a statement which said:
Tens of thousands of young children are at enormous risk for their lives. They’re being exploited and they’re being put in great danger. And it’s a challenge to each of us. The United States wants to work very, very closely with our Central American partners in order to try to address this issue. This is a very complicated issue, and it’s not a question of assigning blame. The only people to blame are the criminals who exploit young children. 
Each country faces special challenges, particularly our friends in Central America. There are challenges of the economy, jobs, violence, of the social inequities. And we obviously understand people who want to be able to do better and to look for a better life. 
But at the same time, there are rules of law and there is a process and there is false information that is being spread about benefits that might be available to these young people who are looking for that better life. And so we need to work together, to communicate to our people, to try to apply the law, and most importantly, to work with each of these countries to address the fundamental underlying causes of this particular challenge. 
Yesterday, Ambassador Tom Shannon, a counselor of the State Department, and the Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson visited the southern border of the United States in order to first-hand work with authorities to address this issue. And President Obama announced that he will be making a request of Congress for $2 billion to immediately apply to addressing the various aspects of this problem that we confront. 
So I’m very grateful to our friends from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras for coming today to sit and to talk through things that we can do together, to work in a cooperative way in order to try to do better in addressing this important challenge. The lives of children cannot be put at risk this way, and we all have a responsibility as leaders to do our part in order to solve this problem. And we will.
Secretary Kerry should think hard about those words  "The lives of children cannot be put at risk this way."   Isn't that what the United States is doing when it deports these children back to the neighborhoods where young people are some of the main victims of gang violence?    Can the US, a country of 300 million people, really not absorb 50,000 children seeking refuge and a place of safety which their families have been unable to secure for them in their own countries?

Monday, June 30, 2014

Maura's death and preventing more like it

A beautiful young woman died yesterday in El Salvador.   Maura Ramos was 24 years old and died from injuries she sustained in a traaffic accident.   It was a terrible loss for those who knew her.  Maura was active in service to her community, a teacher of English, a leader in her church who had spoken of being a pastor.  

Unfortunately, Maura's story is all too familiar in El Salvador. A thousand or more people die on El Salvador's roads each year. Through June 25, 454 persons had been killed in traffic accidents in El Salvador in 2014.   That is more than two per day.   Of those deaths, 247 people who died were pedestrians.   More than 3600 people have been injured.

In addition to Maura's death this weekend, another accident injured 28 people and killed a seven year-old when a truck crashed carrying 30 people with an inexperienced, under-aged driver who was speeding.   La Prensa Grafica chronicled other accidents over the weeked as well.

In a 2014 statement, transportation officials in El Salvador listed the top 5 causes of accidents as:

  • Distracted drivers
  • Driving outside of lanes
  • Following too close
  • Not respecting traffic signals
  • Going the wrong way on traffic circles

That list would seem to overlook other major contributing caused including:

  • Alcohol, 
  • Excessive speed, 
  • Poorly maintained vehicles, 
  • Absence of seatbelt use, 
  • Poorly maintained roads and intersections, 
  • Overloaded vehicles.

The Inter-American Development Bank is one organization which has been working with governments throughout Latin America to reduce the numbers of highway fatalities, but the IADB notes that it requires all sectors of the country -- the government, civil society, media, schools, and ordinary drivers  -- to make a concerted effort if there will be any improvement.

A World Bank official who works on traffic safety in Latin America told the Guardian newspaper earlier this year:
"Working on road safety means working on equality, because the lack of safety mainly affects the most vulnerable users, who are also the most vulnerable segments of society," says Raffo. "The second pillar is safe infrastructure, roads and urban mobility; the third is safe vehicles and drivers; the fourth is educational and awareness-raising policies; and the fifth is a key issue: post-accident response, that so many lives depend on."
What makes for safe roads and streets in El Salvador and elsewhere is no secret.   We owe it to Maura and the thousands of other accident victims to work to implement those solutions.