Archive for the 'el salvador' Category

DREAMers: Undocumented Youth Turn Images into Political Acts

December 20, 2012

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by Roberto Lovato

(A Creative Time Reports and Culture Strike collaboration)

On a recent Friday in the nation’s capital, visitors to the U.S. Capitol, the White House, and other white-walled centers of global power dotting the National Mall stood beneath sunny autumn skies papered with colorful dreams. Literally. Thanks to a collaboration between artists and DREAM Act activists (aka “DREAMers”), images of faces representing millions of undocumented youth gleamed on kites in the upper echelons of Washington. Their stories have come to the forefront of a national immigration debate that, until recently, excluded them.

Writing in the same unequivocal tone that forced President Obama to grant DREAMers a temporary, but historic, stay of deportation, the organizers of the Dream Kites project declared its simple objective: “to highlight a flawed system and request that we turn our attention onto the current state of inadequate immigration reform.” With the help of artist Miguel Luciano and Culture Strike, an organization bringing artists and activists together in the U.S. immigration debate, images of Dream Kites glided onto the front page of the Washington Post, along with the stories behind them.

The kite action reflects how the wings of artistic and political imagination are helping the immigrant rights movement grow beyond the multimillion-dollar policy designs of national immigrant rights groups. The latter have remained largely uncritical of President Obama, even as he has deported 1.4 million immigrants (including many DREAMers), a record for a single term in office. On the eve of another national debate about immigration reform, artist-enabled people power has found new ways to soar above the money-enabled Powers from Above.

My current understanding of the role of culture and cultural workers in immigrant rights and other social movements has its roots in Latin America, the source of most human and butterfly migration to the U.S. It was in El Salvador—the tropical, forested land of my parents—that, after graduating college, I first came to know the Tree of the (Cultural) Knowledge of Good and Evil. Slowly, my time in El Salvador withered away my former college radical’s cold aversion to protest songs, to poetry, to the delicate stencils of the talleres culturales (“cultural workshops”) there as no more than the work of revolucionarios de escritorio (“desktop revolutionaries”). I developed an altogether different sense of the political and the cultural—and the transformative, silken space between them. I learned how words could be liberating, but also dangerous. After government, media or right-wing civil society groups eviscerated the humanity of nuns, priests, peasants or students by labeling them comunistas or subversivos, they sometimes ended up being persecuted or killed.

Cultural struggles to preserve, protect and promote the humanity of all—like those of the butterfly-bearing activists—have been and remain paramount to disrupting the violence of state and non-state actors: psychological violence, physical violence and the violence of bad policy. In the face of such abuse, artists have often been the earliest adopters of the call by rights activists to see immigrants for what they are: human. It was novelist and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, a conservative, who gave the Central American refugee movement what became the international slogan of immigrant rights: “No Human Being Is Illegal.” Since he spoke these words, more left-leaning artists have reproduced “No Human Being Is Illegal” and other pro-migrant memes and messages in rap lyrics, digital images, t-shirts, posters, poems, films, chalk drawings and many other media.

Some 25 years and several local, national and global campaigns after I made the “hard” distinction between the “concrete” work of “real” political organizing and what I saw as the more ancillary work of artists, creative interventions like the kite action have turned me into a cultural believer. Of special note is the symbol of the butterfly, a new face for the immigrant rights movement. As a bearer of beauty symbolizing the life force (the Greek word for butterfly is “Psyche,” also meaning “soul”), the butterfly appeals to everyone’s humanity at a time when the dehumanization of immigrants fuels multimillion-dollar industries in lobbying, media, electoral politics, prison construction, border and other security industries.

I recently witnessed the symbolic flight of the political butterfly during a misty exam week at UC Berkeley. Students rushing in and out of the Life Sciences building were momentarily startled out of their concentration by an image of a blue and white butterfly with the word “MIGRANT,” and the phrases “All Humans Have a Right to Migrate” and “All Migrants Have Human Rights,” drawn in chalk. “Don’t step on it! It’s art,” said one student to her classmates. Another student, a 20-year-old political science major named Andrea Lahey, said: “You can’t really argue with the message because being human is not controversial—we’re all human.” Hours later, the DREAMer butterfly was washed away by evening rain. But, like the colored dust left by the pollen-covered wings of a butterfly, the DREAMers’ image had already made its mark, turning the prosaic activity of walking to and from science class into a poetico-political act.

Forcing the country to face social issues through cultural interventions is especially critical for a grassroots U.S. immigrant rights movement, given that none of the “leaders” of the Washington-based immigrant rights groups with national media clout is an immigrant. That’s right: none. This is one reason why it is so important to stage protests with powerful images of immigrants and symbols of migration: for example, displaying digitized DREAMer posters that depict butterflies yelling “Our Voices Will Not Go Unheard” into a megaphone, or more directly, getting undocumented writer José Antonio Vargas, undocumented artist Julio Salgado and other DREAMers on the cover of Time magazine under the heading “We Are Americans.”

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Artists will need precisely this kind of political imagination to confront the extraordinary and unprecedented challenges facing immigrants. By working together, artists and activists have exposed Barack Obama as the worst U.S. president ever in terms of persecuting, jailing and deporting—and, I would argue, terrorizing—mostly innocent immigrants, including children. Washington-based artist César Maxit’s powerful image of a sinister-looking Obama accompanying the message “1,000,000 Deportations. Ya Basta! No More! Obama: Stop the Deportations” took big risks that paid off. The image became iconic, appearing in national newscasts, mass protests, online videos and other media as it went viral, despite disapproval from Obama’s powerful allies within the immigrant rights movement. In the process of putting potent and uncompromising images before the public, DREAMer and other immigrant activists and artists have redefined the relationship between Latinos and both major parties.

As we enter a super storm of intersecting and rapidly growing global crises—economic decline, food shortages, climate change, etc.—that are leading migrants to embark on their often-breathtaking journeys, the truth-telling work of artists and cultural activists has taken a definitive turn. Foregrounding immigrant beauty, immigrant freedom and immigrant solidarity in order to disarticulate the myths manufactured by the anti-immigrant industries, as the Dream Kites and butterflies do, is still vitally important. But, because of the astonishing confluence and complexity of these crises, engaged artists must not only fight dehumanization but also craft a constructive path towards the social equilibrium necessary to decimate anti-immigrant hatred everywhere. Through the storm, the perilous flight to freedom continues.

El tiempo está a favor de buenos sueños (Time is on the Side of Good Dreams)

October 15, 2011

Gazing @ the bright red map that is today’s #Occupiedworld, mobilizing w millions of like-spirited humans, breathing in the sigh of gratitude for our heroines & their children, I am reminded that we would not be here were it not for the parents, the teachers, the mentors and, most especially, the martyrs whose breath still inspires (as in “take in spirit”) that which many had already relinquished to the Powers That Be , Real Hope.

 

 

El tiempo está a favor de los pequeñosde los desnudos, de los olvidados.

El tiempo está a favor de buenos sueños

y se pronuncia a golpes apurados.

What Kind of “Hope” is Obama Offering Honduras and Latin America?

July 10, 2009

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For a U.S. audience, to watch as the wet, pinkish-red jelly — the brains of Isis Odem Murillo, the young man killed last Sunday by the U.S.-trained Honduran military — spill onto those who carried the Christ-like victim was to watch another tragedy unfold in a far off land.

But for those of us familiar with countries in the region like Honduras and El Salvador, where in 1989 U.S.-trained troops literally shot out the brains of six Jesuit priests, their maid and her young daughter, we see reminders of the possible return of the terror that takes friends, family and colleagues.

Such traumatic memories inform the sense of the past in the Americas, the same past that President Barack Obama recently told his hemispheric audience that he wants to break with. We see this, for example, in repeated references to the “past” Obama made during his important speech before the Summit of the Americas meeting in April (“To move forward, we cannot let ourselves be prisoners of past disagreements.” Or: “I didn’t come here to debate the past — I came here to deal with the future.”)

Noticeably absent in the forward-looking Obama’s messages to Latin America is one of the two words we all identify him and his presidency with: hope.

Whatever the reasons for this omission, Obama would do well to remember that, in the bloodied streets of Honduras, and throughout the Americas, there exists a powerful political tradition in which esperanza (Spanish for “hope”) is often defined by overcoming the pro-military policies of the country that took as its own the name given to the entire continent — “America.”

Regardless of the outcome of negotiations to end the standoff in Honduras between the de facto military government and the only recognized leader of the country, President Manuel Zelaya, Obama must view the Honduran crisis as an opportunity to support and negotiate with the forces of esperanza on the continent.

He must do so if he is to overcome the past and move forward as he said in his summit speech: “We have at times been disengaged, and at times we sought to dictate our terms. But I pledge to you that we seek an equal partnership.”

In the insurgent region of Central America, tiny Honduras is nothing less than ground zero for the first encounter in the hemisphere between the tradition of esperanza and Obama’s still-untested notions of “hope.”

Contrasted against Obama’s still-being-formulated-as-we-speak notions of “hope” and “change” in the region, the movements flying the ancient banner of esperanza have delivered historic shifts across the Americas, as can be seen in the leaders elected in recent years, leaders with no less startling and inspiring stories as Obama’s. Indigenous leaders such as Bolivia’s Evo Morales; socialist single mothers, and former torture victims, like Chile’s Michelle Bachelet; and former steelworkers like Brazil’s “Lula” — Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

In times of great crisis, times in which Obama has yet to consolidate a sense of “hope” about the U.S. system in terms of things like health care, banking and jobs, the U.S. president has little to offer Latin America in the way of an alternative to the strides toward universal health care as in Venezuela and Cuba, the nationalization oil and other wealth redistribution programs of Bolivia or the democratization efforts of the deposed Zelaya in Honduras.

Until “hope” has some heft besides military heft to back it up, “esperanza” of Latin America will reign supreme — and be defended ferociously.

Once called “America’s Backyard” by Obama’s predecessors, América the continent has torn down the fences of what political scientists call the “unipolar” power of the United States in the region as the forces of esperanza usher in a new, more multipolar moment.

For example, many Latin Americans were not just united in calling for an end to Obama’s continuation of the $42.5 million in economic and military aid for Honduras in 2009. (Obama’s just-announced cuts in Honduran military aid can be viewed as either the victory of esperanza or the negotiation between esperanza and hope). Polls show that Latin Americans are also fairly unified with regard to their skepticism about U.S. motives in the hemisphere.

According to a widely quoted poll by the respected Latinobarometro Corp. in November, Latin Americans have a more favorable opinion of Spain, Japan and the European Union than they do of the United States — an unprecedented development — and two-thirds of all Latin Americans say they “don’t believe that the change of leadership in that country (the U.S.) will change the attitude of that country towards the region (of Latin America).”

China, whose foreign aid is mostly non-military (U.S. foreign aid varies between about one-third to two-thirds mostly military aid, as in the case of Colombia), which makes it one of the most important providers of foreign assistance to the region, is tied with the U.S in popularity ratings (58 percent favorable rating) — and trending upward.

He Li, a political scientist at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass., the rising popularity of China reflects a resurgent Latin American sovereignty and independence of action. Writing in the North American Congress on Latin America magazine, Li stated, “the Beijing consensus (in Latin America) represents an attractive alternative to its Washington counterpart, largely because Beijing respects the sovereignty of Latin American nations, not meddling in their affairs and certainly not dictating their policies.”

Plus, when compared with the fact that Latin American families who live and work in the U.S. send $50 billion to their families at home — exponentially more than what the U.S. government gives in aid — the fountain of U.S.-led “hope” in the Americas appears to have dried up in Washington.

In the land of esperanza, Obama must recognize that talk of “hope” that is accompanied by continued military funding for governments like those of Honduras or Colombia rings as hollow. And are as increasingly vapid as the political slogans, such as “Si Se Puede” (Yes We Can), deployed by politicians and corporations pilfering beer, burgers and bad foreign policy.

Although the diplomatic dance between the Obama administration and Latin America has just begun, the initial steps in tiny Honduras may not be taken to the tune of “hope,” but to that of esperanza.

(This article appeared originally in Alternet http://www.alternet.org)

Honduran, Latin American & U.S. Activists Prevail: Obama Cuts Military Aid to Honduran Government Obama

July 9, 2009

This report from Reuters confirms that the Obama Administration will cut military aid to the Honduran government. The announcement represents a major victory for activists in Honduras, Latin America and the U.S., who have demanded such action by the Obama Administration since the coup began in June 28th.

Though the aid represents a small amount- $16.5 million-, the political value of this shift in U.S. policy is enormous. Some will try to interpret the Administration’s acquiesence to popular demands (elites never admit to responding to pressure) thru the foggy lens bureaucratic process. But anyone with any political sense knows that the cutoff of military aid would not have happened without the actions-phone calls, letter writing, protests, marches and other pressures-applied directly and indirectly by individuals, organizations and some governments throughout the hemisphere.

While President Zelaya has not yet been reinstated (negotiations begin today), those of us opposed to the coup, those who are helping the Obama Administration do the right thing, should take at least a brief moment to breathe in a deep appreciation of our work. Despite a media blackout, despite opposing the policies of an extremely popular president, the workings of popular hemispheric power continue. And though we should continue actions, we should should continue them in the knowledge that these actions have an impact. Yes We Will.

Latin América’s Neda: Video of Killing of Isis Oved Murillo

July 6, 2009

The parallels -mass protest against military governments, military killing non-English-speaking millenials, worldwide denunciation-could not be greater. But the differences between coverage and official treatment here in the U.S. of the situation in Iran and the situation in Honduras couldn’t be starker. Why? I am working through a piece on this for later. In the meantime, check out this video and see for yourself what most U.S. media and many elected officials in the U.S. are mum about (Warning: this video is extremely graphic, gut wrenchingly so):

“NUESTRO NEDA”: PIC OF HONDURAN YOUTH KILLED BY US-FUNDED MILITARY

July 6, 2009

Picture of our Neda: boy killed by Honduran military with bullets and M-16’s paid for by the U.S. government.

Why Was Alex Sanchez Arrested? Uprising Radio Interview

June 27, 2009

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Interview by Sonali Kolhatkar with former Sanchez lawyer, Alan Diamante, and your truly. Hope it’s of interest:

Uprising Radio Interview

Arrest of Gang Intervention Leader Alex Sanchez Raises Questions, Concerns in Community

June 25, 2009

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Today’s FBI arrest of Alex Sanchez, one of the most respected gang intervention leaders in the country, has raised major concerns in Los Angeles and around the country. As his wife and children watched, Sanchez, who leads Homies Unidos, a violence prevention and gang intervention organization with offices in Los Angeles and El Salvador, was arrested and taken away by FBI agents this morning at his home in Bellflower. The federal charges- being a “shotcaller (someone who manages narcotics operations) for Mara Salvatrucha (MS) and conspiring to kill Walter Lacinos, an MS member shot and killed in El Salvador in 2006- have raised fears and great concerns among the many who’ve known and worked with Sanchez over the years, including myself.

First and foremost among the concerns in the community are concerns for Alex’s immediate safety. As a former gang member who works to help others leave gang life, Alex faces great danger in whatever LA County facility he’s held in-even if he’s put under Protective Custody (PC). Law enforcement authorities have an axe of historic proportions (see Rampart scandal) to grind against Alex and some have demonstrated a lethal propensity towards retribution. Known as “Pecetas”, those held under PC are considered by many gang members to be informants and, therefore, legitimate targets for direct retribution from gang members -and direct and indirect retribution from police.

For more reasons than I have time to enumerate here, I for one do not believe the charges. Rather, I think that these recent accusations are but the most recent in the long, rotten chain of attempts by law enforcement officials to frame Alex, who was regularly beaten, framed, falsely arrested, deported and harassed by the Los Angeles Police Department since founding Homies Unidos in 1998. First and foremost, I spent the evening calling those who know and have worked most closely with him, and they ALL share that sense that, as one of his best friends told me, “He really is a good person.” I’ve known him for years and will be sending a strongly worded support letter like the many I’ve sent over the course of the many years and many frame-ups law enforcement has ravenously pursued. Those close to Homies and Alex know and are again feeling that cloud of anger and concern that comes with being harassed by authorities abusing the power delegated to them.

Also, Alex is alleged to have conspired to kill Walter Lacinos, who sources in the Salvadoran and gang communities tell me had, in the words of one gang expert interviewed, “many, many enemies in the U.S.-and El Salvador.” While most of charges levelled against most of the the 24 other plaintiffs point to physical acts and evidence, the one and most serious indictment (see full indictment here) naming Alex alleges that he participated in “a series of phone conversations” in which the possibility of killing Lacinos is discussed. No proof is offered to corroborate the charges relating to managing narcotics operations for MS.

Lastly, the sensationalistic judgements of many media and some law enforcement officials raise serious concerns, as well. Close scrutiny of the media coverage reveals an definite disposition to judge and convict Alex before his trial even begins. For example, almost all of the coverage follows uncritically the logic laid out in the indictment. No attempt is made to notice that, for example, Alex is not named in most of the 66-page indicment. Other plaintiff’s names appear throughout. Those reading reporting in the LA Times and other outlets might come away believing that Alex might be involved in the murder of seven people or in conspiring to kill another 8. Consider this note from today’s LA Times:

The arrests cap a three-year investigation into the gang and its cliques, which operated in the Lafayette Park area, west of downtown. Among the most serious allegations contained in a 16-count federal indictment unsealed today was the claim gang members conspired to murder veteran LAPD gang officer Frank Flores.

Those named in the indictment include Alex Sanchez, a nationally recognized anti-gang leader and executive director of Homies Unidos.

Notice how there’s zero attempt to clarify or give greater context to Alex’s story, even though he headlines most of these stories. Even worse is the way that law enforcement authorities like L.A. Police Chief Bill Bratton, who the Times tells us has a big “I told you so” for the city, use Alex’s case to build the case for punitive-and failed-anti-gang policies,

LAPD Chief William J. Bratton said the Sanchez case reinforces the thinking behind the city’s efforts to consolidate and more strongly regulate anti-gang funding.

Bratton is no stranger to racially charged policing policies in New York or in Los Angeles (ie; Bratton was roundly repudiated when he first tried to apply the “terrorist” frame to L.A. gangs). Neither he nor any other L.A. official has accepted responsibility for helping create Mara Salvatrucha in L.A. and El Salvador, a country with no previous history of gangs before LAPD collaborated with immigration authorities to deport Mara members. Adding fuel to the fire burning to replace the anti-gang work of Homies Unidos with more punitive, law enforcement-centered approaches favored by Bratton and his, boss, L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, are reports like this one which have begun a non-profit and politico witch hunt even before Alex has seen a single day in court. Rather than look more deeply into the charges, media, political and police personalities appear bent on assuming Alex’s guilt and then waving this alleged guilt as if it’s a flag at the front of the contemporary equivalent of a witch hunt.

Although the story of Alex Sanchex touches upon people and issues-immigrants, gangs, Salvadorans- that are explained-and dealt with- simplistically, dangerously, the leadership of Los Angeles must speak out in defense not just of Alex, but of a fundamental principal of a just society: that you are innocent until proven otherwise.

Much more on this important issue in weeks and days to come.

Mision Cumplida Indeed: Salvadorans Inaugurate Funes as They Embark on a Journey Out of Darkness

June 1, 2009

MISION CUMPLIDA

Taken during the celebrations of the historic victory of the FMLN in the recent presidential election, this picture has a power I find hard to describe.

In and of itself, the very simple message hand written on the pancarta -Mission Accomplished: Companeros Fallen in the Struggle- says much about what it took to reach today’s inauguration of Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes. Humble young hands paying homage not to comic book or video game characters, but to heroes from a real-life place: their familia.

The kids in the pic told me that they were there celebrating the life of aunts and uncles who died fighting the Salvadoran government so that they would have a future. In the current context, the sign in the background – “Laboratory, Diagnostic Center”- symbolizes for me the fact that the patient suffering under the cancer of U.S.-sponsored military dictatorship has miraculously improved -and now there’s space for experimentation outside of the rat’s cage of U.S. and corporate domination.

But the clincher for me is the picture’s ciarosucuro effect, the claro-oscuro contrast between the darkness behind the young people, who are the same age as their aunts, uncles and many of the combatants when they fought and died in the 80-‘s and early 90’s, and the light shining on them. The young people are members of the first generation in Salvadoran history that will live free of the darkness of a government dominated by oligarchs and military dictators; The light shining on those kids in the picture has no precedent in either the history of light or the history of children in El Salvador. Mision Cumplida indeed.

Mo(u)rning in El Salvador

March 26, 2009

The Nation.

A young supporter of FMLN presidential candidate, now president-elect, Mauricio Funes. RODRIGO ABD/AP

Roberto Lovato

March 26, 2009

In Izalco, El Salvador, an idyllic but very poor village nestled under the gaze of the great volcano of the same name, I asked Juliana Ama to help me understand how the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), the guerrillas-turned-political-party, had managed to triumph over the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) in the presidential election on March 15, ending the right-wing party’s twenty-year reign. Ama guided me to a dusty, football field-size dirt lot adjacent to a church. The 61-year-old schoolteacher said nothing at first, staring meditatively at a round spot blackened by a campfire or some burnt offering. Then she said simply, “It’s our dead.”

Her explanation lacked the revolutionary bravado and the análisis político heard from chain-smoking former guerrilla commanders and Facebook-using radical students in San Salvador, the capital. Instead, she threw open her arms and said, “Most of the people killed in the Matanza [the Great Killing] are buried here.” Before us lay the remains of many of the 20,000 to 30,000 mostly indigenous Pipil-Nahuat killed in January 1932 on the orders of military dictator Maximiliano Hernández.

In slow, measured speech, Ama, one of a tiny fraction of Salvadorans who identify themselves as indigenous, explained how indigenous peasants like her great-great-granduncle, the peasant leader Feliciano Ama of Izalco, and others from the western coffee-growing part of El Salvador rose up against deadly poverty, stolen land and other abuses in Depression-era El Salvador, only to be brutally slaughtered.

“We’ve organized commemoration ceremonies on this spot since 2001,” said Ama, as she pointed at the darkened patch on the lot. “People who can’t remember and are silent are people who are submitted (sumisos). Those ceremonies made it normal and acceptable to be open about the loss of long ago, the loss that still lives with us. Nothing like this was ever possible before, and I think that the ceremony made it possible for people to start being more open about political feelings too.”

My initial reason for visiting Izalco during the country’s presidential election season was that I’d learned of ARENA’s defeat in the Izalco mayoral race in January–the party’s first defeat since it was founded in 1981 by Roberto D’Aubuisson, who also founded El Salvador’s notorious death squads. The death squads, backed by the right-wing military government, were responsible for killing many of the 80,000 people who died during the bloody civil war of 1980-92.

The FMLN’s recent victory in small, neglected Izalco–after campaigning on a message of change backed by a coalition of Catholics, students and evangelicals–had political analysts buzzing about how it might herald a national trend in the lead-up to the historic presidential election. Even some ARENA loyalists I interviewed quoted D’Aubuisson’s prophetic maxim: “The day we lose Izalco, that day will be the end of the party.”

In Izalco it became clear how Ama’s explanation of the FMLN’s victory aligned perfectly with the central lesson of revolutionary political warfare that some former Salvadoran guerrilla commanders told me they’d learned in Russia, Vietnam and other Communist-bloc countries in the 1960s and ’70s: the spirit of the people matters most. The power that broke the chain of oligarchies and military dictatorships that shackled El Salvador for 130 years was the will of the people to break their silence.

Few embody this will to break the silence like Mauricio Funes, the FMLN candidate and the first leftist elected president in the history of El Salvador.

Funes, a 49-year-old former journalist, rose to prominence in no small part thanks to the democratic space created by the signing of the peace accords ending the war in 1992. Until then, the seventy-year rule of oligarchs and dictators made freedom of expression a rarity. My first memories of Funes are as the talk-show host and commentator my family in San Salvador would listen to in the late ’80s as they huddled around a small, battered black-and-white television set during their lunch breaks.

As the grip of state military-run television loosened in the postwar period, Funes became the country’s most popular TV personality in his role as host of Entrevista al Dia (Interview of the Day), El Salvador’s equivalent of Meet the Press.

Hosting al Dia, on which he grilled and debated left- and right-leaning guests with his famously mercurial intelligence, helped to make Funes a symbol of the openness ushered in by the signing of the peace accords. After losing every presidential race since laying down its arms to become a political party in 1992, the FMLN embraced change. With the help of people like Funes’s mentor Hato Hasbun–a sociology professor who worked closely with the six Jesuit priests killed by the military during the FMLN offensive in 1989–the party finally recognized that putting up presidential candidates who were former guerrilla commanders or wartime opposition leaders might not be the best strategy for winning over an electorate trying to overcome the war’s painful legacy. The party chose Funes, who was neither a combatant nor a member of the FMLN during the war.

In doing so, the former guerrillas gave their party a much-needed upgrade that allowed them to use the FMLN’s legendary organizational capacity (during the war, the US State Department called the FMLN one of the “best organized” and “most effective” people’s movements in Latin America in the last fifty years) to meet the political requirements of the media age. And as a Jesuit-influenced intellectual, Funes also gave the FMLN–an organization with many leaders who were themselves profoundly influenced by liberation theology and first organized in Christian base communities–some ideological comfort.

When I interviewed Funes on the night of his victory, in the restaurant of a San Salvador hotel, the first thing he did was echo the thinking of one of those who courageously broke El Salvador’s silence. “Now we need a government like the one envisioned by [Archbishop of El Salvador] Óscar Arnulfo Romero, who, in his prophetic message, said that the church should have a preferential option for the poor. Paraphrasing Monseñor Romero, I would say that this government should have a preferential option for the poor, for those who need a robust government to get ahead and to be able to compete in this world of disequilibrium under fair conditions.”

Like almost every Salvadoran I spoke with after Funes’s victory, the candidate said he wished a deceased family member, in his case his brother killed during the war, was with him to share the moment.

And like Juliana Ama, he too rooted his victory in the legacy of silence and struggle from Izalco: “Our history–what happened in 1932, the poverty of the ’70s that caused the armed conflict in the ’80s and the state in which many in the countryside like Izalco still find themselves today–these can be explained fundamentally by the unjust distribution of wealth, the use of the government to support the process of concentrating wealth.”

After talking with Funes at the hotel, I went to the Escalon neighborhood, where those who have benefited from the concentration of the country’s wealth live and do business behind the big, heavily guarded walls of gated buildings and fortressed mansions. For reasons I don’t know, but imagine have something to do with poetic justice, the FMLN decided to hold its massive victory celebration that Sunday night on Escalon Boulevard.

The neighborhood was also where the FMLN launched its offensive on San Salvador in 1989. After the demise of Communism put in doubt the survival of Latin American revolutionary movements, including El Salvador’s, the FMLN made a strategic decision to bring its guerrilla army of young men and women and older adults, some of whom had little to no combat experience, into the capital, leading to some of the bloodiest battles of the war.

I walked along the crowded blocks of the Escalon with my good friend Joaquin Chávez, a fellow in the NYU history department, who founded the first Central American studies program in the United States with three other colleagues and me. Passing by Citibank and Scotiabank, OfficeMax, McDonald’s and other corporate buildings on the Escalon never felt so exhilarating. The major difference was the hundreds of thousands of boisterously happy, red-shirted, mostly poor children, youth and families waving homemade red-and-white FMLN flags.

For his part, my bookish, bespectacled historian friend Joaquin, who had lost many friends and family members during the war, was initially pretty academic about what the electoral victory meant.

“The origins of the war were not ideological. What brought on the armed struggle,” began Joaquin, whose current research looks at the role of intellectuals in the origins of the war, “was the reaction of various groups to the repression of the state. If the government had allowed fair elections in 1972 and 1977, there would have been no war.” His voice started to crack slightly with emotion. “And that’s what makes tonight so hope-inspiring: it makes possible a political transition through legal and electoral means.”

Watching the wave of thousands of mostly young FMLN supporters walk, sing and dance as they held handpainted signs with messages like Misión Cumplida: Compañeros Caídos en La Lucha (Mission Accomplished: Compañeros Who Fell in the Struggle), Joaquin reminisced, not as the accomplished historian but as the former guerrilla leader: “I remember being here on Seventy-fifth Street (during the 1989 offensive) to pick up the bodies of dead and injured young combatants. They were the ages of these kids walking here now.”

He continued: “Tonight I feel like they didn’t die for nothing. Spiritually, it feels like a weight has been taken off of you, where you feel the absence of those who initiated these processes. This is an explosion of happiness and a celebration of rebellion, a triumph of the 1932 rebellion of Feliciano Ama and the indigenous people.”

Back at the empty lot, near the blackened patch of dirt that is ground zero of revolutionary El Salvador, Juliana Ama pondered the escape from silence her country had begun. Despite the threats the commemoration ceremonies provoked, she said, “our ceremony is not intended as a political act. It is first and foremost a spiritual act. We have no choice; we can’t remain and suffer in silence.” Her eighth-grader son, Alex Oswaldo Calzadia Chille, stood solemnly nearby.

Asked what he thought the political turns in his country portended, the rather reticent, dark-skinned 14-year-old star student, soccer forward and drummer at the Mario Calvo school responded with an unexpected forcefulness. “I’m Pipil (Indian). Feliciano Ama, he’s my family and was killed defending the land against the government, like many people do today.” As if he’d been waiting for the opportunity to speak even more, he declared, “My family voted for the FMLN because they wanted change.” His intense brown eyes alive with the energy one imagines his rebellious ancestor had, Alex added, “When I’m old enough, so will I.”

CUNY TV Interview on El Salvador Elections

March 22, 2009

This interview with CUNY TV‘s Gary Pierre-Pierre goes over lots of terrain. Thanks to CUNY TV’s Michelle Garcia for conceiving of and developing the idea for what turned out to be a good interview. Enjoy!

Daring to Change: Exclusive Interview with El Salvador’s President-Elect, Mauricio Funes

March 18, 2009

A Conversation With Mauricio Funes

by Roberto Lovato & Josue Rojas

March 17, 2009

On March 15, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) became the first leftist party to clinch a presidential election in the history of El Salvador. By 10 pm, it became clear to Salvadorans and to the world that the former guerrillas had ended more than 130 years of oligarchy and military rule over this Central American nation of 7 million. In the streets, thousands of red-shirted sympathizers chanted “¡Si Se Pudo!” (Yes, We Could), while they celebrated the victory of the FMLN’s Mauricio Funes.

Funes captured 51 percent of the vote, to 49 percent cast for Rodrigo Avila of the Nationalist Republican Alliance party, which had been in power for twenty years. Though Funes, a former journalist, is the best-known Salvadoran on his country’s TV networks, he is little known outside the region. Thanks to a collaboration between The Nation and New America Media (NAM), reporters Roberto Lovato and Josue Rojas had the opportunity to interview El Salvador’s next president on the night of his election. What follows is an excerpt from this interview with Funes, who addressed numerous issues: the meaning of his presidency, El Salvador’s relationship with the United States, immigration and other domestic and foreign policy concerns.

Immigration has become one of the defining issues of the US-El Salvador relationship. How will your administration’s approach to this issue differ from that of the outgoing Saca administration?

The fact that we’re going to rebuild the democratic institutions–enforce the constitution and make of El Salvador a democratic state that respects the rule of law–is the best guarantee to the United States that we will significantly reduce the flows of out-migration. Salvadorans who leave to go the United States do so because of the institutional abandonment, the lack of employment and dignified ways to make a living. This forces them to leave in search of new possibilities in the US. It’s not the same for us to ask the US government to renew TPS [temporary legalization] without a Salvadoran effort to avoid further migration flows, as to do so from a position in which we have undertaken efforts to reduce the migration flows.

What’s the first message you’d like to send to President Obama?

The message that I would like to send to President Obama is that I will not seek alliances or accords with other heads of state from the southern part of the continent who will jeopardize my relationship with the government of the United States.

Opinion polls in El Salvador indicate that large majorities of its citizens reject key policies that define, in many ways, the relationship between El Salvador and the United States, specifically CAFTA, dollarization and the Iraq war. What will your approach be to these issues?

We can’t get mixed up in repealing CAFTA…nor can we reverse dollarization, because that would send a negative message to foreign investors, and then we’d be facing serious problems because we wouldn’t have enough investment to stimulate the national economy.

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What do you think the United States government should be concerned about with regard to El Salvador at this time?

To the degree that we do our part, which is to rebuild our productive capacity and to create a coherent social policy that improves the quality of life, there will be fewer reasons to leave for the US and we’ll reduce migration flows. And that should be a concern for the US.

Where will the effects of the transition in power be felt most immediately?

We’re going to change the way we make policy. And one of the most significant changes is that we will no longer have a government at the service of a privileged few. And we will no longer have a government that creates an economy of privileges for the privileged. Now, we need a government like the one envisioned by [Archbishop of El Salvador] Óscar Arnulfo Romero, who, in his prophetic message, said that the church should have a preferential option for the poor. Paraphrasing Monseñor Romero, I would say that this government should have preferential option for the poor, for those who need a robust government to get ahead and to be able to compete in this world of disequilibrium under fair conditions. This government implies a break from traditional policy-making. Now, what we’re going to do is put the government and the structure of the state at the service of the Salvadoran people–the totality of the Salvadoran people–but fundamentally, of that great majority who are oppressed and excluded from the country’s social and economic development. [The people who for] not just the last twenty years but for last 200 years or more have not had the possibility of participating in the formation of public policies. A government like the one I’m going to create will give them the protagonist’s role, which, until now, they have not ha

Democracy Now! Interview on FMLN Electoral Victory in El Salvador

March 16, 2009

Democracy Now!

You can find what will surely be my most cogent (estoy super cansadisimo, pero contento) interview on yesterday’s elections in El Salvador here at the DN website. Clips from a video interview with President-elect Funes will be forthcoming, depending on what editors tell me. Transcript of interview below. R

Amy Goodman: In El Salvador, Mauricio Funes, of the former rebel FMLN party, has won the country’s presidential election, ending two decades of conservative rule. Funes won 51 percent of the vote to 49 percent for Rodrigo Avila of the ruling right-wing ARENA party. He conceded defeat late on Sunday.

ARENA had won every presidential election since the end of El Salvador’s brutal civil war eighteen years ago. The FMLN was a coalition of rebel guerrillas who fought the U.S.-backed military government during almost two decades in which more than 70,000 people died. Tens of thousands, the majority of those people, died at the hands of the Salvadoran military or paramilitary forces.

Funes is a former television journalist who reported on the years of the conflict and is the first FMLN presidential candidate who is not a former combatant. In his victory speech, he stressed his moderate policies during his campaign and says he intends to maintain good relations with the United States.

President-elect Mauricio Funes: [translated] To strengthen international relations and implement an independent exterior policy based on protection and the boosting the national interest, the integration of Central America and the strengthening of relations with the United States will be aspects of priority on our foreign policy agenda.

Amy Goodman: The Obama government has assured Salvadorans it would work with any leader elected, a departure from the Bush administration, which in 2004 threatened to cut off aid to El Salvador if the FMLN won.

Close U.S. ties saw El Salvador keep troops in Iraq longer than any other Latin American country, with the last of its 6,000 soldiers returning last week. El Salvador had also become a hub of regional cooperation with Washington in the so-called drug war. The country’s economy depends on billions of dollars sent home by 2.5 million Salvadorans who live in the United States.

We go now to San Salvador to speak with Roberto Lovato. He is a contributing associate editor with New America Media and a frequent contributor to The Nation magazine. He blogs at ofamerica.wordpress.com. He met with the President-elect, Mauricio Funes, last night and interviewed him. Roberto Lovato joins us now via Democracy Now! video stream.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Roberto. Can you tell us the climate now in San Salvador?

Roberto Lovato: I would just say — I’ll just quote a song that says, “Y que venga la alegria a lavar el sufrimiento” — “Let the joy come and wash away the suffering.” It’s something on an order I’ve never seen in my life. As a child of Salvadoran immigrants and as someone who’s spent time here and as someone who saw the Obama experience, I really can’t tell you what this is like, when you’re talking about ending not just the ARENA party’s rule, but you’re talking about 130 years of oligarchy and military dictatorship, by and large, that’s just ended last night. You’re talking about $6 billion that the United States used to defeat the FMLN, as you mentioned earlier. You’re talking about one of the most formidable — a formerly political military, now political forces, in the hemisphere, showing the utter failure of not just the ARENA party but of somebody in particular, too, who has a special place in many of our hearts: Ronald Reagan. This is the defeat of Ronald Reagan, nothing less.

AG: Explain what you mean.

RL: Ronald Reagan — well, you mentioned those 70,000 dead. If there’s a single person responsible for the death squad apparatus that pursued many of our family members, that pursued some of us, that killed — according to the United Nations, 95 percent of all the 70,000 to 80,000 people killed were killed by their own government. Ronald Reagan really, really started us along the road to the — what’s even called in Iraq now “the Salvador Option.” And so, $6 billion — it cost Ronald Reagan and the US $6 billion to try to destroy the FMLN.

And now the streets are red, not with the FMLN’s blood, but with young children, boys, girls, elderly people, families dressed in red, joyously celebrating, singing revolutionary songs commemorating a victory that they’ve never known in their lives, coming out of a silence that this country has always known its whole life. And so, I mean, there were tears and not blood in the streets of San Salvador this morning and even now. It’s about 6:00 a.m. You guys got me up a little early, but it’s just something I’ve never seen in my life, and I’m so moved. I wish I had the words to tell you how moved many of us are here right now.

AG: Can you tell us who Mauricio Funes is? Tell us his background.

RL:
Mauricio Funes is, I would say, one of the great symbols of the aspects of democracy brought to El Salvador, thanks to the FMLN bringing the United States and El Salvador to the negotiating table. Freedom of expression was not a possibility under a military dictatorship. And so, the peace accords brought a modicum of political space, in the media, in particular. And so, Mauricio Funes was like a talk-show host who became the biggest media star in El Salvador, one who happened to lean left, who lost a brother during the war, and who is extremely smart, extremely smart.

You know, I interviewed him for about twenty-five minutes last night, and I find him to be a very, you know, smart guy, in terms of foreign, domestic policies, and speaks with great details and not the usual inanities and simplistic nonsense that most Salvadoran politicians I’ve spoken of — about for most of Salvadoran life. And so, he came as a breath of fresh air, to the point where even 46 percent of the evangelical vote in El Salvador — an extremely conservative evangelical vote, I might add — voted for him.

AG: Explain, finally, Roberto Lovato, speaking to us from San Salvador, the significance of this election of Mauricio Funes, of the FMLN party, for Latin America.

RL: Well, this is a continuation of the red and pink tide that’s taken hold in the hemisphere. The big difference is that it brings us even closer to the north. It brings us even closer to the border wall. Remember, there are more Salvadorans here than there are most — in the United States than there are any other South American country. So the Salvadoran population was here in force, as were many North Americans. People that — like, I’m sure many in your audience, Amy, have supported the people of El Salvador since the 1980s, doing solidarity work, doing sanctuary work. So all of those people’s hearts were moved last night. I’m sure a lot of people in the United States cried with joy. I’m sure a lot of people in United States know and are going to be committed to El Salvador. And so, you bring a tiny Latin American country with one of the most powerful solidarity movements in the United States right now. So, this is major.

This is major also because the Summit of the Americas is coming up, and now Barack Obama is going to have to deal with another Latin American country that has turned away from the United States agenda and that he’s going to have to try to woo somehow, to back into some conversation and not confrontation with the US.

AG: Roberto Lovato, we’re going to leave it there, though we will continue to cover these developments. Again, the FMLN presidential candidate of El Salvador has won. Mauricio Funes is his name. Roberto Lovato, our guest, contributing associate editor with New America Media, frequent contributor to The Nation magazine, blogs at ofamerica.wordpress.com, in San Salvador covering the elections.