On a sunny July morning in the town of Alegría, in the mountainous coffee region of Usulután, Catholic workers show a US Government-produced video titled The Hidden Enemy. Ominous music accompanies images of dead bodies, brutal beatings and migrants succumbing to the desert heat along the US southern border.
A few kilometres away, members of the Santa María II coffee co-operative meet to discuss their plight: during the past two years coffee prices were so low, they could not afford fertilizer. Yields dropped sharply and this year they skipped picking where the berries were sparse. Unpicked coffee beans are now spreading the Broca disease, which threatens to destroy next year’s already diminished crop.
For decades, coffee and migration have given the Salvadoran economy stability. One in four Salvadorans lives in the US and 82 per cent of the country’s coffee farms are in the hands of small producers and co-operatives. Today, both migration and coffee are increasingly dubious options for the 45 per cent of people living in poverty.
El Salvador during much of the 1970s and 1980s was a shrieking pressure cooker, heated by the flames of a politically excluded left, a repressive state and an economy that generated both concentrated wealth and extensive poverty.
Following the 1992 peace accords, the flames of exclusion and repression have been reduced dramatically, with the army sidelined by the accords and the leftist Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) represented in Congress and in town governments.
Stability has been the key promise of the conservative National Republican Alliance (ARENA), which has delivered a dollarized economy and reduced inflation, assisted by high levels of migration and a steady flow of family remittances. For more than two decades, El Salvador has been a success story in the eyes of the US Government, which in the 1980s viewed the ARENA Government as a faithful footsoldier in the global war on communism.
US President George W Bush last year called President Francisco Flores his favourite Latin American leader. You can see why. El Salvador went from having the most advanced revolutionary movement in the region to being the most stable and promising Central American market economy of the last decade. With $2,000 million in remittances pouring in each year from 2.3 million Salvadoran workers in the US, the economy had the reserves needed to assure a smooth transition three years ago from the colón to the US dollar.
However, recent global changes are challenging ARENA’s recipe and providing opportunities for the FMLN. The failure of IMF-led strategies to convert increased trade into lasting social development has provided fertile terrain for challenges to the Washington Consensus by progressive Latin American governments. The world coffee crisis has left millions of farmworkers in a critical state. The US’s slowing economy and increased efforts to contain illegal migration also threaten to clog the most important pressure-release valve in the Salvadoran economy.
The FMLN, meanwhile, in voting last March, won 31 of 84 congressional seats, becoming the most important party in the legislature, and won 72 of 262 town governments, including San Salvador and 6 of the 12 provincial capitals. The campaign for the March 2004 presidential elections has placed ARENA’s Tony Saca, a successful business leader, against the FMLN’s Shafick Handal, one of the historic leaders of the guerrilla movement. Opinion polls earlier this year placed the FMLN ahead.
El Salvador remains the best bet for progressive change in Central America. But much will depend on the FMLN’s capacity to provide viable alternatives to sweatshops, coffee and migration as solutions to the historic problems of inequality and poverty.
Leader: President Francisco Flores.
Economy: Gross national income (GNI) per capita $2,050 (Honduras $900, United States $34,870).
Main exports: Coffee, clothing, sugar.
Monetary unit: US dollar.
El Salvador depends on the US market and its business owners are fearful that US subsidies and growing competition from China will mean they are reduced to aiming at niche markets for clothing. The coffee crisis has caused the loss of more than 100,000 jobs between 1999 and 2002 – 10 times more jobs than were created by maquila assembly plants in the same period.
People: 6.6 million. People per square kilometre 318 (Britain 238).
Health: Infant mortality 33 per 1,000 live births (Honduras 31, United States 7).
Environment: Deforestation is a severe problem. Drought in 2001 caused widespread harvest failure.
Culture: Most Salvadorans (89%) are mixed descendants of indigenous people and Spanish colonizers; 10% are indigenous. US commercial culture via cable TV and the internet dominates middle-class symbols and values.
Language: Spanish is the main and official language. Nahuatl and Kekchi are among the indigenous languages.
Religion: Mainly (around 75%) Catholic. Others include Protestants, Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Sources: World Guide 2003-2004; Human Development Report 2003; State of the World’s Children 2003.
Last profiled August 1993
Electoral democracy is now stable in El Salvador and there is a reasonable possibility of an FMLN victory in the March 2004 election. If it happens it will be because the ARENA Government has concentrated on creating an environment in which wealth can be accumulated by the better-off rather than on attending to popular needs: its export-led economic model has failed to deliver better social services or broader social justice.