El Salvador on an Unfinished Road to Reform
Despite Being Hailed by U.S. as a Success Story, Economic Problems Persist
By Kevin Sullivan
Washington Post Foreign Service
SAN SALVADOR -- It was a tantalizing rumor: Sweden was supposedly offering
asylum -- along with a nice apartment and walking-around money -- to victims
natural disasters such as the two big earthquakes that hit El Salvador last year.
Based on nothing but those whispers and a desperation to leave, more
than 600 Salvadorans flew to snowy Stockholm late last year. Many quit
their jobs, sold their
homes and belongings and bought airline tickets to a far-off country whose climate, language, food, culture and people they could barely imagine.
Perplexed Swedish authorities told them there was no such asylum program
and sent them all home in January. Now most are back, unemployed, broke
over in a country plagued by poverty, unemployment and violent crime.
President Bush will stop in El Salvador today to hail it as a triumph
of U.S. foreign policy. Many things are indeed going right here, particularly
reform. But the exodus to Sweden showed yet again that El Salvador's long-standing economic problems -- the ones that helped generate a Marxist-led rebellion in
the 1980s -- remain largely unsolved despite assertions by the U.S.-backed government that things are going far better.
"It's delusional," said Ruben Zamora, a political leader of the Farabundo
Marti National Liberation Front, which fought a decade-long civil war against
government that ended with a peace accord in 1992. "The trend at the beginning of the '90s was very positive. But now I think it is moving the other way."
But President Francisco Flores and the Bush administration see good news where Zamora sees bad.
"We believe El Salvador and Mexico and Peru are countries that have
definitively not lost their ways," Rose M. Likins, the U.S. ambassador
to El Salvador, said in
an interview. "These are countries that are good news stories. Good news locally, but also good news in the sense of U.S. engagement and the difference that U.S.
engagement makes in the region."
Flores, in an interview, agreed with Bush that El Salvador was a success
story because, he said, it "shares in the values of the United States,
in the values of
democracy, of economic freedom and of the rule of law."
Administration officials said Bush would praise El Salvador's reforms
during his visit here, including improvements in its human rights record,
one of the region's best
in recent years. El Salvador, they said, has evolved into a nation that tolerates opposition views, has reined in a police force and military that once killed thousands of
people and has encouraged independent media.
President Ronald Reagan spent billions backing the government against
rebels he viewed as a communist threat, a policy that generated widespread
criticism here and
in the United States. But even the critics acknowledge that the United States played a pivotal role in reaching the peace agreement signed in January 1992 and has
since helped create a more professional police force and military.
But today, the 22nd anniversary of the slaying of popular Roman Catholic
Archbishop Oscar Romero by death squads supported by the U.S.-backed government,
many Salvadorans recall the U.S. legacy less warmly. And they note political reforms have not eliminated the economic and social problems that helped spark the
war in the first place.
The United Nations says 48 percent of the country's 6.1 million people
live in poverty. The World Bank and the United Nations say per-capita gross
product is lower than it was in 1978, just before the civil war started. The richest 20 percent of the population controls 55.3 percent of the wealth; the poorest 20
percent has only 3.7 percent.
A recent survey found that one out of three people would leave the country
if they had the opportunity. The U.S. government estimates that 20,000
Salvadorans come to the United States each year, legally and illegally. Estimates of Salvadorans living in the United States range from 800,000 to well over 1 million,
concentrated in Los Angeles and Washington. They send home $2 billion a year.
The problems are typified by the village of San Antonio de los Ranchos
in the northern province of Chalatenango, where some of the war's most
brutal fighting took
Ten years later, it has new roads and bridges, a new church and a soccer
field; the municipal office has electricity, telephones and computers.
But Mayor Jose Otilio
Serrano said more than 60 percent of the 1,600 people still live in poverty. More than 400 have fled for the United States.
"The people are still suffering," Serrano said.
Flores said the number of Salvadorans living in extreme poverty has
dropped from 34 percent in 1992 to 17 percent. He said that although the
January and February last year -- which killed at least 1,200 people and caused more than $2 billion in damage -- were a "tremendous setback," the country was still
"on the right course."
But poverty is fueling a sharp increase in crime and drug use, said
Eduardo Alfonso Linares, a former rebel commander who now heads the municipal
police force in
San Salvador. There were more than 1,196 murders in El Salvador last year, almost twice as many as in New York City, which has more people. El Salvador's
murder rate was nearly 200 per 100,000 residents, compared with the U.S. rate of 5.5 murders per 100,000 residents in 2000.
Linares and other police officials said most of the killings were committed
by gang members -- there are an estimated 20,000 in El Salvador -- many
of whom began
their criminal careers in Los Angeles or other U.S. cities.
El Salvador has received $25 million to $30 million a year in U.S. development
aid for roads, bridges and other improvements, along with U.S. trainers
forces and the military, and advisers to help improve political and legislative processes. The United States has also given $167 million in disaster relief following the
Andrew Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development,
said El Salvador has made "remarkable progress." He said in an interview
U.S. aid has helped attract foreign investors, fueling growth. El Salvador's GDP grew an average of 4.7 percent in the 1990s, according to the World Bank.
Natsios also said the United States would soon announce a new program,
the Rural Central America Initiative, that would provide more U.S. assistance
Salvador and the region.
Flores, 42, a graduate of Amherst College in Massachusetts and Latin
America's youngest head of state, said he does not blame the United States
for El Salvador's
problems. "I think that we Salvadorans have the country we have because of the decisions we took," he said. "We were responsible for the war. We are responsible
for what exists in our country."
The best thing the United States could do for El Salvador, he said,
is to open its markets. He said he hoped he and Bush would make progress
today on a proposed
free-trade agreement with Central America. Such an arrangement would have relatively little economic impact on the United States, which did $3.6 billion in trade
with El Salvador last year, compared with more than $250 billion with Mexico. But freer access to the world's richest market is enormously important to Central
America. The leaders of Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama and Belize are all coming to San Salvador today to meet with Bush.
For Luis Antonio Rodriguez, a bus driver who joined the hundreds who
fled to Sweden, his country will be a success only when he and all those
around him want to
stay. Rodriguez said that even when he had a job, it paid only $12 for a 14-hour day. That is less, he said, than his friend in Virginia makes in one hour as a
construction worker helping to rebuild the Pentagon.
"And here we are not safe; we are afraid of our own shadows," he said. "I felt with all my heart that I would have loved to live in Sweden."