U.S. Gives Mixed Message to El Salvador: Free Trade or A Free People?

By Charley MacMartin and Bill Stouffer
July 1991; page 9; Volume 2, No. 7

Manuel Morales removed the cover from the well and peered down at the shimmer of water below. "It's sweet water alright and it runs deep." After inspecting the depth, Morales replaced the cover and looked up at the sun pouring down on this farming cooperative in El Salvador's rural province of San Vicente. "My God, it's hot," he laughed as we moved to the shade of the farm's community building.

El Carmen Co-op
Campesino co-op of El Carmen in San Vicente, El Salvador, filling a corn field. Photo by Greg Whitlock.

Morales' life mirrors El Salvador's civil war. Forced by government bombing in the early 1980s to leave his home town in the rugged northern province of Chalatenango, he and his family joined the tens of thousands of El Salvador's "internal refugees." They wandered the country for months before settling down near the Guatemalan border. But local military officials disapproved of Morales and the other refugees' cooperative ways and they again were forced back on the road. Morales and the others then settled here at El Carmen, growing plantain, corn and sesame.

El Carmen hopes to work with other cooperatives in the immediate vicinity to form a health clinic this year. Two young women from El Carmen traveled to San Salvador in January to join ten other students in the study of health care and rural medicine. "They'll return in August," adds Morales, "and we hope to have at least a provisional building ready for them."

International members of the Red Cross, the humanitarian group, Doctors without Borders, and the soon-to-arrive United Nations human rights mission, FAS says, "conspire with international communism to undermine our sovereignty."

Anti-Communist Front Threatens Peace Prospects

Like many communities - both rural and urban - plans for the future hang on the hopes of an end to El Salvador's eleven year civil war. Agreements between the Salvadoran Army and the rebel FMLN were dashed in May as the U.S.-backed government of Alredo Cristiani demanded that the FMLN lay down its weapons before constitutional reforms would be implemented.

Rumors in June of junior officers in the Salvadoran Army demanding a hardline at the negotiating table contributed to the grim picture. It is widely speculated that junior officers would be first fired if the Salvadoran Army is scaled down in the wake of negotiated accords.

Newly elected National Assembly member, Juan Jose Martell, from the social democratic party, Convergencia Democratica (CD), explained in an interview that the United States Congress and the Bush administration are the missing pieces for a negotiated solution. "Mixed messages emanate from Washington," emphasizes Martell. "On the one hand, they say they want a resolution to regional conflicts so conditions are right for their so-called Free Trade Agreement, but then neither Bush nor the Congress will definitely cut off military aid to the Salvadoran Armed Forces."

Martell's fears were confirmed when the announcement came in June of the formation of a new death squad, the Salvadoran Anti-Communist Front, or FAS. The FAS threatens international members of the Red Cross, the humanitarian group, Doctors without Borders, and the soon-to-arrive United Nations human rights mission who, FAS says, "conspire with international communism to undermine our sovereignty."

Human rights monitors, including Amnesty International, believe the death squads to be organized by, or at least tolerated by, the Salvadoran Army.

Drafting Only the Poor

The army itself poses the most serious threat to the families of El Carmen. Their province of San Vicente is home to El Salvador's heavily armed Military Engineering Detachment, or DMIFA. DMIFA soldiers killed El Carmen's president outside his home in April 1990, accusing the cooperative of growing food for El Salavador's guerrilla force, the FMLN.

The Salvadoran Army regularly invades farming communities like El Carmen to forcibly recruit young men into its ranks. Army leaders explain they are simply insuring the constitutional mandate for military service. Morales and other cooperative members, however, say the burden of recruitment falls disproportionately upon the heads of their children.

"You never see the recruitment trucks driving through Escalon," argues Morales, referring to an exclusive neighborhood in the capitol, San Salvador. Morales, El Carmen's acting president since the killing last year, organized a caravan by the leaders of eleven cooperatives in San Vicente.

The caravan traveled to the DMIFA headquarters in May this year to demand an end to Salvadoran Army forced recruitment. Army leaders accused the cooperativists of spreading rumors and threatened to throw them in jail unless they produced solid evidence. "You have stolen the solid evidence: our children," responded the cooperative leader, according to Morales. They left the DMIFA barracks without any agreements.

Grabbing the "balls of the tiger"

Driving through El Salvador's central provinces of La Paz and San Vicente, huge tracks of land lie fallow, owned by Salvadoran elite or foreign businessmen who refuse to invest while the civil war threatens profits.

El Salvador's distribution of land is among the most unequal in Latin America. The family of El Salvador's right-wing president, Alfredo Cristiani, owns a coffee-processing plant in San Vicente and is the province's largest land owner.

Rural farmworkers in El Salvador organized in February this year a campaign of land takeover, or "tomas de tierra." The campaign intended both to put fallow land back into cultivation for the coming growing season and to dramatize the desparate conditions of rural Salvadorans. To date, 45 parcels of land have been taken over throughout El Salvador, nearly all establishing themselves as cooperatives.

Conservative leaders of the government reacted sharply. Where the government could not intimidate the peasants with accusations of FMLN complicity, the Army was sent in to dislodge violently the farmers, "to protect private property." One participating farmer explained the seriousness of the confrontation. "You have to understand what the land means for the oligarchy," explained the wiry young man. And his wife added with a grin, "to take their land is to grab the balls of the tiger."

In the western province of Ahuachapan, campesinos met soldiers with machetes and stones. One dislodged group of farmers took over the Rosario Church in downtown San Salvador to protest the Army's violence. Hunger strikes and solidarity marches during May and June underlined the support the farmers drew from unions and other urban allies.

Resolution to the land question depends on the negotiations. "It's like a sword hanging over our head," one union leader commented. "All our work could collapse if the Army refuses to reform."