Alberto Arene, Exile

Twelve years ago, his name appeared on a death list. Now a UT doctoral candidate, he's finally returning to a war-ravaged homeland...

By Michael J. Reed Hurtado
May 1992; pages 14-15
Alberto Arena

Twelve years ago, Alberto Arene's name appeared on a list of 138 people published in El Salvador's newspapers. It was time to flee.

The deathlist in that troubled Central American nation expanded greatly during its lengthy civil war, contributing to part of the estimated 75,000 fatalities from a bitter 12-year conflict. One-fifth of El Salvador's 6 million inhabitants now live in exile, scattered throughout Mexico, the United States and neighboring countries.

Arene will finally return after completing his course work in an interdisciplinary Latin American studies doctoral program - economics, government and public policy - at the University of Texas. He will write his doctoral thesis in El Salvador.

A cease-fire agreement between El Salvador's warring factions - declared earlier this year - halted fighting. Observers hope that negotiations, mediated by the United Nations, will ultimately create a democratic society.

Both the rebel Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) and the ultra-right Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) government presented national reconstruction plans. Ultimately, the compromise will be implemented by the government.

But critics charge that the current government's $1.1 billion, five-year reconstruction plan does very little to address El Salvador's social inequalities; instead, it targets the rebuilding of damaged roads, pipelines and other infrastructure to invigorate economic development.

"El Salvador is going to need people to participate in the expanding political process of democratization. Part of the success of the country's development will depend on the return of those in exile," says Dr. Michael Conroy, a UT economics professor who served as an FMLN advisor during recent UN peace negotiations in New York.

"El Salvador's population (that is in exile) includes a large part of the university trained elite in the country," says Conroy. "Most Salvadorans want to return as soon as the conditions permit. El Salvador needs all of them."

Alberto Arene symbolizes the brain drain return.

Since 1980, he has served as an economic consultant to the World Bank, different institutions within the United Nations, and several other international agencies working on Central American development.

Like most exiles, Arene follows news about El Salvador with an almost religious fervor.

"Whatever knowledge any Salvadoran acquires outside the country does not only become individual property, but also becomes a collective patrimony to help pull the nation together," Arene says. "Each one of us has a role to play in the reconstruction and construction of the new nation."

In the past year, Arene has written and published in scholarly magazines in El Salvador.

"In addition to the consolidation of democracy in a profoundly polarized and fragmented society, we must turn onto the present decade to recover a one-quarter century loss of the missed economic base during the last decade," Arene wrote for Tendencias magazine. "Only then will we ascend again as a nation, only minutes before the next millennium begins.

"Neither peace, nor democracy, nor social justice will flourish in the shadows of economic prostration, social misery, productive backwardness..." Arene adds. Out of El Salvador's current population poverty touches two-thirds of its people. Thirty-five percent live in extreme poverty; another 30 percent fall below relative poverty. The average Salvadoran income in 1991 was equivalent to that of the mid-1960s. Unemployment and subemployment affect more than half of the population.

Approximately 800,000 Salvadorans reside in the United States legally and illegally. Many immigrants did not flee direct political persecution; they sought refuge from war, and a stability offering economic and social possibilities.

Salvadorans working in the United States provide an estimated $700 million a year to the country's devastated economy. Their remittances represent the largest source of foreign exchange.

Conroy believes that a massive return of all exiles could provide the final killing blow to an already devastated economy.

Many Salvadorans still fear returning to a paralyzed economy, with skyrocketing unemployment. Others fear persecution.

"I am returning with a lot of expectations, but also with doubts about whether this experiment is going to work," Arene says. "I want to see if these efforts are going to be decisive, or if they are going to become another frustrated attempt in the history of El Salvador to better the life of the Salvadorans after the holocaust we have lived through."

Arene worked with international organizations as an economic consultant to the Nicaraguan government at the beginning and end of the Nicaraguan revolution.

During 1981 and 1982, he was an advisor to the Ministry of Planning in Managua, part of the Technical Assistance Program of the Inter-American Development Bank.

He later was a consultant to the Nicaraguan Ministry of Foreign Cooperation from 1986 to1988, working with the International Organization for Migration and the United Nations Development Program.

Arene stretched his professional work with extra university education in the United States. He began his economics studies in El Salvador in 1972, but left after one year to study in Belgium.

He obtained a master's in economics from the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, returning to El Salvador in 1976 to teach economics at the Jose Simeon Canas Central American University in San Salvador, where he began his studies. This University was the home of Jesuit priests, whose murders shocked the world in 1989.

Like many other well-educated Salvadorans in the late 1960s and 1970s, he developed strong moral commitments to the future of his nation, particularly under the educational leadership of the Jesuit Order.

"The roots of poverty and injustice in our country give origin to a social conscience, where life is not only conceived through an individual or a family-oriented perspective, but also as a social function," Arene explains.

His political career began simultaneously in his early 20s, when he joined the Christian Democratic party. Arene was a member of the government of the first two civilian-military juntas, governed El Salvador from October 1979 through March 1980. He was only 25.

When forced into exile, Arene remained active in Salvadoran politics until 1984. He became a representative of the Political-Diplomatic Commission of the FMLN and the Democratic Revolutionary Front (FDR) in Washington D.C., beginning in 1982.

Arene also began a doctoral program in international relations at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in 1985, which was interrupted by financial need after many years of political involvement in Washington D.C. - without income.

His role as a representative occurred in an inhospitable environment. The Reagan administration considered him the official deputy of a communist-aligned organization.

Asked if he was a terrorist by the New York-based Interview magazine in October 1984, he responded:

"If you come from a family like my own - my father was a cellist, my mother was a ballet dancer, and I have uncles and aunts who are painters and poets - if you grow up in an artistically sensitive milieu, you are in conditions that are exactly opposite to those that would produce a terrorist. One is a product, in many ways, of one's family. This is the most repellent thing to me - that one would be a terrorist."

Arene's father, who died in 1982, was a Rumanian musician, who studied under Pablo Casals in Paris, where he established himself as a professional artist. A Rumanian Jew, Arene's father later fled the outbreak of World War II, playing a concert tour throughout Latin America. In El Salvador, he met Alberto's mother.

Arene retells the story of his father, sitting in his apartment northeast of the UT campus. He points to a wall displaying an old Rumanian concert poster from October 1968, which marked the end of his father's 30-year exile from his homeland. Arene's real family name is prominently displayed: Aroneanu, which his father later changed to Arène in Paris to avoid capture by the Nazis.

Arene was back in Washington, D.C. at the end of 1984. He disagreed with the FMLN's political and economic plans, along with their negotiation proposals to end the war in El Salvador.

"The FMLN did not present a viable project to end the war, nor did it present a pluralist democratic alternative and feasible economic project solutions," Arene says.

Dialogue to end the war began in 1983. The first meeting between the government and the FMLN was held in 1984 during Jose Napoleon Duarte's presidency.

After this period, Arene opted for an extended "leave" from politics. Now, at the age of 37, Arene eschews political labels, because they present limitations in explaining political thought.

If he links his ideas to a major political current, he would simply describe himself as a social democrat, with a "progressive realist" dimension.

"The most progressive position is not the one that is the most radical, but rather the one that takes into consideration all the aspects of reality, in trying to progress as quickly and consistently as possible," he says. "The most progressive action tries to maximize the possibilities of any historical period based on the balance of forces and conditions that exist."

Arene hopes to exercise his professional experience acquired during exile.

From June through August of 1991, he returned to El Salvador as a consultant for the United Nations Development Program, working on a study about the UN participation in the national reconstruction plan.

While in San Salvador, he was interviewed by a Salvadoran television program, La Entrevista del Dia about the nation's post-war situation.

Arene discussed the need for consensus in the midst of a divided and polarized society. He covered the importance of all parties - economic, social and political - cooperating in order to achieve a democratic transition.

"There is no sector of society that can be left out of this process," Arene said. "A lasting and consolidated peace depends on the attitude of every Salvadoran.

"The democratic peace is not a product of chance or fate. It is a product of compelling strategies to advance toward peace."

Soon, Arene will leave student life. The books, research and experience will return with him to El Salvador, where he hopes to rejoin a new society.

"Finally, a new historical period has begun in El Salvador," he wrote recently. "With deep wounds and doubts, Salvadorans are deciding that we have to, that we need to renew our hope in our homeland..."

"Now 37, Arene eschews political labels, because they present limitations in explaining political thought."