El Salvador Dispatches Additional Contingent to Iraq

  • El Salvador has the unique distinction of being the only Latin American nation with troops in Iraq
  • The War in Iraq remains very unpopular in El Salvador, as throughout Latin America
  • Working for the Yankee Dollar

Despite the recent deaths of two Salvadoran soldiers in Iraq and the prevailing anti-war sentiment felt throughout the nation, President Antonio Saca of El Salvador wasted no time in deploying another 380 troops to Baghdad. Few realize that this small Central American country is the only one in the region still involved in the U.S.- led War in Iraq. Nicaragua, Honduras and the Dominican Republic each dispatched a small number of troops soon after the onset of the fighting in March 2003. However, few saw any combat as all three of the nations pulled out within months of each other in the spring of 2004, citing a lack of resources and civil discord over their troop presence as justification for their eventual withdrawal. Had El Salvador been looking for an escape hatch, the exodus at that time would have presented the perfect opportunity to pack up its bags and follow suit. Saca’s determination to be of service to Washington, however, only reaffirms that San Salvador remains unwilling, despite public opinion in favor of such a move, to defy Washington and its militaristic agenda by bringing its troops home.

Sixth Battalion Returns After Tragic Final Weeks

The most recent Salvadoran contingent to complete its tour in Iraq arrived in San Salvador three weeks ago, after a final harrowing fortnight in the Middle East. The Cuscatlán Battalion, consisting of Salvadorans but led by the Spanish Plus Ultra Brigade, lost two men during its latest tour: Sgt. José Miguel Perdomo was killed by a roadside bomb in Al Kut, and Sub-sergeant Donald Alberto Ramirez, a nurse who was escorting a Halliburton Co. convoy, likewise perished when his truck came under attack in Diwaniyah. These losses brought the Salvadoran death toll to four since its forces first took to the field in 2003.

Salvadoran Duties in Iraq
In comparison to its foreign counterparts involved in direct combat, El Salvador’s role in the war is a less fatal one. Salvadoran troops generally refrain from front-line fighting and are instead delegated to humanitarian and reconstruction efforts. It is estimated that they have supervised over 130 humanitarian projects since the start of their deployment in August 2003. Troops have been instrumental in the disbursement of food and clothing, and in the reconstruction of much of the country’s infrastructure that was destroyed by sectarian fighting in south-central Iraq. When they are not constructing schools, medical centers, roads, and potable water treatment facilities, the troops are relegated to more perilous duties, such as leading security patrols and escorting convoys that are often targeted by rebel factions. To prepare for these duties, Salvadoran battalions being deployed to Iraq must participate in a ten-month basic training course that is suppose to equip them to handle any aspect of the potential chaos and turmoil likely to come their way.

FMLN Criticizes Deployment

The Seventh Battalion – whose participation brought the tally of Salvadorans who have served in Iraq to over 1300 – made a timely exit from El Salvador two weeks ago. Congress’ rapid consent for redeployment was met with near derision by the Salvadoran public, who has voiced their contempt for Saca’s involvement in the conflict since the very beginning. Unsurprisingly, his most vociferous critics come from the party representing President Saca’s leftist opposition, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN). The FMLN is calling for a full troop withdrawal, denouncing the Saca administration for compromising the safety of even more young men and women in a war that is largely considered to be a failure by most of Latin America and a vast majority in the international community. Nevertheless, Saca and his right-wing National Republic Alliance (ARENA) affirm that Salvadoran forces will continue their service in Iraq until they “finish what [they have] started.” ARENA, which occupies 34 of the 84 Congressional seats, only required the cooperation of two small parties with seats in the Legislative Assembly to achieve a majority. When Congress convened on August 7 to discuss continued Salvadoran involvement, ARENA easily won sufficient votes to receive authorization for the deployment. Since the ARENA party controls Congress, it is unlikely that any change in war rhetoric will come from within. Instead, domestic and regional pressures are fast becoming the lead forces in compelling El Salvador to withdraw its troops from the Middle East at the earliest moment possible.

Salvadorans Share Anti-war Stance
Much of the Salvadoran public does not believe that their country has any legitimate reason for supplying troops to the War in Iraq. Most argue that El Salvador should refrain from involvement in foreign wars, primarily because it is still recovering from its own twelve-year bloody civil war that ended in 1991 with a UN-monitored peace accord. Furthermore, citizens are furious that they are losing fellow Salvadorans to a far-away conflict which doesn’t directly concern them. In May 2004, a group of masked protestors made headlines when they took over a cathedral in San Salvador, refusing to vacate until President Saca removed their countrymen from Iraq. Not every Salvadoran believes in such extreme measures, however; some prefer to follow more orthodox ways of expressing their dissent.

One woman, Guayamango resident Herminia Ramos, has proven to be the shining example of anti-war action. Her son, 19-year-old Natividad Mendez Ramos, was the first Latin American killed in the War in Iraq. Rather than mourning silently, she channeled her grief into long hours of petition-writing and rallying for the anti-war cause. Nationally she has been championed as the “Cindy Sheehan of El Salvador,” alluding to the grieving American mother who, after the death of her son in Iraq, pitched a tent outside President Bush’s vacation home at Crawford, Texas and demanded to meet with him. However, despite Ramos’ best attempts and the public’s disaffection over the ideology behind the war, her outcries have failed to become public policy.

Domestic Issues Overrule Anxiety over War

Any effort to mobilize resistance to the Salvadoran entanglement in Iraq is all but eclipsed by prevailing national concerns over other pressing issues, such as the high levels of unemployment and crime. Unemployment was estimated at 6.5 percent in 2005; this figure, however, does not take into account the very high number of underemployed Salvadorans, nor does it consider those discouraged workers who have stopped looking for work. Additionally, crime in El Salvador has reached a high point in the first half of this year – the murder rate is up 7.5 percent in comparison to the same period in 2005. This increase has been attributed to the dominance of gangs in many regions throughout El Salvador, and is a slap in the face to the Saca administration and its “Super Mano Dura” plan. This resolution was intended to reduce violence by pre-emptively seeking out and imprisoning suspects with physical indications of gang membership. However, this approach remains controversial in both its ideology and execution. With these domestic factors consuming much of the country’s collective anxiety, it comes as little surprise that the anti-war effort lacks sufficient momentum to create a sizeable alliance over the issue.

Salvadorans Feel the Pressure
Even with mounting public outcries, many Salvadorans understand that their country’s place in Bush’s “coalition of the willing” has its advantages. Nearly one-third of native-born Salvadorans currently live and work in America. In spite of this large population living abroad, Salvadorans feel exempt from the ever-present threat of deportation so long as their government keeps providing a steady stream of troops to Iraq. One Congressional measure has seemingly confirmed El Salvador’s semi-permanent status as Washington’s Hessians. In a move rife with mixed messages, on July 18 Congress passed a measure designating August 6 as Salvadoran-American Day, expressing gratitude for the work Salvadorans have done to create a more stable America. Of course, this celebration comes in the midst of Bush’s immigration reforms, in which he has placed national guards along the Mexican-American border to turn away all those wishing to enter and find work. Congress’ timely and specific acknowledgement of the Salvadoran immigrant population is undoubtedly contingent upon El Salvador’s military backing of the War in Iraq.

Furthermore, several economic factors play into San Salvador’s role as Washington’s amenable ally. First, the Salvadoran economy is precariously dependent on access to American trade and markets. The United States is its foremost partner for both imports (32.6 percent) and exports (54.3 percent). Second, the Salvadoran immigrants in America send home approximately $2.5 billion in remittances every year; this represents 17.1 percent of El Salvador’s gross domestic product. Lastly, not only was El Salvador the first country in Central America to enter into a free trade agreement with the U.S., but it also adopted the dollar as its currency in 2001. This small nation has well-learned the lesson that diplomacy directly correlates with economic well-being when one is ready to abnegate one’s self-interests to another nation.

The San Salvador – Washington Connectio
San Salvador’s relationship with Washington on the surface is both mutually beneficial and complex. During its own civil war, the Salvadoran government (and by association the right-wing paramilitaries) received billions of dollars in American assistance in their joint attempts to stave off Marxist rebel groups. In addition to monetary aid, the United States sent down a group of 55 military advisors to help train and prop-up the paramilitary-civil regime. Around that time, Alvaro Saravia, known for his murder of Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, joined up with Roberto D’Aubuisson to found the conservative ARENA party. In a UN Truth Commission report published in 1993, this far-right group, which became the ruling party of the country, was eventually found responsible for committing 96 percent of the civil war atrocities. The rebel groups, now consolidated into the FMLN political party, were held accountable for 3.5 percent. Even so, the right-wing has remained in power since 1991. For many, the endurance of their control is a testament to the firmness of San Salvador’s relationship with Washington.

Saca’s Response
Predictably, Saca denies all assumptions that he has entrenched his country in the Middle East for an American pat on the head and various forms of hand-outs. He contends that his administration’s generosity stems from a more altruistic source: the desire to give back to a global community that helped his country through post-bellum devastation. When a Business Week reporter asked if Saca felt the U.S. “owed” him the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in exchange for Salvadoran representation in Iraq, the President was quick to deny the correlation, stressing that his troops are in the Gulf on their own conviction. He claimed that it is time for El Salvador to repay the commitment and patience it was bestowed by the international community in the early 1990s. However, when in the same interview he was asked how long El Salvador was to stay in the war, Saca replied, “If you ask me what my decision will be, it will be along the lines of helping our friends and allies if they still need us.”

In regards to the latest Salvadoran casualties in Iraq, the American embassy in San Salvador released a statement July 19 saying that Washington “greatly appreciates the continuous support of El Salvador’s government in this moment of great difficulties. Now [our nation] share[s] the pain of the Salvadorans.” Given the short time span between Saca’s request for more troops and their actual deployment, the current administration couldn’t be a more willing partner to Bush’s call to arms. From both accounts, it appears that the United States and the Saca administration are blood brothers until the end – in return for certain considerations.