Righting Past Wrongs

June 1, 2009
By Jake Blumgart
Campus Progess

We owe El Salvador—and its newly elected leftist president—some help

Today Mauricio Funes will become the first elected leftist leader of El Salvador. That distinction comes with the unenviable task of resuscitating a stagnant economy, stemming endemic gang violence, and heading a country still haunted by a bloody civil war.

To the average American, this may register as just another country south of the border mired in developmental hell. But El Salvador is a special case, one that is tied to the United States by a complex history of patronage and political violence. Under the right-wing ARENA party, El Salvador was one of Washington’s closest allies, sending troops to Iraq and toeing the American line on Cuba. Now, with the country foundering and the left assuming power for the first time ever, El Salvador could use no-strings-attached American assistance more than ever.

But before the case for aid can be made, we need an idea of the scope of Funes’ task. To start with, El Salvador is stone broke. According to one commentator, some municipalities are having trouble paying for basic social amenities like police. Underpaid police officers tend to be unreliable and corrupt, further exacerbating one of the highest violent crime rates in the world. In the first three months of this year 12 people were murdered per day in El Salvador, a country the size of Massachusetts.

Criminal trends are exacerbated by scant opportunities available for young people. According to James Garman, a research associate for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, 63 percent of Salvadoran young people are under- or unemployed, a statistic made all the more grim by the fact that the median age of Salvadorans is 22.5.

Skyrocketing crime rates and the underperforming economy reinforce one another. “High crime is detrimental to every sector of the economy—if you can’t go out at night you are severely cutting down your productivity levels,” Garman says. Without a vibrant economy, job growth remains sluggish, forcing people to go abroad for work, fracturing families and reinforcing the country’s pervasive gang culture.

Despite these dire circumstances, the Obama administration has not given any clear indications of a concrete regional policy, let alone a strategy specific to El Salvador. But there are definite ways that the United States could help Funes ameliorate El Salvador’s interlocking social ills, thereby ensuring continued close ties with San Salvador despite the ideological shift and Washington’s historical aversion to leftist Latin American governments.

“El Salvador needs a big fiscal stimulus, [fitted with] job creation programs like what we’re doing here,” says Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He estimates that the stimulus should approximate around 3 percent of the country’s GDP, or $700 to $800 million—peanuts compared to the recent domestic stimulus package.

Weisbrot offered two options already advanced to other Latin American nations. The United States could extend El Salvador a line of credit to the Fed, as we already have with Mexico and Brazil. Alternatively, “as the principal overseer of the IMF,” the United States could pressure the international institution into extending El Salvador a flexible line of credit. Such a line of credit would create “a new facility where a country… can tap into the money as needed without any new conditions,” Weisbrot explains. By comparison, Mexico accepted a similar credit line earlier this year. Such a provision would be especially welcome in the case of El Salvador, which is currently restrained from executing a fiscal stimulus by an agreement between the IMF and the previous administration.

While these provisions would stimulate the economy and cut down on the impetus for crime in the long term, a more immediate solution is needed, but options are limited. According to Maureen Meyer, Associate for Mexico and Central America with the Washington Office on Latin America, a drug policy called the Mérida Initiative may be the best we can make of a tough job.

This strategy is known as Plan Mexico, a deeply flawed strategy that originated as a Bush administration, is an effort to combat drugs in Central America and Mexico. Currently, Mexico gets the lion’s share of the $465 million in spending, leaving only $65 million to be split among the Central American nations. The Mérida Initiative lacks tangible success, but it is the only politically feasible way to fund Funes’ efforts to curb the horrific violence strangling his society. Any increase in funding, however, should be buttressed by judicial oversight to safeguard against the human rights violations reported during Mexico’s Mérida-funded war on drugs.

Unfortunately, in a time of economic crisis it will be hard to make the political case for reaching out to a developing economy like El Salvador. Meyer admits that “the only concrete thing you can say is that there will be a continuation of the Mérida Initiative. Obama has always supported the Initiative and been very strong in believing that the Central American countries should be getting more support.” More money for economic stimulus, job creation programs, and infrastructure may be harder to come by.

The special relationship between El Salvador and the United States has not been a pretty one. In the 1980s the United States funneled [PDF] millions of taxpayer dollars to fund a government—and its associated death squads—responsible for the majority of the civil war’s 70,000 deaths. Since then, we have supported governments dominated by the right-wing ARENA party, which have adopted policies that have not resulted in broadly shared prosperity, furthering economic distress and violence.

Now Funes and the leftist FMLN party have obtained power. They intend to institute food aid programs, increase healthcare spending, and foster domestic agriculture programs which have largely been phased out in favor of an export/import economy. These programs address the issues that plague million of Salvadorans every day, providing food, jobs and medicine to so many who have lacked them for so long. The renewal of El Salvador will be hastened by making the relationship one of partnership, not domination.