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It All Depends

I went to El Salvador this weekend. It was good to finally get out of Antigua and experience something a bit more “real” in Central America. Granted, I have a fair bit of experience in these parts – I’ve studied and traveled in Costa Rica, Mexico and Puerto Rico. I also got a minor in Latin American Studies in college, so I certainly am grounded in the history of the political and economic forces at play. However, I still feel that I don’t know a thing about what life is really like in Central America. This weekend’s trip confirmed that I have a lot left to learn.

The first thing I noticed about El Salvador is how green and bright it is, despite the fact that it was raining. There were glistening, leafy trees and gleaming fields of corn as far as the eye could see. The vibrant green rivals Ireland (saying anything compares to the Emerald Isle is not something this Irish-American lass takes lightly). Corn hugged the unterraced hillsides and covered the few flat fields. Trees blanketed the mountains beyond. Coming from Guatemala, where mud and exhaust can often make the atmosphere seem bleak, this was a refreshing sight. I automatically assumed El Salvador to be more well-kept, to have more money and, in turn, to be safer.

I noticed other stark differences between El Salvador and Guatemala. Brand new strip malls dotted the landscape, and were stacked one after another in the areas just outside of San Salvador. The houses in the Salvadoran countryside weren’t as nice as in Antigua, but there were leaps and bounds better than similar locations in Guatemala. Homes in rural areas of Guate (or at least what I’ve seen) are nothing more than tin nailed to a frame made of thin tree trunks, or perhaps cinder blocks if you’re very lucky. The “rural” areas in El Salvador could have been small towns or suburbs in the US. The homes looked more like American-style townhomes. In several areas, we passed gated communities with colossal mansions. I even saw a brand new minivan. If not for the vibrant green, I would have easily placed a snapshot of the homes as anywhere in California. The homes were so grand I thought they might belong to members of Las Catorce – the 14 families in El Salvador that owned a vast majority of the land (there was no actual count of these families, this figure is used because it was assumed that each of the 14 departments was a fiefdom). I also had the thought that they could be the homes of bigwigs from the fruit companies, especially after seeing banana trees cascading away down a hillside.

A civil war raged in El Salvador from 1979 to 1992. It was the second-longest civil war in Latin American history, following the Guatemalan civil war. sFollowing the pattern of most Latin American civil wars, it was between a military-led government (which received aid from the U.S. government) and a militia group, called the FMLN. The FMLN formed in response to the sway that Las Catorce had over the government, and the way political parties promoting social and economic reform were repressed. Over 75,000 people were killed. Over the course of the war, it is reported that more than 1.5 million people left El Salvador as refugees. Thousands went to Guatemala, Mexico, Honduras, Canada and even Italy, but the vast majority headed to the United States. Millions of Salvadorans applied for asylum in the US, but only a sliver of those applications were accepted. The vast majority of those who fled the conflict ended up entering the States undocumented. This is a stark example of the ripples our actions create, as Salvadorans entered the US en masse, fleeing a conflict in which the US government had some level of involvement.

In 2001, the official currency changed from the colon to the US dollar. El Salvador became dependent on the US dollar because of remittances sent from family in the States. Remittances are estimated at almost 20% of El Salvador’s GDP. The joke is that people are El Salvador’s chief export. In fact, it is thought that more Salvadorans live outside of El Salvador than in it (although getting a real count is nearly impossible). The large houses I saw are a result of the influx of money from family living abroad. This has driven up the cost of real estate and goods overall and forced more Salvadorans to move abroad or remain abroad in order to send money back to make ends meet. In addition to remittances driving up prices, the change to the dollar also made everything more expensive. For example, pupusas, a hallmark of Salvadoran cuisine, used to be 1 colon each (8 for 1 USD), but now they’re 3 for 1 USD. Although prices rose as a result of the currency change, wages remained low, again driving the need for Salvadorans to move abroad.

From what was explained to me by a Guatemalan friend who has family from El Salvador, their economy used to manufacture many high quality goods, such as sheets, rosaries, crafts and even shampoo. Guatemalans, including my friend and her family, used to go to El Salvador to buy items produced there because they were good quality and cheap. Now manufacturing has taken a nosedive; instead everything is sent down from family in the states. Manufacturing in El Salvador today consists mainly of making clothes to be sold in the US.

El Salvador used to grow coffee as a chief export, as well as sugar cane and a number of other crops. However, agriculture has decreased dramatically, in part because there’s nobody to work in the fields. The lack of labor is from the combined effects of people leaving the country, as well as those remaining demanding higher wages. Many Salvadorans today will not take a job that pays less than what they receive from family in the States. This leaves a gaping hole in the market. The rows and rows of corn I saw are there because it’s relatively easy to care for. It used to be that Salvadoran crops were exported to Guatemala, but today it’s the opposite. Now, just over 10% of the economy is agriculture. Remittances are a larger slice of the economy than agriculture is. In fact, remittances are relied upon to offset the trade deficit and keep the economy afloat.

It appears at first blush that the Salvadoran economy is strong today. The gorgeous houses, gated communities and new strip malls give the appearance of affluence. But, is it really better? El Salvador is no longer self-sufficient. The economy is completely intertwined with the US economy. The minivans and Spanish tile roofs may be better in the short run, but it takes away all of El Salvador’s self-determination to be so fully dependent on the states. Families are broken apart because they have to go to the States make money. Production is fairly non-existent, except for the clothing manufactured for retail sale in the US.

But, the fact remains that the standard of living is higher. About 20% of Salvadorans live in poverty, but that figure would jump to almost 40% without remittances. So, is the interdependence really a bad thing? It all depends on whom you ask. It’s great for individuals who now have a nice house and a stable income of remittances. But, you can’t reverse globalization. Reverting back to the colon would be disastrous for the Salvadoran economy. The economy is so poorly diversified, that any change or disruption could be catastrophic. I certainly hope the types of immigration policies instituted in Arizona don’t become more widespread, but if they did, the influx of people back to El Salvador would cause the economy to collapse. Although those who came without receiving asylum status are living precariously, it’s still a better alternative to the very few options now available in El Salvador.

Before I left for Guatemala, I had a yard sale to get rid of all my things. The house across the street from my apartment was full of elderly immigrant women from all different countries. One of them popped over and gave me 50 cents for the dictionary my childhood neighbors gave me when I graduated high school and my very first cookbook that my mom gave me for Christmas when I first moved into my own apartment. The neighbor told me they were to send down to her family in El Salvador. I am a very sentimental creature and it was very hard for me to let go of these two treasured books. But, at the time it made me intensely happy to know that they were headed to a family in El Salvador. Not only would they be used by people who probably didn’t have much access to such things, but they would also serve to help them learn English and potentially increase their earning potential and future access to books. I thought it was the perfect outcome for them. It made letting go easy. Now, I really second-guess that. Now, I wonder about my role in further continuing the cycle of dependence that has been created. I want to help increase the standard of living for people in poverty. But, I want to do it on a systemic level that is independently sustainable. I don’t want to further deepen the dependence on the US economy, I want to create systems where developing nations can be self-actualized.

We can help individuals, but at what cost does it come? The US economy has certainly been furthered and strengthened by Salvadorans coming up to work in the States. (And, ironically, they are doing menial jobs that Americans wouldn’t do, while at home their families are re-thinking what jobs they will accept because of American money coming in.) It has definitely improved the economic situation for Salvadorans on an individual level, but I’m not convinced that it’s better for the people or the country as a whole. it makes me frustrated and upset that this cycle has been created, but it makes me energized to learn about the causes and brainstorm solutions.

This week I found peace in the seeds of change.

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