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El Salvador's Poor Are Still Waiting

Years after a civil war, the reelected ruling party has failed to meet expectations that democracy would improve citizen's lives.

March 23, 2004|Richard Boudreaux | Times Staff Writer

LA MORA, El Salvador — The barrier was never visible. But throughout the 1980s, the Salvadoran army was rarely able to move much beyond the big sugar mill on the northern slope of the Guazapa volcano without running into a deadly ambush.

Today the dirt road is paved and the landmines are gone. People old enough to remember say two speed bumps a few yards apart now mark the approximate boundary of what used to be the domain of Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front guerrillas during 12 years of civil war.

The fighting ended in 1992. But the inhabitants of La Mora, a grain-growing hamlet three miles beyond the speed bumps, say the boundary is still there, walling off their centuries-old poverty from indifferent elected leaders. Notwithstanding the scores of deaths here and the shells of burned-out farmhouses, the war came and went without resolving a thing, they say.

Since the peace treaty, El Salvador's government has been run by the right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance, a pro-American wartime creation known as Arena. It triumphed again Sunday when its candidate, 39-year-old businessman Elias Antonio Saca, was elected president.

Suchitoto, the town with jurisdiction over this hamlet, has been governed since 1994 by the former Marxist-led guerrilla army that kept the name and acronym, FMLN, of its political front.

But while the peace treaty made it possible for Cold War enemies to share political power in a tiny, crowded Central American nation, after a war that cost 75,000 lives, it has failed to relieve the extreme rural poverty that helped generate the conflict in the first place.

The story is much the same across Latin America, where elected civilians leading countries out of war and dictatorship over the last generation have failed to satisfy expectations that democracy would raise living standards. The difference here is that former guerrillas and their families make up a big portion of those left behind.

El Salvador's Jesuit-run Central American University says more than 3 million of the country's 6.5 million people cannot afford a basic diet. Per-capita gross domestic product is lower than it was in 1978, just before the war began.

According to the university study, the richest 20% of the population controls 58.3% of the wealth, the poorest 20% has only 2.4%. The gap has widened since the war, the study says, as free-market reforms have taken subsidies from the poor while easing the tax burden of the rich. The poverty persists despite $2 billion sent home each year from Salvadoran migrant workers in the United States.

Of the 10,000 rural inhabitants of La Mora and 23 nearby hamlets, about four in five live in extreme poverty, said Janeth Nieto, a doctor who treats them in a local clinic for intestinal parasites, stress, respiratory disease and ailments caused by malnutrition. "Some are so poor they cannot afford the 40-cent bus fare to come in for treatment," she said.

These subsistence farmers can be forgiven for suspecting that they do not exist on official maps. Maria Angela Landaverde Murillo, who grew up here during the war, recalls just one visit during her lifetime by a government representative, who briefly showed up about five years ago.

"We chose to end the war because our people were tired of suffering, but I would say that now, 12 years later, the causes for a war still exist," said Manuel Ortega, a 39-year-old community leader. "If things do not get better for our children, we might have to prepare them for a new one."

Ortega, who greeted a visitor beneath a mango tree by the clinic, knows what he is talking about. Under the nom de guerre El Morro, he commanded a network of teenage guerrillas who planted mines in the path of the U.S.-backed Salvadoran army here on one of the war's bloodiest battlegrounds.

In 1991, he sat under the same tree for a pivotal peace negotiation -- one that brought U.S. envoys together with the FMLN for the first time and paved the way for a settlement with the Salvadoran government.

But the payoff for this hamlet has been slim. Although homes now have electricity and are hooked up to a municipal water system, water flows from the taps no more than four hours per week. As much or more has been achieved through the community's own efforts and private donations from the United States and Europe -- a school, a community center and library, and the four-bed clinic.

People here voted Sunday for Schafik Handal, the FMLN presidential candidate. But they blame his movement for fragmenting into narrow political factions and ignoring the needs of its own war veterans and their families.

President-elect Saca asserted during the campaign that Arena's postwar policies had made the country "immeasurably" better off and reduced the number of poor. But aides said Saca was aware that parts of rural El Salvador have been ignored and that he planned to channel more government aid there.

Carlos Flores, 16, a volunteer radio announcer for the community organization, says his generation is frustrated with its leaders. He said he aspired to become an engineer until his family pulled him out of public school in Suchitoto after the ninth grade because it could no longer afford the $7 in monthly fees.

"The situation could explode," the teenager said, sitting under the mango tree. "It is hard to tolerate a situation where you struggle, struggle and struggle, and then lose the opportunity to do something with your life."

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