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Yesterday's war headline
binds its wounds



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991
Comments to

December 20, 2004

LONDON - If they say in Mexico, "How far from God and how close to the United States" it is even truer for El Salvador, another 600 kilometers away down the isthmus of Central America. El Salvador' s currency is now the U.S. dollar, 1.5 million of its over 6 million people work both legally and illegally in the U.S. and the American embassy is a massive fortress, perhaps architecture to intimidate as well as to protect, a reminder that the U.S. is ready if necessary to throw its weight about as it did earlier this year with the involvement of the ambassador in its recent election. This is the U.S.'s "near abroad".

Of all Central America's civil wars, wars that dominated the headlines almost as much as Iraq's does today, Salvador's in terms of killings was the worst. But today the lion has lain down with the lamb. In 1991 the bush-weary guerrillas were enticed into the open by the UN and signed a remarkable peace agreement with the governing forces of the right, who were encouraged to compromise by their powerful friends in Washington. Today although the conservatives control the presidency the left has been elected to head the local government in the capital, San Salvador, and other towns, and the U.S. appears happy to live with that.

There is a sense of a great peace. Both sides of the political divide have cooperated in ending the killings, torture and intimidation that were de rigueur. The economy if at the moment suffering from the dramatic fall of coffee prices and the earthquake that three years ago devastated half the country is essentially vigorous. Corruption is sharply down and so to a lesser extent is crime. To a visitor returning from civil war days it is the difference between night and day- most things that capitalists need to invest function quite well and the social and medical services are impressive even in remote areas. The infant mortality rate has fallen like a stone and longevity has jumped 20 years in a decade and a half. Much of the American contribution is a force for stability and economic growth.

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Still many of the country's problems remain untouched. El Salvador, beautifully well ordered and verdant from the air with its smoking volcanoes, is the most densely populated country in Latin America. Half of the country's productive land is in the hands of a few thousand latifundario. Although the campesinos today have peace, although they can vote for an opposition that has some political muscle, they still have not won what they fought for- enough land to give them a living. Inside fortress America the word from the diplomats is that they are not going to push for large-scale land reform.

If there is to be development in the highlands it must come from making do with the land they have- as Farharna Haque-Rahman of the International Fund for Agricultural Development said to me, "giving poor farmers a chance to do something for themselves, even if their land is a pocket handkerchief." For a couple of days she shepherded me around small farms, deep in the forest where the roads petered out into potholed tracks but where the IFAD-funded project makes available micro credit and well honed advice from extension workers.

There was Julio Cortez Zavalla who borrowed $300 from the project and now grows tomatoes, passion fruit and cocoa and makes cheese from his neighbors' cows. Twice a week his wife carries on foot 20-kilo loads to the market 5 kilometers away. He has doubled his income in two years. "We got kicked over the head by war", he says, "so now we are doing it the careful way."

There was Virginia Palacios who behind her mud and brick house had a long shed where she was breeding over 100 pure white rabbits for sale in the meat market. She too had taken a small loan from the project and had doubled her income.

Then there was the small village of San Jose la Labor that had combined a loan from the project with money raised by an association in Los Angeles formed from people who had migrated from the village. They showed me round the school they had built with the funds.

I remembered the war, when one traveled through the countryside scared for one's life, when nobody dared to talk. This may not be as fair as it should be but it's better than war. It is growing two blades of grass where one grew before. I only wish that both the government and that overseeing U.S. embassy could understand what the campesinos could really do if they had a fair slice of land. That was part of the promise that ended the war but has yet to be delivered.


Copyright © 2004 By JONATHAN POWER


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:




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