(San Salvador) — President Obama’s visit to El Salvador this week has become a focal point for protest organizing by Central American social movement organizations and their North American allies, who are equally outraged about U.S. trade policy and military meddling in the region. Local environmental and community organizations have joined together with allies like U.S. – El Salvador Sister Cities and CISPES to help mobilize students and workers for rallies in the U.S. and El Salvador on Tuesday, March 22, when Obama arrives for a meeting with Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, whose election two years ago ended decades of right-wing rule.
Despite the initial jubilation at the election of Obama and Funes, both the Salvadoran left and members of the international solidarity community are deeply disappointed and frustrated with Obama’s stance toward Central America. The purpose of Obama´s visit is supposedly to support the eradication of poverty, violence and government corruption. Yet, the president’s own administration is perpetuating these problems (and their natural result, immigration) by following in the footprints of Bill Clinton, both George Bushes, and even Ronald Reagan, who spent billions of dollars wreaking human rights havoc in El Salvador and its neighbors.
Current U.S. policy on Central America reflects more continuity than change, particularly with regard to the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and the 2009 military coup in Honduras that forced then-president Manual (“Mel”) Zelaya out of office and into exile.
It has been six years since the passage of CAFTA. As predicted by its critics, free trade has not reduced economic inequality or created many new jobs. Exports from El Salvador and foreign investment in the country have both decreased; meanwhile, the price of goods has dramatically increased while the number of small businesses able to sell products to the U.S. has not.
Thanks to CAFTA, which supersedes national law, North American mining companies are now suing El Salvador for $100 million because the government has thwarted an environmentally dangerous resource extraction scheme approved by previous governments.
Next door in Honduras, President Obama initially opposed the army’s overthrow of Zelaya as a threat to democracy throughout the region. But now his administration has become the leading ally and cheerleader for Zelaya’s conservative successor, de-facto President Porfirio Lobo. Hillary Clinton’s State Department is campaigning for re-admission of Honduras to the Organization of American States, which strongly condemned the ouster of Zelaya.
Since the military coup 21 months ago, and Lobo’s tainted election in November, 2009, the U.S. has built two new military bases in Honduras and increased its training of local police. Meanwhile, nearly all sectors of Honduran society—union organizers, farmers and teachers, women and young people, gays, journalists, political activists,—have faced violent repression under Lobo’s corrupt regime. With its worsening record of murders, disappearances and rabid resistance to land reform, Honduras is beginning to look more and more like El Salvador before it slipped into full-scale civil warfare three decades ago, with the U.S. backing the wrong side then and now.
In January, I witnessed first-hand what life is like under the “golpistas” of Honduras as part of a fact-finding delegation led by the Honduras Accompaniment Project. We spent a week in the Honduran capitol and countryside interviewing multiple victims of recent political threats, beatings, jailings, and kidnappings. Human rights groups estimate that more than 4,000 serious human rights violations and sixty-four political assassinations have occurred in Honduras since the coup. Many organizers have been forced to leave the country as the threats against themselves and their families increase.
Young people are now a frequent target of death threats and actual violence, often from police or resurgent of death squads seemingly bent on “social cleansing.” Like El Salvador, Honduras has very strong “anti-gang” legislation that enables cops to arrest youth who gather in groups or on the basis of their appearance. Since the coup, it’s not just suspicious tattoos that draw police attention. Police drag-nets now target anyone wearing t-shirts or hats with anti-government messages, not to mention the threatening visages of Che or Chavez. As youth organizer Victor Alejandro explained, “many Honduran youth woke up politically when the coup began, when they were beaten up or arrested by the police at a march or just for walking down the street. And now they are one of the driving forces behind the resistance, and as a result they are one of the main targets of state repression.”
As always in Central America, organized campesinos are a target of repression. During our stay, we visited Zacate Grande, a sparsely populated peninsula in the Gulf of Fonseca where small tenant farmers and fisherman are fighting eviction by rich businessmen who want to build luxury hotels and summer homes on their land. One source of hope and optimism for Hondurans like these was Decree 18-2008, the land reform measure enacted under President Zelaya. It created a mechanism for the expropriation of unused private lands for subsistence farming and a way for the poor to gain title to land they had worked for years. Not surprisingly, in January, the Supreme Court of Honduras ruled that Zelaya’s land reform decree was unconstitutional.
This, combined with the rampant corruption of local authorities since the coup, means that campesinos in places like Zacate Grande and the embattled Bajo Aguan region in Northern Honduras are in a constant fight for their lives and land.
Because they are part of the opposition to Lobo’s regime, public school teachers have come under similar attack. We saw an example of their repression during our stay in Honduras. On January 25, four teachers were arrested after a peaceful protest march in the capital. During their detention, our delegation got a call from a teachers’ union leader requesting that we check on the safety of his members. When three of us neared the jail where they were being held we encountered a line of riot police with night sticks blocking the street. After cell phone negotiations with the police commander in charge, we were finally admitted to the police station and allowed to talk to the detainees in a waiting area. Although none of the teachers had been beaten or otherwise badly treated, they were all clearly frightened. They were released later that same afternoon, but only on the condition that they refrain from participating in further protests.
Two days later, we joined another peaceful and massively attended demonstration in Tegucigalpa held on the first anniversary of Lobo’s inauguration. The turn-out reflected a resistance movement that draws from diverse sectors of society and whose goals go far beyond ending the exile of Manual Zelaya. There were young people spray-painting the walls with slogans against U.S. military intervention, teachers shielding themselves from the sun under multi-colored umbrellas, and embattled gay activists waiving rainbow flags. Some people were holding banners and signs with the message “Urge Mel!” (“We need Mel!”), but they were no more prominent in the crowd than those demanding democracy and human rights.
This is not reflected in mainstream media coverage in the U.S., which makes Honduras seem like just another case of caudillo politics, with the population blindly following one populist leader after another. In typical fashion, the Washington Post described the January 27 marches in the capital and two other cities simply as “protests by supporters of ousted former leader Manuel Zelaya.” As one gay activist explained, however, “Zelaya is part of the movement, but the movement transcends Zelaya. He gave people hope and started a process, but it is our goal to continue and finish that process, the process of re-founding Honduras.”
That’s why we’re greeting Obama on Tuesday with the message that his regional track record so far includes little change that Central Americans can believe in. Salvadorans still labor under the burden of CAFTA and its costly barrage of big business litigation aimed at punishing even the smallest exercises of national sovereignty. Meanwhile, Hondurans are experiencing a rapid U.S.-assisted return to the past, in the form of a country that is poor, militarized, and terrorized–the same set of conditions that so many Central Americans have long struggled to escape.
Alexandra Early is a 2007 graduate of Wesleyan University. A former union staffer in California, she now works for U.S.- El Salvador Sister Cities, an organization that promotes cross-border solidarity between communities in North and Central America. She can be reached at email@example.com