Posted May 18, 2009
Written by Erica Thompson
This is Part One of a series of interviews with members of El Salvador’s social movements titled “What We Want: Voices from the Salvadoran Left.”
Interview with Ana Martinez
Ana Martínez is an organizer and activist who was born in El Salvador in October 1980 – the same month and year that five armed leftist groups politically converged under the name of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) to confront military and civilian death squads and overthrow the Salvadoran oligarchy.
When she was ten, her mother and siblings fled with her to Canada to escape the war. After graduating with a degree in International Development 12 years later, she returned to El Salvador to join a new phase of the leftist struggle within government, which recently manifested in the presidential election victory of FMLN candidate Mauricio Funes.
Martínez has worked on various political campaigns that have challenged U.S. political, economic and military/police intervention in El Salvador and Central America. Much of her work has been specifically focused on the overwhelming impacts of free trade on women who work in the informal sector.
The following is a transcript of an interview Martínez gave to Upside Down World on the heels of the March 2009 election, where Mauricio Funes became the first leftist president of El Salvador. Funes and Vice President-elect, Salvador Sanchez-Ceren, will be inaugurated on June 1, 2009.
When asked if she could boil her prescriptions for the new FMLN government down to one sweeping statement just for fun, Martínez responded, “Well I have to say that frankly, at this stage in El Salvador’s transition, it would be a revolutionary act if the FMLN could succeed in making the government work.”
So instead of talking about how we might end corporate plundering in El Salvador for once and for all, we explored some little-known aspects of the right wing ARENA (National Republican Alliance) party’s economic policies in deference to the rich and, conversely, talked about what a functional government might look like with the FMLN party at the helm.
UpsideDownWorld: It has become clear by now that, for the sake of increasing profit exponentially and unendingly, one of the main objectives of the neoliberal agenda – the set of corporate goals and strategies that dominate global politics today – is to render the concept and function of government practically irrelevant in the hearts and minds of the people. Would you say this has been the method of the ruling political establishment in El Salvador?
Ana Martínez: It’s true that each of the four presidential cabinets and group of legislators the ARENA has put forward has been responsible for the rapid deterioration of social and political developments we’ve made since the signing of the Peace Accords [in 1992]. ARENA has worked to undermine the State’s role in everything from regulating outrageous wealth disparities to administering the most basic needs of Salvadorans, like water, food staples, health care and other public services.
Alfredo Christiani’s election in 1989 was the start of ARENA party rule and the neoliberal strategy you’re pointing to. They began with the rapid sell-off of land and public services. Throughout the 90s, they sold the banks and our telecommunications and energy sectors. Then they started chipping away at services within the public health system and fighting for the privatization of water.
The 14 family agricultural oligarchy of the past has been whittled down to five families who, as result of the ARENA party’s trade practices, have turned to the financial sector to do their business – monopolizing the market on goods and services. Most of the families don’t even live in El Salvador, much less pay taxes to the government. They live in Miami and have an extended presence throughout Central American.
The central government, Ministry of Economy, and the Ministry of Labor have shown no political willingness to carry out audits on large businesses, including the thousands of businesses that reside in large shopping malls. These “ghost companies” should have a registry and be audited by the government.
At the same time that these businesses enjoy tax havens and unregulated access to cheap imports, ARENA has made it very difficult for people to access existing government services at the very basic level. Based on one’s salary, for example, people can qualify for credit to buy a home. Most people are not aware of this.
People think that if a government official decides to come into your town and open a water tap, he’s a good person. This is based on a charity approach and we’re not looking for charity. We want access to the public services that we need and have paid for. The government is supposed to answer to the most basic demands of the population but ARENA has tried to lower people’s expectations in this regard.
UDW: Who are the ghost companies?
AM: The ghost companies are the owners or subcontractors of most hotels, factories, retail businesses, and construction companies. We compare Siman Department stores to Wal-Mart. The Siman family has department stores in practically every mall in Central America and the Poma family (under the name of Grupo Roble) owns many of these centers. The Siman and Poma families dominate large-scale retail construction in the country. If you go to the mall, you’ll find that most of the stores are vacant most of the time. You’ll never see anyone shopping there.
60% of our economy is informal and people can’t purchase more than basic products. This is a situation where yes, with remittances [money sent by family members in the U.S.], some people can go to the malls and purchase all of the goodies from the U.S. and Asia but the majority of the population can’t do this. The segment of the population that can go to the malls and purchase luxury items is around 5%, so the proliferation of these enormous retail chains is not justified in any way. How are they paying for the construction and vacancy of these stores? They should have to offer up their figures yearly in a government audit, but they don’t.
So how are they paying for the construction and vacancy of these stores? They should have to offer up their figures yearly, but they don’t.
The shopping mall phenomenon is growing beyond San Salvador and into the 2nd and 3rd biggest cities in the country. In every location, it’s the same owners and the same businesses that many people believe are façades for illegal transactions that take place beneath them.
UDW: What can be done about this? I’ve heard it said that the Salvadoran government is missing $600 million dollars each year in unpaid taxes because the rich aren’t forced to pay. Surely the government can begin steps to collect tax money but how could the FMLN end corruption at even higher levels like what you’re talking about here?
AM: They can start, honestly, by auditing the businesses we’re talking about. Apart from this sort of high-level corruption, there is a more basic, common corruption that the FMLN can begin to reverse by making government agencies simply fulfill their stated function. Corruption is so much the norm that it’s no longer a scandal when $40 million is stolen from the Public Works Agency. ARENA feels that it’s enough to hold a press conference to admit their offenses and then let administrators off the hook.
The FMLN can come in and flip that around completely. Its ability to govern will depend on key agencies like the Court of Accounts, who can pursue and resolve a $3 billion corruption case and the Attorney General’s Office, who can conduct thorough investigations and try their cases in a court of law.
UDW: What other steps do you see an FMLN government taking, in the next five years let’s say, to improve transparency and accountability at the national levels of government? Those are big pieces of the FMLN’s government plan.
AM: Many local governments led by FMLN mayors give us a good picture of how the central government could operate more effectively. It has been proven that government transparency and participatory budgets work.
Many mayors and council members have opened spaces for people to make budget proposals to fund community needs. When the leadership is close to the community and is recognized by the community, there’s no gap between those who rule and the population. Most FMLN leaders don’t come from a political class but from the communities themselves. They can identify problems in the town with the tools they’ve been using for a long time, like door-to-door organizing.
For the first five years, the FMLN will have to work on transparency and clean up the mess that’s been made. People have lost their belief in government institutions. They have little or no faith in the public health system. I don’t think there is one Salvadoran who has not been turned away from a government service. People don’t have time to wait in line for one or two hours, let alone a whole day, to go through a loan application process. That would require an entire day off of work.
The FMLN government should focus on creating strong public awareness campaigns that make public services and government rules accessible to the population while administering those services effectively.
If I were a mother of four, I probably would not prioritize learning the constitution. I wouldn’t seek that information out myself but it could affect me in ways that I might not know of, and I could do something about it if someone brought it to my attention. That will be the job of the FMLN and the social movement – to continue reaching out to people we can’t reach through corporate-controlled media.
Making rules known to the population makes organizations and individuals accountable. The FMLN should promote successful local government models at the national level. This is where the work of social organizations and collective decision-making structures come in and people can have a greater impact.
Erica Thompson is a media correspondent for CISPES (Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador). To find out what you can do in the U.S. to support the people’s movement and to take action against U.S. intervention in El Salvador, visit: www.CISPES.org or call (202)521-2510.