What We Want: Voices from the Salvadoran Left – Sandra Henriquez and Josefina Lazo

Posted May 17, 2009

Written by Erica Thompson – www.UpsideDownWorld.org

This is Part Two of a series of interviews with members of El Salvador’s social movements titled “What We Want: Voices from the Salvadoran Left.”

Interview with Sandra Henriquez and Josefina Lazo – Organizers of the National CD and DVD Vendors Movement of El Salvador

Josefina Lazo and Sandra Henriquez are members of the first vendors association of San Salvador, which represented 1,000 vendors 25 years ago. In San Salvador today, 30-33 associations are active with a representation of about 20,000 vendors. Lazo and Moses carry a 12-hour work schedule every day, are lead organizers of the National CD/DVD Vendors Movement, and are mothers as well.

Since the Salvadoran government’s implementation of CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement) in 2006, street vendors have experienced constant and severe police repression. The vendors of Central San Salvador suffered more than one dozen raids in the first year of CAFTA, culminating in the brutal arrest of 14 protestors in May 2007. The protestors were charged then later dismissed for ‘acts of terrorism’.

Upside Down World: Tell us how the National CD and DVD Vendors Movement began.

Josefina: Under the leadership of Mayor Calderon Sol 15 years ago, ARENA came to the Center of San Salvador to sell vending spaces – to control this part of the informal sector. As a result, hundreds of new vendors overwhelmed the central market and thousands more followed over time. The chaos that ensued between vendors was primarily due to the terrible business practices of international companies and the government’s failure to respond in the interest of human rights.

Foreign companies can fire workers from their factory jobs for no good reason and, because there’s no other work for them, these people wind up selling merchandise on the street. This had the effect of forcing vendors into high competition but also, eventually, into tighter communication and organization. When CAFTA was implemented in 2006, a movement started to unite and grow. We began to march in the streets because our lives were at stake.

Sandra: It’s important to make this clear… that the root of the problem is the lack of sound government policy on workers rights. Street vending is a product of the injustices of the outgoing government that would not provide employment alternatives. Because there are no alternatives, many of our Salvadoran brothers and sisters have been forced to go to North America and Europe; others have had little choice but to sell items on the street to survive.

UDW: Have you always sold CDs and DVDs?

S: Many of us have sold other products in the past. Some of us have sold clothes, shoes, tomatoes, potatoes, onions, but we saw that the best product to sell was CDs and DVDs. A lot of products like tomatoes are imported and have become more expensive, so they’re harder to sell. Selling CDs and DVDs is a lot easier. You have to consider people’s very low wages. Most Salvadorans can’t afford to buy original CDs or DVDs that cost $20-30. That’s why, in unity with all Salvadorans who are feeling the effects of poverty, we take the struggle to the streets in ‘protests of consciousness’.

We call them ‘protests of consciousness’ because they’re for everybody but no one is forced to go. Some of the leaders in the market force vendors to march. If these vendors don’t go to the protests, they’re fined $40 and banned from selling on the street. So we try to raise consciousness and communicate that our struggle is in solidarity with all vendors and all Salvadorans who are struggling, whether they march in the streets with us or not. We march to defend our work, our employment.

UDW: Describe what a typical day is like for you.

J: I wake up at 5:30 a.m. and make breakfast for my daughter who is in the 8th grade. My other daughter finished high school but has not been able to get into the University yet. My younger daughter goes to school and by 8:00am, I’m at my stand arranging things nicely so customers will buy them. We have a meeting around 1pm, drop mail off at the legislative assembly, and then meet with other organizations. We always make time for these activities. We end our day selling at around 8pm.

Many of the women in the informal sector have small children and have more to do. Twenty years ago, a man alone could support his family but, because of bad government, women have had to leave home and go to work. Some men abandon their families when they realize they can no longer support them. Many women bring their children to work so that they can be with them all day. In many other cases, children are left at home alone. We carry a lot of stress about debt and even though we don’t want to, we transfer that stress to them. We can’t take care of our children the way we want to.

UDW: Tell us more about CAFTA’s effect on Street Vendors.

S: The ARENA government, U.S. government, and transnational corporations agreed to implement CAFTA here in 2006. The way we’re most personally affected is that CAFTA Intellectual Property laws call for measures that criminalize the reproduction of CDs and DVDs. With these particular laws, they planned to attack vendors most directly. Immediately after the passage of CAFTA, we found ourselves in constant struggle with the government and its policing apparatus, the National Civilian Police (PNC). Many vendors’ stands were raided repeatedly throughout the year. We responded by creating a national assembly, attending protests, blocking roads, and distributing flyers to engage others in the reality of our struggle. We have assemblies with vendors at the national level. But what the government doesn’t like is when we protest or shut down the streets. After CAFTA was implemented, the government created an Anti-Terrorist Law, then an Anti-Organized Crime Law, then a Complex Crime Law.

In May 2007, the police raided our stands again and it was a different situation. We had had enough of the attacks, so we fought back. Some of our compañeros were arrested and charged with terrorism and public disorder. They’ve labeled us delinquents and pirates, even terrorists but they are the ones who bring the violence… all because of our simple need to eat and work.

J: These laws were like messages to us. Every day the police would try to find some reason to arrest us. We’re not criminals. We’re selling out of necessity. It is unemployment that produces prostitution, illness and crime. Since the government refused to create more jobs, we created our own. That’s why the CD and DVD Vendors Movement was born: to struggle and counter the injustices of low income and unemployment.

UDW: Have you noticed a change in policing tactics since the Vendors Movement has grown and become more active?

J: Sure. Once these laws were passed, police raids were suddenly more organized, forceful, and repetitive. The right has also infiltrated the market and our movement. They brought pornography [into the market] for the first time in 2006. Though many of us have been working to oppose the sale of pornography, the police have used that as an excuse to come in and arrest us. Infiltrators will also go to the front of the marches and set fires or provoke police violence in other ways. When the arrests begin, however, those people are nowhere to be found and movement leaders are targeted.

S: We understand that within the structures of the police there are a few good elements but, unfortunately, the ones that rule are the ones that oppress. Also the police take orders from the government. Let’s remember that CAFTA is corporate domination over the country. It aims for the destruction of small work sectors. The ARENA government is trying to make us disappear so that they can implement their big plans within the country. This is not a government that negotiates but imposes.

UDW: What are some of the other issues you’re trying to expose?

J: We’ve marched against international loans. Why? Because they’re fictitious loans. Many governments in different parts of the world, including Spain, Canada, and countries in Europe have sent aid money and loans to the Salvadoran government and the government has never distributed the money. There are places in this country where there’s no support for people whatsoever. The government denies this. The money that comes in to help the poor never makes it to them, but instead goes toward more and more political propaganda.

President Saca used to talk about a solidarity network of aid and support. What is this? They’ve gone out to some of the most devastated families and given them $10 per month. How is this supposed to pay for education, food, or health care? That is why, as a movement, we are out there marching against these loans. Millions of dollars and nothing has come of it so far.

UDW: In a surprising turn of events, ARENA party candidate Norman Quijano unseated popular FMLN mayor Violeta Menjivar in municipal elections this year with a very conservative campaign. How will Quijano approach the movement you’re building?

J: When Norman Quijano said he wanted to clean up the trash in San Salvador, we knew what he was talking about. He was talking about us. We have new goals to continue our struggle under Quijano. In the periphery of San Salvador, the PNC has been capturing and terrorizing people. Other organizations have supported us through our struggle just as we have supported them in their struggle.

We will face problems with the new mayor. He made three promises during the campaign: 1) To introduce the Metro Bus, 2) Clean up the streets of San Salvador, and 3) to get rid of outdoor vendors. In the same way that we’ve confronted attacks and beatings, we are ready to confront the next challenge.

UDW: How will the social movement’s role change with the FMLN in power at the executive level, given that Mauricio Funes has shown to be receptive to the popular concerns you’ve raised?

J: We need to feel the force of our collective power. A $200 monthly income for a family of four? How can people live on this? More and more people are finding themselves on the periphery of the formal economy.

The FMLN is opening the door for people to tell the government what our needs are. Social organizations have given their platforms and positions to the FMLN and they’ve been very receptive to the informal sector.

We’ve worked hard to organize people and to identify our collective concerns, so the FMLN is well informed. We will continue to present our petitions to the government; at the same time, we have to recognize that right-wing governments around the world have created this crisis, so our problems aren’t going to disappear in two, three, or even five years.

The ARENA has laws for the rich and laws for the poor. We need laws that function for everybody. We have to have patience with the FMLN. They know what our problems are and will have to go about fixing them.

UDW: How is your connection to Salvadorans in the United States developing as a result of CAFTA and now the global economic crisis?

S: We, the people of El Salvador, pronounce ourselves in solidarity with immigrant rights organizations in the States. We are not only aware of our struggle here, but also the broader context of struggle and organizing. We are also organizing not just because we as vendors are affected, but because the whole population is effected by hiked energy costs, lack of access to water, and increases to the standard of living. We have been encouraging Latinos in the states to get organized. We want them to struggle there because their struggle is also a fight of survival. Our struggle is one.

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.