A Popular Young President Shakes Things Up in El Salvador

Descendants and survivors of a 1981 army massacre in Zacamil, El Salvador, gather in late July in memory of it. (Photo by MIGUEL PATRICIO/Courthouse News Service)

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (CN) — The Left in Central America has suffered decades of hard times. Time was, it could form coalitions with liberals and have a voice in political discourse, at least within the circles of academia and progressive Christianity. But the economic sector in Central America — the bankers, ranchers and exporters — remain hostile to social improvements such as clean water and health care and education for the poor.

The economic sector determines the major decisions of the state in all Central American countries. And if anything has been learned in the past 50 years, it is that if you piss off the economic sector, the United States of America will be there to threaten you.

Despite the North American rubric of “Central America” — as though that defined a homogenous region — most people in those seven countries must live their lives under different, largely intuited, rules than those of their foreign neighbors, no matter how close they are. And the vast majority of “Central Americans” are uninformed about the rest of Central America — even for compatriots in their own countries.

Community functions, by and large, are performed not by the state but by the churches. And the churches are divided into a variety of Christian fellowships: tiny evangelical sects, funeral companies and the all-powerful Catholic Church.

People in all the countries of Central America are struggling for a better life, and most of their efforts are failing. Half of the people in the Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua are unemployed and have resorted to selling their personal possessions on the streets, earning next to nothing.

In El Salvador this year, a dramatic election brought an obscure grassroots party to power and destroyed the corrupt duopoly of the right-wing party of the 1980s death squads and their formerly left-wing guerrilla opponents: ARENA and the FMLN.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that El Salvador’s new president, Nayib Bukele, a 38-year-old Palestinian immigrant businessman, has become the hope of Central America.

The site of the Zacamil massacre, today. (Photo by MIGUEL PATRICIO/Courthouse News Service)

Honduras is boiling with protest, murder and corruption. Widespread strikes and protests are common. Gangs rule the neighborhoods and entire towns, and state and city police run their drugs.

Guatemala has an ex-president and an ex-vice-president in prison for corruption, and the U.S. State Department has issued a warning for tourists there, though U.S. Attorney General William Barr just declared Guatemala a “safe haven” for refugees who seek political asylum in the United States.

In El Salvador, one ex-president is doing time and another is a fugitive in Nicaragua, which, ironically, just granted Salvador’s former President Mauricio Funes political asylum.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, once a hero of the left, has presided of the murders of dozens of protesters of the corrupt reign he shares with his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo. Despite his strong, bloody hands, Ortega is on the ropes.

Presidents Juan Orlando Hernandez of Honduras and Alejandro Maldonado Morales of Guatemala are corrupt, right-wing apologists, who apologize for nothing.

A political upheaval is taking place in Central America, and the Trump administration wants the right-wing to prevail. Trump, like previous U.S. presidents, has offered temporary visas to thousands of farmworkers for stints of harvest and dairy work on U.S. farms and orchards. But they cannot bring their families with them, and must leave the country when ordered to do so.

To get these “benefits,” the Northern Triangle countries — and Mexico — must agree to reduce — by means fair or foul — the exodus of people heading north. These sovereign countries must also truckle to the United States, and amend their national laws and accept deportees who sought asylum in the United States — and let them and the problems they embody fester in violent cities on the U.S.-Mexican border, or accept deportation back to the Northern Triangle, from which they sought to escape. To await political asylum hearings that may never come, which they are virtually guaranteed to lose.

In other words, President Trump and Attorney General William Barr want to end the possibility of political and humanitarian asylum for people seeking refuge from the world’s storms, from the world’s horrors, from countries without toilets, by sending them all back to Wait for Godot.

Right now Central America is unable to gauge what to expect from the United States.

All we hear in El Salvador is boasts of traffickers who promise refuge in the “chewnigh” for a fee of $5,000 to $7,000.

Coyotes — body smugglers — advertise in the newspapers, on the doorsteps, at the markets, at bus stations.

But the departures have fallen. Trump’s cruelties may have succeeded in hampering the dark-skinned people from even attempting to seek safety in the United States.

And this just might propel his “base” to knock on doors, for him, to pass out pamphlets at the Wal-Mart for him: to re-elect him.

A monument to the Zacamil massacre states: “The water that carries the blood of the martyrs assassinated in Zacamil will never stop flowing while it is denied its dream of peace, justice and liberty. July 31, 1981.” (Photo by MIGUEL PATRICIO/Courthouse News Service)
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