From the pages of February 1996

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 The Voice of the People

By Mike Prokosch

Chalatenango was a target in El Salvador's 12-year war. The army bombed the mountainous province, machine-gunned it from the air, and did its best to exterminate an experiment in grassroots democracy which pro-guerrilla villagers were building. But the people organized in refugee camps abroad, came back, and resettled villages like Guarjila in the face of a hostile and murderous army.

International support played a large part in their victory. And international support has a large part to play in Salvadorans' new struggle against the government, the wealthy, and their death squads.

On December 4, four squad cars drove up to the door of Radio Sumpul in Guarjila, Chalatenango. Sumpul is one of 11 community radio stations founded in FMLN areas when the war ended in 1992. Since then, the radio stations have been trying to get licenses from the government telecommunications monopoly ANTEL, which is run by leading members of the ruling ARENA party. ANTEL has largely ignored their requests.

The doors of the squad cars opened, and out stepped the province's 2 top police commanders and 22 agents. Brushing aside requests to see a warrant, they started disconnecting the radio broadcasting equipment and taking it to their cars. Town residents who tried to intervene were beaten and threatened.

Then the residents of Guarjila built stone barricades, formed a human chain, and confronted the heavily armed police. Someone called the United Nations, which still has a skeleton staff monitoring the Salvadoran peace process. The townspeople managed to detain the police for five hours, make them return the radio's equipment, and sign an agreement before a UN observer to pay for any damages.

It's not just in Guarjila that direct action is flourishing. This year has seen a wave of job actions, land “recoveries,” and building takeovers by Salvadoran workers, farm laborers, and war veterans whose survival is being squeezed out by an increasingly global economy.

They are also being squeezed by one of the jewels of the 1992 peace accords -- the National Civilian Police -- founded in 1992 to help democratize and reconcile a deeply divided country. The FMLN and its grassroots base agreed that El Salvador needed institutions which don't belong solely to one political interest. Instead, the new police would be neutral, respectful of people's rights, and able to command their respect as it kept public order.

After a promising start, the Civilian Police have lost that respect. Officers from the old paramilitary police forces control most of the top posts. On November 23, war veterans from both sides occupied the offices of the Fund for the War Disabled to demand long-promised pensions. The Fund's employees were prevented from leaving, but the Human Rights Ombudsman's office (another Peace Accords institution) intervened to mediate. Negotiations were going well, and the negotiators were asking for ten more minutes, when the police barged in. Swinging riot sticks, spraying tear gas and pepper gas, and wildly firing rubber pellets, they chased the veterans out of the building and into the street. One 50-year-old vet was shot 64 times. Another was shot 40 times at point-blank range, collapsed in a pool of his own blood, and died in the street.

That same day 23 public sector unions were shutting down the government to protest a new union-busting “privatization” law. Enter the long arm of the United States.

For the past decade, Washington has been remaking the Salvadoran economy. The country that was a laboratory for testing Pentagon counterinsurgency doctrine in the 1980s is now a showcase for the neoliberal dogma of privatization and export-oriented manufacture.

On paper, El Salvador's economy has grown 5 percent a year since the war ended; garment exports, $10 million a year in 1984, reached a half billion this year -- almost all to the United States; 62,000 workers now sweat in the garment shops; garments have replaced coffee as the backbone of the Salvadoran economy.

Like the coffee plantations, El Salvador's garment sweatshops are centers of exploitation. At Mandarin International, where The GAP bought clothes until recently, teenage women routinely labor 14 hours a day. Lint and noise fill the air. Supervisors scream at the women and throw garments in workers' faces to make them go faster. Overtime is compulsory, and rarely paid in full. Workers are also cheated out of their health care, which is deducted from their checks but not paid into the social security system. When workers fall ill, the owners refuse to let them leave work for a hospital, fearing that they will be turned away and the whole workforce will discover the fraud. Two Salvadorans died in the sweatshops this year because management denied them proper medical attention.

At 56 cents an hour, these workers are generating enormous profits for the factory owners and their customers. This year the GAP sold shirts for $20 which Salvadorans earned 16 cents sewing.

Despite the enormous exploitation and enormous profits, the new garment shops differ from the coffee haciendas in one key way. The old Salvadoran economy was a nearly closed system. It depended on North America and Europe for markets, but in capital it was virtually autonomous. Salvadoran oligarchs owned and ran the coffee farms, processing plants, railroads, export companies, and banks.

Washington has restructured that economy in the past ten years. The Salvadoran think tank FUSADES, lavished with AID funds, wrote the economic plan of the far-right ARENA party. When ARENA won its first presidential victory in 1989, AID poured $100 million into FUSADES to reorient the economy toward nontraditional exports. Some of the funds went to grow melons, strawberries, and broccoli. More went into free trade zones, which AID then sold to military officers.

Now the free trade zones are keeping the economy afloat with the garment exports (plus remittances from Salvadorans abroad) that maintain an overall favorable balance of trade and keep aid, loans, and investment capital flowing into the Salvadoran economy.

The Salvadoran economy today cannot survive outside the global flow of capital. This “robust economy” is a house of cards. Nobody is more aware of its artificiality than the Salvadoran oligarchy, which nervously watched the growth rate slow from 5 percent to 1 percent this year, while inflation reached double digits.

The oligarchy imagines it could stop this decline, and ensure its prosperity for years to come, by winning parity with NAFTA quotas and tariffs. That is why the Civilian Police are being allowed to swing their clubs and shoot their rubber pellets.

Perhaps you last saw John Sununu, as George Bush's chief of staff, taking Air Force One to dental appointments in New Hampshire. Well, Sununu's back. In mid-November 1995 FUSADES invited him to speak to a wealthy audience on “El Salvador's international image.”

Sununu's message: El Salvador will achieve parity with NAFTA quota and tariff reductions in the next three months, as long as the Salvadoran government quickly privatizes the public sector, establishes conditions for free trade, and “generates greater confidence.”

NAFTA parity means free access to the vast North American market. It means more investment, aid, and loans. It means a stay of execution for an export-based economy that is already starting to falter. It means more obscene wealth.

But note Sununu's conditions: “rapid privatization.” Those 23 pesky public sector unions must be crushed, and the more force the better. As one ARENA deputy told the Legislative Assembly during debate over laying off 15,000 public workers, “Let them go pick coffee.”

The second condition: “establish conditions for free trade.” In the sweatshops, that means no labor code, no unions, and big profit margins for customers like The GAP. All that was threatened this summer by a U.S. campaign to make The GAP improve conditions in the factory it buys from. When The GAP ignored these demands, and decided to pull out of El Salvador entirely, the oligarchy went ballistic.

Two dozen prominent Salvadorans had sent The GAP a letter asking for an investigation of working conditions at Mandarin International. When The GAP pulled out, El Salvador's defense minister said those Salvadorans deserved the death penalty. ARENA tried to expel the FMLN deputies who signed the letter from the Assembly.

The public relations message here is clear. The left and labor are traitors who are trying to take jobs away from honest Salvadorans. The GAP's announcement gave the right wing an irresistible opportunity to isolate its opposition.

But there's a deeper dimension. The oligarchy is convinced that it is about to receive NAFTA parity. (They're almost certainly wrong: the relevant legislation is unlikely to pass Congress for another year. But in El Salvador that news hasn't gotten through.) NAFTA parity could pull the economy out of its dangerous downswing. Anyone who stands in the way of globalization must be crushed.

Sununu's third condition: “Generate greater confidence.” That doesn't sound like police riots, assassinations, and a population angered by the government's refusal to keep promises made under UN supervision. If the outcry against the new repression can equal the level of protest inside El Salvador, it becomes an obstacle to the quest for global approval, and that splits the oligarchy. Those who plan to buy up the profitable telecommunications, electric, and water monopolies may insist on more police riots to crush those unions. Finance capitalists might disagree. So may the owners of the new garment shops.

With the oligarchy split, there won't be a consensus to repress. Some oligarchs may agree with the UN and a chunk of the U.S. Congress: police reform is needed. Better to give a little, and buy social peace, than to lose everything through intransigence.

That little goes a long way in E1 Salvador. If there is less repression, the public sector unions can win a place in the newly privatized state enterprises. Garment workers can organize unions and begin improving conditions in the factories. Repression is the key issue in building democracy, as the peace accords' negotiators understood.

Repression is a key issue in building a global solidarity movement to tame transnational corporations. The TNCs can play one workforce against another, one state or country against another -- as long as wages are lower somewhere. But it takes a tremendous amount of repression to keep wages low, conditions inhuman, and workers un-unionized. Lift the repression, and workers can organize, leaving the TNCs nowhere to run.

The traditional country-to-country solidarity organizations have a big part to play in this next phase of struggle. So has the labor movement. The third part, the global organization, needs to be created.

Mike Prokosch is the New England director of CISPES.