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Wednesday, August 18, 2010

El Salvador Journal Final: Our friend Damian

We finished our time in El Salvador with a conference – Encuentro Du Solidaridad y Hermandad – Solidarity and Brotherhood Sisterhood Encounter.  I was struck here as in other places how present the memory of Oscar Romero is in this country.  He has been dead for 25 years but he truly lives in the people.  This conference was organized by CRIPDES and CORDES and we saw many of the people who we had worked with over the past two weeks.  Jorge, our organizer from Ottawa was there.  People for the Laura Lopez community were there.  Lorena, the president of CRIPDES was one of the guest speakers. 

The conference stared with the rallying quote from Romero. “It is very hard for the people to understand the path of liberation.  If you want the violence to stop we have to go to the root of the problem – it is social injustice.”  We are still trying to live this.

What a great way to sum up our experience here in El Salvador.  The conference was infused with the spirit of solidarity.  The conference leaders talked about building alternatives.  We had seen evidence of this in the stories of all the people we had encountered.

One story that must be told is that of our hosts Damian and Carolina Alegria.  Their story is transcribed below from e-mails  sent back to the family each night after Damian related part of this incredible history.  The e-mail took three nights to send:

I should tell you about our host Damian.  During the war he, as a young
engineer, worked in communications and did ciphers; that is coded messages. 
He worked as part of a secret group of insurgents in the capitol who worked
against the government.  He had been accepted in the military wing of the
FMLN after being in the party for over a year.  He joined after witnessing
the aftermath of a massacre in San Salvador.

Damian’s work was very dangerous, one of his associates simply disappeared one day on the way to make contact with someone in the city.  He was a good friend of this man.  He was never found, but the man’s family adopted Damian to be their new son.  They
still introduce Damian as their son.

Eventually Damian was captured and put in jail.  He was tortured, but he was
very smart.  He convinced his jailers that he was a petty criminal and they
stopped torturing him.  He was able to get a message out to his friends and
the guards were bribed and he was let free.  He was then smuggled out of the
country to Nicaragua.  There he recovered from the effects of the torture.

Once he returned from Nicaragua, Damian became a political
officer in the mountains where he worked with the soldiers and families who
 were displaced from their homes.  The insurgents were responsible for dealing with large number of refugees displaced from their homes by the army.  Damian especially had difficulty convincing young Salvadorans to remain with their families.  Many of them wanted to become guerillas to fight against the army.

Damian was eventually reassigned to San Salvador where he worked to smuggle wounded combatants into local hospitals. He met Carolina who was tending wounded insurgents.  Carolina originally had planned to become a nun, but decided to work for the guerillas once she realized her entire family was involved in efforts to defeat the army.

Eventually, Damian was captured for a second time.  He was not allowed to sleep for five days.  He was not allowed to have any water, but he drank from the prison toilet to keep himself going.  Based on his knowledge of European capitols, he was able to convince the military that he was actually a Russian spy and they actually released him.  The army thought that the rebels would kill him as a traitor.
He was taken back and after three months of  interrogation he was again
working in the mountains

In the afternoon we heard the end of Damian´s story.  He went back to the
mountains where he staged a raid to convince his compatriots that there were
many on their side, this is hard to do in the mountains.  He instructed all
his people to go into town and explode a grenade at 8:00 PM.  They did this
and made a huge demonstration of their strength.  This helped the guerillas
not to lose heart.

Later he took part in the great offensive in the city.  It failed, but the
world started to take note of what was going on.  Soon after, he was
captured again.  This time he was tortured badly, but he refused to talk. 
Eventually he was sent to prison where he and his compatriots took over a
wing of the prison.  He was let go a third time and returned to the

There he became the press liaison and he was responsible for giving press
conferences.  At one point, the military announced that he had been killed. 
He actually heard this on the news.  This was done to discourage the
guerillas.  After some time he was able to call a press conference to
announce that he was very much alive.

As the war slowed down, all the guerillas feared that they would be killed
before the war would end.  Others believed that the struggle would go on for
a long time.  To encourage an end to the war the guerillas began to destroy
their own weapons as a sign of peace.  They also convinced many  government soldiers to raise their arms during battle as a sign that they did not want to fight.
This was a sign that they should be left alone.

Eventually the war ended and Damian and his wife were able to return to the
city where they were helped to start a guesthouse.  They have since moved
to a bigger house where they now live.  Damian continues to work for the people of El Salvador.  He is currently working on a national radio project designed to send out a message to the populace free of interference from government sources.

Damian and Carolina

This has been an inspiring journey.  I have learned a great deal about the ability of people to struggle against injustice.  They continue to work and they do not lose heart.  I realize that we need to be compatriots with these people.  Their struggles are our struggles and we must work in solidarity with them to make sure they see a day when there is a fair measure of justice in their land.  They have so much to teach us.  I hope we all listen.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

El Salvador Journal XX UNES Community:Empowering Women

Visits to UNES communities reinforced what we heard from Dago.  We visited Armenia where there are a collection of cooperatives working to grow local produce.  At our first community, we were greeted with a table overflowing with local produce. 

This is the table that greeted us in Armenia.  On the table we find bananas – they grow four different varieties, cocoa, and bananas.

We had a great lunch of beans, tortillas, and local greens all cooked on local stoves that are very efficient in their use of fuel.  Development and Peace has supported the development of these stoves.

Our lunch was cooked on these stoves.  The funding for the stoves comes from Development and Peace.
The woman in the picture was our host and is frying up some of the delicious local greens.

These communities are learning what grows well in their adopted homes.  Over the past decade, these co-ops have established themselves firmly on the land.  The woman in the picture above is typical of the people you meet in this area.  When the co-op was threatened with the loss of their soccer field by a corrupt local mayor, she took him to court.  It turns out that the land didn’t even belong to him!  The court decided in favor of the co-op and the soccer field belongs to the community.

Struggles continue for access to water, health care and adequate education, but these people are fighters and are convinced that they have the ability to improve things for their communities. 

The women here have been trained in leadership skills through an institute that is funded by Development and Peace.  Women from the institute have been involved in reconstruction efforts – a major earthquake had previously devastated the community.  They have learned to look for high-risk areas in their villages.  Housing techniques that secure homes from earthquakes have been developed and implemented by the people. 

They continue to fight for access to water.  Another woman we met has worked very effectively to pressure the local government to develop a fair price for water.  She showed us her account book where she keeps a regular tally of the water rates.  She has challenged local water officials to justify the rates they charge.  This is very important in a country where the water meter readers can’t read!

These women have also been able to get the local mayor to agree that the forests and community lands all belong to the people.  This is extremely important.  Forestland contains runoff and guarantees that water will remain in the community.

When people are trained in their rights they can pressure the government to follow through on their commitments.  This is where we see the realization of what Dago spoke to us about.  Access to essential rights can only be guaranteed when you have a population that clearly understands their basic human rights.  This is where Development and Peace funding can be very effective.

There is a great story about the power of these women to mobilize.  At one time, the offal produced by a local pig farm polluted the local river.  The women had to wash their clothes in water that was very polluted by the farm.

They demanded that the farm move away from their community.  To back up these demands, the women actually occupied the farm.  This was necessary; all their petitions to health officials and local mayors had failed.  Three hundred women were involved in this occupation.  They would not allow the pigs to be fed until their demands were met. 

After the intervention of the bishop of Sonsonate, the owners agreed to move the pigs out.  They had ninety days to move them all out or the pigs would go to the women.  Teams of women were stationed at the farm to monitor the progress of the move.  On May 7 of this year all the pigs were moved. 

This is a great example of what women can do when they are mobilized.  Women from this group are now touring the country to let others know what is possible.  There is great hope for these communities.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

El Salvador 2005 Journal XVIIII UNES "a pessimist is an optimist well informed"

We next visited UNES.  They are focusing on ecological projects, specifically water.  We visited their community projects too, but we started with a discussion with Dago Gutierrez. Their legal counsel, writer and poet.  We spent a wonderful morning with him, he is a true philosopher.

He started by reflecting on time as a resource. When do the poor have time to reflect, to talk, to read to think?  They only have time to exist.  Time itself is a political issue – the poor have no time to live, the rich have the time to build and to destroy.  When we reflect on time, we need to see that all things are connected in a great circle.  When the circle no longer repeats itself in the great cycle of time we find ourselves in danger, we are finished.

He spoke about other conflicts we find in this day.  There is the conflict between the market and nature.  We have to distinguish what has a price – that is the market, and what has clear value; that belongs to nature.  We run into trouble when we place a price on what we need to live – water has great value because it sustains life.  Now we want to place a price on what is freely given by nature. 

If water is a right that means that access to the resource must be universal.  It cannot be turned into a commodity.  Who protects these rights?  This is the job of the state.  The state is the only entity that can protect public rights.  Now however, we have a conflict.  There is now a struggle between the public and private realms.  Today the market regulates the state.  This is contrary to the great political tradition of Locke, Montesque and Bonaparte where the state was the champion of the citizens’ rights.

Water is now a source of conflict.  Dago talked about huge resources of water stored in Paraguay.  The Unites States now has an interest in this country and has established a military presence there. 

Dago also spoke about the dominance of the money class.  In United States and Canada this class controls and the state still offers some protection for people against their operation of power.  In El Salvador, the state is weak and offers little protection.  In El Salvador – we heard this everywhere – the state operates for the dominant families.  There is little health care and education beyond elementary school.  The dominant families do not govern for the benefit of the people.  They continue to operate for their own welfare.  Large banks and multinational corporations – like pharmaceuticals – receive their exclusive attention.

There is much of Gustavo Gutierrez in what Dago spoke about.  In the Open Veins of Latin America, Gutierrez speaks about the tradition of exploitation that stretches back to the Spanish conquest.  Dago continues the narrative of Open Veins. 

Dago finished by telling us that, “a pessimist is an optimist well informed.”  We were assured that we are on the right path and that there is a close connection between Development and Peace and the activists of El Salvador.  We are becoming well-informed optimists.

posters from UNES office in San Salvador

Sunday, August 1, 2010

El Salvador 2005 Journal XVIII Local Solutions

Local solutions.  The community we visited is a great story of success.  These people are members of what they call ‘a pastoral indigenous people’.  In this area, over 80% of the people are landless.  Interesting – these people are the original owners of the land and the majority remain disposed.  

In 1983, a small group of people in the Sonsonate area began to learn about co-ops.  They went to “United Hands”, a training centre for indigenous people in Mexico.  The delegation that returned asked the people – what do you want – they responded, “we need land for corn…” Prosperity would come with a return to the old ways.  As they would say, “the land belongs to those who love it.”  This was the motivation for the long road ahead.

The community worked with the help of groups like FUNPROCOOP and Caritas to develop the expertise in new areas like animal husbandry.  This was a real challenge for these people, they had no traditional knowledge in this area, but they accepted the challenge and after some early failures they now have a herd of 35 cattle.

The community now has 42 acres, purchased from a local landowner.  Each individual received ¾ of an acre for their own use.  They produce an unbelievable 
variety of products including cheese, whipped cream, cottage cheese, corn, beans, coriander, bananas and many other foods.  These people work with passion and dedication as they say, “we were born with a principal and the principal is that we are in solidarity with those (the landless) around us.”

Local women prepare the communal lunch for the teshicalt  we shared a meal with the community

                                                                            My lunch washed down with coconut milk.

Our tour guide picks a small yucca plant