100,000 Salvadorans Demand Tax Reform on International Workers Day

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Also included in this update:

  • Ex-Minister of Health Charged with Misappropriation of $3 Million in Public Funds
  • Campesinos Groups Praise Government Efforts to Revitalize Agriculture
  • Assembly Passes Law for the Protection of Migrants
  • Occupation Leads to Prolonged Investigations of Student Organizations at the National University

On Sunday May 1 in honor of International Workers Day, more than 100,000 workers, campesinos/as, feminists, students, members of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) leftist party and other social movement groups from across the country marched through downtown San Salvador to push the Salvadoran working class demands. The primary demands of the tens of thousands of marchers were for: businesses to start paying taxes and stop evading taxes, the Funes Administration to create a new, progressive tax structure and for the Salvadoran National Business Association (ANEP) to raise the minimum wage to equal the public sector monthly minimum wage of $300. The march was festive, despite the blistering hot sun, with drum crews, theater groups, poets and stiltwalkers reaffirming street art as a form of work. (For more photos of the May Day march, visit the CISPES El Salvador Facebook page). The leading banner read “To expand the change for the people, we continue forward in the popular struggle.”  The use of the term “seguimos de frente” – or “we continue forward” – also has the dual meaning of “we continue with the Frente” or with the FMLN. According to Francisco García of the Salvadoran Union Front (FSS), the popular and social movements of El Salvador must not fall prey to the right wing’s current strategy of separating grassroots movements from the FMLN.  “The FMLN is the only party that works in favor of the working class, of the great majority of Salvadorans,” said García. At the Civic Plaza, marchers gathered to enjoy music celebrating the history of the Salvadoran struggle. The march was so massive that as the first people were arriving at the Civic Plaza, the end of the march was still leaving the march's initial gathering point.  After the FMLN segment of the march reached the Civic Plaza, including Vice-President of El Salvador and FMLN leader Salvador Sánchez Cerén and other party leaders, representatives of the social movement took the stage alongside Sanchez Cerén and FMLN General Secretary Medardo González. Francisco García spoke on behalf of the workers, reaffirming that their strategy must be one of class struggle, focusing on the wealthy oligarchy and business class as the true targets.  After García, Sanchez Cerén spoke on behalf of the FMLN.  He reiterated the commitment of the FMLN to serve as the organized working class’ political movement and acknowledged the first achievements in the transition – such as public sector workers’ raises – that have been seen in the administration of President Mauricio Funes. Minister of Labor Dr. Victoria de Avilés was present at the event and told journalists that the day was also to commemorate the martyred workers of Chicago, that gave their lives to achieve an 8-hour workday, and acknowledge that organized workers are those who have achieved the labor rights we enjoy today and are who will continue pushing for further changes.  The crowd also commemorated the “Martyrs of Chicago” with a full minute of applause as balloons were released into the air above the crowd..

Ex-Minister of Health Charged with Misappropriation of $3 Million in Public Funds On April 11, in a much publicized case brought by the Attorney General against ex-Minister of Health Guillermo Maza who served under ARENA President Tony Saca (2004-09), a San Salvador court decided that there was not enough evidence to convict Maza for “arbitrary acts and illicit negotiations” related to the misappropriation of over $3.2 million dollars in public funds.  The court declared Maza free with probationary measures that freeze his assets, ban him from leaving the country and require him to present himself to the court every two weeks. The funds in question were to equip and rebuild the Hospital Santa Teresa in Zacatecoluca, part of a $142 million dollar loan granted to the Saca Administration by the Inter-American Reconstruction and Support Bank. Maza allegedly paid contractors for work that was never completed and equipment that was never installed in the hospital. Maza, too ill to present himself in court, faced charges along with 14 other Saca Administration officials for various charges of fraud connected to the hospital funds, including former Subdirector of the National Civilian Police, the only defendant sentenced to provisional detention by the court. Following the ruling, Magistrate Belarmino Jaime, president of El Salvador’s Supreme Court, called for an audit of the trial, emphasizing the importance of a strong judiciary branch that is able to prosecute high-level government functionaries in cases of fraud and corruption. According to the Supreme Court’s review released on April 15, the local court did adjudicate properly given the evidence presented; rather the attorney general investigators failed to prepare the evidence and arguments adequately to secure a conviction. There are only two explanations for this – the attorney general investigators lacked the training to present a strong case or the Attorney General's office had political motivations to protect Maza and others from a conviction.  Attorney General Romeo Barahona, who served directly under Saca's Attorney General Astor Escalante, himself has come under questioning for failing to investigate an array of high-profile cases, including the assassinations of Cabanas environmental activists Alicia Sorto and Ramiro Rivera and corruption charges against former Ministers of the Interior for illegal management of funds allotted for the reconstruction of a highway.

Campesino Groups Praise Government Efforts to Revitalize Agriculture El Salvador’s Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock will distribute corn seed to more than 325,000 small-scale family farms throughout the month of May.  The country’s two largest agricultural organizations, the Salvadoran Confederation of Agrarian Reform (CONFRAS) and the National Association of Agriculture Workers (ANTA), praised the program explaining that along with special training from the National Center forAgriculture and Forest Technology (CENTA), the program will help the rural families to increase their harvests by 75% to 100%. According to CONFRAS and ANTA, the family farms will then be able to sell surplus to the government at a fair price so that the country can build a strategic reserve of basic grains.  The Secretary General of ANTA, Carlos Rodríguez, claimed that if the program is maintained El Salvador will achieve food sovereignty and no longer be dependent on imports to feed its population in 10 years. In addition to the seed distribution program, the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock announced a new project called “Food Production and Income Generation” that will benefit an additional 70,000 rural families that practice subsistence agriculture in the country’s 74 poorest municipalities. Over $1.4 million donated by the government of Taiwan will be invested in technology and trainings to improve farming techniques and in the construction of drainage systems, more efficient stoves and water filtersystems for the rural homes. Both initiatives mark significant steps towards reactivating the country’s agricultural sector by the current government, a sector Rodríguez says was “abandoned” by past governments.  The programs will especially benefit family farms that have suffered in recent years, unable to compete with the flood of cheap grains from the US brought about by the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA).

Assembly Passes Law for the Protection of Migrants OnMarch 18, the Legislative Assembly passed the Special Law for the Protection and Assistance of Migrants and their Families by 74 out of 84 votes. The new law emphasizes two themes: protecting the human rights of migrants and strengthening ties between migration and development.  This is the first time in El Salvador that concrete legislation will defend the rights and safety of the more than 2 million Salvadoran citizens that live abroad. The law creates a national council composed of government officials, civil society sectors (university, non-governmental, business) and Salvadoran immigrant organizations – with oversight by the Foreign Relations Ministry – that will formulate strategic plans and policies concerning migrants in areas including labor, health, education, economy, justice, and security. In a creative solution to sorely lacking government funds, the law also seeks to connect Salvadorans abroad to development projects in El Salvador that are designed to alleviate the economic pressures that force 700 Salvadorans to leave their country every day.  A new fund to repatriate terminally ill and deceased Salvadorans abroad is also outlined in the law. El Salvador’s deputies approved the law prior to President Obama's visit in the hopes that a concrete demonstration of El Salvador's commitment to its migrant population would be reciprocated by the US. However, Obama only briefly mentioned migration during his visit and framed the issue in terms of national and international security – calling for moreborder militarization.  The recent massacre and mass kidnappings of Central American migrants on their way to the US by organized crime groups in Mexico underscore the need to implement protective measures like El Salvador’s new law; however, the repressive, militaristic immigration policies of the US and Mexico remain the largest obstacles to ensuring the safety of Salvadoran migrants in the hemisphere.

Occupation Leads to Prolonged Investigations of Student Organizations at the National University Approximately 150 aspiring and current students shut down and occupied the Universityof El Salvador (UES) campus in San Salvador on March 9, demanding the admission of over 20,000 applicants that were not accepted for the 2011 incoming class. The occupation ended on March 14 when the Maintenance ofOrder Unit (UMO) of the National Civil Police (PNC) cut the chains usedto lock the gates, entered the campus and removed the 24 students that remained inside after five days.  The PNC reported that the removal was not violent and everyone was released after the police searched them for weapons and took down their names. One of the students who was removed from the campus, however, reported to the Diario CoLatino that several of the students, including herself, were handled roughly by the police and some were hit by UMO agents. Shortly after the UMO entered, a homemade grenade exploded near one of the campus entrances, injuring a university employee, and the PNC reported that they found a box of homemade explosives when they searched the campus. Similarto past years, many of the campus student organizations opposed the tactic of occupying the campus. Sonia Dubon, of the Roque Dalton University Front (FURD), explained that while there are major problems with the admissions process that violate many aspiring students’ right to a higher education, “the solution is not to demand a massive admission of aspiring students when the university does not even have the resources necessary for its current student body.” Dubon says the problem needs a comprehensive solution that the current University Dean,Rufino Quezada has not attempted to find. The FURD, along with other student groups, condemned the police intervention as a violation of the university’s autonomy.  Last year, a similar occupation by unadmitted students lasted almost two weeks before a mediated solution was reached and the PNC did not intervene despite Quezada’s requests.  Members of the FURD questioned whether the scheduled arrival of US President Barack Obama on March 21 was the reason for the PNC’s rapid intervention this year, after just five days. Dean Quezada called for police intervention after the University Advisory Board authorized him to take the necessary measures to end the occupation.  The violation of the UES’autonomy worsened when Quezada called for an investigation by the Attorney General of all the student organizations, regardless of whether they participated in the occupation or not. According to Dubon, eight investigators with explosive-sniffing dogs forcibly entered and searchedthe FURD’s office as well as many other organizations’ offices and seized items including computers, documents and costumes as “evidence.”  To date, the seized items have not been returned. Dubon pointed out that Quezada is up for re-election this year by the university and many student groups are organizing against his re-election. Dubon classified the searches and seizures as “a campaign to destabilize and disarticulate the student movement, especially the organizations that donot support Quezada.”

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