Special CISPES Update: Lessons from Obama's Visit to El Salvador


Reflecting on the significance of the visit, Funes, the leftist Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (FMLN) party  and social movement members concur that Obama's presence definitively disproves the long-time threat by right-wing political parties that the election of a leftist FMLN candidate to the presidency would sever US relations with El Salvador.  "We have won the battle against disinformation. We have dispelled the fear that relations would deteriorate," Funes told reporters.

This provides some important breathing room to the Funes-FMLN coalition government to continue El Salvador's political transformation, without the Salvadoran right-wing's greatest empty threat. Nonetheless, opposition to US interventenion across Latin America continues to smolder, and for good reason. Neoliberal economics, the "War on Drugs" and the criminalization of Latin America's immigrants remain the pillars of Obama's Latin American policy - so very similar to his Republican predecessors. Thus far what has changed is Obama's framing: in joint press conferences with President Rousseff in Brazil, President Piñera in Chile and President Funes in El Salvador, President Obama stressed "partnerships" among the US and countries in Latin America, naming his priority as "common prosperity and common security." Perhaps the most symbolic and widely-publicized moment on the trip, was Obama's visit to the crypt of El Salvador's revered martyr Monseñor Óscar Arnulfo Romero.  While Obama is the first US president to honor El Salvador's beloved human rights defender and "voice of the voiceless", the visit fell short of a real recognition of the US role in training Romero's assassins at the infamous (and still operating) School of the Americas. Instead, Obama chose to maintain silence on US responsibility for the deaths of 70,000 Salvadorans in El Salvador's Civil War. Popular protest across the region was glaringly absent from media coverage of Obama's trip. In fact, during President Obama's five-day tour in Latin America, he encountered mass mobilizations at every stop - El Salvador, Chile and Brazil. On Monday March 21,  the day before Obama's arrival in El Salvador, an estimated 6,000 union members, campesinos, and community organizations marched to the US Embassy to deliver their demands.  Filling the boulevard in front of the embassy with banners including "No more persecution of our Salvadoran brothers and sisters: TPS [Temporary Protected Status] with guarantees, " demonstrators proclaimed over loudspeakers, "The global economic crisis, climate change, narcotrafficking, insecurity and the food crisis have their origin in the economic model imposed on our people by the great world powers, primarily the United States."

On Tuesday, as Obama touched down, hundreds of people from civil society organizations, environmental groups and student organizations demonstrated in the streets, calling on Obama to repeal the US-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) and stop supporting the murderous Lobo government of Honduras. Hondurans bearing crosses on their backs and carrying photos of murdered resistance members marched alongside Salvadorans carrying photos of those killed and disappeared during El Salvador's twelve-year civil war between the brutal US-backed Salvadoran government and FMLN.

Despite Obama's promise of "partnerships" for "common prosperity",  before even landing in Latin America, he declared that his priority was to increase consumption of US exports to the region.  Obama's goal, in this "increasingly interconnected and fiercely competitive world," was to ensure that Latin America continues importing a majority of its goods from the US: not from China, not from the European Union, not from other countries in Latin America. From the outset, Obama had no intention of relinquishing the US economic hold over Latin America, but rather sought to peddle free trade and new security initiatives across the hemisphere to strengthen its influence over key countries. In Central America the US is seeking to expand its foothold with El Salvador as its top security partner. In El Salvador, Obama announced a joint security initiative to combat regional organized crime and narcotrafficking and to pledge $200 million in funding. Both heads of state alluded to the successes of bilateral security programs between the US in Mexico (Mérida Initiative) and Plan Colombia to guide the new plan, despite widespread agreement that the militarized, anti-narcotrafficking policies have only increased the profitability of the drug trade at the cost of tens of thousands of human lives, and furthermore have driven cartels into Central America. Both presidents also expressed the importance that the Central American countries craft the initiative to suit the region's particular needs to combat organized crime. A striking change from the disastrous Mexico and Colombia security plans is Funes' emphasis on rehabilitation, crime prevention and job creation programs in equal measure. What remains to be seen is if the US will back these kinds of programs and to what extent. Obama's treatment of immigration was also couched in a security context. With roughly 30% of Salvadoran citizens residing in the US, Funes' government has repeatedly advocated for comprehensive immigration reform, a significant reduction in raids and deportations, and respect for immigrants' human rights in the US - to no avail. The US president pointedly ignored repeated requests from Funes, the FMLN, and the social movement for a permanent path to citizenship for all immigrants in the US under Temporary Protected Status program, which includes over 200,000 Salvadorans who must renew their legal status each year. He instead spoke of the US as a "land of laws" that must be respected by immigrants and promoted the new US "Crossroads Program" to increase Central America's border security. Utterly disregarding the human rights, safety and families of the 700 economic refugees who flee El Salvador each day, Obama's policies intend to make that journey north even more dangerous and violent. Funes and Obama agreed that poverty and exclusion are the root of regional crime and emigration, and have called for an economic solution. Unfortunately, Obama shamelessly promoted more of the same neoliberal policies, including fostering foreign investment by US corporations as the path to development. El Salvador has faced two separate lawsuits under CAFTA filed by the very "foreign investors" that are supposed stimulate El Salvador's economy. Both Pacific Rim and Commerce Group have demanded $100 million in compensation  - roughly double the amount of aid given to El Salvador by the US (see Kevin Gallagher article). Before his trip, Obama received letters from 150 organizations across the hemisphere and 19 US Representatives asking the president to condemn the CAFTA lawsuits and call for a renegotiation of CAFTA to protect countries from corporate lawsuits. Obama completely ignored the chorus of international voices demanding change to US trade policy. Regarding the new bilateral economic programs such as the still-undefined Bridge and Partnerships for Progress, Obama claims that the US will bestow a certain degree of freedom for El Salvador to shape these policies. With El Salvador at the lead there is a greater chance that desperately needed living-wage jobs for young people and the unemployed will materialize. But with the US pushing corporate interests every step of the way, El Salvador will face significant challenges to real economic advancements. During his speech to the press, Obama praised Funes for his "pragmatism" and "wise leadership" in the region. Mainstream media coverage of the trip focused on his "moderate" policies and El Salvador's "political stability" as a primary reason for Obama's visit. It is clear that El Salvador holds particular geopolitical importance to the US overall influence in the region, particularly in light of CAFTA and the new security plan. But the June 2009 coup in Honduras and the US role in its legitimization demonstrates that countries that stray too far from US hegemony - for example by joining the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) - won't receive US support. The visit's emphasis on a "strategic partnership" are all signs that US cooperation and financial support are contingent on not challenging the current economic model, driven by transnational corporate interests. On the flip side, Obama's decision to visit El Salvador and meet with the country's first progressive president means that traditional US right-wing allies in Latin America, like Mexico and Colombia, are losing influence to more progressive governments. This is due to the pueblos of Latin America who have organized and elected left and center-left governments over the past decade. These movements have continued to resist the neoliberal agenda for decades and successfully forced the US to contend with some of the very political forces, like the FMLN, that the US spent hundreds of millions trying to defeat in the 1980s.

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