President Obama Will Visit El Salvador to Promote Regional Security Initiative
- FMLN Assumes Presidency of the Legislative Assembly for First Time
- Largest Construction Union Ousts Corrupt Leadership
OnMarch 22 and 23, President Obama will visit El Salvador to continue forging a strategic regional alliance with the country's first leftist president, Mauricio Funes. This visit disproves the fallacy publicized by right-wing groups during the 2009 Salvadoran presidential campaign that a victory by the leftist Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (FMLN) would sour relations between the US and El Salvador. The major topics for discussion are the same issues that have been covered in previous diplomatic meetings between the two countries: regional security, US immigration policy, economic growth and poverty reduction.
Thereare signs that a high US priority for this visit is the promotion of a new security initiative specific to Central America similar to the enormous and unsuccessful US security packages of Plan Colombia and the Mérida Initiative in Mexico. Both expensive packages have not only failed to stem the supply of drugs but have also increased regional violence and the efficiency of drug cartels, using US taxpayer dollars. William Brownfield, Subsecretary of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement and former US Ambassador to Colombia, recently met with El Salvador's security cabinet in the lead up to President Obama's visit and proposed a specific counter-narcotics initiative for Central America, to link the Mexican and Colombian US-funded programs.
Given El Salvador's political stability and credibility in the region, as well asthe existing US security institutions in the country - including the International Law Enforcement Academy(a US training center for Latin America's police and law enforcement) FBI office, DEA office, Comalapa US military base - the US appears to beangling for El Salvador to take the lead in this new "Plan Centroamerica."
Inhis last meeting with President Obama in March of 2009, President Funesinsisted that poverty and social exclusion are the roots of the regional security and migration issues and these root causes must be addressed and prioritized. In an attempt to promote Central American cooperation in tackling these critical issues as a region, President Funes proposed that all Central American presidents convene in El Salvador for Obama's visit. The US rejected the proposal. According to Arturo Valenzuela, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, the visit is a special visit "to meet with Salvadoran society and authorities." The Funes administration has declared that they will represent the entire region in meetings with Obama.
Onthe topic of migration, President Funes has expressed a strong desire to discuss a permanent path to citizenship for the over 200,000 Salvadorans with Temporary Protected Status (TPS) in the US, a status which must be renewed annually, as well as comprehensive immigration reform and a reduction in raids and deportations. Obama and Funes are also expected to discuss bilateral economic partnerships, including the Bridge program - an initiative to invest remittance monies into Salvadoran infrastructural projects - and the US Partnership for Growth program, of which only four countries including El Salvador have been selected to participate by the US.
OnFebruary 1, Sigfrido Reyes became the first FMLN legislative deputy to serve as president of the National Assembly. By law, the Assembly's presidency goes to the party that wins the most seats. Had this regulation been respected, an FMLN deputy would have held this position for the past 3 consecutive legislatures since 2003 when the FMLN won more legislative seats than any other party, successfully beating out the established right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) for the first time. Nonetheless, the FMLN has been robbed of this influential position each time by the right-wing parties, who have united in defiance of the law and voted to appoint a right-wing deputy as the Assembly president. This happened again at the beginning of the 2009-2012 legislature despite the fact that the FMLN had received the most votes in the legislative elections, winning 35 of 84 seats. Then, in October of 2009, the Assembly's power distribution shifted as one-third of ARENA's 32 deputies left the party and formed the right-wing Great Alliance for National Unity (GANA) party. This event sparked a new agreement between all parties - except ARENA who boycotteddiscussion - for Deputy Reyes to take over the presidency of the Assembly halfway through the term. In return, GANA gained representation on the Assembly's leadership. When named Assembly president on February 1, Reyes announced his plans to make the Legislative Assembly a more efficient and transparent institution.
OnFebruary 9, a new set of union officers took office in El Salvador's Construction Workers' Syndicate Union (SUTC), the country's largest construction labor union, ending over two decades of leadership by corrupt Secretary General Fredi Vasquéz. The new Board of Directors headed by Secretary General Victor Manuel Ramirez comes from the Pro-Rescue Committee of SUTC, a group that has denounced the corrupt practices of former Secretary Vasquéz and his board cronies for years. Accusations range from embezzling union dues and a workers' recreation center property to accepting kick-backs from construction company owners. After taking office, the new Board of Directors reported that over $87,000 in equipment and furniture was missing from the union headquarters and that union bank accounts had been drained shortly before the change in leadership. The new board members also report a public defamation campaign against them by the former leadership and that they have received death threats since taking office. All of thesecrimes have been denounced before El Salvador's Attorney General. Upontaking office, Secretary General Ramirez announced that he was leaving behind Vasquéz's legacy of corruption to fight in earnest for the rightsof SUTC workers. Ramirez announced plans to prioritize defending SUTC workers' collective contract and addressing the industry's unsafe working conditions.
Asimilar change in power occurred in August of 2009 when members of the Salvadoran Social Security Institute Workers' Union (STISSS) - the public health care workers union - ousted their leadership headed by Ricardo Monge accusing him of corruption. Many unionists believe these union leadership changes have been made possible by the diligence of newLabor Minister Dr. Victoria de Áviles who has provided independent election observation for union elections and has followed up on complaints by union members of anti-democratic practices within unions.
Anotherdevelopment in El Salvador's union movement is the emergence of CentralAmerica's first call center union, organized by youth workers at the ATENTO Call Center. The union is an official local of the Communication Workers' Industrial Union. ATENTO Call Center is owned by Spanish telecommunications giant Telefónica Group and employs 1,100 young workers. The union's Board of Directors, who received official credentials from the Ministry of Labor in September of last year, condemn call centers as the new maquilas (sweat shops) for young people, that profit from regularly violating workers' rights. On November 22 of last year, 18 ATENTO members - including Board members - were fired without cause. They are in the midst of legal processes to win back their jobs as they continue to organize more workers into the union.