2014 Stanford Delegation

2014 Stanford Delegation
Stanford Delegation in the UCA Chapel

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Politics, Economics and the Mangrove Forests of the Bajo Lempa

By Ross Thornburn

During our time in Amando Lopez, we had the opportunity to gain a first-hand perspective on the lives of those living in cooperative communities in the Bajo Lempa and develop a greater understanding of issues in the region. On Wednesday, March 26th, we travelled the short distance from the homes of our host families to another cooperative community on the coast: La Tirana. Our morning began by taking a short journey in canoes through the waters of the mangrove forest. The saline waters of the mangroves allow for a particularly diverse marine ecosystem in the region, designated by UNESCO as a Biosphere reserve and RAMSAR site, a wetland of international importance. Despite these international designations, local communities are concerned that these will not provide protection from overdevelopment, but simply help market the location for tourism projects. Overdevelopment from tourism is arguably the biggest threat to the survival of this incredible ecosystem, with international investment projects that look set overwhelm large areas of the forest. Our guide from La Tirana explained his fears that the Millennium Challenge Corporation grant of $284 million would pave the way for massive scale hotels, resorts and infrastructure projects. Additionally, he explained that the Vice President Elect of the FMLN had purchased large areas of waterfront public land, prime for development along the coast. Upon hearing this, I was quite shocked at the possibility of politicians setting a policy agenda that would allow them to reap massive personal gains at the expense of natural resources and the Salvadorian people. This level of political corruption would also set a disconcerting precedent for all areas of domestic policy in the upcoming term of the FMLN party. While eco-tourism projects have the potential to help develop the nation’s economy and lift thousands out of poverty, they must be implemented in an appropriate manner that meets the demands of the Salvadorian people, as opposed to a small number of politicians.

After our short trip through the waters of the forest, we took a journey through the trees towards the beach at the edge of the forest. After some difficulty making our way through the trees, we finally reached the Pacific Ocean and the eerie sight of rows of decaying mangrove trees at the waterfront. We soon learned that tourism does not represent the only threat to the mangroves; climate change and natural disasters have also caused massive habitat destruction in recent years. In particular, hurricanes Stan and Mitch caused significant flooding in the region, destabilizing the balance of fresh and salt water in the forest and leading to the death of flora and fauna. As we made our way along the beach, I was struck by the very real threat presented to the communities of La Tirana who depend on the mangroves for their entire livelihoods, including providing their families with nutrition and shelter. It seems clear that El Salvador faces a very real trade-off in balancing the need for tourism to spur economic growth and protecting the communities that currently depend on the mangrove forests. While the Millennium Challenge Corporation will bring much needed infrastructure and development to the region, it is essential that the Salvadorian government engages with the Salvadorian people in a transparent, democratic process that takes into account all of the relevant factors in the debate. This overwhelming challenge will face these communities, the people and policymakers of El Salvador for many years to come, yet our group remains optimistic that an optimal solution that promotes economic growth and benefits the local population is possible. Reflecting on the political issues we encountered during the course of our travels, I realized that the issues facing policymakers El Salvador are similar to those facing many developing nations in attempting to develop their economy in an ethical manner, while protecting the interests of their domestic constituents.


By Ismael Menjivar

On the morning of our last day in El Salvador, we met with someone who led an informative discussion on foreign affairs in El Salvador, which, for many members, reinforced different beliefs.

What it reinforced for me was that poverty really is a structural problem. It seems like a lot of the problems that we saw in the local communities we visited were caused by a lack of representation in the decisions to sell off their lands, or start a project that impacted the communities. In some instances, members of the communities were simply manipulated, scammed into thinking they would reap the benefits of some project, but in the end they see none. The latter is an example of structural problems in education, where the system in place doesn't allow for some campesinos to acquire training in economic or legal affairs that would help them manage their assets.

There is a lack of resources in the areas we visited, and the holes in the political system in place keep the community councils from pushing policies in the interests of many marginalized members. The Salvadoran government has a political structure that has been manipulated by foreign interests for several years and we see this even today, when the country of El Salvador recognizes the winner of an election only after the approval of the US Ambassador. This structure, and perhaps the interests of a few rotten people, has failed to establish communication that keeps development in the hands of those that know what is best in certain regions.

In this imperfect system, I am reminded of the idea that drives the members of the base community in Segundo Montes, the belief in solidaridad. From the moment we arrived, we were thanked heavily for our solidarity with their efforts. They recognized the past martyrs and each present member the day we were there as being part of the solidarity. We even sang a song titled "Solidaridad". During a reflection on the biblical passage of the day, an elderly woman compared the relationship between Jesus and the Samaritan woman to the relationship the base community had with others that might not hold the same beliefs. She said that, like the Samaritan woman, many find it hard to see eye to eye with people from a different community, and, as a result, they turn away from them and create a divide between them. Her point was that such a divide should not exist between the base communities and nonmembers. She rallied for them to try to coexist with others, not in spite, but in solidarity.

As Adam Perelman mentioned below me, solidarity is "much simpler in theory than in practice", but that should not keep communities in El Salvador from seeking this solidarity and striving towards it each day. Divisions are seen all around the country. The homicides rate between the rival gangs, MS and 18th Street, are rising after a failed truce. Flags of the opposing political parties, ARENA and FMLN, can be seen everywhere, but only a small number of Salvadoran flags will wave their blue and white. Even the campo we stayed in shook a little, when youth members questioned why only ex-guerilla fighters were being interviewed for the historical memory project and we worried it might form some sort of division within the community.

In various ways, the civil war continues in El Salvador, keeping different groups from finding common ground to simultaneously further their interests. The fight for solidarity is a tough one, but we've seen successes in these local communities in rural areas. These tiny communities are doing their part to mend the relationships harmed by foul interests and I was glad to see their solidarity in the works.

On our last day together, Jose Acosta shared a story about a bird who tried putting out the flames of a forest on his own when the rest of the animals had fled. He was not successful, but had the other animals helped him, it may have been a different story. The same goes for these communities. I'm hopeful that with the solidarity of other communities, assemblies, and organizations, we will see a different story.

Monday, March 31, 2014

A Conversation with a Tour Guide

By Shawn Shizhi Wang

On Saturday afternoon, while the rest of the class was probably already in the US, I visited Maya San Andres site. The site was interesting, but the talk with my tour guide during the trip was more interesting. So I will leave the reader to Wikipedia about Maya, and detail some of my conversation with my tour guide.
My tour guide is none other than the son of the lady who owns the house we lived in. As we were in the rural area most of the time, it was great to learn about the urban perspective that he represents. As you might have guessed, he speaks English.

To give us a little sense of the economic condition in San Salvador, he is the CTO of a car chain and earns 50k a year with perks such as free car and gas. He is one of only 8 CISCO certified network engineers in El Salvador, thanks to his relatively affluent family who could pay almost $40,000 for the certification course. His family is probably considered affluent in El Salvador, but by no means does he feel that it is extraordinary. He talked about a classmate who ended up being a CEO for some multinational company in South Africa and paid the bill for everyone else to attend their class reunion.
 As to life and aspiration of future generations, this representative of the city is also very different from the rural areas. Unlike many in the rural area, he only has one daughter. His daughter goes to a French school, which cost $500 a month. He says he wants his daughter to learn good French, as all the teachers in the school are native French. His daughter is studying ballet, and wants to immigrate to France – he stayed in Miami before and thinks it is too hectic a place. 
What is more interesting is his perspective, which is very different from those in the rural area.
He speaks highly of the family of the car chain he works for. He tells me the rags-to-riches story of the founder of the car chain. The founder never went to school and was illiterate. Neither did he have money. He started by selling underwear in rural areas, and then car parts. He made some fortune during the war by repairing broken cars and then selling them. At that time, there was a ban on the importation of cars to El Salvador and thus cars were in demand. Little by little, he expanded his car business and now the car chain has branches in many other Central America countries.
When I told him our experience in Bajo Lampa, he also offered an interesting new perspective. He thinks that people in those regions are sometime too stuck in their own way of life. “My dad used to tell me that life is hard. Yes, it is hard,” he says.
It was only a few extra hours in the afternoon, but I appreciate the experience as it offers me a holistic picture of El Salvador.

Preserving Historical Memory, and the Delicacy of Community Service

by Adam Perelman

When we embarked on this trip, our primary goal was simply to learn as much as we could by talking to people in El Salvador. But we also had a secondary goal: to help Amando Lopez, a small community in the Bajo Lempa region, with an oral history project. The community leaders sought to rescue the “memoria histórica”, or historical memory, of community members, in particular with regards to the civil war and the founding of Amando Lopez in the war’s aftermath.

People in Amando Lopez expressed a number of compelling motivations for this history project. Many felt a responsibility to preserve the community’s stories for the sake of the historical record, so that future generations might learn from the struggles of the past. Perhaps even more urgently, many feared that the community’s youth were losing touch with their history and were at risk of leaving the community. They hoped that an oral history project might remind youth of the immense struggle that their elders participated in so that they might have the land they now call home. As many people reiterated, their land was bought at the price of the blood of those who died fighting in the civil war. The oral history project, many hoped, would remind the youth of all that was sacrificed to make Amando Lopez a reality, and therefore encourage a deeper connection with the community.

Our project seemed straightforward enough: the community board provided us with a list of 38 names of people to interview, we set up a schedule of interview slots, and we brought down our camera equipment, ready to go. We were meeting a need expressed directly by the community. What could possibly stand in our way?

Planning the historical memory project with Amando Lopez

As it turned out, quite a few things could and would. When we got to Amando Lopez, and started thinking through the logistics of the project in earnest together with the community board, we encountered a number of unresolved questions and concerns.

Two logistical questions immediately arose. First, should the interviews be individual, or collective? Would it be better to interview community members in groups, so that they might support each other, or individually, so that they might be able to tell their story more fully? Second, what final product would be best for the community? A book? A website? A digital archive? And who would take responsibility for producing and editing that final product?

Apart from these logistical concerns, several more serious unintended consequences became apparent. First, what would the emotional impact on interviewees be, given that the personal histories they were preparing to relate often involved significant personal tragedy? We had no resources prepared for emotional support. Second, how could we decide who to interview and who not to interview? As we began with a couple of interviews, resentment soon arose as many people not on our list argued that their stories were valuable and worth recording. This question of whose story to record threatened to divide the community rather than to strengthen it. Finally, since one of the main purposes of the project was to build a stronger relationship between local youth and their community, how could we encourage their participation in the process rather than conducting all the interviews ourselves, as outsiders?

As we grappled with these questions, we soon abandoned our naive initial plan. We ended up conducting 4 interviews--a far cry from our original goal of 38--and left with the project still evolving, but with much deeper community ownership of the process and with a better understanding of its potential ramifications. Voices on the Border, the NGO we traveled with, will continue working with Amando Lopez to shape and implement the project in a way that supports interviewees and strengthens the community.

The experience reminded me of Ivan Illich declaration in his famous 1968 address, “To Hell with Good Intentions”: “I do have deep faith in the enormous good will of the U.S. volunteer. However, his good faith can usually be explained only by an abysmal lack of intuitive delicacy.” As Illich pointed out, when it comes to international service, there can be an immense difference between intention and impact.

We entered Amando Lopez with the best intentions. As we soon learned, however, service and solidarity are much simpler in theory than in practice. In reality, effective community work requires patience, a deep knowledge of local dynamics, and a willingness to let go of grand plans and adapt on the fly.

The experience left me with a much richer understanding of community work. It also left me with a major question: our project was relatively simple, involving only a small community and designed to meet a need they had explicitly expressed. Yet even this seemingly straightforward project soon proved to have major unintended consequences. How, then, can much more large-scale development initiatives, like those of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, be designed and implemented so that they truly support local people rather than disempower them? That’s a question many of us will keep exploring.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

“Violent Society”?

By Mariam Amini

On March 22, 2014, the students of the class Liberation Theology: El Salvador were given a first glance at San Salvador. We started the day with breakfast at our Hotel Torogoz followed by a very interesting conversation with Jose Acosta, the field director for the NGO, Voices on the Border. The conversation was around El Salvador’s current political and economic situation. It was an introduction to what we would see in Amando Lopez. When asked about the security of El Salvador and the growth of gangs, Jose said “this is a violent society.” It was a very direct opinion. Calling an entire society violent puzzled me. As the day followed, I saw everything but a present violent society.  However, the history of a violent society was still remembered.

After lunch at the local cafeteria, we went to the Museum of Word and Image. The museum has a large collection of historical photographs. We were told by our guide that the museum currently has six exhibitions that are traveling across the nation. Smiling the guide said “the museum goes to the people.” Half of the museum was dedicated to the civil war and personal pictures of Archbishop Romero. His pictures were donated to the museums when it opened in 1999. The images were colorful and almost jumped out at you. They were of Archbishop Romero’s travels to Europe and places in El Salvador.

The exhibition on the civil war had a very detailed outline of the twelve years of war with pictures of important figures. The images gave a historical reference to what we did the rest of the day.
Next, we went to the procession commemorating the assassination of Archbishop Romero and marched with the crowd to the national cathedral. It was interesting to see the youth so involved in the march. They were doing the wave, starting chants and playing street theater to show how Romero was murdered. We followed five cars that were broadcasting what was happening on the radio. At each stop they linked a story from the Bible to present day problems like crime, poverty and unemployment. By the time it was night, we reached the cathedral where a stage was set up for an outdoor mass.

The memory of Archbishop Romero is very well preserved in El Salvador. Children know him and can recognize him in the many pictures that adorn walls, schools, murals, and posters. He is glorified as the saver of the pueblo. Salvadorians seem to have a personal connection with him to continue to remember him on a national scale. His assassination was an act of violence that is constantly remembered but what have the people learned from it? Like Jose said to us this morning, do people believe El Salvador is a violent society? Does this horrible history continue to justify what people accept as violence today? We spent three days living with members of the community of Amando Lopez in the Bajo Lempa region. I am curious to ask people in the community more about Archbishop Romero.

The Culmination of a Trip and the Commencement of Its Effects

By Mackenzie Yaryura

Our last day in El Salvador started with a delicious traditional breakfast and a feeling of excited anticipation for our first meeting, an informal conversation with an economic advisor from the United States Embassy. The question and answer session lasted for about an hour and a half, and it served as a launching point for intense reflection and discussion for the rest of the day.  Listening to an American working in El Salvador comment on his beliefs for how to effectively intervene, advise, or aid the country made me personally question my own values and goals. As someone interested in pursuing a Foreign Service career, how do I visualize the execution of the phrase “promoting the interests of the United States”? The members of our group interpreted this question and the meeting differently, spurring on interesting conversations as we drove to La Universidad de Central America (UCA) in order to view the site of the murders of six Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter in November 1989. 
 Upon arriving at la UCA, a professor of theology walked us through an exhibition displaying artifacts of the Jesuit priests that were brutally murdered by the Atlacatl Battalion, a group infamous for the Massacre at El Mozote, trained by American Green Berets. Among those murdered were Segundo Montes, Octavio Ortiz, and Amando Lopez, the namesake of three towns that we had visited previously. We were then taken to the chapel, where the artwork was incredibly powerful.  As we learned about the images, the themes of liberation theology were reinforced and the sheer brutality of what had occurred was strongly remembered. 

Next to the final resting place of the Jesuits, laid a plaque that read in translation:
“What does it mean today to be Jesuit? To promise yourself under the banner of the cross in the crucial struggle of our time: the fights for faith and the fight for justice that requires the same faith… We will not work in the promotion of justice without a price to pay…”

After a group picture in front of the beautiful alter, we walked through the physical location of the murders.  The husband of the housekeeper had planted rose bushes to represent the lives of the fallen, a beautiful way to commemorate their hard work and strength and to symbolize the growth of the values for which they gave their lives.

This experience was undernoted by the knowledge that the United States was a key sponsor in the execution of this event. Between the powerful experience at la UCA and the meeting with the Embassy Representative, thoughts about American intervention and presence were impossible to ignore.

Our entire trip had introduced me to alternate ideologies and exposed me to faults in my rationale. On one hand, only spending a week in El Salvador was not possibly enough to learn enough from multiple angles.  On the other hand, one week was plenty to realize that a uniform theory about development might not just be the best for everyone. Although we were leaving early Saturday morning and our trip was coming to an end, the conversations with and observations of different communities initiated an internal questioning of my values, goals, and methodology of obtaining and measuring success. The juxtaposition of the embassy economic advisor representing current American intervention in what he deemed to be a positive light and the blatantly obvious destruction of American intervention in the case of la UCA murders in 1989 makes me question how much our methodology has changed, if we are able to do any good in different countries, and what ethics are being compromised for certain outcomes. Although my time in El Salvador is over for now, the analysis of how this experience will affect my role in the world is just beginning. 

Friday, March 28, 2014

The Cruel Irony of El Mozote and the Millennium Challenge

By Cole Manley

            On Monday, March 24, our group went to El Mozote, a small town in Northeast El Salvador. The town is simple, with a small group of homes and a well-worn park. But for Salvadorans, El Mozote is infamous. From December 11 to 12, 1981, the Salvadoran military murdered over 1000 men, women, and children with their bayonets and guns. Over 400 children died. Pregnant women watched as their kids were killed. For eight days, the military patrolled the area, ensuring no one from the community could bury the dead.
El Mozote Memorial

            Today, the massacre is remembered, but less well known is the role the US government played in it, and how it is memorialized.

            Like the park, the memorial to the victims is plain. There is a small wall with the names of all of the dead with a smaller plaque in front. Below the plaque there are still-fresh burial mounds from victims found in 2013 and buried in a mass grave. To the left of the wall is a mural and garden commemorating the children. Above the names of the dead is a bright and colorful mural depicting several children floating up to the heavens. Below them, a garden filled with flowers celebrates their lives—however short.

            Our group listened to a tour guide at the memorial. Her narrative was particularly powerful as some of her family died in the attack. Yet 20 years later she displayed little visible emotion in recounting the horror of that day. She simply recounted what happened, how the poor were killed.

A Few of the 146 Children that were Massacred
            The United States played an important role in the deaths of these Salvadorans and in the civil war in El Salvador from 1980 to 1992, a conflict between pro-guerrilla forces and pro-government [US backed] forces which killed more than 75000. The US helped train pro-government militias and death squads at the School of the Americas (SOA), essentially a training camp for death squads located in Fort Benning, Georgia. As for El Mozote, the commanders of the soldiers, and probably their commanders, were trained by US specialists in counterinsurgency from the CIA. The history of El Salvador—and, in turn, the history of El Mozote—is thus intertwined.

            I knew some of this history before going to El Salvador and before traveling to El Mozote. But what shocked me beyond the tour guide’s story and the memorial to the children was the gift shop close by.

            At the top of the makeshift shop there was a sign which seemed out of place: “Millennium Challenge Corporation” (MCC). According to its website, the MCC is an “innovative and independent US foreign aid agency that is helping lead the fight against global poverty.” In El Salvador, the MCC gives grants based on specific protocols. Much has been written about the subject, and our class read about how the MCC is not as positive as it portrays itself. For one, the grants are part of a longer narrative of free trade agreements and neo-liberalism which the working class in El Salvador had no say in crafting. The MCC, along with NAFTA and CAFTA, is dominated by United States’ capitalist economic interests, not the real needs and demands of the people of El Salvador.

            It was with this context in mind that I was so shocked to see this sign. Our country has never issued a formal apology for its involvement in the massacre of El Mozote. Is this our way of saying sorry to El Salvador? According to a Salvadoran woman who worked in the gift shop, several American MCC workers came to El Mozote with the idea of training Salvadorans in how to make arts and crafts. They did not listen to the needs of the community. I cannot imagine what the tour guide thinks when she sees this sign, nor what the community thinks about it. But I know that there is a cruel irony at El Mozote in the shape and form of an MCC sign at a memorial for a massacre that our government helped commit.