Wednesday, October 04, 2006

El Salvador Update

El Salvador Update
3rd of October, 2006


San Salvador—Last week in Carasque, Chalatenango, a truckload of soldiers arrived without noticed, and before consulting with local authorities climbed the hill behind the village. When members of the community board of Carasque realized what was going on, they fired up the PA system to call the community together. Given that the inhabitants of this region were persecuted for twelve years during the Salvadoran Civil War by the same army, the presence of soldiers is seen as a threat by many. The community decided to follow the soldiers up the hill, and confront them to find out what they were doing, and if they had permission from the property owners to be on the land. Open being questioned, the soldiers allegedly replied claiming they were surveying the land for environmental damage, deforestation, and erosion. However, community leaders maintain that the soldiers were accompanied by foreigners linked to the mining companies operating in the region; an ominous sign for the population of North-eastern Chalatenango which has overwhelmingly voiced its opposition to mining.

Since the July 5th shootings in the National University in San Salvador, military presence in the organized communities of the Association for the Development of El Salvador—CRIPDES has increased, under an array of different justifications. Military presence has been most pronounced in the departments of Chalatenango and San Vicente. Riding the wave of reactions around the country to the rising violence and especially the shootings at the National University, this month the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly passed an anti-terrorism law, pushed by the Administration of President Tony Saca and his right wing ARENA party.

Debate last month over the law unleashed a fierce barrage of name calling in the Legislative Assembly, calling back the ghosts of the Civil War. While not entirely unusual, the extremes of the debate illustrate the polarized democratic spaces within the country, and the fear-mongering tactics of the Saca Administration. Case in point was the discourse by Walter Guzmán of the right wing ARENA during Assembly discussion of the anti-terrorism bill. He accused the left wing parties and social organizations opposed to the Government of being terrorists, presumably for questioning the law. Guzman’s outburst is alarming, given that some of the principle concerns about the law have to do with its lack of a definition of what is considered terrorism, and consequently, who may be defined as terrorists. Thus, the definition is left up to the Executive Branch (controlled by the same ARENA part, which after the July 5th shootings blamed its principle political opposition the FMLN for being linked to the attacks). ARENA had insisted that the law was not designed to criminalize social protest nor achieve political designs, rather to guarantee public security, yet Guzman’s comments contradict that stance.

The Salvadoran anti-terrorism law defines terrorist organizations as “those groupings…that try to use violent or inhuman methods with the expressed goal of causing terror, insecurity, or alarm.” This definition is vague at best, leaving much up to the interpreter. Likewise, under the anti-terrorism bill, the occupation of public or private buildings, areas of public use, or cities which in any way affects the normal activities, and is done “partially or totally with the use of arms, explosives, or similar articles” is considered an act of terrorism. The Salvadoran social movement and FMLN have questioned who will interpret these definitions of terrorism and what is considered a weapon, and if this clause is not an attempt by the Salvadoran Right to retract the Constitutional right to assembly and protest. Finally, the antiterrorism law also authorizes the Salvadoran Armed Forces and Police to intercept at their discretion any sort of transportation they suspect might be connected to terrorism. Essentially, Army or Police checkpoints now have the authority to do as they will, and then say they suspected terrorism.

The retraction of basic rights, the use of fear tactics and threats on the floor of the Salvadoran Legislative Assembly are not so different than the debate last week on the floor of the USA Senate over the new detainee bill. The Boston Globe on Friday quoted Senator Christopher S. Bond, a Missouri Republican, of claiming that Democrats, in questioning the new detainee antiterrorism bill, ``encourage the enemy," and ``demoralize our troops."

``They're not unpatriotic; they just don't understand the terrorist enemies we face," Bond said. Mr. Bond might just be right, because with new sweeping powers granted by the so called Antiterrorism bill, his Republican colleagues of the Bush Administration, much like the Saca Administration, are in large part authorized to define who the terrorists and enemy combatants are. Now nobody but the President can be sure who will be labelled a terrorist, or what might constitute terrorism. However, legislators from both parties rushed to sign the detainee bill last week.
In our fear of terror, we fear the enemy could be anyone, and that is how it may well be defined, since the recent legislation doesn’t. Franklin D. Roosevelt, in his first inaugural address in 1932 uttered that now famous lines “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” He made this remark in the midst of the Great Depression, calling for optimism and strength in hard times. What can be said of our fear of terror, of terrorism?

In a fitting ending to the story in Carasque, the inhabitants of the community told the soldiers they didn’t want them coming to the area, and did not disperse until the soldiers had trucked out of town. They have since proceeded to raise the alarm in the entire province, so other communities are ready should the soldiers or miners arrive. What might have been a retreat into fear was converted into an act of courage and popular power, a story to be told throughout the region. Despite the machine guns, uniforms and authoritarianism—in the face of fear—the community of Carasque did not stand paralyzed, rather as they have for so many years, they continued to organize for their rights. Roosevelt would say they advanced rather than retreating, for they overcame their fear—the first step in fighting terror.

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