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Central America First-Hand: Struggle and Hope

A Report on LPF's 1998 Study Trip

by Alan Forsberg

From the moment of our arrival I knew El Salvador was going to be different. The customs agent at the airport seemed surprised that we planned to stay in the country and had to look for tourist visas.

The ubiquitous razor wire and heavily armed guards in the city and denuded landscape in the countryside were daily reminders of El Salvador's situation. Of all Latin American nations, tiny El Salvador is the most densely populated, has the highest murder rate, and is second only to Haiti in deforestation. Over a decade of civil war has left the society torn, even after six years of 'peace.'

In contrast to these stark realities were our visits to organizations, churches, and individuals who are working hard to make El Salvador a more peaceful place. Our orientation began with a nonviolence exercise in which trip co-leader Glen Gersmehl challenged us to analyze our percep-tions and responses to violence.

Next, a socio-economic tour of the capital, San Salvador helped sensitize us to the enormous gap between the rich and poor, as well as the close connections to the North (e.g., one in five Salvadorans lives in the U.S.).

We then traveled to the rural community of Nueva Esperanza (New Hope) to hear the stories of former war-refugees. Soledad Guardado recalled the horror of the El Mozote massacre that forced her and other survivors to flee to the capital.

She and more than 300 others spent several years under house arrest in the dark, dank basement of the San Roque church. Despite the difficult situation and unspeakably squalid conditions, it was here that their community was born. They were all in it together.

Soledad and many others made their way to a refugee camp in revolutionary Nicaragua where they learned to read, write, and function as a community. Since their return to El Salvador, their common experience and bonds of community are strong.

As a cooperative, Nueva Esperanza has achieved amazing things. By pooling their resources and working together they have built homes, schools, a pastoral center, a medical clinic, a library, and water system.

While the presence of ex-combat-ants from both sides of the civil war is a potential source of conflict, Soledad said the cooperative's greatest threat is an individualist competitive mentality. In the struggle to hold onto their land, they face government regulations that actively discourage communal land ownership. Credit is available to large agro-export concerns while the peasant can feel forced to sell at the first crisis.

The assassinations of Archbishop Romero and the Jesuit priests were powerful historical facts to me before this trip, but the experience of visiting the sites of these atrocities was over-whelming. The photographs of the carnage and the victims' blood-stained clothes on display impressed upon me the great sacrifices made here in the struggle for justice and peace.

Political assassination has given way to the violence of poverty, street crime and domestic abuse. Approaches to nonviolence must also be multi-faceted.

We were fortunate to meet with peacemakers working for a Lutheran human rights agency, the Salvadoran Lutheran Church, Dignas: Women for Dignity and Life, the Share Founda-tion, and a rural radio station.

Together they address the problems in Salvadoran society from global and national levels down to the dynamics of relationships and households. They shed light on the links between World Bank policies and local working condi-tions, between U.S. consumer habits and the Salvadoran environment.

Our visit to the U.S. embassy seemed to be mostly a lesson in the management of public relations. Working in one of the largest and most fortified embassies in the world, the staff assured us they were doing all they could to help the Salvadorans 'get their act together,' but they didn't feel safe outside their walled compound.

Nicaragua's capital, Managua, could not be more different from crowded and congested San Salvador. Destroyed in a 1972 earth-quake Managua's center is still largely empty while the outskirts sprawl for miles. Perhaps my greatest shock came from visiting a supermarket I had been to during my last visit in 1989. Then, it was dark and empty except for bottles of Cuban rum and cans of Bulgarian cherries. Now it is better stocked than many U.S. stores.

Managua's first McDonald's is nearing completion, and several new shopping centers are under construc-tion. Yet despite such 'progress,' most Nicaraguans are much worse off now than during the war (the same story we heard in El Salvador).

An informative history and update by Center for Global Ed staffer Mark Lester showed how low wages and high unemployment place Nicaragua among the poorest in the hemisphere.

Talks with college students suggested that, as in the U.S., money-making careers are the focus. Programs in ecology and agriculture are cut while business and law classes are full. The revolutionary ideals of universal education, health care, and a common purpose seemed a cynical memory.

As in El Salvador, we met people working for peace and justice in a variety of ways. Visits to Oxfam International and the UNAG peasant cooperative in Masaya provided insights into rural development. Government policies and the lack of credit are having the same effect as in El Salvador: the consolidation of farmland by big landholders.

This is complicated by the government's attempt to return peasant-owned land expropriated under the Sandinistas. UNAG's farm was once owned by the family of the current vice-president. The cooperative is conducting impressive experiments in organic sustainable agriculture that hold great promise for other small and medium farmers in the country.

Meetings with Pastor Victoria Cortez, Sunday worship, and a Lutheran church fair in Cedro Galan gave us a chance to interact with other Lutherans from all walks of life.

Our meetings in Managua with the staff of Cantera, a thriving community organization, Jose Palacios and Mariana Rodruiguez in the Memorial Sandino neighborhood, and Melody Ross from Puntos de Encuentro were incredibly inspiring. These peace-makers all emphasized not only the enormous amount of work to be done despite the meager resources but also how much difference one individual can make in a country like Nicaragua.

Thanks to very professional work of LPF's Glen Gersmehl, and the staff of Augsburg's Center for Global Education --- Kimberly Wick, Cesar Acevedo, Vicky Furio, Kathy McBride, and Mark Lester --- the lessons learned in Central America will have a lasting impact on the eleven of us who went.

Alan Forsberg teaches geography at Bay Area Colleges, specializing in environmental and development issues. He serves on Lutheran Peace Fellowship's national board as treasurer.