David Rodriguez was a priest who, in the early 1980s, took up arms and led guerrilla fighters during the civil war between the FMLN and the US-backed military dictatorship. Today, he is a member of parliament.
The FMLN-backed presidential candidate, Mauricio Funes, won the March election, giving El Salvador its first democratically elected left-wing government. Funes took office in June.
Before the interview, my mind kept going back to what is to me a mind-blowing thought: El Salvador is half the size of Tasmania, has about 12 times as many people (about 6 million) and endured civil war for 12 years from around the time I was born. The conflict was ended by peace agreements signed in 1992.
El Salvador is a small Central American country nestled between Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. It is the most densely populated of all Latin American countries. It is not as blessed with natural resources as some other countries in the region are. Rodriguez is in Australia to try to get some support from government, groups and individuals to help improve his impoverished country.
Australia is important to El Salvador not least because there are many thousands of Salvadorians living here, many having fled the dictatorship and war.
I began by asking how such an interesting past helps Rodriguez shape the future through his role in government. He received a highly conservative education in Madrid for a life in the church, which shaped his early perceptions of the world.
In 1969, he was sent to some of the poorest areas of El Salvador to spread the doctrine of the Catholic Church. It was this experience that created “an internal crisis” and began to dissolve some of his conservative ideas.
Seeing first-hand how the poor were exploited and forced to live had a profound effect on Rodriguez. His life has revolved around the defence and support of los pobres (the poor) ever since.
Rodriguez believes the FMLN, which was launched as a united organisation of a number of leftist groups to challenge the dictatorship in 1980, can trace its origins as far back as the struggle of the indigenous peoples against the Spanish colonialists, beginning with the “discovery” of the Americas by Columbus in 1492.
Initially, he explained, the indigenous peoples thought of the conquistadors as Gods, but then some began to think, “the Gods don’t steal, the God’s don’t violate, the God’s don’t kill”. The conquistadores did, however.
Rebellion began, and this struggle for basic rights and independence continued —ultimately giving birth to the FMLN.
The colonial exploitation of the country’s resources, such as gold and the land itself, gave rise to a major rebellion in the 1930s led by Farabundo Marti. Though ultimately unsuccessful, he continues to inspire Salvadorians, hence the name of the FMLN. The
FMLN was formed from “struggle, blood, hope”, and an understanding of El Salvador’s real history, Rodriguez said.
When asked what problems the five-month old Funes government has inherited, Rodriguez said that El Salvador has never had a government of the people. Governance has been defined by lies, of governments “saying one thing and doing the opposite”.
The new government has inherited a country “almost destroyed and without resources”.
When the previous right-wing Arena government realised it was losing control, it spent the entire budget, meaning that the first six months of FMLN government is without funds.
Rodriguez is acutely aware of the complex problems facing his country. Unlike many politicians, he does not lead a life sheltered from everyday people and issues.
In addition to poverty, he sees migration as a major issue. Three million Salvadorians live outside the country, many having left due to lack of opportunity in the country or as refugees from the civil war. The current problem of gangs, organised crime and murder is related to this migration.
Many young men end up in the United States where there often isn’t the opportunity for “Latinos” they had expected. They then end up involved in gangs and criminal activity and inevitably subject to a law established by the former Bush administration that sends immigrants found guilty of criminal offences back home.
El Salvador then receives back US-trained gang members.
One of the first actions of the new government has been to identify the 32 poorest municipalities for special attention. For the first time ever, Salvadorians will receive an old age pension and strategies are being adopted to provide more opportunities for young men to provide an alternative to gang-life.
The Funes government has also replaced the country’s top police officials in an effort to curb corruption.
Members of the previous government had business interests in private security and in the supplying of prisons with food and other services. This actually created an incentive for a decrease in the public police force and an increase in criminal activity: the more criminal activity and the greater number of prison inmates, the greater the profit.
The government is aiming for a free public health service, which will require major fiscal reform. For a long time, Rodriguez said, “it has only been the poor who have paid tax in El Salvador”.
The military coup next door in Honduras is of great concern to Rodriguez, as well as many in the region. There has been a stand-off for several months with ousted President Manuel Zelaya staying in the Brazilian Embassy surrounded by the military.
Rodriguez sees the borders as arbitrary and believes that Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica and Nicaragua are one people.
It is believed by many that the coup is an experiment by the US to reverse the advances made by Latin America against US domination in recent years. This view sees Colombia as a base for the US to control South America.
The US is currently building seven new military bases there.
The aim is for Honduras to be used in the same way to control Central America.
I explained to Rodriguez that the left is no longer prominent in Australian politics and that our two major parties are both right of centre. Perhaps our left has become out-of-touch with ordinary people.
His advice to the Australian left is to “live and work with the people and to have confidence in them”.
James Dryburgh is editor-at-large of Tasmaniantimes.com