El Salvador 2009

21/03/09

Hot day in San Salvador today. A quiet morning to rest from all the travelling and catch up on the diary, etc.

To the local Artisan Market in the afternoon to pick up some beautiful things to take home to loved ones.

Farewell dinner tonight with Ebispo Martin, Primate of Central America and Bishop of El Salvador.

A la mañana we travel home.

19/03/09

Yesterday we travelled to the west end of the country near the Guatemalan border to visit a community called El Maizal. About 200 people live here in homes built by the Episcopal Relief & Development Fund. They have about 60 acres of land which incorporates a planned forest of Teca trees which is a indigenous tree that grows 10 metres tall and is very straight and hard wood so it is popular for furniture construction. They also have an excellent orchard of trees that produce mangos, avocados, cashews, the manzana rosa (a kind of apple like fruit) and several others. Of course they grow corn hence the name El Maizal. They have a full time agriculturalist who lives there who has made a significant difference to the farming potential of the community in just two years. For example, all of the residents now have small personal gardens outside their homes to grow vegetables. Of course they are growing much larger crops in the farming area itself, some of which they sell in the local area to raise funds.

There is also a school which is only for early elementary at the moment but they have some room to expand. To be accredited they need some paint to finish the construction. The young man who is the teacher seemed very accomplished and commited to the community.

They are working with a sociologist from San Salvador on a whole range of subjects to strengthen the community and build new skills. For example, they are teaching the women craft skills of cloth painting in the hopes of reaching a level of sophistication that will allow them to sell these products locally. At some point they hope to open a store near the highway to sell these things and food products. With the Teca tree, they may be able add furniture at some point.

If you are planning to visit El Salvador, which I encourage, then you can visit because they have a guest house. It is quite near the Pacific Ocean.

A very encouraging visit to see a people who are full of hope and working hard to improve their circumstances.

We managed some time at La Playa after a lunch. Here the Pacific is muy tranquille so the body surfing waves were modest. Beautiful warm water though.

Home to San Salvador and Pizza Hut for dinner.

3/19/09

Another early start, away by 0715 to the north of the country of El Salvador. Sensuntepeque is a beautiful town with a wonderful parque (park) with gazebo in the centre of town. There we found Brenda, an Arizonian that has been here since 1989 working with the people. She is particularly involved with CoCoSi, a well established group that does community work in various areas but today was a HIV-AIDS promotion. People were invited to have blood testing and get the results from their mobile laboratory the same day; pick up information about HIV-AIDS and receive free preventative condoms. There was a large turn out who were also entertained by the drum group playing instruments painted with ancient Mayan symbols. The program iks supported by local doctors but gets no government support. CoCoSi is supported by PWRDF.

We met two local Salvadoreans who are working with CoCoSi. Mari is a coordinator in the program and Jesus (pronounced Hey Zeus!) is a facilitator. If these are examples of the future of El Salvador, then it is indeed bright. They were our guides for the rest of the day.

We then dived into one of the most interesting central town markets we have seen on this trip. Wonderful leather goods, foods, and all manner of clothing including shoes which Diane needed as her sandels had failed her. I bought a beautiful leather sheath, complete with machete, for $13 that will help repel boarders on Lodestar!

Then we were off to the town of Victoria, actually to Radio Victoria, a community radio centre where CoCoSi has a program on Saturdays. This is community radio at its best and they literally have the great set up (being an old radio guy I could appreciate it). They were recently funded to build a building and equip it. They have listeners all over the area and in Honduras. As with Tuesday, this northern border looks across into Honduras and many cross it regularly. It is one of the reasons the CoCoSi HIV-AIDS project is active here. Honduras has a higher rate of the disease and Brenda and her team are trying to limit the effects of the visitors.

We spent a lot of time in Santa Marta looking at several important facilities. This is a community that was depopulated during the war and today has 5,000 inhabitants. Much to their credit and enterprise, they have a modern medical clinic, a church, a school with more than 200 students who can complete grade 12, two computer labs and a biology lab. All the facilities at the school were paid for by external funding, not the local government. There is also an internet cafe which is self supporting and a panneria – a bakery which I can report produces very delightful items! Our two guides, Mari and Jesus left us here as Santa Marta is their home. But not before they had made fast friends with Ann and Cameron.

Artse at the wheel, we bumped and lerched over tough roads until we got back to Victoria where the pavement starts again. From there it is about 90 minutes to the pool at the Hotel Alamada in San Salvador. All along this road there are prime examples of the “Paint and Politics” approach to elections here. This photo shows one of the more blatant examples where an entire public structure is painted in the right-wing ARENA colours. Even the railings along side the roads were painted in alternating red, white and blue. This area is one that had a majority of ARENA votes in the election last Sunday of the new FMLN president Maricio Funes. Dinner is done and we turning in early tonight as we have another long day tomorrow heading out toward the border with Guatemala to look at a village built largely with Anglican support.

Blessings to all the readers.

16/03/09

It has been an emotional two days. Yesterday we piled in the Diocesan van and Artse drove us all the way to the Departamente de Morazan where we visited the Museo de Revolucion in Pequin. This is the area in the north east where the FMLN stronghold was located and from where they advanced their attacks on the government during the civil war in the 1980s. There is a museum there with an excellent presentation of the causes of the war and the way in which it was carried out. Quite near the museum which is housed in original buildings used by the guierra there are bomb craters. They have many examples of the types of weapons used and the guide who lived through that time spoke with a real moral authority in telling the history. They also have the two cars which the Mexican government gave to the FMLN to carry the team that went to the peace negotiations that successfully ended the conflict in 1991.

Then we hiked up the hill and at nearly 1300 metres, had splendid views of the entire area, including looking across into Honduras. This hill was to be the final defence should that have been necessary so it is complete with trenches and signs of gun positions. Today it is topped by a cell phone tower, complete with a shotgun equipped guard who lives on site. Speaking of shotguns, they are everywhere. Imagine going to your local drug store, car dealer, parking lot or electronics store and saying Buenes Tardes to the door guard!

After making our way back to the car we trundled off to El Mazote, which took a bit of finding, to see the site of the western hemisphere’s worst massacre. The government commander Santa Rosa was at least a sociopath and he directed the deaths of more than 1100 people. The details are quite shocking and I’ll spare you them at this late hour. They have built a memorial to all those who lost their lives (all but one of the entire population) and to the nearly 200 who were children.

After a brief stop to visit a river area where a major battle occurred, we aimed for San Miguel and our hotel. We arrived late (8:00 p.m.) and then went for dinner. My first time to try Ceviche, really pickled fish, and very tasty.

San Miguel lived up to its reputation at the hottest place in the country today (37c) but we were too busy enjoying the parade right out side our hotel at 9:00 a.m. Local school children with brass instruments and much marching were celebrating a patron saint with a parade today.

Then off to Penal San Miguel – the local prison which currently has more than 800 men and women as inmates. The warden, Lorenzo, took advantage of our visit to invite the media and two television stations and one newspaper showed up to cover the event. We had a complete tour of the facility and met many of the instruments including many of the members of the 14 futbol equipos (soccer teams) who struck up a lively conversation with Ed. One of them agreed with my comment that his jersey showing a Chelsea crest was a sign of choosing a good team! This place is, according to Kevin and Diane, much improved over their 2004 visit. Today nearly everyone is engaged in some form of work producing products like hammocks, beds, chairs, clothing and toys. The products are sold in the prison shop and elsewhere and the prisoners get the proceeds. Some even support families this way. Their co-op bakery produces a great pastry! 65 people, including our group, participated in a Holy Eucharist led by Padre Kevin en espanol.

We said our goodbyes and headed for the delta area around the Rio Lempa. Here we visited three communities where the Anglican presence is important. Basic things like water, electricity, medical care, etc. are all needed here and each place is a little different. All this is over laid by the complexities of the culture, especially since many of the people are those who were displaced from Morazan during the civil war. Our guide, Noah, (at right) a young american man who is effectively helping in this area, made the point that when we offer help it must be based in relationship so that we know what the needs are and more importantly, what will be acceptable. The old form of mission doesn’t work here. Cameron managed to spend some quality time with one of the local ninos – a young boy that walked along with us as we visited one of Noah’s projects. We saidprayers in the church at Bajo Lempo. This sanctuary is made of mango wood posts, bamboo and coconut fronds.

Then it was 120 kms back to San Salvador where I am writing this blog. In the morning we are off again on a day trip to the north to visit Cocosi – a project supported by PWRDF which is trying to introduce AID-HIV education among young people in this country. It is tough since it is a very macho, patriarchal society. Muy a la manana (more tomorrow).

2009-03-06

The title is what an old woman came up to us and said while we were working as election observers on Sunday in the presidential election in El Salvador. It translates as “With you, we will win”. 2,800 international observers plus another 2,200 national observers are, in the eyes of the people who wanted change in the form of FMLN, a real factor in the running of what was in my view a very good process. They may be right as we were shouted at today by a man going by in a car, and told to go home and kiss his …. . Clearly there are some people unhappy at the results.

The party of the left, led by Mauricio Fuenes has never won the presidency since the peace of 1991. Today people here are saying a new era begins for El Salvador. Fuenes got about 51% of the vote, Roberto Avila of the ARENA party 48%. Only about 330,000 votes separated them. Their victory and conceding speeches last night were very conciliatory and emphasized the need to respect the constitution and the peace agreement. Many have taken a big sigh of relief at that because the rumor mill was predicting a lot of trouble if it was too close. Today, Monday, has been very peaceful with people going to work and no reports of trouble of any size.

There were some incidents with voting that we reported but all of them ended peacefully if not as people hoped they would. Most of the troubles arise from the DUI – the identity card that all Salvadoreans must present to vote. Photography is often poor and of course people change, grow beards, get bald, etc. This leads to some pretty heated discussions at the voting table.

Now voting is not like anything you will experience in Canada. Imagine that we all went to the PNE to vote rather than having polling stations in our neighbourhood. There are some of those but we had all the A, B, and Cs of the city of San Salvador at the Farie Internacional where there were 150 tables. Add to this a frenzy of FMLN and ARENA supporters and Vigilantes (scrutineers) who are all dressed in their colours inside the polling station. FMLN is Red and White, ARENA is Red, White and Blue. It makes for a very high intensity event. One of the ways the authorities have tempered the potential for violence is to ban alcohol sales for three days, before, during and after the election. No cab for me until tomorrow.

We learned today at the Equipo Maiz, an educational and change organization here, that there have been four periods in Salvadorean people. The Maiz or pre Spanish, the Indigo or Spanish period, the Coffee period of more recent times, all of which were agricultural. The fourth is the Machista, or industrial period. What all of these have in common is the repression of the people who now have a base salary of $180 US per month. Many think that with the election of Mauricio Fuenes that the fifth period, Red, is about to take hold at last.

Today we held our own Eucharist in my room and then walked up to the Diocesan Office here in El Salvador. There we learned about the work of the doctor and health workers who run clinics throughout the country to help the poor. We’ll see two of these on our travels this week.

Tomorrow we are off to El Mazote and to San Miguel for an overnight. In El Mazote we will visit the site of one of the most horrific massacres of the civil war where 1,000 women, children and men were killed. In San Miguel we will visit the prison on Wednesday and participate in the Holy Eucharist with the prisoners.

No time to upload photos at this stage as we are off to Don Pedro’s for dinner in a few minutes.

We are all well and looking forward to being out of the city for two days.

2009-03-13

Well, it is almost Buenes Noches as it is 6:38 p.m. Just dark here as the busses continue to return people to their homes, hundreds of busses.

Today we spent the day at the Baptist Peace Centre getting trained for our work as election observers on Sunday. Many subtle differences between what Canadians expect at the polls and what happens here. Returning officers are from the two main parties, ARENA and FMLN and then there are more scrutineers. Polls open at 7:00 a.m. and close at 5:00 p.m. unless there are troubles, which is one of the things we’re on the look out for. After training we all went to the Radison Hotel to get our formal credentials and identification. Tomorrow we get caps, vests and other stuff to help identify us during the actual day of voting.
The photo above shows Cameron, Kevin and Ann paying attention to the training session today.

Everywhere here there are images to engage the population in voting. Red, White, Blue is the colour of ARENA as the telephone poles in the picture here show. Thousands, probably tens of thousands of polls painted. FMLN is focuses on Red as a colour. Flags on cars, huge billboards, hand bills on street corners…there is a real effort to enage the voter here. There are signs of difficulty too as one hears stories of small confrontations between various supporters. Today for example, actual campaigning is illegal one week before the election so another group that isn’t a political part was having a rally in one of San Salvador’s largest traffic circles. We waited about 15 minutes to get through.
This is a very beautiful country and filled with beautiful people too. Most are very poor and social services are hard to come by. I’ll be writing more about this later. We see many beautiful flowers and trees as you can see here.
Tomorrow we are going to the tomb of Oscar Romero, and potentially una playa – the beach!
Hasta luego.
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