Op-ed: Jessica Berns is a Consultant for Non-Governmental Organizations, University-based programs, and philanthropists. Stacey L. Connaughton is an Associate Professor in the Brian Lamb School of Communication at Purdue University, USA. She is the Director of the Purdue Peace Project.
Some months ago, we read a blog analyzing U.S. and Mexican policy towards refugees from the Northern Triangle countries of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras). The blog concludes: “As inequality and poverty continue to devastate communities, war continues to escalate, and climate change threatens to displace millions, the number of people forced to leave their countries will not subside.” And this is where we pick up, with a focus on El Salvador.
People do not leave home, on a perilous and costly journey, facing an uncertain, challenging future unless there is no alternative. They do not send their children to travel from El Salvador to the United States unaccompanied, unless they are desperate. Why are people fleeing at increasing numbers? Why are 40% of all Central American immigrants in the U.S. from El Salvador, a small country with a population larger than Los Angeles but less than New York City’s 5 boroughs? Its infamy as the world's most violent country, its capital, San Salvador, the world's most murderous city, and the lack of economic opportunity are all factors.
When we travel to El Salvador, as we have done multiple times a year for the last three years, we remark on the ease of our travel. A short, three-hour flight from Atlanta, our transit point, and we arrive in San Salvador. Despite the geographic proximity, the fact that many Salvadorans make their way to the U.S., and U.S. involvement in the country’s dirty civil war of the 1980s, most people in the U.S. know very little about El Salvador.
There are established historical, cultural, and political links and a regular flow of people and money between the two countries. So why isn’t there more interest in the root causes of migration to the U.S.? And is the situation all bleak, as the numbers would seem to indicate? The short answer is that yes, things are very bad. Violence abounds. The country continues to lack a fully accountable or transparent system of governance. Political polarization means it’s hard to get anything done. The marginalization between the elite and the rest of the country, and a lack of inclusive policies, remains. Unemployment is high.
However, based on our familiarity with the country through the Purdue Peace Project, there are a number of examples of citizen engagement that inspire and provide hope. We observe courage, dedication, and resilience. Amongst those we interact with we witness a desire to make the country safer and more inclusive. We observe a commitment to resist gang violence, engage with young people, and seek dialogue across difference. Here are two examples of on the ground efforts across El Salvador, carried out at great personal risk to those involved. These kinds of actions have a role to play in stemming the displacement cited above.
In the remote area of Cabañas, two hours from the capitol, we met a man in his 50s. Originally from this rural community, the man had attended university in San Salvador where he then built an engineering career. He recently returned to Cabañas and bought land with the desire to create economic opportunities for the youth there, beyond migrating to the U.S. or joining gangs (two of the most popular options). He recruited a group of young people to join him in fish farming, cultivating tilapia and shrimp that they hope can one day get to markets, beyond those in their local community. This man made one of the most moving statements we have heard over the course of two decades of peace, governance and social inclusion work: “The world is rescueable.” (“El mundo es rescatable”)
Nearby, in San Isidro, the Comisión Interinstitucional (Inter-Institutional Commission) was created by local citizens to address environmental degradation and water scarcity that has led to violence and deep tensions in the community. Remarkable for its inclusive and participatory nature, the Comisión is comprised of individuals from different political parties, members of the private sector, and grassroots activists. To date, the Comisión has broadened its membership by including representatives of the national government, led a national-tree planting day, and created new opportunities for peaceful, constructive dialogue. When we asked one of the conveners of the Comisión what motivates him, he replied: “If the rivers die, the communities die.”
For El Salvador to become a more peaceful, stable place where its citizens feel included in political processes, much needs to change. U.S. governmental policy, humanitarian efforts, international NGO efforts, and Salvadoran governmental policy all have roles to play. But we believe that interest in, and support for, national and local citizen efforts can positively impact the future and help Salvadorans transform their country.