How the Occupy Movement Came to El Salvador



At the U.S. embassy here on Thursday (Nov. 24), Ambassador Carmen Aponte held a gala Thanksgiving dinner for a select group of local and North American guests. Outside the castle-like embassy compound, there were some uninvited visitors as well.

Nearly 100 Salvadorans and U.S citizens gathered to display our solidarity with the global Occupy/Indignados movement in the first Central American OWS-inspired protest. The demonstrators included university students, environmental activists, and “gringos” (like myself) who work with human rights and community development organizations based here in the capital.

Like most Occupation crowds in the United States, this one was politically diverse.  Young members of the Communist Party waved Cuban and Venezuelan flags, while dread-locked musicians played the drums, and other participants held up homemade signs urging passing cars in one of the richest neighborhoods in El Salvador to honk for social justice.

But we were all united around a common concern, namely the impact of corporate globalization on working people here and in North America.

As the news media from El Salvador and throughout the region gathered round, various protesters explained how the corporate-influence policies of the Obama Administration were–in the name “economic development”–actually hurting the 99% in El Salvador.

“Free trade” between the two countries has not only destroyed local agriculture and production, victimized workers and the poor and increased immigration to the U.S., but also elevated corporate interests over national sovereignty. In 2009, for example, the Canadian mining company known as Pacific Rim utilized the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) to take legal action, before a World Bank tribunal, against the Salvadoran government for denying mining permits to Pacific Rim, as demanded by local environmental activists. Because the newly elected FMLN administration took a stand on the side of its own people and the environment, it now risks having to pay $77 million dollars in “damages” to Pacific Rim.

Alfredo Carias, of the Salvadoran environmental organization called La Unidad Ecologica Salvadorena (UNES), spoke about the broader environmental crimes of the U.S. government and the global 1%. As Wall Street Occupiers entered their second month of protest in New York and other cities in October El Salvador  was hit by some of the worst flooding in its history. Tropical Depression 12 E dumped ten days of unrelenting rain on El Salvador, causing 34 deaths, forcing 50,000 people to flee their homes, and leaving an estimated $850 million worth of damage to infrastructure and agriculture in its wake.

Organizations like UNES attribute the unprecedented intensity of this storm to climate change. But Ambassador Aponte was among the first to caution the public about blaming human behavior for this “natural disaster.”  The U.S. may be one of the biggest producers of greenhouse gases and a leading foe of meaningful international action to slow global warming the Ambassador urged  “What is the point of placing blame? With what we have, we have to confront this reality.”

Confronting Reality Together, A Different Way

For me, the most important part of the first OWS-inspired protest in Central America was the collaboration it created between Salvadoran social movement activists and their foreign allies in helping to spread the idea of a cross-border movement of the 99%.

In October, I had the chance to visit several Occupy encampments, while touring the Midwest with other representatives of my organization, U.S. El Salvador Sister Cities. Along with two Salvadoran community organizers, we visited a General Assembly meeting at OccupyMadison, a rally organized by labor unions and community groups at OccupyChicago, and a lively march at OccupyCincinnati. One of my Salvadoran compañeros, Agustin, who has been a community leader and popular education teacher since the Salvadoran civil war, was initially unimpressed. He joked that what we were seeing was not the movement of the 99% but “the movement of 99 people and their tents.”

But as we traveled from town to town, I was filled with a pride in my country that I have never experienced before. I thought to myself that, finally, I have something, from back home, to brag about in El Salvador among the veterans of social justice struggles there. However, when I returned to El Salvador I was surprised that the majority of the people in my sister organization, The Association for the Development of El Salvador (CRIPDES) hadn’t heard anything about the Occupy/Indignados movement.

Very little coverage of OWS was seeping through the cracks of the corporate dominated Salvadoran media. Besides, most people had more immediate concerns.  Government and community organizations were scrambling for donations to help rebuild roads and homes in the wake of the flooding; they also needed to prepare for the food shortage ahead due to the resulting reduced harvest of corn and beans in the countryside. This year’s storm only exacerbated the problems Salvadorans face every day: gang violence, unemployment, poverty and woefully under-funded social services.

However, many of us “gringos” employed by human rights and community development organizations, continued to talk with awe and admiration about the Occupy movement. We mused aloud about how to bring OWS to El Salvador and stage our own protest, but we were accustomed to playing the safer, more typical role of gringos solidarios—ie accompanying the Salvadoran social movement not pushing initiatives or projects. We decided we would stage our own gringo protest in front of the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador. However, as we informed our Salvadoran friends about our plans, the younger, more Internet savvy ones wanted to participate. Working initially with a few local environmental activists, we began to recalibrate the OWS message, focusing on the way corporate greed and capitalism is negatively affecting El Salvador as well.

The Pissed Off and Indignant

We also had to come up with new name, since the word “occupy” has negative connotations in a nation first occupied by Spain and then dominated by the U.S. ever since. We decided to call ourselves Los 99% Encachimbados and Indignados de El Salvador, the Pissed Off and Indignant 99% of El Salvador. Our Salvadoran collaborators were, of course, very pleased with our choice of protest target, because they have long seen the U.S. Embassy as a symbol of capitalism and “yanqui imperialism”.

As we began recruiting at forums, press conferences, meetings and a raucus concert of Calle 13, the reggaeton group which has gained wide popularity for protest anthems like Latinoamerica, we tried to convey the excitement and importance of the Occupy movement in the U.S.Some Salvadoran activists shared our enthusiasm, readily agreeing that resistance to corporate globalization would be greatly strengthened if more citizens of the U.S. joined the fight in the “belly of the beast.”   But others responded to our fliers and invitations with the attitude that Occupiers were just pampered gringos all worked up about unemployment and budget cuts in the U.S., when far worse corruption and joblessness have been El Salvador’s fate for years.

So we focused on the international roots of the movement, its origins in the “Arab Spring” and the take-over of plazas in Spain and other countries faced with similar austerity measures. We also emphasized that our Indignados and Occupy Movement would bring more attention to the longstanding demands of the Salvadoran left for an end to a system of corruption, impunity and tax fraud that benefits the wealthy and powerful.

On the night before our Thanksgiving Action, a cafe newly opened by two long-time leftist activists hosted a sign making party and discussion of this global Occupy Movement. About 30 people showed up and went to work producing placards in Spanish and English with slogans like “We occupy to liberate our planet” and “1% Thanks for not Giving!” One artist in the group drew a portrait of the martyred Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero, with the word Indignado, Indignant, emblazoned on his chest. We joined together to watch Telesur coverage of the November 16th national day of action in the U.S.; a journalist from Spain talked about occupation activity in his country; a Salvadoran asked what we saw for the movement’s future.

We stepped out into the warm night air after the event brimming with excitement, hope and a few lingering anxieties about the next day’s action. But even in that moment, it felt like we had already achieved something important. We had stepped away from the previous model of solidarity in which we supported the Salvadoran struggle for social justice with political advocacy in the U.S. and financial support for education and leadership programs in El Salvador but we never really linked the struggle here to our own back home.

In the past, we didn’t see our movement and our challenges in the U.S. as worthy of sharing with Salvadorans who had fought, sacrificed everything and lost loved ones to try to create a just and peaceful El Salvador.  Now, we were sharing experiences and strategies not as experienced Salvadoran luchadores and gringo novices with heavy consciences, but as equals striving together for change. Even if there were only a handful of us at the embassy on Thanksgiving, we would, like the trickle of protestors that grew into a flood around the U.S., be adding our voices to the cry of the 99%.

Alexandra Early works for U.S. El Salvador Sister Cities. She is a former organizer for the National Union of Healthcare Workers and a graduate of Wesleyan University, where she studied Latin American studies. Ms. Early can be reached at earlyave@gmail.com.

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