After 20 years of peace, Salvadorans in D.C. still worry about their homeland

January 20, 2012

Salvadoran Americans in Washington had their eyes set on the Central American nation this week as it marked the 20th anniversary of the peace treaty that ended a bloody 12-year civil war.

Those who left El Salvador in the 1980s and ’90s say they remain uncertain about the future of the country, which still struggles with economic and social instability.

“The peace accords ended the armed conflict and opened the door to democratization and respect for human rights, but we still face problems of inequality,” said the Rev. Edgar Palacios, an associate pastor at Calvary Baptist Church in the District. He had led a coalition of civic organizations that pushed the peace process during the war.

Palacios, who came to the United States after the peace agreement was reached, attended commemoration ceremonies in El Salvador this week.

The war left 75,000 people dead and thousands missing. Thousands of Salvadorans left the country and sought refuge in the United States. Instability since the war ended has contributed to migration, too, experts said.

More than 1.7 million Salvadorans live in the United States, and about 240,000 reside in the Washington area.

El Salvador, which is about the size of Massachusetts, remains one of the most violent countries in the world with 4,085 of its 6.1 million citizens murdered in 2010, a rate of 66 per 100,000 inhabitants, according to a recent U.N. report. Today, violence in El Salvador is mostly attributed to gangs that vie for territory and drug trafficking routes.

Jorge Granados, a real estate agent who immigrated to the Washington region in 1983 after fleeing the war, said the peace agreement was a relief to the local Salvadoran community and brought hope for a democratic system.

“But there is still a lack of opportunity in the country,” said Granados, who lives in the District and is founder of Comunidades Transnacionales Salvadorenas, a group that brings support to small communities in El Salvador.

“Some of us who came here during the war dream of someday retiring in our native land. . . . We could contribute to the economy there, but every year that passes, things don’t get better and we are reaching 60,” he said. “We are already looking at other options because of the instability that exists with all the violence in the country.”

In a commemoration of the anniversary on Monday, President Mauricio Funes apologized for the 1981 El Mozote massacre of 936 civilians during an army counterinsurgency operation.

“I ask forgiveness of the mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, brothers and sisters of those who still today do not know the whereabouts of their loved ones. I ask forgiveness from the people of El Salvador, who suffered an atrocious and unacceptable violence,” Funes said in a speech at the massacre site in Morazan.

Carlos Mauricio, a former science professor at the University of El Salvador who was kidnapped and tortured by the Salvadoran military in 1983, said the scars still remain for many who lived through the war. Now a human rights activist, Mauricio continues to seek prosecution for those responsible for atrocities, such as the one in El Mozote. He also founded the Stop the Impunity Project for survivors of Salvadoran torture and their supporters.

“It is our responsibility to seek justice,” said Mauricio, who moved to the United States in 1983 and now lives in the District. “It is hard to talk about torture and people prefer to forget what happened, but talking is the best way to cure the pain.”

Cynthia J. Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, said Salvadoran expatriates play a critical role by sending remittances home, but that is not enough. El Salvador needs people to help build the economy and provide education and job opportunities to keep people out of gangs, she said.

El Salvador received $3.6 billion in remittances last year, according to the country’s Central Bank.

“As important as the remittances are to subsidize consumption, [it] is not the same as creating productive capacity, and there is a huge role for the Salvadoran community living in the United States and other countries to contribute to their homeland by creating economic opportunity,” Arnson said. “It is a vicious cycle and, unless people who are in a position to provide capital for the economic growth and job creation [also provide help], it is very hard to see how the country will ever break this cycle.”

Jose Jovel, a native of San Salvador who came to the United States in 1984, praised the government’s efforts at reconciliation. He said, however, that it is only a first step.

“We have to unify and participate in the process and invest in our communities there,” said Jovel, who lives in the District and works in real estate. “It’s the only way to move forward.”

Luz Lazo writes about transportation and development. She has recently written about the challenges of bus commuting, Metro’s dark stations, and the impact of sequestration on air travel.
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