The Face of El Salvador's Charm Offensive
Tuesday, January 9, 2007
Like much of Washington's diplomatic corps, El Salvador's consul general, Ana Margarita Chavez, spends her days conferring with U.S. officials and her nights cruising to parties in a black sport-utility vehicle with diplomatic plates.
That is where the similarity ends.
While her counterparts from other nations stick to such traditional consular services as renewing passports and helping their countrymen sort out immigration problems, Chavez, a petite 49-year-old with long black curls and a bubbly laugh, is more like a social worker on steroids.
During weekly appearances on the area's main Spanish radio shows, Chavez regularly gives out her cellphone number so that immigrants in need of help can reach her directly.
The phone's constant trill is a testament to how many listeners take her up on the offer. During one recent week, Chavez dropped by the Silver Spring home of a Salvadoran construction worker injured in a car accident last year to check on his progress; lined up a job for an out-of-work landscaper in Woodbridge and then personally drove him to the interview; and convinced a young father fighting a bitter custody battle with his estranged wife that their daughter is better off staying with her grandparents in El Salvador.
As for her evening social schedule, Chavez usually skips high-powered bashes in Washington's downtown restaurants or Embassy Row manses in favor of pupusa and wine mixers hosted in suburban churches and community centers by immigrant Salvadoran nurses, restaurant owners and construction contractors seeking to raise money for the impoverished villages they left behind.
Her approach dovetails with a wider charm offensive recently launched by Salvadoran President Elias Antonio Saca, of the pro-business ARENA party, to cement his support among Salvadoran expatriates.
The stakes are high. The Salvadoran government estimates that more than a fourth of the country's citizens live in the United States. The expatriates have been lobbying hard for the right to vote from abroad, and it is generally considered a matter of just a few years before they will get it. Even now, they are believed to exercise enormous sway over voters back home thanks to the estimated $3 billion they send their relatives annually.
During the presidential election in 2004, Saca and his opponent campaigned personally in the Washington area. And shortly after taking office, Saca expanded the foreign ministry to include a vice ministry exclusively dedicated to overseas Salvadorans.
The 16 consulates in the United States are the vice ministry's principal vehicle of operations. The Washington area is among its most important targets. The U.S. Census estimates there are 130,000 foreign-born Salvadorans in the Washington region. The embassy estimates the size of the local Salvadoran community -- including those born here of Salvadoran parents -- at half a million.
At first glance, Chavez might not seem the most obvious choice to win them over. The daughter of a former chief supreme court justice, she hails from the upper crust of a society still highly stratified between rich and poor 14 years after peace accords ended its bloody civil war. Originally an architect, Chavez said that friends in El Salvador's military encouraged her to pursue national security studies and later a career as head of El Salvador's anti-drug commission before she was tapped for the consul general position.
Although she still encounters cynics, Chavez's effervescent, informal style has clearly captivated many local Salvadorans, who quickly fall into addressing her with the familiar "tú" rather than the formal "usted" in Spanish. A year and a half into the job, Chavez has emerged as one of the most recognizable figures within the Salvadoran community -- even as she remains almost completely unknown outside of it.