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Hardship Can Bring Citizens Together: Suchitoto, El Salvador

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2002-2007

Residents of the municipality of Suchitoto included Salvadoran war refugees whom I had seen decades before in the Mesa Grande camp in Honduras. The habits of organization they had practiced there were desperately needed when they returned home. In the camp, all equipment, clothing, food and medicines came from international agencies. The refugees distributed the supplies through communal kitchens, for example, and managed daily operations. Back in El Salvador, on land allocated to them under the 1992 Peace Accords, they found most basic services lacking. They had to build the material community as well as the organizational one.

Prior experience in grassroots organizing played a role in the success of Comité de Repobladores de Cuscatlán (CRC), an organization created to help the refugees resettle. Its IAF grant included support for agricultural production and marketing, a credit fund, securing government resources to build roads, and the stated intention to develop democratic practices. CRC worked in 10 of Suchitoto’s 78 communities with a combined population of 2,760. Among its results were several environmental victories: soil protected, erosion checked, an end to burning to clear fields for cover crops. The goal of improving and maintaining roads connecting farms to markets was accomplished with municipal resources. Although most returned families had no previous exposure to the concept, a credit fund proved key not only to economic advances but also to democratic practices. The evaluator cited the positive impact of loans on the community’s awareness of the shared benefit and of individual responsibility for repayment.

Overall, the evaluator observed, the grantee succeeded in building on earlier experiences to further a culture of participation. A combination of existing national legislation and an elected and supportive local government meant that opportunities for participation were available to Suchitoto’s returned citizens. A 1986 law had laid out the duties and responsibilities of municipalities, including to report publicly on action taken and to respond to residents’ requests and appeals. In 1994, two years after the Peace Accords ended the conflict, the first elections were held and the candidates from the former guerrilla organization, now the political party Frente Farabundo Martí de Liberación Nacional (FMLN), were voted into office. In fact, Suchitoto is the only municipality in El Salvador where the FMLN has governed continuously since then. The first elected mayor strongly supported residents’ rights to express themselves and to be heard. The current mayor devotes every Friday to meetings with representatives who communicate their communities’ needs.

The formal point where people articulate with municipal government is the Consejo de Desarrollo Local that holds 12 meetings a year organized by the community. But normally only the consejal, or representative elected from each community, attends the Municipal Council’s regular sessions and participates in discussions. Residents have no direct access. Still, from time to time the Council has called special meetings with people who might be affected by specific decisions, a measure that has generated confidence in the municipal government. The CRC itself, thanks to the visibility gained via its IAF grant, rose to what the evaluator described as a privileged position in the municipality, enabling it to play a continuing role with government, articulating community needs and ideas. Problems arise, however, because of the lack of sufficient resources to cover all the communities’ needs and proposals. There are also issues with how funds are distributed. For road construction, for example, all communities receive equal funding, regardless of proximity to the main highway. Obviously, the political system today is more sensitive to the communities than the regime that ruled before the Peace Accords. The pre-war power structure of oligarchs and the military considered grassroots organizations subversive. During the war, Suchitoto was a site of intense fighting and grassroots organizing was repressed.

The evaluator noted a highly developed sense of civic responsibility among residents. They demonstrated self-confidence, knowledge of the issues and full certainty of their rights to participate, to question, criticize, demand change. He described them as concerned about corruption and convinced of their own active participation as the best way to prevent it from becoming routine. The grantee’s focus on improving and maintaining roads encouraged this participation. Roads were the municipality’s responsibility, but residents were expected to monitor progress. CRC helped solidify this oversight. This practice of transparency seems well established in Suchitoto. The municipal policy of hiring at least some workers from the communities where a project is undertaken ensures that residents have a sense of how the project is managed, how money is spent and that the resources used belong to them. A dedicated website posts information on budgets and expenditures and other topics that are discussed in open meetings.

One cloud on Suchitoto’s democratic horizon seems almost universal in histories of social struggle. With basic needs such as water, electricity, education, health and transport more or less resolved, the challenges shift. The pursuit of economically promising activities perhaps implies less need for the grassroots organization that characterized the past, less individual willingness to invest time in it. Young people’s participation in the process does not reflect their numbers and aging leaders have not yet stepped aside to make room for those willing to assume the helm.