Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A Brief Conversation Over Dinner

This March, Salvadorans will go to the polls to vote between former journalist Mauricio Funes (FMLN) and security mogul Rodrigo Avila (ARENA). Polls indicate a national lead in the double-digits for the FMLN, the leftist party and former revolutionary vanguard. I mention this to Gustavo, our waiter, who currently lives in Norfolk and is a student at TCC taking a class at ODU, hoping to get into engineering.

"We've seen those leads close before. It will surely tighten. My father came here after it was supposed to get better with Durate [reference to the 1984 election of centrist Jose Napoleon Duarte], but only got worse." His father has not been back since. He did not mention (and I did not ask) if his father was involved in the uprisings in El Salvador. "I don't know if we have the strength to win."

By strength, I fear he means firepower. Many fear that this election will cause more violence in El Salvador, as many of the wealthy and politically elite fear the kind of leftist movements in Latin America. I am talking about a country that, for the last twenty years, has been effectively off the US mainstream radar, and that may be a good thing.

In the 1980s, the Reagan administration, in response to revolutionary change in Nicaragua and some of Latin America away from dictatorship, upped the military aide into Central and South America. In El Salvador, in 1980, the FMLN (the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front) became an umbrella for leftist organizations that went to war against the political elites. The civil war ended in 1992 with a UN Peace Treaty, still in effect today.

"I remember," he said, "all of the things that happened there. I remember leaving. You talk about school [I asked him about his education], I remember not going to school during halves of those years."

In a country that small, the two sides often get diametrically strengthened as political wills tend to mean a lot more in confined spaces. Coming from Northern Virginia, which over the past few years has outdone much of the country in terms of its nativism, I have seen and reported on the people like Gustavo. And the people who, with all their political, financial and physical might, try to tear them down.

It is hard for us to comprehend the situation in El Salvador. It is difficult to extract the human element from the ignorance and jingoism of the everyday. Gustavo is just like me. Paying his rent and trying to pay for school. His tale, and his fathers get's lost in the fray of what an "American" journey must look like. Since October, we've been talking about the worst times since 1932, since the Great Depression. Well, one must also look at El Salvador from that perspective. In 1932, ten to thirty thousand workers were massacred across western Salvador, much of it in response to the contractions and dislocations caused by that global finanical crisis. El Salvador has not seen a genuine political transition in over 70 years.

This year will be the year, I couldn't help but tell him as our check came. He smiles. Who knows how he must feel.

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