Archive for September, 2009

Losing All the Best Bits…Of Your Country

Soft spoken and rather unassuming, you wouldn’t really think much of Ron Brennenman. Until, that is, you find out one of the countless facts that seem to nonchalantly crop up, like when the FMLN guerrillas organised a major offensive on his kitchen table during the civil war. Ron (seen here modelling a very fashionable cowboy hat and the even more fashionable Whitaker Sisters) has seen El Salvador go to pieces during the 80s, and then try and pull itself back together again, with fairly lacklustre results.

This has, in a nutshell, prompted him to start Amun Shea, an educational project run out of Perquin up in the remote wooded hills of the North East. The project is an inspiring attempt to provide a heavily subsidised private education for the local children which is not subject to the fairly unsatisfactory rigours of the public school system. The short term aim, which is to generate significant academic success in comparison to national results and thus force education reform, is well underway. The much harder long term goal of building and retaining desperately needed community leaders to stop the incessant traffic of talented individuals out of the country (who mostly head to the US illegally looking for a better life) is proving much more elusive; results, if any, won’t be seen for years.

It is incredible to hear Ron describe what is happening in El Salvador, and to see quite clearly how the country is a shell, hollowed out by war, leaving the resulting wasteland of possibility for the population. With the option of living hand to mouth indefinitely in a country that stalls its progress of international development or leaving for faraway lands of golden opportunity, which would you choose?

Perquin, El Salvador
30th September 2009


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Tucked away in the North East of El Salvador, Perkin is a small town with a big past. The centre of operations of the guerrillas during the civil war, it was deserted for almost fifteen years and saw fierce fighting. The war museum, a fairly breathless climb up from the town centre, gives a fairly harrowing perspective from the guerrilla Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional (FMLN) side of the conflict, with countless photos of the casualties of the conflict placed alongside heavy artillery weapons that were either captured from the US sponsored National Guard. Our guide Carlos, an ex-major who served for the duration of the war on the side of the FMLN, tells us that the turning point in the war was when US manufactured mobile surface to air missile launchers arrived from Nicaragua, a keepsake of the contra-revolutionary conflict, allowing retaliation against the constant air bombardments that were levelling civilian villages, assumed to be enemy targets; in short, US funded weapons against US funded weapons.

The surrounding villages also bear the scars of the conflict, one of the most recognised being in El Mozote, about a half hour drive from Perquin. In 1981 on December 11, Salvadorian armed forces trained by the US military killed at least 1000 civilians in an anti-guerrilla campaign. Outside the village church is a memorial garden in which the local guide tells us they discovered the bodies of 147 children below the age of 12 buried in a mass grave.

It is amost impossible to comprehend acts of barbarity of this scale, no matter how impactful the monuments erected to remind us of events. It is also equally difficult to understand the motivations of the Regan administration during the 80s, and the far reaching effects of its foriegn policy that resulted in escalating death tolls of civilian populations in numerous central American countries, and the practical removal of their civil liberties, something the US tirelessly contradicts itself with via its constitution.

Perquin, El Salvador
29th September 2009

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Sick and Alone

If there is one thing the independent traveller should beware when in a state of ill health, it is the unscrupulous hotelier.

Swaying down the road a half hour of so before dusk in the one horse town of El Cuco with the intention of surfing the local wave for the weekend, head spinning and knees trembling from an unknown ailment that was enthusiastically assaulting my immune system, I encountered a squat creature that, on closer inspection, turned out to be human swinging in a hammock next to a sign proclaiming rooms for rent.

Mustering what little was left of my Spanish as my vision cart wheeled, I asked to see a single room. The results were disappointing. A bare, windowless concrete block cell was demonstrated, containing only a hammock and a bed frame with an uncovered paper thin mattress. No fan to ward off the awaiting armies of mosquitos or dispel the blistering heat or, after questioning, sheets or a pillow. For this luxury, $7 a night.

I turned on my heel and, striking out once again with a sinking feeling, tottered quarter of a mile down the road to the nearest accommodation. It cost $30 a night, and I, in a fit of preparedness, had brought $20. There were no cash machines in El Cuco; I was going to have to sleep in the cell. Back down the road with my tail between my legs I explained that, yes, I would like the room, just managing to catch the grunted comment from the Creature with Rooms for Rent that it always happened like this, they went away and came back again. Paying in advance for the two nights that I intended to stay for, I crashed through the door, and depositing my bags in the corner of the room, propped myself up against the doorframe as the Creature dispatched one of his offspring to bring the change for my $20 note.

I lay where I fell on my mattress, sweating and turning over the options in my head for the terrible state of health that had suddenly struck me down. What was it? Heat stroke? Malaria? I drifted in and out of sleep as dogs went berserk outside the ‘room’, children cried and the drone of mosquitos sounded overhead like a Second World War bomber squadron approaching London.

Morning duly arrived with no improvement in my condition and I decided after brief deliberation that it was best to retreat to the city, within range of medical attention, and find out exactly what was wrong with me. Tracking down the Creature, I smiled as weakly as I possibly could and explained that I was not well and neeed to visit a hospital, thus requiring a refund of the money for the following evening.

“That is not possible.” he almost inevitably replied.

“May I ask why?” I proffered through clenched teeth.

“You have paid for one night, and one day.” he explained.

“You’re telling me that your price of $7 was for the night, but I have to pay the same thing again for the day, just to leave my stuff in the room?” I questioned, disbelief edging into my voice.

“Yes.” he replied, as if he was humouring a process of me explaining circumstances to myself.

“I have never heard of this arrangement in my entire life.” I said, my voice starting to lose its level calmness.

He said nothing, staring at me. Undeterred and unwilling to lose an essentially ridiculous argument, I held his stare. Silence endured for about 30 seconds.

“Look,” I said eventually, glancing at my watch, “It’s only 10 am in the morning anyway; I shouldn’t even have to pay for a day yet.”

His eyes briefly flickered; I had just played checkmate. There was no way he could withhold money from me for something that had not yet occurred. All that was left for him was the last gasp effort of taking advantage of my weakened state and bloody minded unreasonableness.

“I’ll give you $5 back.” he responded, within a heartbeat.

The staring match began anew. After another 30 seconds had passed, he slowly reached for his pocket without taking his eyes off me like a driving offender reaching for the car glove box and retrived a selection of crumpled notes. They totalled $7.

“Muchas gracias” I said in a sickly sweet voice that I hope was successful in conveying my burning desire to see his whole operation and family washed into the Pacific by a tidal wave. Shouldering my bags and shuffling as haughtily as I could manage towards the bus stop, I began the long, hot journey that would inevitably result in an injection in one of my buttocks in a medical treatment centre somewhere in San Salvador.

El Cuco, El Salvador
28th September 2009

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This is the Galerias mall in San Salvador, but if it wasn’t for the Spanish written on the signs, it could be anywhere in the world; the same sanitary shopping enironment, global brands, special offers, fast food chains in the food court. The whole building is a pulsing force driving everyone inside it to buy as much as they possibly can, if they can afford it or not (credit schemes are, of course, available).

Is this the grand goal of a developing contry? Did El Salvador drag itself out of civil war seventeen years ago so that it could develop a nice plump middle class that focus their aspirations on earning enough to buy exactly what the ‘developed’ world wants? Can we all hope at some point that we will slot nicely with the rest of the planet into a neat pattern of earning and spending on commodities that we really don’t need? Is this progress, or just a distraction?

San Salvador, El Salvador
28th September 2009

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Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

El Salvador is a country somewhat obsessed with security. Around every corner you’re likely to see one of these cheerful chaps scowling at you, cradling their loaded shotgun. I’ve seen them standing outside every imaginable building; banks, clothing stores, fast food restaurants, and even a creaky beach access door from a hostel in El Tunco. Footprint guide tells me that there are around 60,000 firearms currently in public circulation, and a very reasonable percentage of them are illegal, but do you fancy telling this guy to give his gun back?

San Salvador, El Salvador
27th September 2009

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Why You Should Really, Really Pay Attention To Honduras

Being in El Salvador right now, it would take a level of nearly blind ignorance not to be aware of what is going on in Honduras;

I recently recieved this from a friend, who knows someone working for an Human Rights organisation in the capital of Honduras where, right now, the democratically elected president who was deposed by a military coup on July 28th is holed up in the Brazilian embassy. You can get a very good, easily digestable summary of the background to the conflict here. The article below is absolutely mind blowing, and with the history of the military knocking lumps out of the populus via a military coup which thus degrades into civil war as seen in El Salvador twenty years ago, everyone has fingers crossed that events in Honduras will not go the same way.

International Accompaniment and Observation Delegation
Quixote Center
1926 September 2009

September 23, 2009
Patty Adams


Democratically-elected Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, deposed by a military coup on June 28, returned clandestinely to Tegucigalpa, appearing at the Brazilian Embassy around mid-day on Monday, September 21. As word of his arrival spread, thousands of Hondurans who’ve been calling for his return began to assemble outside the Embassy to celebrate, catch a glimpse, and show their support.

Our delegation was there for a few hours in the early afternoon and saw the enormous excitement, relief, pride, and possibility in the faces of the thousands of people both young and old, campesinos and school teachers, students and mothers, indigenous people and workers, all full of hope. The return of Zelaya means the possibility for free and fair elections, a constituent assembly for the creation of a more inclusive constitution, and an end to the repressive practices of the de facto regime. Such practices have left dozens dead, thousands detained illegally, hundreds wounded, and several “disappeared” in the wake of persistent and violent persecution of the peaceful resistance movement which has taken to the streets daily since the coup.

By mid-afternoon on Monday, the de facto government had called an obligatory, nationwide curfew from 4pm until 7am. Our delegation made the quick and difficult decision to return to our guesthouse, even as hundreds of people continued arriving to the area around the Brazilian Embassy, just a short block from the US Embassy and the United Nations building.

At 5am on Tuesday the 22nd, tanks and military personnel on foot passed the police barricades around the Brazilian Embassy and began firing tear gas and live ammunition into the crowd of about 500 people who had stayed all night holding peaceful vigil outside. Many people didn’t have enough time to gather their belongings and left behind shoes and purses as they fled; many family members were split up in the process of trying to escape the blows of military clubs and tear gas. Some people were offered shelter in nearby homes. When they had finished rounding up, detaining, or dispersing those assembled, the armed state actors then proceeded to break the windows and slash the tires of cars left behind by protestors before impounding them.

Despite the extension of the curfew from 7am to 6pm, members of our delegation were able to visit the hospital and interview some of those treated, many of whom were from outside Tegucigalpa and were still trying to track down all the members of the groups with which they had travelled to the city when they heard of Zelaya’s return. At least 18 people received attention at the Hospital Escuela, the main public hospital, including stitches in the head and treatment for fractured bones (see http://hondurasaccompaniment.wordpress.com/photos-video/).

Other delegation members visited the Chochi Sosa baseball stadium, which had been converted into a mass detention center for people who had violated the mandatory curfew as well as those who had been gathered outside the Brazilian Embassy. Some of those detained had been seriously wounded; some had sustained multiple traumas to the head. They all stood in the blazing mid-day sun in the stadium. The delegation accompanied the most seriously injured to a clinic, where treatment cost USD $80 — a week’s salary, if you have a job.

That afternoon, people from all over Tegucigalpa called into one of the few non-coup television stations, Chanel 36 Cholusat Sur, which also transmits on the radio. They announced to the media that they were running out of food and water, and feeling desperate under the curfew. One woman said that her diabetic mother had not had insulin for three days.

Despite the desperation and lack of food and water, that night we heard residents in the neighborhood organizing in the streets, chanting and singing and occasionally shouting “alerta”—alert—the sign that the police or military have been spotted. The National Resistance Front had called upon people to take to the streets in their own small neighborhoods, and while the people did so all over the country, they were met with live ammunition, tear gas, and beatings by police. Though we smelled pepper gas through our guesthouse windows, for the remainder of the night we heard the mostly jubilant sounds and songs of the people’s resistance in the streets.

Once the curfew was provisionally lifted from 10am-4pm on Wednesday, people were able to move freely for a while, and some came to COFADEH, a well-respected non-governmental human rights organization, to formally denounce their treatment at the hands of the military in front of the Brazilian Embassy and in the neighborhoods the previous night. One woman had multiple deep bruises from being beaten over 20 times by the military, after she was found alone, vomiting and nearly unconscious from the effects of the tear gas. (See here: http://hondurasaccompaniment.wordpress.com/2009/09/23/repression-at-the-embassy/)

We also took the testimony of a 24-year old young man who was beaten up by police while in a street celebration, then beaten during his two hour period of detention. He was thrown down to the ground and forced to place his hands on a chair to be beaten with clubs. He heard the police talking about killing him, but because he happened to know one of the officers he was eventually released, along with a 19 year-old who was detained with him. He has serious injuries to his head, neck, hands, knees, and back including a serious wound on his left lower back. (See here: http://hondurasaccompaniment.wordpress.com/2009/09/23/one-story-of-last-nights-repression/).

We have heard reports that there is a high frequency sound blasting the area around the Brazilian Embassy, where Manuel Zelaya remains, along with members of his cabinet and some leaders of the anti-coup resistance. This is part of the military’s offensive on the Embassy, constituting a form of both physical and psychological torture, since it can cause permanent hearing damage as well as prohibit sleep and clear thinking.

We spoke with some of the over 500 lawyers nationwide who comprise the Lawyers Front against the Coup, who have been offering pro-bono legal support and defense work for those whose rights have been violated since the coup. They located the roots of this current struggle in colonization: there has never been real democracy in Honduras because the families who have always owned and controlled the resources in the country continue to enjoy political and economic power. The lawyers said that the economic elite, descended from these few families, have been able to orchestrate this coup in part thanks to their ownership of most of the media outlets in the country.

Despite all the repression, there was a march on Wednesday, as there has been a demonstration every day since the coup. Despite having many of their routes blocked off by police and military blockades, thousands of marchers cheering and chanting made it past the COFADEH office and to downtown. Upon arriving to the central square, they were met by military and police squads masked and armed, who began to pursue the demonstrators.

At this point, we’ve seen and heard reports on radio and TV of detentions but are no longer downtown so haven’t heard further confirmation.

The city is basically a police state. It is common to see a line of police and military blocking a street. There is always some important power base – like the presidential house — behind that line, though sometimes it’s so far behind that line it’s hard to see.

Perquin, El Salvador
25th September 2009

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Jon Clarke, The Face of Beer

A couple of days previously, word got around the hostel that someone was looking for white faced extras for a beer commercial, salary tag $100. Naturally my ears pricked up and before too long I was standing infront of a camera in a fairly hilarious screen test being told by recruiter Dulce (“sweet” in Spanish, doubtless her birth name) to smile, look angry, excited and the fairly shallow range of emotions no doubt needed to persuade the commercial watching public that beer was the right choice.

Success beckoned me toward my second Latin American TV appearence (hopefully this time not requiring me to be dressed as a woman) and a couple of days later we were herded into a minibus and shot up to San Salvador with the promise of other, more lucrative jobs after this one ringing in our ears; finally, some money coming in.We were ejected, nine confused White faces in all, into the national football stadium and placed in the stands to await our filming slot where we were mixed with a range of other faces from sources other than the beach to create a splendid “racial rainbow”. Somewhat accustomed to the extensive waiting due to some TV work in the UK, I accepted the fairly glacial pace at which the other scenes were being filmed in sequence, all rather strangely with green screen backing, this mitigating the need to be in a football stadium. Further distraction was provided by lunch surplus, a well proven measure to neutralize me in almost any situation, and a couple of our number being comically daubed with thick face paints by makeup.

Night fell and still no promise of filming, when the national football squad turned up for training for the upcoming international against Costa Rica. When all the excitement had died down, which included our resident Argentinian invading the pitch and persuading the national coach to cross him a ball so that he could score a goal, we were cast out of the stadium so as no to betray the tactics to any Costa Ricans, delaying any filming for another two hours. Luckily, dinner was provided, and temporary peace ensued.Let back into a pitch black stadium at 11 at night, the crew and a selection of the native cast disappeared to the parking lot to film scenes, once again infront of a green screen (begging two questions; firstly, why did they not cut costs and shoot the whole thing this way and, secondly, what prevented them from filming in the carpark while the training was going on?) as we sat in darkness, waiting unattended, doubts beginning to creep into collective minds as to the possibility of anything happening.

Surely enough, after two and a half hours in solitary stadium confinement, an underling arrived to deliver some bad news. “We can’t film your sections tonight,” she briskly explained, “you’ll have to come back tomorrow and do it then. We’ll pick you up at eight.”A fairly predictable backlash erupted from the assembled extras, some of whom had been sporting now very itchy face paint for about seven hours and others who had life commitments for the following day. This augmented considerably when told, in addition, that we would not be paid anything extra for the subsequent day (of mystery duration) and they would not pay us anything until completion of the commercial until tomorrow. So evolved a mighty struggle between the underling, constantly on and off their mobile phones to higher powers, proposing a series of roundly rejected alternatives until finally, after an hour and a half of negotiation that included sitting on the bonnet of the underling’s car so that she couldn’t drive off and refusing to get in the minibus which subsequently and dramatically did a u-turn to leave and then stopped, an agreement was forged that we would be paid $50 for a full day’s work the next day and would recieve our pay for the day before leaving on the condition that we promised to return. As this was the only way to recieve money and it was now three o’ clock in the morning, all and sundry agreed, pocketing the cash and internally vowing never to work with El Salvadorian production again.

Dulce was dealt an unpleasant hand the next morning when everyone except Yuji, the resident Japanese of the hostel (who is, with all due respect, a complete law into himself), refused to return on the basis that we had been kept up until 4am, had been bullied into an agreement to do a full day’s work for half price and had argued bitterly to get paid. As I watched my TV career drag itself into the distance (my face had not been committed to a single frame) along with any possibility of future work, I couldn’t help feeling slightly guilty about my dishonesty, until subsequent research revealed that our El Salvadorian counterparts would not recieve payment for months (if at all), furthering justification that an outright lie of returning was adeqate measure given the circumstances.

El Tunco, El Salvador
7th Sept 2009

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