My HeyDay

Sometimes I think it is my mission to bring faith to the faithless, and doubt to the faithful

Epilogue... After a Trip to the Tropics

All the human hopes condensed in a hundred faces. Maybe all men got one big soul everybody's a part of; all faces are the same man. The smartest person I have ever met said once to me that "life is better measure by experiences -and friends- than by time", and I could say that it has been the case this month. I barely remember the distant day when I left Washington, bringing lots of hope and anxiety as my luggage. Four weeks later, I just can say that there is another world, and I have been there. The emotional implication with the people of these two small countries has been far more intense than anything I could experience in my last three years in the US. I know that. I guess that dreams, like anguish, bring people together. And suffering equals everybody. How did we lose all the good that was given us? Let it slip away. Scattered careless... But I learned a few things in my time here:

Be Empathic: I come back convinced about that indisputable truth. That we are nothing if we only care about ourselves, self-focused and just developing a earthly shrine dedicated to our ego. Popularity, professional success, beauty, all those things are meaningless temporary achievements that nobody will care about in few years. Wrong fights. Et in Arcadia ego... We really are not ourselves until we don't come in touch, empathically, with the world we live in.

Care about Democracy: I also bring along a dozen of doubts and "research questions" around our basic idea of Democracy. Political Science still desperately needs to come back to the fundamentals and redefine the concept. Robert Dahl, a pope in Political Science and a good old Yale professor, was always very sad because of our constant struggle to just agree about this basic definition. But the fact is that when we come to places like Honduras and El Salvador, and we observe the workings of their political systems, formally a democracy, one misses so many pieces that would funnel representation from the citizens to the government, that it's hard to accept this sort of liberal democracy in the general definition. Politicians struggle to survive in power here, in a constant fight between elites, but just for the sake of gaining the grace of the economically powerful establishment. Nonetheless, you would note that either Europe or the US are not so different. Only, from time to time, as it was the case of El Salvador this month, a powerful grass-roots movement allied with economic turbulences can break the pattern and bring some hope. Even if it remains to be seen how long-lasting this change in the rules of the game is going to be until the new elite is co-opted. But in a regular democracy, real alternation should be the rule and not the exception. Those who do not see the dangers in a democracy with a very unbalanced representation are just blind. Even Machiavelli would acknowledge that. The Prince should not just exert fear, but also love, in his fellow subjects, and he has to avoid the monopolistic rule of any special group. The Prince, in our present time, is us, the voters, the People.

Worry about Development: My optimism and pessimism about Development and development professionals grew in parallel in this trip. I still observe, and suffer, what I call the "bureaucracies of development", those international and national agencies blahbling the development jargon we are used to and caring, mainly, about procedures. Becoming the Kafkian nightmares they were not meant to be, due to the high expectations all we put on them. But the hope is that a myriad, million-strong army of community organizers, teachers, healthcare trainers, Jesuits!, volunteers and especially, that [still] small elite of development professionals -hey, Pax!- who want to transform the way this work is performed to a more complete, jargon-free, human-based, multi-disciplinary and efficient discipline. They just can succeed at some point.

Hunt Friends: Someone said that when you gain a friend, you find a treasure. There is something magical in connecting with another person, enjoying his/her conversation, sense of humor, views of the world, and stories from the past. It's like two trains running at the same speed and coming from different tracks, and at some magical point those tracks become parallel pathways and both trains have time to spend together in their trip. Friends come and go this way, but many of them, those who shared that deep connection with us, inexorably become a share of our memories and soul. And said that, traveling alone is a great way to meet people and make some random, few good friends. There is something exotic in being a foreigner which other people find enticing, and they are naturally open to conversation. One day, I remember, I was in the balcony of a café in Jewel Key looking at the sea, and this old woman, Shannon, came next to me. We started talking about how would life look like in this narrow, overpopulated key, and five minutes later I was telling her my deepest existential anxieties and dreams, my life cross-roads and tough choices. And, fifteen minutes later we were sharing a table for lunch and sharing a drink. Is it not magical?

I came here with lots of questions and I found some few, but enriching answers. First, one should move his steps towards the future not basing his decisions on fear, but on pursuing the things that enlighten you and make you happy. Also, you are never alone if you decide not to be. Loneliness is a personal choice, afterall. Somehow, it is the refusal to open your self to the other. And many people, even if constantly accompanied, are indeed very alone in this world. And the last and most important one, Flor de Caña is still the best rum in the Caribbean. Period. No discussion about that.


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Day on the Field: Four Stories

At 7am, we drove towards "California", a small community of peasants west of La Ceiba, surrounded by banana fields. A group of fifteen women met us at 9am in the humble house of one of them, in order to proceed to the gathering. The sun was intense outside, and I sat in the hammock, looking at the colorful walls but limited furniture of the place. A hen looked at me from the kitchen.

Fifteen Women - We sang the hymn all together ("Unity, Discipline, Work, Bravery!") and I was introduced to the group. The coordinator engaged us in some relaxing activity to break the seriousness of the morning, and we danced the "hen" song -later, I had to do that myself in front of all the women to get rid of my own shyness-. We all discussed about remedies against dyarrhea in new-borns, in a very socratic way -we engaged them in asking about the pictures we were showing, asking to propose solutions for every symptom. We talked about their personal stories, micro-businesses and doubts. And after a couple of pictures and a lot of laughs, we left. I could see the face of my mother or my grandmother, years ago, in many of those women. I promised them to send back a copy of the pictures I took. I was happy about having spent some time among them... the real reason I came down here. I felt touched, but still an outsider.

A Kid and a Broken arm - Later on the road, a young teacher stopped us, asking for a ride for her and a kid. When I opened the SUV's door, the kid had a totally broken arm, between the hand and the elbow, in a very ugly way: the arm was still together just by the flesh! He was dying in pain, and we drove fast towards the local "clinic". Apparently, what they call the sobador (lit. "toucher"), a sort of mystical local leader who fix easy lessions in extremities, was out attending someone, and the mother of the child was reliant to let us give them a ride to the closest hospital. The kid was crying: "My mother doesn't have money". I offered to pay the bills, to make it easier. We could not stand the image of the guy in such a deplorable, painful way, and the slowness of the mother to make a decision. She was influenced by a local man, who happened to be the nephew of the sobador, and said that "he always fix everything... even if you go to the hospital, you'ld have to come later to my uncle's clinic for sure". Ignorance, fear, lack of trust to outsiders and peer pressure played here a strong role against the future of the kid's arm. If the kid was not going to the hospital, we offered then to give them a ride to where the sobador was. "He is very close!", say the sobador's nephew. We drove by a dirty road for 20 mins and I couldn't stop seeing the S-shaped arm of the child, who broke into tears. No painkillers around. The road became very complicate for the SUV (no 4-wheels traction) and the mother decided to walk the rest of the trip. They left us, walking, under an intense sun, that morning. I thought in all the unnecessary suffering of the kid, and what was going to wait for him later: the sobador will fix his arm by force, without painkillers, and without deep knowledge of all the deep tissues and nerves that he may break in the process. He would put some wooden tools to keep the bones together, but the kid will play around the next days, after much pain that day, and the bones wouldn't fix perfectly together because of the movement, leaving him a flawed arm for the rest of his life. And we were just 20 mins ride from the closest hospital...

We are trapped - In our way back to the main road, driving backwards -no way to u-turn in between the fences and fields- the wheels get trapped in a swamp. No way. We stopped one old man with an older horse, and he helped me pushing the car out of the trap, with no success. In the meantime, I bargained about the horse, with the crazy idea of bringin' it to DC. Later, two younger men appeared on the horizon, and joined us in the impossible mission. We were discussing strategies to escape from that mud trap when another SUV miraculously appeared on the dirty road, and they happened to have something to push us out of the trap. An observation: nobody questioned the need of helping us, or freerided, because all of them assumed our problem was theirs as well: community-based solidarity at work! We gently shaked hands after getting the car back to the road, and we wished God may help us in our future.

Smuggling and Drug Pirates - During that day, I heard seven different stories of young men shot and killed in the area in the last week. Assuming that the average is half that rate, so like 3.5/week, it gives us an homicide rate of 80, very high even for the region, and three times that of Washington South East. Cocaine smuggling is behind 90% of those homicides. One guy was found at midday next to the road by a school bus, with his hands tied with a cell phone charger cord and a shot in the head. They didn't even care to hide the body. Another taxidriver, 22, was found in a condo's door with six head shots at sunset by a girl I met here. Another guy in his 20s was found dead by some coworkers while dropping garbage in a dump. In every story I heard, the person actually found the body, which makes everything really creepy. This is a beautiful, but violent paradise...

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Life should be limited to eating Garifuna's rice dishes, feeling the sunset breeze of the Caribbean under a beach hut, sipping the sweet taste of rum, listening to the stories of new fathers or mothers about their 3 years old children, or the seagulls heading to the port, or the latin music coming from the next beach bar some meters away, or the awesome silent under a sky full, full of stars, or just the waves at night...

No more, no less...

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The United Fruit Co.

The Chilean poet Pablo Neruda wrote this poem inspired by the "cute" influence of the big banana-producers in Central America. Honduras, in particular, served to coin the term "Banana Republic" in that period, when Chiquita and Dole fighted to control the mainland and provide us with those $0.50/lb bananas you find in the supermarket.

The United Fruit Co.
Pablo Neruda
(Original en español)

Then the trumpets bray, and all
of earth braces itself
and Jehovah deals out the land
to Coca Cola Inc., Anaconda,
to Ford Motors and other corporations:
and The Fruit Company, Inc.
takes the ripest for itself,
my land's central coast,
my sweet hips of America.
Then it baptizes it again as
a "Banana Republic" country
and upon our slumbering dead,
upon our straggling martyrs
who have usurped heroism,
liberty and flags,
it colonizes us into a comic opera:
it outlaws free wills,
gives Caesar's crowns as bounty,
unleashes jealousy, plants
the dictatorship of the maggot,
maggot of Trujillo, maggot of Tachos,
maggot of Carias, maggot
of Martinez, maggot of Ubico,
and these maggots are soggy
with humble blood and marmalade,
these drunken maggots crawl
around our common graves,
these circus maggots, these academic
maggots, adept as any tyrant.

The Company disembarks
among the blood-thirsty maggots,
our coffee and treasured fruits fill
the brims of their sliding boats
from our submerged fields like tea trays.

Meanwhile, along the sugared
gulfs of our harbors,
indians fall over, buried
under the morning mists:
a little carrion rolls about, a thing
without a name, a shrunken number,
a clot of dead fruit, spilling
onto the pile of all this rot.

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The left won in El Salvador. It's the first time in their democracy that the ruling party is not going to be re-elected, as it happened the last 22 years. This is a much needed democratic oxygen for the small nation.

I don't think that president Funes would be able to transform his society too much in just a mandate. There are many equilibria difficult to break in a heartbeat, which is what a 5-years mandate is. Many things will be reverted though, and women will gain protagonism (FMLN is by far the party with more women in politics, and the one linked to the women rights associations), taxes will become fairer and social policies will be common in depressed areas.

Many people will be finally represented. Much can be done to restore the memory of those civilians, innocent peasants, who unfairly fell under the fire of the paras and the army during the Civil war and were forgotten. It's not random that the most educated and the poorest people in El Salvador were behind the FMLN victory, according to every published poll.

This country needed him so badly...

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On the Road towards a New Country...

This morning, I was having an inexpensive but delicious breakfast ($0.50) in a very modest place. The "señora" cooked and prepared the meals for everybody, and when I went to pay, she smiled and asked for feedback. "It was delicious" I said, and she smiled in satisfaction.

Later that day, I was visiting the National Anthropological Museum. Lonely Planet praised the place so much, that I couldn't leave San Salvador without paying a visit to the institution. And the experience was quite rewarding, even if I was the ONLY visitor of the huge museum that day. It was a bizarre privilege.

After that, I sat in a Taiwanese veggie place for a quick lunch. I noticed that, like in San Francisco, there are huge Chinese communities in several Latin American countries in the Pacific: Peru, Ecuador or some Mexican cities come to my mind. It was also the case in San Salvador. Here, like in Madrid, the owner, who was having dinner with his family in one of the tables and didn't speak Spanish at all, said "Hola" with difficulties and he called the Salvadoran girl to take my order. Later, after a banana milkshake and some curry rice, I was ready to leave the country.

Once I was at bus station, the only available ticket to Tegucigalpa was first class. I bought it. The bus was just impressive. We had a huge sofa -not seat, a sofa- for us, a complimentary champagne glass and newspaper before the departure, and several ammenities in between. It was like the first class in a transatlantic flight. The waitress offered another lunch right after the departure. This was happening while we were driving by San Salvador outskirts, with all the slums, brick and concrete "houses", watermelon and coconut stands and children playing soccer in the streets. And dogs. Here, the left party electoral signs, even if more rudimentary (just paintings in walls), were more common than the conservative party's propaganda. Just the opposite to what happened in the affluent area were this upscale bus line departs from. It was a huge contrast, again the phantom of inequality, to see the things we, white skinned people, could enjoy inside that mobile bubble of luxury, crossing through a world of scarcity and needs. Again, that phantom everywhere.

Soon enough, we left behind San Salvador, and the green hills and coffee fields and volcanoes filled the scene. After two hours, El Salvador, its people and the future to be written tomorrow in the election day, were already behind. Thanks for everything, El Salvador. I am leaving richer than I came.

PS. After two flat wheels and more than 8 hours to cover 133 miles between both cities, I arrived to Tegucigalpa at 10pm. The hotel looks like an awesome colonial palace (6 rooms) overlooking the river, and the hills of Tegus, packed with lights and little houses, look like a Van Gogh starred night. Just impressive...

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El Cambio es la Unica Constante

El domingo llegarán por fin las decisivas elecciones. Y la sociedad está muy muy polarizada. Como medida de "seguridad" (es decir, más burocracia fronteriza y calles cortadas) me han recomendado dejar el país el día antes, cosa que haré camino de la tranquila Tegucigalpa. Me perderé la fiesta. Será un día histórico para la democracia salvadoreña si hay cambio en el poder, y alcanzarán un valor de 10 en la escala de consolidación democrática. Y si no, seguirá todo como hasta ahora, sin ningún cambio en las fracasadas políticas para mantener la cohesión social y reducir el crimen creciente, y no menos importante, sin verdaderos controles a la corrupción galopante. Y sería indignante...

Porque hay cosas indignantes:
  • Un país con casi $6.000 per cápita no debería tener provincias con más del 15% de niños malnutridos. Una política social eficaz (como Bolsa Familia en Brasil) podría resolver el hambre con muy poco dinero. Y en muy poco tiempo.

  • Un país con casi $6.000 per cápita debería ser capaz de recaudar más que el 11% del PIB. Sin dinero no hay espacio para políticas públicas razonables, y sólo queda un Estado Guardián sólo capaz de mantener el status quo. Gobierne la derecha o la izquierda.

  • Porque la clave es siempre la misma: Un país con $6.000 per capita y una desigualdad alta (Gini 0,52), el 20% más rico tiene muchísima riqueza acumulada, y el sistema fiscal debería ser más progresivo para ser sostenible. En El Salvador, el marginal máximo del impuesto sobre la renta y sobre las empresas (es decir, aquellos que ganan cientos de miles, sino millones de dólares al año) es un ridículo 25%: en cualquier país desarrollado civilizado oscila entre el 38% y el 50%. En su lugar, son los impuestos al consumo la base del sistema tributario salvadoreño (casi el 60% de los ingresos). Y éstos los pagan mayoritariamente aquellos que dedican todo su presupuesto a consumir sobrevivir, es decir, los más pobres...

Ya sólo me quedan un par de días en El Salvador. Y haciendo memoria, han sido días de sonrisas. El Salvador es sobre todo, para mi, la sonrisa de sus mujeres. Esa sonrisa cálida y hospitalaria con que me acogieron desde buen principio, el abrazo amistoso, y el trabajo duro con que enfrentan el día a día. En muchas ocasiones, ellas son el único sostén familiar, huido el padre y abandonados los hijos. Y sometidas a múltiples discriminaciones, analfabetismo, los peores trabajos, la falta de respeto y el paternalismo católico, ellas sorprendentemente salen adelante. Pese a que la injusticia se replica con cada generación nueva. El "sexo débil" es, aquí más que en ninguna parte, el más fuerte.

Me recuerdan mucho, en muy diversas formas, a mi madre. Admiro su coraje...

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Death in San Salvador

I have been quite naïve so far. Nice streets, warm people and this apparent medium-high level of development were hiding the truth. But the reality is crystal clear: El Salvador is, after Irak, the most dangerous place on Earth (Honduras ranks fourth). As it is the case of DC, in El Salvador weapons are widespread: almost 10% of the population -basically men- carry guns in the streets. No wonder why many restaurants and shops display a door sticker of "Guns forbidden here" next to the one about dogs.

Latino gangs come to the mind of many people when imagining Central American crime. The "mara Salvatrucha" or the 18th street one are internationally famous. I was watching yesterday a documentary on Salvadorian maras (gangs), which apparently became more invisible after the surge in governmental repression since 2003. But also because of that, now they are stronger and the way they operate is pretty similar to the Sicilian mafias: they impose a code of fear and trust in the neighborhoods, a parallel tax system, and a code of honor and retaliation in the areas they control. Gambetta was very good explaining the mindset behind the omertà. But the maras can't be behind the astronomical crime rates and assassinations: their business is to protect, not to assassinate.

"But it's the structural violence in the Salvadorian society the main reason for such a rampant crime", África said to me today. She is responsible for governance and gender at the Spanish Embassy and I just had a meeting with her about our development project. After arguing that usually she is anything but paranoid about crime, she begged me to double my caution, and shared her personal number just in case anything would happen. She also suggested that it would be a good idea to leave the country before election day. "Do you guys expect trouble?", and the answer was more than positive, due to the political tensions going on and how close is the race. Claims of fraud are expected for sure, and political violence can happen during or before election day. In the way back to my guesthouse, I asked my cabdriver if he had experience crime recently. "Look at these red signs in my hands: they tied me hard two months ago". Apparently, he picked up some guys in the bus station, just arriving from Guatemala, and they pointed to his head with a gun and stole his car. He was just lucky to survive, because many others don't.

In a highly cited paper, Morgan Kelly found that violent crime is strongly correlated to inequality, adding more empirical evidence to the social disorganization theories: crime is going to rise in parallel to inequality. And here I am, in one of the most unequal countries in the world, after 22 years rule of the conservative ARENA party (and a previous dictatorship) and two decades of Maquila economy. Data like the one I show below should help us to understand why Salvadorans are living in such a violent world:

Today I also started reading "Guazapa: Testimonio de un médico norteamericano" by Charles Clements. It's the account of a young Californian M.D. in 1980, who after having exposure in San Jose to victims of tortures in El Salvador, decides to get involved and find his way to help civilians suffering the violence of the civil war... in the guerrilla side. After two chapters, I was totally moved by the descriptions of the suffering, surgery with swiss knifes and dental floss, violence and human misery. And this kind of experiences, like that of Dr. Clements, engender a strong, [com]passionate character.

Character, like a photograph, develops better in darkness.

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Bananas, Maquilas and Volunteers

El Salvador Fact of the Day: "Una cora" is "one quarter", and it's pronounced exactly this way in Spanish. The Salvadoran economy is dollarized, by the way.

Taste of the Day: Pupusas rellenas de Chicharrones y Queso

Drink of the Day:
Licuado de Guineo (Banana-like milkshake)


Compared to their other Latin American peers, which in the last years have heavily relied on commodity-driven growth, Central American countries and Mexico are quite industrialized. Much of their industrial network is channeled through the Maquila system.

The maquila economic system surged in small economies which are open to "free" trade, being very succesful attracting foreign direct investment to those zones free of taxes and with meagre labor regulations. The resulting economic equilibrium is one where the citizenry can't benefit from the economic activity -no taxes to finance public services- and the economic impact of those investments is limited. The later is especially true because of the limited multiplier effect in the economy derived from low wages paid in the maquila and the worse job conditions compared to the rest of the economy. In addition, other domestic businesses are harm by the maquilas (factories, call centers, service providers) because they can't compete in the same conditions, and they end entering in a race-to-the-bottom in salaries and labor conditions.

It is true that, because of the maquila system, El Salvador is quite industrial -in textiles, for example-, as it is also the case of Mexico or Central America. And if your goal is to transform your society in the gray outskirts of Shanghai, keep trying. But if you aspire to a different society, much more European, Chilean or Canadian, then this equilibrium is really toxic.

The most frustrating issue is that, even if the left party wins the next elections, there is little to do in the short run. Without regional coordination, any movement to increase the tax pressure or to improve labor conditions in the maquilas, will produce a stampide to the closest country. This is why they are also known as "golondrinas" (swallows).

Someone told me about a Canadian non-profit, named Center for Exchange and Solidarity, whose mission is to be an international electoral observer during the upcoming Salvadoran presidential elections (03/15). As soon as I heard about them, I got excited and immediately contacted them to join their crew in the Election Day. Unfortunately, it seems not to be cheap to volunteer for a good cause, and I'm still figuring out where to get from the almost $300 necessary to join them.


Five quick facts about El Salvador and some random thoughts...

1. It's good to be again at 90ºF / 32ºC. This has been my last winter.

2. Either you are a Real Madrid supporter or a Barça supporter, as I am. And there is no reconciliation between both worlds. The cab driver stopped talking to me, for 40 minutes, after noticing I was from Barça (he was madridista). On the other side, the border guy became a best friend forever of mine because of that, and I skipped paying the 10$ tourist fee.

3. As I noticed several times before in Washington, my Spanish is hard to understand for Salvadorans. The other way around also applies.

4. Classism is quite less obvious in El Salvador than in other Latin American countries, due in part to a national sense of equality, due in part to the racial blend of Europeans, Amerindians and Asians that Salvadorans usually are, regarding of the social class.

5. The national cuisine includes too much fried stuff to keep people reasonably fit. Pupusas are tasty and good, yeah, but for breakfast everyday, really? :)

I was talking to a recently graduated Salvadoran lawyer about the political situation: "If the FMLN (the exguerrilla leftist party) wins next week elections, it'll be fine. And I plan to go for grad school to Chicago, with a scholarship. But if they don't, or if the elections are so close that the ruling party (ARENA) uses fraud to remain in power, I'll stay to protect my family here and fight against the fraud". The right-wing ARENA party has been in power the last 22 years, since the end of the Salvadoran Civil War. Much of the country's current problems, corruption, nepotism and unhealthy policies are a direct responsibility of ARENA's management of the country. Using the phantom of communism, associated to the exguerrilla, they managed to stay in power for two decades, even if it is also true that their power has been fading especially since 2003. Now many Salvadorans look with envy to the integration process going on in Latin America under different umbrellas, either the ALBA alternative or the Southern Cone old experiment, and the prosperity they don't enjoy. Maquilas, either in the sweat-shop version or the higher standard glass-and-iron office for the middle class who is bilingual, are the skeleton of the Salvadoran economy, preventing workers from properly unionizing and keeping reasonable wages. And all this pressure cooker, just moderated by the constant emigration to the US, is fuelling the vote for the opposition party.

Many civic organizations, including the non-profit I am collaborating with, are really mobilized to get out the vote and ensure that there is a healthy transition in power, but the ruling party has been too long in power to leave it easily. Anyhow, I plan to attend a free concert of top Salvadoran pop bands, organized by Democracia y Desarrollo next weekend. The idea is to promote a conscious and meditated vote of the youngest, but obviously the indirect effect is to increase the vote for the change.

Good luck, FMLN!

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