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Salvadoran speaks about anti-mining resistance in his country

October 6, 2011

This morning at the GVSU downtown campus, Agustin Menjiva, a community organizer from El Salvador, addressed a group of about 150 students.

Agustin’s visit was part of a speaking tour with the group Sister Cities, which provided a translator for the talk. The village that Agustin is from (Arcatao) has a sister city relationship with the city of Madison, Wisconsin.

Agustin begins by providing some background on the recent history of El Salvador to give a context to the current struggle. From the late 1970s through 1992, El Salvador was immersed in a civil war that resulted in a great deal of suffering and murder of civilians. The death toll was estimated at 80,000, according to an investigation by the UN Truth Commission in 1994.

Our struggle in the 80s was based on our desire to have basic human rights, the right to organize, the right to form unions, the right to land, education and housing.” Agustin says that the repression was overwhelming and that the target of the repression was predominantly the poor and rural workers. “Indeed, it was a crime to be poor in El Salvador, especially if you demanded justice.

Agustin also mentions that there were many religious workers targeted during the repression, especially those that worked with and spoke out on behalf of the poor. He mentions that Salvadoran Bishop Oscar Romero was the most visible example of religious solidarity in the country at the time. Romero, who denounced the repression and military violence, was murdered while saying mass in San Salvador.

Community organizers like myself were also targeted. In fact, anyone who was seeking real solutions to the injustice were often targeted by the military death squads,” said Agustin.

Eventually a group of armed insurgents, known as the FMLN, was formed and began a military campaign against the repressive government in El Salvador. The military’s response was to unleash even more repression. Agustin gives an example of the Rio Sumpul massacre, where 600 Salvadoran refugees were killed by the military in one afternoon while trying to cross a river into Honduras.

Agustin also spoke about how many people fled their villages and hid in the mountains, which is what people from his community did. People would live in caves and hide from the military as a means of survival.

In 1984 CRIPDEZ was formed in El Salvador and sought to develop solidarity with the international community, which eventually led to the Sister Cities project as a means of providing support for their struggle. Part of this support was manifested in having international people accompany us to our communities to deter further massacres and human rights abuses. From 1986 through 1991, many communities returned to their villages. The government condemned this action and claimed that the families of these communities were guerrillas and terrorists.

In 1992, there was a cease-fire followed by a signing of Peace Accords between the Salvadoran government and the FMLN. Agustin says that most people saw the FMLN as a defender of the people, which provided tremendous support to the armed revolution.

The speaker then told the students that this period of massive repression was also the result of the support that the US government gave to the Salvadoran government/military. During the 1980s, the US was providing $1.5 million of military aid per day to the military to carry out its murderous campaign.

It was this collective experience of the Salvadoran people that in many ways led to their desire to organize a better future. Agustin then said that his father and one brother were killed by the Salvadoran military, which is a constant reminder of why we work for justice and human rights. His own experience is what informs his desire to organize his own community and to have a clear analysis of systemic violence and exploitation.

With the signing of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in 2005, it opened El Salvador to a new kind of exploitation and violence. Gold mining companies from the US and Canada have flooded the country and are trying to extract resources that will not benefit the people in the communities where the gold has been discovered.

There has been tremendous resistance by the communities to these mining efforts, particularly in the department of Chalatenago. People in the community of San Jose Las Flores began to organize around the human and ecological impact of mining, which eventually led to preventing any mining companies from operating in that area. Some of this organizing has involved lots of education work and hosting community councils to collectively discuss what impact mining might have.

Agustin said that the campaign is now a national campaign in El Salvador. Their hope is that they can get the government to take a stronger stand against mining to prevent future exploitation and ecological destruction.

The mining companies have responded by suing the Salvadoran government, arguing that the legal agreements in CAFTA protect their right to mine in that country. One of the leading companies, Pacific Rim, is hoping to use the lawsuit to pressure the Salvadoran government to allow these companies to operate with impunity.

The translator (Alex) with Sister Cities then spoke about some of the organizing happening in the US to bring attention to this issue and to get more Americans to provide solidarity for the current Salvadoran struggle.

Alex also mentions that the efforts of the mining companies have caused some division in a few communities in the country. These divisions have led to violence, where at least 4 anti-mining activists have been murdered in recent years. The mining companies are saying the violence was gang related, but Alex said that the gang members were paid to commit these murders. Another target of the repression has been Radio Victoria, a community radio station that has been critical of the mining. She said that if people want more information on these issues they can go to www.elsalvadorsolidarity.org.

After the talk, one person asked the question of who was the US President during the repressive years in El Salvador. Reagan and Bush Sr. were the presidents during the bulk of the civil wars years, but Carter was President during the beginning of the US military support of the repression. Archbishop Romero had even sent a letter to Carter in early 1980 to ask him to stop sending military aid. Carter never responded to the letter.

Another student asked what President Obama has done in regards to El Salvador. The response was that he has said nothing and done nothing on the mining issue. Agustin also said that most Salvadorans are not big fans of Obama because he has increased the number of deportations, which has affected many Salvadorans who were living in the US. One last concern, according to Agustin, is that Salvadorans are disgusted with the Obama administration’s support of the Honduran coup in 2009 and the subsequent repression.

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