Saving El Salvador with dollars and sense

Posted: Mar 08, 2001 12:00 AM
SAN MIGUEL, El Salvador - The little boy, watching a puffy white cloud sitting like a wide brimmed sombrero on top of Volcano Chaparrastique looming majestically over San Miguel, squealed with delight: "The volcano wears a hat." Salvadorans take their pleasures in the landscape where they can find them. San Miguel's distinctions are not grand, but a grand one indeed is that the city did not take a direct hit in the two earthquakes that struck exactly a month apart. But if this city escaped earthquake devastation, it nevertheless suffers from the afflictions found everywhere else in this tiny country - a pervasive poverty, cramped housing, bad water and the dust, grime and pollution that make everyday experience oppressive. Mercifully, the fruits, vegetables and fish are delicious. During the long Marxist insurgency, the army often landed small prop planes on a grassy field outside San Miguel just so soldiers could decamp to feast on the mariscada, a rich creamy fish broth with juicy prawns and lobster. It's a specialty of the region. El Cuco, a beach of black sand on the Pacific, is an hour away and offers fantasies for the starry-eyed Salvadorans who dream of it becoming a tourist mecca, with the beautiful people sipping daiquiris on luxurious balconies as they watch the red-and-gold sun slip down the sky. Some day, not today. A child near the beach is startled to see a covey of gringos, and quickly runs away. She returns with necklaces and bracelets of roughly strung shells, offering them to the highest bidder. (Everybody bargains no matter how small the sums.) One afternoon I met with a group of professors from the San Miguel campus of the University of El Salvador. The university buildings, like so much of the architecture in this country, is dull and unkempt, brightened only by occasional murals in flamboyant hues. One mural honors Archbishop Oscar Romero, a hero to the rebels in the insurgency who was assassinated by death squads while saying mass in the chapel of the Divine Providence Hospital in San Salvador. A number of the professors are still bitter that the United States supported the government and complain that the United States hasn't sent enough help in the aftermath of the earthquakes. The next day President Bush, meeting with Salvadoran President Francisco Flores at the White House, agreed to halt the deportation of Salvadoran illegals for 18 months so they can continue to send money home. President Flores welcomed this measure, saying it was important because so many Salvadorans can send American dollars directly to their families in towns devastated by the earthquakes. More than 150,000 Salvadorans who live in the United States without documents are expected to apply for temporary working papers; many live in and around the nation's capital. In my own Washington neighborhood, I can buy papusas, tortillas filled with cheese or pork, as well as plantains fried by Salvadoran cooks. Nearly 1 million Salvadorans (including illegals) send an estimated $1.7 billion home each year, which amounts to 14 percent of the country's gross domestic product. Salvadorans, after Mexicans, make up the largest number of illegals living in the United States. Bush also pledged $52 million in reconstruction aid this year and promises to match or increase that next year. This may or may not assuage feelings of the professors who are angry that American dollars are now distributed as legal currency along with colones. (Shops sell kitschy leather wallets with the image of Ben Franklin imprinted on the one $100 bill next to wallets depicting a bill for 100 colones with the seal of El Salvador.) Everyone worries about how aid money filters down to the people who need it most. I saw several projects adorned with signs announcing that the Agency for International Development was responsible for the reconstruction, but very little looked to have been accomplished since Hurricane Mitch blew through two years ago. Between the bureaucracies and the middlemen, between good intentions and greased palms, help moves slowly. Two hundred thousand families have been made homeless by the earthquakes and damage estimates run to $3 billion. Many Salvadorans once skeptical of George W. Bush helping them much - speaking Spanish was nice but not enough - now hail him as friend. But soon enough, alas, the earth will move again.