The Trail Left by Fidel

castro

The revolutionary is dead. The news drew mixed reactions around the world.

Fidel led a life drawing the ire of the West while maintaining the hopes of social justice and equality from his supporters. With his brother Raul now in power, what happens in Cuba’s following years will help solidify Fidel’s legacy—was he the revolutionary his supporters claim, or was he the oppressive dictator hated by the West? You may already have made up your mind.

Putting aside the Cold War, the Cuban missile crisis, the failed invasion of the Bay of Pigs, and all the general animosity which has existed in the 20th century between Cuba and the West (who can forget the US embargo?), examining Castro’s accomplishments and shortcomings can help us appreciate the lasting effect he has had on 20th century politics.

My personal view is that it’s easy to support the idea of “taking down the imperialist ruler to let the people rule for themselves”—if that’s how the argument is framed, then the line between “the good guys” and the “bad guys” favours Castro: Fidel is a hero. He fought in the name of justice, giving land to peasants, bringing black Cubans from the countrysides to white-populated cities like Havana (NY Times, “Global Brinksmanship”).

But I don’t believe it’s that simple. For Cuba’s political environment to have functioned in the Fidel era, Cubans have had to make sacrifices; ones which consisted of rights they fought for in their revolution, and ones which if we were to put in standards of developed countries—“democratic” or “communist”—would be unacceptable.

Successes: School and Health

For the purpose of this post, I want to hash out two  successes in areas often touted by the supporters of Castro’s policies: Education and Health Care. These successes are noteworthy; while Fidel has many critics, it would be impossible for them to ignore the positive effect he has had on two of man/woman’s most fundamental human rights.

If one follows international standards, Castro delivered on his promise for access to education. Cuba is the second-highest ranking Latin American country in the world on the UN Education Index, placing 44th in a list of 187 countries. That’s only three behind of Chile, which placed 41st. Adding to that, UNESCO figures show that the country boasts a 99% literacy rate. Castro has undeniably been successful in promoting education in Cuba.

This is not surprising. After overthrowing Batista in 1959, Castro envisioned an education system unobstructed by social barriers. One academic reported early on that the illiteracy rate dropped from 25% to 2-3% in the first ten years after his revolution (Allan, G., 1974). Similar policies were pushed and evolved in the following years, to the point where Cuba now has a fully state-funded tertiary education system. Thus, even in the new millennium, when compared to their regional counterparts, Cubans were likely to access education under Fidel:

Level of Schooling 1991, End of USSR 1999, Turn of Century 2006, Castro final years
Primary 92 97 99
Secondary 65 72 94
Tertiary 25 20 88

Figure 1: Percentage of students of enrolment age enrolled in primary, secondary, or tertiary education (%). Source: World Bank 

Successes in healthcare are equally as noteworthy. Cuba’s publicly run system is considered among the best in the Latin American world, even drawing praise by former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in 2000.

In 2014, Cuba devoted 11.1% of its GDP toward healthcare (about US $8.8 billion), a figure larger than what most Latin American countries had spent on their own systems. It’s also been on record that other Latin American heads of state, such as Salvadoran President Sanchez Ceren and former Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, have made trips to Cuba to receive medical attention rather than relying on the health care systems of their own countries. While it doesn’t boast the same technological health care advancements as more developed countries, by Latin American standards, Cuba is a leader.

So, in terms of spreading knowledge and health care—two rights highlighted in the UN Declaration of Human Rights (Articles 25 and 26)—Fidel did well in Cuba, and these successes have helped legitimize the communist revolution for other left-leaning Latin American leaders and groups: Salvador Allende in Chile, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, the FMLN in El Salvador, and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua are just a few.

But of course, Fidel has as many critics as he has supporters.

More work to be done

Criticism of Castro’s rule quickly gravitates towards Cuba’s human rights record, which is mired with accusations of imprisoning political activists and journalists. According to Human Rights Watch, as of 2016,

the Cuban government continues to repress dissent and discourage public criticism. It now relies less on long-term prison sentences to punish its critics, but short-term arbitrary arrests of human rights defenders, independent journalists, and others have increased dramatically in recent years. Other repressive tactics employed by the government include beatings, public acts of shaming, and the termination of employment.

These sentiments were echoed by Amnesty International, which reported that “the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation (CCDHRN) documented more than 8,600 politically motivated detentions of government opponents and activists during [2015/2016]” (italics mine). Commentators have lent their support to this claim, in addition to claims that Castro sanctioned extra-judicial killings.

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Fidel Castro and Che Guevara are regarded as two of Latin America’s champions of freedom

Additionally, Cuba has also been criticized for the state of its promotion of press freedom: Freedom House gave Cuba a score of 91/100 (where the closer the score is to 100, the more infringed the press is) and labelled the country’s “Press Freedom” status as “not free”. As my fellow communication and journalism colleagues will know, journalism’s fourth-estate role is crucial for keeping tabs on heads of state and individual human rights. Very few newspapers outside state-sanctioned ones exist in the country, which creates an obvious (and quite problematic) conflict of interest (Miami Herald, “A Major Advantage”).

The issues of access to free speech and the freedom to share information are troublesome regardless of where one lies on the political spectrum.

It’s been contested even in the context of the West: Canadians expressed outrage when C-30 (The “Protecting Children from Internet Predators Act”) was proposed in 2012. Critics argued that such a bill would have facilitated mass surveillance of online activity. In the US and around the world, SOPA and PIPA caused a stir, as did Edward Snowden’s revelation of the CIA’s PRISM program. Even Turkish President Recep Erdogan caused a stir after trying ban Twitter in his country after some unflattering news was leaked on the platform.

In the case of Castro, these problems are at times seen as necessary consequences in the fight for socialism and against Western Imperialism. This doesn’t mean that Canadian, U.S., or European attempts at presenting these laws were any better, but it also shouldn’t legitimize Castro’s approach to implementing them.

Furthermore, much can be said about the socio-economic state of many Cubans. it would also seem that Castro’s economic policies—ones which may have seen success 50 years ago—haven’t adapted for the 21st century. Low wages continue to plague the country’s population—shortly after Castro’s death, many reports surfaced of younger generations of Cubans who were concerned that the old “Castro economic system,” which relied on USSR subsidies and state-run industries, was failing them. For instance, one CBC article noted that some Cubans turn to black market jobs, such as prostitution, to make ends meet. Similarly to other Latin American countries, many rely on remittances to tie loose ends.

Such policies may have fostered nationalism, but it also hurt Cuba’s ability to keep up with new communication technologies: Cuba has only recently opened its communication infrastructure to allow for cellphones and for internet wifi-zones around the country, communication technologies which are vital for 21st century commerce, political engagement, and day-to-day living. Access is limited and often times expensive.

Rest in Peace, Comrade

One thing the pro-Castro and anti-Castro camps can agree on is the lasting impact Fidel had on Cubans. Thousands lined the street to catch a glimpse of his ashes as they made their way across 800km (500 miles) of Cuban terrain. Over the weekend, I saw a speech delivered by his brother Raul in front of thousands of Cubans in which he was emphatic that Cuba’s socialist dream was within reach.

A carriage containing Fidel Castro's ashes drives down the street at Parque Cespedes in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba, Dec. 3, 2016. Bringing to an end nine days of national mourning, the ashes of Fidel Castro were buried on Sunday morning in a cemetery in this coastal city where, 63 years ago, he began his socialist revolution. (Tomas Munita/The New York Times/Redux)
Thousands lined the streets to catch a glimpse of Castro’s ashes

Whether positioned on the left or the right, it’s important to examine Castro’s legacy from the height of a U-2 spy-plane (*pun*). I’ve examined some arguments made by both sides. It’s important not to frame the debate in terms of “The West vs. Cuba,” because there will never be a “perfect” leader—if framed this way, the debate is set up in such a way that paints a “good guy” and a “bad guy,” which trivializes it. Rather, we should look at what the leaders—Castro, Kennedy, Nixon, Trudeau, etc.—have done for their countries.

The truth is that Castro succeeded in areas other Latin American countries failed, particularly in access to education and access to health care. By those measures, his “dreaded” communist policies were actually efficient.

However, access to education and access to healthcare are only two social aspects that Castro wanted to tackle in his fight for social equality for all. Fidel may have been a champion for Latin America in these areas, but as of now, if viewed from a broader, international level, his 50 years of ruling leaves much to be desired.

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Hillary under the Latino Microscope

US politics got you bored yet? Hear me out for a sec.

We’re all tired of US election talk. Trump won. It’s over.

Questions are circulating in the US, one of which is what will happen with the 7 million illegal immigrants living in the country. It’s estimated that half are Latino.

We’re familiar with Trump’s on-the-record claims regarding Mexicans: the US has become Mexico’s dumping ground for drugs, crime, and rapists (don’t forget, “some good people” too). It was reported yesterday that he would “immediately” kick 2-3 million illegal immigrants out of the US; kick them out and keep them out with a wall.

If you’re Latino, Trump sucks. Clearly, Clinton has your best interest.

Perhaps it was Trump’s outlandish rhetoric toward, well, everyone, or perhaps it was his lack of policy direction, but for whatever reason, Hillary Clinton seemed to be the Latino champion. Indeed,  between the two candidates, I would have stood behind Clinton.

But for a population that was so front and centre at the beginning of Clinton vs. Trump, it struck me as bizarre that toward the final months of the campaign, Clinton’s relationship with Latin America was subject to such little scrutiny.

Latin America has an interesting love-hate relationship with the US. While Latinos look to the US for “freedom”, “safety” and “prosperity”, it’s hard to forget the effect of US involvement in the region throughout the Cold War. Judging by the number of Latinos currently in the US, it would seem as though Latinos might be able to forgive the 1980s for years of hardship, so long as those years are not forgotten. The last thing Central/Latin America needs is more negative US-involvement in the region.

Yet, here we are with Hillary Clinton.

In short, it was reported that in 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton supported the June 2009 coup of Honduras’ democratically elected government. At the time of the coup, President Manuel Zelaya was in the process of conducting a referendum with the goal of amending the constitution to allow for an additional presidential term.

Manuel Zelaya detail, ABR August 07, 2007.jpg
Honduran President Manuel Zelaya was overthrown in a 2009 coup

Rather than following President Obama’s lead in condemning the coup (one which he referred to as “illegal”), and in spite of cries from the UN and OAS, Clinton refused to acknowledge that a coup had taken place. Furthermore, in spite of a diplomatic cable which stated that the “forced removal by military was clearly illegal”, Clinton threw her support behind a federal election for a new president. Put anyone in power, just not Zelaya.

Clinton justified her decision by saying that she was attempting to“broker a solution without bloodshed,” and without the sanctions a “coup” inherits. However, critics pointed out that shortly after the overthrow, Honduras was hit by waves of violence traced back to the coup: the re-emergence of death squads, the tightening grasp of gang activity, and the murder of social activists (although, I would argue that gang activity had proliferated long before the coup had taken place), and that sanctions in other coups (such as Egypt in 2013) weren’t lifted at all.

I’d like to point out that Zelaya was far from perfect—he was a polarizing figure in Honduras who lacked unanimous support regarding his direction in policy development and his handling of social issues. He was also linked to corruption charges and shady business deals, such as his involvement with Hondutel, the country’s telecom provider.

However, a US Presidential candidate meddling with the democratic process of a foreign country is quite concerning. As a country which prides itself in democratic ideals and supporting democratically-elected leaders, it’s worrisome that a presidential candidate and former Secretary of State would stand idle and not only refuse to denounce the coup as a “coup”, but also attempt to justify it.

Maybe Hillary acted the way she did because she understood the Hondurans struggles. Maybe she was acting as a motherly/grandmotherly figure to give Hondurans not what they wanted, but what they needed. Maybe?

Latinos might remember Hillary likening herself to their “abuela”(Spanish for “grandmother”). Earlier this year, the Clinton campaign posted a list of “7 things Hillary Clinton has in common with your abuela”. The strategy didn’t sit well with critics, many of whom were Latinos who went online with #NotMyAbuela to voice their disapproval of what they called “Hispandering”. Indeed, as the New York Times reported, critics pointed out that unlike many Latina grandmothers, “Mrs. Clinton did not grow up poor like their relatives, and was not separated from loved ones by country borders.”

(Editorial note: as a Latino, I viewed Clinton’s “abuela” strategy as pandering).

But certain tactics such as pandering should be expected in elections. As my fresh-out-law-school friend commented, “it’s better she pander to the Latino vote than to demonize them”. That’s probably true—if I was given the option between the candidate who outwardly insulted Latinos and the candidate who might look like s/he cares for them, I would go with the latter.

However, there’s a sense of “authenticity” which pandering leaves to be desired. Are one’s intentions real? Thus, the question that follows is: were Latinos’ interests ever legitimately addressed in the 2016 election? After Trump referred to Mexicans as criminals and rapists, the Latino vote was left dangling like an apple for the taking. Slam dunk for Clinton.

But what if Trump hadn’t so outwardly demonized them? Would we still be so shocked with his deportation plan? It’s worthy to note that by 2015, the Obama administration was on track to deport more illegal immigrants than any other administration in US history. By 2016, it had deported close to 2.5 million, but this fact was seldom mentioned throughout the presidential race.

In the end, democracy played out. Many argue the democrats shot themselves in the foot by picking a candidate so mired in controversy (not that Trump was any less so). Others argue that people just wanted America to be “great again”. Analyses will be pouring in for years.

Regardless, a new president will be in the white house in 2017, and Latinos, both legal and illegal, will be looking at the next four years very carefully.

Peace at Long Last? Not so fast

no-peace

Last month, I wrote about an imminent peace deal between Colombia and FARC. It appeared as though fifty years of war would be laid to rest pending referendums on the deal. I was happy. My social media timelines were happy. After five decades of fighting, the world’s longest ongoing conflict was about to end.

Not so fast. Today, my social media timelines look quite different.

In a shock to many (including my parents—who are Salvadoran, but nevertheless have lived through the atrocities of war—and I), Colombians cast their ballots on the referendum and voted “NO”. They rejected the peace deal. Preliminary surveys suggested that “YES” would win by a 2 to 1 margin.

2 to 1.

So, similar to this year’s Brexit vote, it comes as a shock that the peace deal was rejected by such a razor thin margin: 50.25 to 49.75 percent.

The news is only a few hours old as I write this, so details and speculation on what the results mean for the country moving forward will arrive in the coming days. We know a few things, though:

Voter turnout was dismal. Early reports say that less than 40 percent of eligible voters cast a vote in the referendum. A few assumptions can be drawn out from this.

One is that heavy rains off the Colombian coast affected overall voter turnout. But can we blame bad weather for the decision of the 60 percent who didn’t vote?

In my previous post, I suggested that accepting FARC rebels’ reintegration into society could be a hard pill for Colombians to swallow. The sharp divide between the “YES” and the “NO” camps in the referendum highlights the polarization of public opinion towards forgiving and/or forgetting past crimes.

FARC has been accused of financing their operation by kidnappings and drug trafficking—accusations which they deny, but also operations which Colombians were tired of from the Escobar era. It seems as though those who voted “NO” did not see justice in accepting a peace deal that would have left FARC rebels unprosecuted.

In a broader picture, this is a compromise that many Latin Americans who have been affected by violence have had to face: should criminals who have exploited state failures be left unprosecuted in the name of “peace” or “progress”? It’s a loaded question with many arguments in the “pro” and “against” camps. Past truces brokered between gangs and criminals have left sour tastes in many Latin American mouths. It would seem as though Colombia’s case isn’t any different.

And state failure breeds another unfortunate trend: apathy toward government. A history of mistrust has plagued Latin American governments because of corruption and transparency issues trickling through all levels of the state. Unfortunately, it has bred an attitude of “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” among citizens. This is just speculation on my part, but given the turbulent political history within the region (one which I have researched), I think it’s a factor worth considering.

farcs-message
FARC issued a press release shortly after the results were announced. The rebel group vows to continue looking for a peaceful end to the conflict.

In spite of the failed peace referendum, both sides seem to have not given up hope. Hours after the results came in, FARC issued a press release reiterating their intentions to continue their pursuit of a peace deal, saying that the only weapons they plan to use in the future are “words to build a better future”. Meanwhile, President Juan Santos announced that the FARC/Colombia ceasefire would remain in effect.

I mentioned in my previous post that sunny ways are still far off in the horizon. Unfortunately, they are further off than I had anticipated, and today’s events have tested the enormous levels of patience, persistence, and compromise required by all parties in the peace process. However, if there’s any silver lining to today’s events, its that both sides continue to show willingness to pursue a peaceful solution to their half-century old conflict.

Colombia Rejoices: Peace at Long Last

colombia

Instead of going with my usual essay/blog format, I’ve decided quickly comment on something positive.

Hidden beneath the stories of the 2016 Rio Olympics last month was a story that quietly sneaked into international headlines. You almost had to look with a magnifying glass to see it.

The Colombian War is over. The government and the country’s rebel group, FARC, agreed to a peace treaty, which is waiting to be voted on by FARC members next month.

Colombians and Latin Americans rejoiced. Personally, I was convinced I would father my own children before I ever saw the day.

Like most Latin American countries in the 20th Century, Colombia has witnessed the crippling effects of armed conflicts. Aside from the infamous drug cartels and operations that have been made known to the world through pop-culture, this grittier, decades-long conflict took place over a course of 52 years.

Half a century! Imagine that. Multiple generations of Colombian families have never tasted peace. In that time, Colombia’s military spending increased drastically—according to World Bank data, since 2000, Colombia has devoted at least 3% of its GDP toward military spending. Between 2000 and 2010, the country’s military spending doubled from $5.7 bn to $10.4bn (found on p. 16 of the Financial Times)

The peace process started in June and wrapped up in late August. The deal stipulates that the FARC rebel group will disarm within 6 months following the deal and become a legitimate political party, the same way the FMLN in El Salvador went from being a rebel group to the country’s dominant left-wing party.

Peace is great. But the challenges to reintegrate to society are only beginning for FARC.

It’s been alleged that FARC financed its operations through sketchy deals, ones which included drug trafficking and kidnappings–allegations which FARC denies. As a result, some Colombians don’t look at the ex-rebel group too kindly.

From an outsider’s perspective, it will be a case study on how (or if) Colombians forgive and/or forget the conflict’s past—if it’s anything like the public sentiment towards street gangs in Central America (which usually calls for “exterminating the roaches/rats”), the estimated 15,000-18,000 ex-FARC fighters–some of whom have been FARC fighters for the majority of their lives (these include militia and troops)–could run into some rough terrain. What will state support for their reintegration into society look like?

There’s also the question of what happens to the soldiers on the government’s side: soldiers who were trained to fight may be called upon to adopt a more civic, policing role. How will they deal with this new responsibility?

There are many questions surrounding the future of Colombia, but Colombia laid the first bricks for a road to a brighter tomorrow. Sunny ways are still far off in the horizon, but it has stopped raining bullets. And that’s something the world should rejoice about.

Brexit to Central America: Is the Central American Union Possible?

brexit EU

June 23 2016 will be a day for history books.

In a textbook case of participatory democracy, the UK stunned the world by voting to exit the European Union. What comes next is unknown; it will take time for the dust to settle and for I’s to be crossed and T’s to be dotted (or is it the other way around?), but there has been no shortage of drama since the historic vote.

One of the reasons Brexit made international headlines is because of the geopolitical weight it carries: the European Union was established to foster political and economic unity across a continent that had been at war with itself for centuries. It facilitated the flow of people in and out of countries, trade regulations, and created a common currency across the continent. UK’s vote to exit has sparked a domino effect among other national pro-exit groups which have called for referendums.

That said, the EU is a sophisticated model that has seen success.

The situation has presented a curious question around my social groups: could the same model be applied to Central America?

I said “no”. Not yet, anyway. A debate ensued.

Mistakes from the Past

Central America had a version of a “European Union” almost 200 years ago, albeit with some differences—rather than uniting nation states the same way the EU does, the Central American version aimed to unite provinces.

In 1823, following their separation from the Spanish Empire, the Central American countries—what are now Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica—as well as what is now the Mexican state Chiapas, formed their own federation, The Federal Republic of Central America. Similarly to the EU, the FRCA was meant to foster regional unity through trade and a common currency; while the provinces opted to leave the Spanish Empire, they retained the use of the Spanish Real (adopting it as the FRCA Real) as the common currency throughout the region (Gudmundson and Lindo-Fuentes, p. 35).

FRCA
Provinces (and present-day countries) which made up the Federal Republic of Central America

Unfortunately, the FRCA didn’t replicate the successes of the European Union. It failed to generate economic and political unity among the six provinces.

Trade within the Republic was hard to establish—as Gudmundson and Lindo-Fuentes write, “it was said that no Central American producer or merchant was free of debts” (p. 33)—and it couldn’t establish a functioning credit system, either (Costa Rica was the only one of the provinces with some success). Moreover, although the FRCA kept the Real as its currency, the currency was scarce (bartering remained popular throughout the region). It also failed to establish a central bank (p. 35).

The provinces were so far apart on issues that the Republic eventually fell into a civil war.  Thus, the short-lived republic failed; by 1841, the FRCA had dissolved. The provinces separated and became the nation states they are today.

To underscore the failures of the FRCA, what followed after the separation was even more fighting between the countries—for instance, between 1841 and 1890, El Salvador had fought with Guatemala 5 times, Honduras 4 times, and Nicaragua once (White, p. 57, 2009).

In sum, rather than being brought together, the region was torn apart.

What about now?

The 20th Century saw Central American countries at peace with each other, minus a few hiccups here and there (such as The Soccer War of 1969, a brief battle fought between El Salvador and Honduras).

The 20th and 21st Century saw the formation of coalitions, commissions, trade agreements, and other international “buzzword” groups in Central and Latin America to address the region’s social, political, and economic problems. They mimic the many others which exist around the world, such as the EU, the European Parliament, The African Union, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, NATO, etc.

One of the big groups Central America is involved in is the Organization of American States. Others include:

    • The Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC);
    • The Central American Integration System (SICA);
    • The United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (CEPAL);
    • The CA-4 Visa, which allows for free, unrestricted movement between Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala (similar to the EU’s free-movement model);

And many more. But these agreements and coalitions don’t have anywhere near the reach of the EU’s legislative power.

What is stopping the Union?

Nothing is preventing the creation of a union, but I offer two reasons against a Central American Union.

First, Central American economies aren’t robust enough for a union to function. High crime rates, slow economic growths, and high debt-to-GDP ratios plague the region, which in turn worsen the economic climate (see country analyses in Focus Economics). There is also the issue of government transparency which has plagued the countries in their post-1990s liberalized economies.

EU
Central America is not ready for a EU-modeled union

Moreover, if a union was made, the strongest economies would be tasked with carrying the weight of the weaker ones. This means that Costa Rica and Panama, who are economically (and perhaps in terms of public policy) the top performers of the six countries within the isthmus of Central America, would be carrying the remaining four. This idea isn’t novel; others such as Nathaniel Parish Flannery have explored the implications of creating similar Latin American unions.

Second, and speaking to the first point, we can use history to see how past unions have failed. As I have outlined above, the original Federal Republic of Central America didn’t pan out as republicans had hoped because provinces clashed on political and economic matters. In the present day, the region is filled with a myriad of internal problems within its nation states (political accountability, gang activity, struggling economies). This is not the ideal climate for the creation of a united entity with a shared currency and sets of regulations.

Conclusion:

Brexit brings many questions which will be answered in the months—and likely years—to come. It’s new territory for political observers, so whatever is on the other side of the “leave” vote is anyone’s (educated) guess.

If there is anything to learn from Brexit, it’s that these unions/federations don’t always accomplish the goals they set out. Britain chose to leave because 52% of Britons didn’t identify with the rest of Europe. Something similar happened in the Federal Republic of Central America: with no common identity, and no political and economic foundation, unity crumbled.

Creating a “Central American Union” in the present day would see history repeat itself. The countries within the region have enough issues to take care of on their own. Amalgamating them to tackle problems in the name of “development” would only hinder what progress they have made.

Flashback: El Salvador’s Match-Fixing Scandal

The summer of 2016 is shaping up to be a heck of a summer for international sports, and not just because of the 2016 Summer Olympics. The 2016 Copa America, and 2016 Euro Cup are certain to capture the spirits and eyeballs of billions across the world.

Salvadorans will tune into both tournaments, not so much for the love of any particular country (they aren’t in either of them), but for the love of the game of futbol (it’s common to see Salvadorans split between two camps when the El Clasico is played: those who support Barcelona and those who cry “Hala Madrid!).

If allegiance has ever been an issue, it has stood through some tough times: El Salvador has had little to boast about in international games. In the last 30 years, the only award it has under its belt is the record for the largest blowout loss in World Cup history: a 10-1 romping by Hungary in 1982 (it was also the last time they qualified).

As bad as that was, La Selecta (as they are lovingly nicknamed) supporters faced an even bigger test in loyalty during the 2010s: a widespread match-fixing scandal.

International Sport Institutions

What drives the sense of international unity behind these otherwise *ordinary* sports? The quick answer is international governing bodies—FIFA for Euro and Copa, and the IOC for the Olympics.

Each body has become the de facto ruling bodies for their corresponding international game, which has its pros and cons. While their de facto status has been vital in feeding nationalist sentiments during large-scale international tournaments, it has also made it harder to keep tabs on the legality of their interior financial moves. The more powerful an organization grows, the more likely it is to self-regulate. This can mean that, if needed, it could become difficult to prosecute an organization for even the most obvious of crimes (Forster, 2016).

UEFA_Euro_2016_Logo.svg
Even if it’s far away, Salvadorans will be watching Euro 2016

Take FIFA, for instance. Prior to the FBI-led 2015 raids on FIFA executives, it was not uncommon to hear assumptions of secret back-door deals and monetary kickbacks (the awarding of the 2022 World Cup to Qatar did more than just raise a few eyebrows). But for the most part, these were only assumptions. It wasn’t until the raids conducted by the FBI in 2015 that the world saw just how deeply entrenched and widespread corruption was across the governing body.

Soccer in El Salvador has some parallels with FIFA’s opearations pre-FBI raids in the sense that both faced transparency issues. Where they differ in recent history is a type of corruption that wasn’t as prominent in the public consciousness during FIFA’s scandal: corruption involving players, specifically, the art of match-fixing.

While there were hints at match fixing during the sweeping FIFA arrests, the indictment centered mostly on the action of FIFA exec heads (the indictment available here). But make no mistake: like the FIFA organization itself, match-fixing has an incredible international reach, with many schemes originating out of Asia (Hill, pp. 23-24, 2011).

La Primera Division

Why would anyone participate in match-fixing? Why betray the loyalty of millions of soccer fans, ones which stuck it out through rough times, such as a record-breaking loss?

The answer boils down to “money”. But to see why money had such a strong pull in the Salvadoran match-fixing, it’s worth exploring the conditions that lead up to the scandal.

Most of the Salvadoran national squad, which represent the country in international tournaments is picked from players who play in the Salvadoran Premier League, La Primera División de Fútbol Profesional. Similar to European countries which have their own professional soccer leagues, soccer players who aim to play with the finest players in El Salvador play in La Primera Division.

The league is classified as a NGO, which gives it the status of a non-profit organization. This means that it doesn’t pay taxes on its revenues.

Rodolfo “El Fito” Zelaya of the league’s “La Alianza F.C.” has been referred to by many as the best player to have worn a Salvadoran shirt. He received a 12-month suspension for match-fixing

Such a classification isn’t rare; actually, until recently, it was something commonly seen in North America—as of May 2016, the NHL remains the only one of the four major professional sport leagues to retain its non-profit status (as stated in its infamous 2013 collective bargaining agreement: see “Preamble”, page 1). The MLB dropped it in 2007 and the NFL dropped it in 2015. The NBA has always paid its share of taxes.

But such a classification in El Salvador is curious. La Prensa Grafica reported that politicians have had roles in club governing bodies, but their financial contributions and money flows have been hard to trace.

Yet even with these contributions, the same article reported that most of the Primera Division‘s teams post financial losses at the end of their seasons. Taxes, they argue, would ultimately cripple the league. But if this is true, it begs the question: with so little money in team coffers, how much money is set aside for player salaries?

It’s hard to say just how much Salvadoran players earn in La Primera Division. The league and its teams are hesitant to release contract figures because, officially, they worry about player safety: a publicly-stated salary could attract potential extortionists. This is a legitimate concern if this is true, but it also shouldn’t be interpreted as players being payed exceptionally well: in a 2015 interview conducted by the online sport publication El Grafico with Alianza (a Primera Division team) president Lisandro Pohl, Pohl stated that “El Fito” Zelaya was the league’s— and therefore, country’s— highest paid player.

Just how much does the “country’s highest paid player” earn?

That’s another figure that’s hard to tell because of limited publicly available information. But one could arrive at an educated guess through some investigating.

    • First, one could look at revenue streams: 2013 total box-office sales for the apertura tournament generated just over $816,000 in revenue (see: Taquila por fecha por equipo > Taquilas Apertura2013 (global)). This revenue stream was then shared between the league’s 10 teams. Broadcast rights generated between $30,000 and $50,000 in revenue for large market teams (which amount to 3 teams). Sponsorship figures added a bit of icing. With such low revenues, it would be tough for any team to pay all their players anything higher than a few thousands of dollars.
    • Second, one could look at El Fito’s pay: according to a statement on an Alianza Facebook fan page, El Fito asked for a $10,000 contract to play in the 2012 season. Based on the reaction generated by the post (which was pure speculation), the assumption can be made that $10,000 is an outlandish amount of money for a Primera Division soccer player.
      • Thus, the assumption can also be made that the average salary for a soccer player in Primera Division is far below $10,000. On top of that, players pay their club a 10% “tax” on their earnings.

Whatever the average salary of a Primera Division may be, one fact is abundantly clear: Salvadoran players aren’t payed anywhere near the salaries of the Messis, Ronaldos, or even the top MLS players of the soccer world.

So, in a country where minimum salaries range from US$98-$200/month (depending on the industry), it comes as no surprise that a professional soccer player would so readily throw a game for financial gain.

Did I say “a” professional soccer player? I meant 22.

Soccer charts
List of Salvadoran players suspended from the national squad for match fixing. Red: lifetime suspension; Blue: 5 year suspension; Green: 18 month suspension; Orange: 12 month suspension; Purple: 6 month suspension. Players who have played outside of La Primera Division are in bold.

The art of Match-Fixing

Sure enough, and consistent with what Declan Hill exposed in his book, it was discovered that behind the match-fixing scandal was a criminal out of Singapore known as “Dan Tan”.

El Grafico uncovered the scandal in 2013. Initially, it reported that seven Salvadoran players agreed to throw a game against the MLS’ DC United in 2010. The plot was hashed out after the members met with three conspirators during a stop in Virginia. At the meeting, the players agreed to lose the game by 2 goals in exchange for $10,000 each. But this was only the tip of El Grafico’s investigation: soon after, it discovered that the team’s match-fixing schemes spilled into its international games. An infectious disease had spread through the team’s locker room. Additional rigged games included:

For many Salvadorans, the news was a national tragedy. Insight Crime reported that to add insult to injury, goalkeeper Miguel Montes, who was the “prime suspect in coordinating, recruiting and paying players on behalf of the match fixers” was allowed to flee to the US without any trouble.

That said, a curious aspect of match-fixing which news articles seldom explore is worth, well, exploring. When analyzing the underground element of match fixing, there seems to be less attention put on the “extortion” angle that exists in these schemes.

Asian match-fixers use similar tactics that Salvadoran gangs use to obtain what they want: violence. Hill (2011) speaks at numerous instances of how gangs use the threat of violence on either the soccer figure himself, or family members of players, to get the soccer figure to accept bribes (pp. 34-35). It will likely never be known if this was the case for El Salvador’s national squad; if it was, it would serve again as a reminder of the weakness of the government: organized criminal activity would be allowed to thrive in the country with little state intervention (it already does, with or without soccer).

What have we learned

Perhaps we should all heed the advice of our schoolyard teachers: it’s just a game, so don’t take it too seriously. There’s no question that sports provide an escape for everyday problems.

Unfortunately, criminals find ways to exploit soccer for their own gain. But who were the criminals in El Salvador’s case? Were they the players involved in the
match-fixing, looking to make a quick buck? Were they the plot’s masterminds in Singapore? Were they both?

Or is match-fixing just too easy? This case, as well as many other match-fixing rings, reminds us that the illusion of professional sports as being inherently free of crime is just that: an illusion—at its most extreme, the 2015 FIFA arrests remind us money can turn human beings into case studies on ethics.

The Black Sox scandal is an early example of match-fixing

Which leads me with one final thought: match-fixing and sport corruption is not endemic to the world’s less-developed regions. One could look at the cases in developed countries to argue this point, such as the drug scandals in the Olympics, steroid regimes in the MLB during the 1990s, doping in Le Tour de France, the Black Sox scandal of 1919, NBA match-fixing…the list is endless.

What was different about El Salvador was soccer’s importance to its people. Many look to the game as an escape from the political and economic issues within the country. Imagine coming home, turning on the TV, and learning that the one thing you thought would never be corruptible was draped in money.

Match-fixing or no match-fixing, many around the world will have their eyes glued to TVs from June to July for Copa America and the Euro Cup. La Selecta, along with its millions of fans, will be watching the tournaments for the love of the game.

Marching for Gang Talk

Soldiers Gang

March 2016 marked the four-year anniversary of a watershed approach to Central American gang violence: a government-backed truce. The Salvadoran government had the (mis)fortune of being its pioneers.

Four years later, the general consensus is that the truce’s negatives vastly outweighed its positives. It failed.

Many argue that in spite of lowering the murder rate in the truce’s *peak* months, it only helped gangs reinforce their grips on territories across the country. Extortion remained rampant and the murder rate eventually returned to pre-truce levels. El Salvador is now the most murderous country in the world. Indeed, the truce leaves behind a legacy of destruction, marginalization, and social regression.

Fortunately, coinciding with the truce’s 3 year anniversary, the month of March saw anti-gang discourse creep back into national politics–and quickly. News reports have churned out so frequently I’ve had to stop, re-research, and re-edit this post multiple times to cover the developments (it is March 28 and I’m reworking this, yet again). I’ve highlighted 5 developments that have transpired over the month.

Fighting the Ides of March

1) San Salvador Mayor Nayib Bukele called out President Sanchez Ceren on Social Media for his administration’s lack of initiative toward gang violence.

Nayib Bukele has become a sort of celebrity mayor across Central America. He has prioritized San Salvador’s infrastructure, having earlier rolled out a plan to “light up” the city by installing street lights throughout the nation’s capital. He is also quite active on his social media accounts. Like Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he is a hit with the country’s youth.

What is significant of Bukele’s rant is the acknowledgement of multiple failed approaches to gangs, both by the country’s Conservative Party (ARENA) and his own FMLN party. He implored the country’s President to get a move-on with initiatives to tackle the issue and argued that there is no need to continue imposing new taxes on Salvadorans (such as the telecom tax) to fund any anti-gang initiatives. He stated that there are plenty of financial resources already available.

2) President Ceren promised to introduce legislation in Congress.

Shortly after Bukele’s Facebook rant, President Sanchez Ceren announced (also here) that he would introduce anti-gang legislation to Congress. This would mean plans for the immediate reduction of the prison population and an increase in military personnel patrolling the streets, creating “military safe zones” (I’ll further discuss this below). Initiatives would be implemented using $42 million generated by the country’s telecom tax. The plan is scheduled to be rolled out this week.

3) It was discovered that gang truce was in the works before the conclusion of the 2014 Federal Election.

The online news source El Faro reported that, before the conclusion of the 2014 federal election, a gang truce was in the process of being brokered between ARENA and the representatives from MS13 and Barrio 18. It published a 26 minute video in which ARENA Vice President Ernesto Muyshondt and Ilopango mayor Salvador Ruano spoke to gang members about reintroducing a second go at truce talks (the transcript available here). This was significant as ARENA and many parts of El Salvador’s population were vocal in their opposition to the original gang truce.

4) Guns that were submitted at the outset of the Gang truce were functional, contrary to earlier reports.

When the 2013 truce was established, it stipulated that gang members forfeit part of their weapon stock to authorities in a sign of willingness to hold their end of the truce. In total, gangs forfeited 498 guns on three separate occasions (the first of which was overseen by Jose Insulza, secretary of the Organization of American States), which included heavy duty weapons such as AK-47s, M16s, and FALs.

At the time of the weapon forfeiture, it was reported that virtually “none of the guns surrendered were functional”, meaning that gangs used the opportunity to dispose of their garbage/dummy firearms. This angered many Salvadorans, including the Attorney General at the time, Luis Martinez—who according to El Faro, was opposed to the truce from its outset.

Gangs agreed to hand over guns as part of their government-backed truce

Two years later, El Faro reported this was not the case. Contrary to Martinez’s claim, the paper reported that in reality, 80% of the guns surrendered were in working order (387 of the 482). While it doesn’t show that 100% of guns were in working order, the report highlighted two points: first, Martinez’s statement is indicative of how much of a political football the truce had become. Second, the report emphasized the need for better political reporting by media outlets. Acting as the fourth estate, journalist must keep tabs on their politicians, especially in a region marred by corruption.

5) A Youtube video was uploaded on March 26 in which the heads of MS 13 and two Barrio 18 factions announced that they would order their gangs to halt violent activity for  72 hours.

The gangs did this in anticipation of the government’s plan to make military safe zones. The gangs argue that “there is no need to implement measures that will violate everyone’s constitutional rights as well as the laws established by the constitution”. Given the failed truce and the sky-high homicide rate, it comes as no surprise that this was a hard statement for the Salvadorans to swallow, as shown by some of the comments left on the video’s YouTube page.

Gang youtube comments
YouTube users approached the gangs’ announcement with skepticism, calling for “death to gangs” and general feelings of distrust

The government echoed these sentiments, rejecting the gang’s statement.

Looking Ahead

It has been a fruitful month for Salvadoran gang discourse.

However, before going any further, one theme that has been underscored in my posts concerning gang activity should be made clear: there is no easy solution to the violence plaguing Central America. It’s important to remember that El Salvador’s socio-economic state is the result of over a century of repressive politics. Gang violence is just one of the fruits created by this seed; as Iaon Grillo writes, violence is an issue that runs throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. It isn’t something localized in El Salvador. Results require patience, which may take generations.

With that said, I want to go back to two interesting revelations explored above in respect to gang activity: increase military activity and prison reform. These are good strategies in combatting gang activity in neighbourhoods as the state needs to demonstrate that it, not gangs, enforce the law. However, by themselves, they can only provide temporary solutions. This is because they fail to address the nation’s social needs.

Increased military activity will drive out gangs from neighbourhoods. Neighbourhoods will be secure, and this is good. Unfortunately, it also means that

Brazil tried fighting the Red Commando (pictured above) through increased military activity. It failed.

gang activity will be drawn out and will turn to other neighbourhoods to continue their illicit activities. This is what happened in Brazil when it tried fighting the Red Commando (Grillo, p. 103).

As a result, the sort of “hard hand” approach used by ARENA in the 2000s inevitably creeps back into the country’s strategy–what happens when all gang activity is localized in one area? Justice can take either two forms: first, firefights may ensue, resulting in the death of gang members. Second, soldiers could arrest gang members and bring them to jail, which would in turn increase the prison population. Either way, whether clean or ugly, both provide only Band-Aid solutions.

Second, the country’s plan to release 900 prisoners is also flawed, although it’s not a plan which has never been attempted: Ecuador tried this in 2014 by releasing 500 drug mules from its prisons.  Such a strategy can actually be quite useful given that El Salvador faces an overcrowding crisis in its prisons. If approved, the plan would initially release 900 low-risk prisoners. It would be in place for one year.

However, this approach is problematic because its benefits are counteracted by increased militarization. Because of the “hard hand” approach which is inherent in the military plan, liberated prisoners can be easily replaced by new criminals. Coupled with a sky-high murder rate (which as I write this, is 23 murders per day, according to El Faro), the policy creates a “1-step forward, 2-step backward” approach to fighting gangs. With increased militarization, what is bound to happen is an increase to the prison population yet again.

If hindsight is 20/20, El Salvador should heed the warnings of the 2000s hard-hand approach. The country’s Directorate General of Prisons reports that in 2016, there are over 33,000 inmates in El Salvador’s prisons—prisons that have been designed to hold only 13,000 inmates. Of those 33,000 inmates, 9,000 are gang members. The prison population rate has grown astronomically in the last 16 years, from 7,754 inmates in 2000 to 28,334.

Total Prison Population
With data from Institute for Criminal Policy Research (2016) and the Directorate General of Prisons, retrieved from Insight Crime

Thus (emphasizing yet again…), militarization alone cannot be the sole solution to solving gang activity. Militarization ignores the socio-economic problems that force youth into crime (whether it is gang-affiliated or not): for instance, the need for revamped infrastructure, education, and the need for a proper police force (this is crucial to enforcing the law),

Ioan Grillo writes that gangs feed “on broken families, poverty, and hopelessness,” so naturally, “it makes sense to scattered children in soulless slums [to] feel loyalty to no government or country, but will pledge their lives [to gang life]” (p. 232). Unless the state offers them a legitimate alternative, criminal activity will without a doubt continue. Indeed, many of new gang recruits are young men: this video was recently taken of a gangster being forced to roll around in dirt while being told to repeat phrases denouncing gangs:

Will April Showers Bring May Flowers?

With gang activity proliferating across the country, it’s hard to be optimistic that new initiatives will produce results.

As I’m about to publish this, I have stumbled upon a new report outlining the failures of “Plan El Salvador Seguro” for Ciudad Delgado, which was supposed to be an example of the government’s success in successful pacification.

However, the month of March was the noisiest in terms of legitimate political anti-gang discourse in a long while. Military activity alone will not provide a long term solution to gang activity in El Salvador, but it may be a start.