While most of the world was watching Libya and Japan, President Obama visited Latin America. His final desination was El Salvador. We take a look at the local Salvadoran perspective on the president’s visit, and the international message the visit sends.


  • Walter Tejada Member, Arlington County Board (D)
  • Cynthia Arnson Director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars


  • 12:06:40

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, how D.C.'s bag fee is doing and proposals for a similar fee in Maryland and Virginia. But first, while most of the world's attention was turned to the events in Libya and Japan, the president was taking time last week to visit Latin America, swinging through formidable economic up-and-comers Brazil and Chile.

  • 12:07:13

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIHis last stop was El Salvador. But while in South America, the president was talking business. His focus in El Salvador was security, fighting drug cartels and economic aid. During a press conference, President Obama and El Salvador's president, Mauricio Funes, stressed the need for the two countries to partner as equals. Here to discuss the president's trip and the impression it made in our area's Salvadorian community is Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Cynthia Arnson, thank you for joining us.

  • 12:07:51

    MS. CYNTHIA ARNSONThank you for the invitation.

  • 12:07:52

    NNAMDIAnd back with us is Walter Tejada. He's a member of the Arlington County Board and a native of El Salvador. Walter, good to see you again.

  • 12:07:59

    MR. WALTER TEJADAGood to be here again.

  • 12:08:00

    NNAMDIStarting with you, what's been the general reaction you have been seeing and hearing in the local Salvadorian-American community to President Obama's visit?

  • 12:08:08

    TEJADAVery, very positive. We see that the visit -- there was no accident that El Salvador with its struggles and all is a democracy that is evolving. We have a president now that comes out of a party that was a guerilla at one time. Now, folks have gone through the political process and attained power the democratic way. So we see that as a validation of that process. It continues to evolve. It's not perfect.

  • 12:08:36

    TEJADABut we also see El Salvador emerging as an economic -- with its struggles but trying to improve. And with the two-and-a-half to three million people here in El Salvadorian descent in the United States according to the latest numbers, we have a very -- a great partnership that could get stronger, and so I think this was a great step for the president to stop in El Salvador.

  • 12:08:58

    NNAMDIThe number to call is 800-433-8850. Are you from El Salvador, or did you follow the president's trip? What is your thinking about it? 800-433-8850. Cynthia Arnson, the current president of El Salvador, as Walter Tejada has pointed out, Mauricio Funes, is a member of the FMLN, which is the leftist party that used to be a coalition of rebels during the country's civil war. Why has the Obama administration chosen this government as a Central American partner over, say, Guatemala or Nicaragua?

  • 12:09:32

    ARNSONWell, I think, that Funes represents the kind of democratic moderation that El Salvador has achieved on -- in the 20 years or so since the signing of the peace agreement in 1992. I think it was very significant that the FMLN for this last presidential election in 2009 went beyond the ranks of the comandantes of the former guerilla leaders and reached out to someone who was seen as more of a unifier, a moderate candidate.

  • 12:09:58

    ARNSONMauricio Funes had been the principal or one of the most respected television journalists in El Salvador, and I think because of that broader appeal, the FMLN was able to win. And Funes has made very clear since the very beginning that he is seeking a strong relationship with the United States. He's not seeking to ally El Salvador with this sort of left -- populist left governments led by Chavez or associated with Chavez and other people in the Andean region. And he does represent good governance and an attempt to broaden a coalition or reaching out to the private sector. His principal, I think, role model in Latin America is former President Lula of Brazil. His first trip abroad, in fact, was to Brazil, which I think was a strong demonstration of the kind of orientation that the government would pursue.

  • 12:10:58

    NNAMDIAs I said, Walter Tejada, the FMLN is left leaning, but, as Cynthia Arnson was pointing out, it doesn't really compare to Bolivia. How does it compare to other governments that are like -- not -- it doesn't compare to Venezuela, how does it compare to a government like Bolivia?

  • 12:11:14

    TEJADAWell, you're looking at a pragmatic man in Mauricio Funes. He is well experienced. He was a sportscaster at one time -- a broadcaster, and so he has a lot of experience in dealing with public issues, and in this case, I think, that the people weren't -- we expect change. Change takes a while to take place, and I think the -- as the democracy has been evolving, and it was not that long ago that the peace treaty was signed. It was in 1992. So it's taken a while. There was a -- the ARENA power wasn't there for a while, for quite some -- many years. This is the first time that the former guerilla group, which is now a political force, and should be -- that's how it should be in a democracy, are now in the leadership.

  • 12:11:57

    TEJADASo I think that while there was some initial thoughts that maybe it was an alliance with Chavez or with the other Latin American countries where perhaps we might not necessarily encourage that leadership Funes has been pragmatic. He has focused on economic development, on security, on improving the quality of life there in El Salvador. So I think, you know, whatever point of view people might have, you're looking at a different style of leadership, and it makes sense when we have two-and-a-half million Salvadorians, the second largest Latino group in the United States today, after the Mexican community, then, you know, it's a good number of people to take into account.

  • 12:12:35

    TEJADAThere's economic power -- the remittances. There is a number of job opportunities that would be in the interest of both sides, so that we can slow migration to this -- to the north, as well as benefiting U.S. exports to El Salvador and thereby creating a mutual beneficial economy.

  • 12:12:55

    NNAMDIWalter Tejada is a member of the Arlington County Board. He's a native of El Salvador. We're discussing President Obama's visit to Latin America in general but his trip to El Salvador in particular. Also with us in studio is Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Do you have memories of the Salvadorian civil war? Call us, 800-433-8850. Or go to our website, kojoshow.org, join the conversation there. I bring that issue up, Cynthia Arnson, because during his visit, President Obama visited the tomb of assassinated Catholic Archbishop Oscar Romero. Tell us about what the significance of that visit was.

  • 12:13:35

    ARNSONWell, I think it was a really remarkable visit and a highly powerful symbol of a change in U.S. policy and U.S. orientation towards El Salvador. Archbishop Romero, who was assassinated in March of 1980, had been the country's leading spokesperson on behalf of the protection of human rights and was murdered by a member of a death squad while he was saying Mass in a hospital chapel. And I think it's also important to remember that about a month before he had been murdered, he had written to the Carter administration at the time asking that the United States not provide a very small amount of military aid to the Salvadorian security forces.

  • 12:14:12

    ARNSONIt was considered nonlethal assistance. It was things like teargas and riot gear. And Archbishop Romero made a very strong statement saying that that would allow the security forces to repress Salvadorians with even greater personal protection. And, of course, that plea was ignored. The small amount of military aid, $5.7 million, was approved in the weeks after his murder, and subsequently, you know, the U.S. commitment to the war effort, both economic and military aid, burgeoned to about $6 billion over the course of the conflict. And so to recognize the sort of heroic vision and what he had stood for in Salvadorian history, I thought, was a remarkable statement by this administration in favor of human rights and in favor of a sort of reconciliation with past histories with El Salvador.

  • 12:15:09

    NNAMDII was about to say, Walter Tejada, is this the closest thing we'll ever see to an American apology for backing the military of El Salvador during the civil war?

  • 12:15:17

    TEJADAWell, sure. The -- you know, that's a very touchy subject for Salvadorian-Americans the way the U.S. got itself involved in the '80s and whatever side anybody supported. What ended up happening is people migrated, and there were support for rightwing death squads that really caused a lot of havoc. And so (unintelligible) the fear that sometimes the guerillas, sometimes the death squads, and so natural people migrated outside, looking for peace. And so you kind of sometimes wonder, for instance, the root of some of those that that might have -- some of the gangs that actually evolved out of those cities like Los Angeles, where folks came there, and from there, learned their organizational trades and they ended up going to El Salvador, and they know the subsequent problems we've had so -- from that.

  • 12:16:01

    TEJADABut I think it's enormously significant that President Obama took time to be there at archbishop -- Monsignor Romero's grave. And this symbolism, you know, as a man whose background is a community organizer, fighting for human rights, for social and economic justice, I think, whether you're a Salvadorian or from anywhere around the world, it is a significant symbolic gesture on the part of the United States. That democracy works. That folks who fight for the less privileged, for the defenseless, for the poor, as Romero was, should not be forgotten, and I think that's part of the struggle that all of us like to carry on for on behalf of those who are not as privileged. And (unintelligible) region, we have the third largest concentration of Salvadorians. The Los Angeles area is second, of course, and San Salvador, the first. That's a very significant subject for us.

  • 12:16:55

    NNAMDITo the extent that the U.S. was involved in El Salvador's civil war, are there hard feelings remaining as far as you know, Walter?

  • 12:17:02

    TEJADAYou know, there's always those conversations that go on endlessly about what could have and should have happened. I think that some of us look at it that, you know, everyone -- everybody has a little bit of fault here. You know, on the hand one, the U.S. has been not want to spread of communism, and I think of all of us support that. On the other hand, you have defenseless folks who were being terrorized by folks who got weapons or -- from the government and how do you put a balance to that, so that conversation will forever continue. But, by and large, I think it's a new era. Everybody looks at it as a new beginning. It's a pragmatic government looking for economic prosperity, hopefully, beneficial to both the U.S. and El Salvador.

  • 12:17:47

    NNAMDICynthia Arnson?

  • 12:17:48

    ARNSONYou know, well, I think it's important to remember that U.S. policy actually evolved over the course of the 12 years of the conflict. At the beginning, as Walter was saying, when the human rights violations and death squad killings were really at their height, the United States did not speak out and, in fact, was supporting it in a very massive way the armed forces and the same people that were committing the abuses.

  • 12:18:05

    ARNSONBut there was a change, I think, sort of midway through the Reagan administration, which recognized that if there was sort of uncontrolled violence directed not just against the left but against the political center, against members of the Christian Democratic Party, journalists, trade unionists, human rights workers, that this was going to prevent the U.S. effort to consolidate democracy as an alternative to the insurgency. So you had the beginnings of efforts to curb the most pronounced human rights violations, somewhat successful, somewhat unsuccessful. But there was also, I think, a commitment to building a system of electoral democracy which is, of course, one that now Mauricio Funes and the FMLN have been able to benefit from.

  • 12:18:56

    NNAMDIOnto the telephones. Here is Hugh in Athens, Ga. Hugh, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 12:19:01

    HUGHYeah. I just wanted to ask a question about more recent U.S.-Salvadorian relations. I was reading an article in the National Journal last weekend. It was pretty crazy. It was about how the nation which has been the poster child trade deals has spent the last two years, fighting off CAFTA, Central America Free Trade Agreement, lawsuits brought by U.S. and international mining firms against their environmental and mining policies. The firms have been trying to sue under CAFTA investor rights to open up mines which, I guess, has -- didn't meet environmental standards in Salvador and -- which, by and large, the local communities had opposed.

  • 12:19:39

    HUGHAnd what was really surprising to me is, you know, this sort of byproduct of this agreement had never really come up when -- or had never really been talked about that much when the agreement was passed. And I just wanted to hear what your guests had to say about this case simply what they had to say about how it might affect sustainable development...

  • 12:19:59

    NNAMDICynthia Arnson?

  • 12:20:00

    HUGH...and the strengthening of environmental policy in El Salvador.

  • 12:20:04

    ARNSONWell, I think the caller is referring to lawsuits that have been brought under the Central American Free Trade Agreement...

  • 12:20:10


  • 12:20:10

    ARNSON...which have maintained that the investments of mining firms have been in violation of environmental standards. And I think the proper way to resolve these disputes is to use the adjudication mechanisms set up by CAFTA and set up by the international community for these kinds of problems. I think it's very significant that over the last decade or so, there has been an increasing -- increasingly dense relationship between the United States and El Salvador.

  • 12:20:38

    ARNSONObviously, in immigration terms, as Walter has pointed out, but also in terms of free trade and now in terms of security cooperation. And I think, overall, that is beneficial to El Salvador as well as to the United States. And I think that the very legitimate concerns that have been raised by these lawsuits should be resolved in the appropriate foray that have been established.

  • 12:21:02

    TEJADAYou know -- and I think it's important to point out that the U.S. total trade goods with Central and South America is at $471 billion already. This is a lot of -- this is beneficial to both U.S. sustaining thousands of jobs, and this is one of those cases where you can mend it, not end it. I was one of those persons involved, trying to get the Salvadoran leadership to be at the table with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other folks who were discussing the CAFTA, the Central American Free Trade Agreement, at that time.

  • 12:21:29

    TEJADAAnd one of the things we argued for, I was strongly passionate about, was that -- on labor laws. We don't necessarily need to create new ones but enforce the ones that exist now for the folks who are there, 'cause, you know, we can talk about all the nice things here, put it in nice reports or glossy covers and all that. In the real world, people are taken advantage of and it needs to benefit both sides. U.S. economy needs to be improved. There needs to be jobs that are protected here in the United States.

  • 12:21:56

    TEJADABut folks who are there also need to benefit from the economic impact that those trade agreements are supposed to have. So it's serious money. $471 billion dollars is a pretty large amount.

  • 12:22:09

    NNAMDICynthia Arnson, President Obama promised around $200 million to El Salvador to aid in fighting drugs and organized crime. What are the next steps, if there are next steps to be taken, in the U.S.-El Salvador relationship?

  • 12:22:22

    ARNSONWell, I think the most important step is to actually begin to deliver some of the assistance that has been committed and also that has been promised before this 200 million was announced, not just by Obama but by the assistant secretary of state for narcotics control and law enforcement. El Salvador had received -- or, excuse me, Central America had received something in the vicinity of $250 million through a regional initiative known by its acronym CARSI, the Central America Regional Security Initiative, which, initially, was an afterthought to the (unintelligible) with Mexico to help Mexico fight narcotrafficking and, now, I think has expanded.

  • 12:23:01

    ARNSONBut only a very small portion of that aid has actually been delivered. So it's very positive that there is now a desire to send additional money. But I think the first task is to start getting serious about delivering the assistance that's already been provided.

  • 12:23:15

    NNAMDIWalter Tejada, El Salvador's president, Mauricio Funes, presumably talked with President Obama to push for comprehensive immigration reform and the permanent benefits of those under the temporary protected status, which allows about 217,000 Salvadorians in the U.S. to work. What exactly does that status mean? Why is it important?

  • 12:23:35

    TEJADASure. First, you know, when we have discussed the importance of enacting comprehensive immigration reform, it's -- a lot of people think of it so big that maybe we got to go piecemealing and a little bit a of time. Well, some of us support comprehensive immigration reform so we can fix all these laws and clarify what local governments and law enforcement and border issues and all that stuff. I think on the case of temporary protected status, which usually is allowed for those folks who are from a certain country where maybe a natural disaster or their condition if they return may be a hardship for them, so extension to stay here legally is provided.

  • 12:24:15

    TEJADABut it's just that, temporary. I think in the case of Salvadorans, where we've had, as you indicated, hundreds of thousands of folks who have followed the rules for renovating or renewing their permits every time that they (unintelligible) come forward. These will be, I think, excellent candidates to -- for a possible earned legalization, where they have followed the rules they've been asked to do. They become taxpayers. They have children here. They set up roots and some of them have businesses.

  • 12:24:42

    TEJADASo I think that that would be a good possibility that ought to be looked at. And by and large, Salvadorans feel very strongly about that. There might be others who also can prove that they follow the rules and not gotten in trouble, and they deserve to be given an opportunity. So I think that that opens a good opportunity for -- if you're going to take some small steps, for instance, the DREAM Act was considered recently. My opinion, it should have been approved. It wasn't.

  • 12:25:10

    TEJADAWe're gonna grab this bit by piece, a temporary protected status, I think, a great option for those folks who are on that program for legalization.

  • 12:25:18

    NNAMDINevertheless, Cynthia Arnson, it takes place during a controversial and fierce immigration debate. Temporary protected status, think it can make it?

  • 12:25:29

    ARNSONWell, I think it can certainly be continued. It was first enacted in the 1980s and has been renewed, basically, at the request of successive Salvadoran governments of both the right and the left, who say that there simply are not jobs or ways to absorb the people who have gone to the United States in search of employment and in search of a better life. And I don't think that there is any doubt the TPS will be renewed. While he was in El Salvador, President Obama made a very strong pitch for comprehensive immigration reform in this country. But I think that the political condition, certainly the conditions in the Congress, in favor of that are not very promising.

  • 12:26:09

    NNAMDINot good at this point.

  • 12:26:10

    ARNSONNot at all. Not at all. Not at all.

  • 12:26:11

    NNAMDIBut temporary protected status, you think, is promising.

  • 12:26:14

    ARNSONI think that will continue.

  • 12:26:16

    NNAMDICynthia Arnson is the director of the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Thank you for joining us.

  • 12:26:22

    ARNSONThank you.

  • 12:26:23

    NNAMDIWalter Tejada is a member of the Arlington County Board. He's a native of El Salvador. Walter, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 12:26:28

    TEJADAGreat to be here again. Thank you for inviting me.

  • 12:26:30

    NNAMDIWe're gonna take a short break. When we come back, the debate continues over the bag fee imposed in the District of Columbia and proposals for similar bag fees in Montgomery Country, the state of Maryland and in the Commonwealth of Virginia. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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