Thursday, February 16, 2012

El Salvador: Former Combatants in El Salvador Demand a Place in Society

Republished permission Inter Press Service (IPS ) copyright Inter Press Service (IPS) and

Former Combatants in El Salvador Demand a Place in Society

By Edgardo Ayala

SAN SALVADOR, Feb 15, 2012 (IPS) - Sporting an olive green combat jacket and a beret, civil war veteran Carlos Hernández prays at the tomb of slain Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero at the Metropolitan Cathedral of El Salvador, which a score of former guerrillas have occupied to demand assistance to help them out of poverty.

"We are fed up; we’re not leaving the cathedral until our demands are met," Hernández told IPS after the protest took a radical turn when the demonstrators declared a hunger strike on Feb. 11, a month after the start of the occupation.

Since Jan. 10, Hernández and his fellow former insurgents have occupied the cathedral to demand an increase in the pensions paid to disabled former combatants, the inclusion of the parents of combatants killed in action in the pension fund, and political measures, such as a halt to dismissals of trade unionists from public institutions.

Veterans on both sides have continually demanded greater financial assistance to help them overcome poverty since a 1992 peace deal put an end to the 12-year war in El Salvador between government troops and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) guerrillas, which left 70,000 people – overwhelmingly civilians – dead and 8,000 missing.

A government census published in January found that 87 percent of the 25,000 former FMLN fighters are living in poverty, and 36 percent are illiterate.

A similar census among army veterans is still pending. But on Jan. 9, they formed a negotiating table with the left-wing government to set forth their demands, along the lines of talks held with FMLN veterans since May 2010.

The former combatants want to be included in programmes like the government’s Family Agriculture Plan, which provides small farmers with agricultural equipment and technical support.

They are also demanding an increase in their pension payments.

During the Jan. 16 celebration of the 20th anniversary of the signing of the peace agreement, President Mauricio Funes announced that some 25 million dollars would be spent on social programmes for former guerrillas, including access to medical coverage.

In addition, 3,400 parents of combatants killed in action will be included as beneficiaries of the pension fund for disabled veterans.

Under a 1997 decree, these parents had received a one-off compensation payment. But they were left out of the benefits provided by the pension and health care systems.

"The mothers and fathers were unfairly excluded…They were given tiny reparations that have left them in a state of poverty," Funes said during the anniversary ceremony.

The president was elected in 2009 with the backing of the FMLN, which is now the ruling party. His election put an end to two decades of government by the far-right Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA).

Funes also announced that more than 2,700 former combatants over the age of 70 would receive pension payments of 50 dollars a month.

"Who can survive these days on 50 dollars?" Luis Ortega, another one of the former guerrillas occupying the cathedral, remarked to IPS. "This offer is a joke. And at any rate, it should be for everyone, not just for people over 70."

The cost of the basic food basket in this impoverished Central American country of 6.7 million people is around 180 dollars a month.

The peace agreement established that demobilised guerrillas would receive plots of land to farm, as part of their reinsertion into civilian life. But the agricultural sector, like the rest of the economy, is caught up in a severe crisis that is making it difficult for the former fighters to scrape by.

Others were given scholarships and job training in areas like computer skills, with the aim of enabling them to find employment in computer programming or repairs. But two decades after the end of the armed conflict, few have been able to carve out a niche for themselves in that area, due to competition from university graduates.

A government fund for the protection of disabled veterans was also created, to provide a monthly payment that currently ranges between 100 and 235 dollars a month, depending on the degree of disability.

Ortega said the peace agreement clauses on treatment of war veterans have gone unfulfilled, because the measures aimed at their reintegration in society "have failed."

The government also promised to pay some 40 million dollars in unpaid pension payments to about 36,000 disabled veterans that have accumulated since 1993.

After numerous defeats at the polls, the FMLN, which became a political party after the war, finally won the national elections in 2009 when it fielded Funes, a popular former newscaster, as its presidential candidate.

The party says it has nothing to do with the occupation of the cathedral, and has even expressed doubts that the demonstrators are really former FMLN rebels.

Olga Serrano, executive director of the "Noviembre del 89 Heroes" association of disabled veterans (ALGES), which groups disabled former guerrillas, also denied any connection with the protest.

But she did agree that two decades after the peace accord was signed, there is still much to be done in order to make it possible for war veterans to become truly reintegrated, productive members of society.

"We want to be given opportunities, real programmes of support that allow disabled veterans to become productive citizens," she told IPS.

Serrano added that there are two legal reforms stuck in Congress, which would double veterans’ pension payments and guarantee access to complete health coverage.

The right to integral healthcare is a longstanding demand of disabled veterans, who only have free treatment for the specific health problems caused by the war.

In 2001, ALGES and other veterans’ associations successfully pressed Congress to modify the legislation, in order to provide pensions and other benefits to many disabled veterans who for different reasons had been left out of the system.

Juan Pablo Bonilla, vice president of the armed forces association of disabled veterans, told IPS that in 2008 they were also successful in pushing for a legal reform that makes it impossible to abruptly and arbitrarily suspend or reduce pension payments.

That practice was followed until then by staff in the government fund for the protection of disabled veterans, who would frequently decide that a beneficiary’s health problems had disappeared, without consulting the beneficiary.

Several organisations of former combatants are presently drawing up a proposed draft law for integral support for war veterans, which they plan to present in the near future to Congress. The bill includes demands such as an increase in pensions and access to comprehensive health coverage.

In the meantime, Hernández continues to fast in the cathedral while seeking solace before the tomb of Archbishop Romero, a symbol of the defence of human rights during the war. Romero was assassinated by a sniper as he celebrated mass in the cathedral in 1980, one day after he appealed to soldiers and the police as Christians to stop the killing.

Daniel Hernández, president of one of the 14 organisations of veterans, said the occupation, which has been joined by a few trade unionists, as well as the hunger strike, would continue until the government "accepts serious negotiations. We’ve had enough of meetings; they are just toying with us."