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November 11, 2008

El Salvador: A Troubled Path to Progress

Mike and Mary Ring have a very personal interest in the country of El Salvador. Their son Michael was almost assassinated there during the years of the civil war after he spoke out on TV and in a soccer stadium. His daughter-in-law Maria Elena was identified as a militant and narrowly escaped execution there. Over the years, they have come to know and cherish many Salvadorans.

As part of their commitment to their friends there, they have campaigned for the closing of the notorious "School of the Americas," now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. At this facility, located at Fort Benning, GA, the United States trains Latin American military personnel in combat and counter-insurgency methods which they bring back home and use against their own people. When in July, 2007, the Rings learned that 13 Salvadorans had been arrested at Suchitoto while legally protesting the potential privatization of country's water supply, Mike Ring felt he had to take some action.

They heard that first the military shut down the road the protesters were to travel, a violation of the peace accords signed in 1990, and then arrested several of the organizers. These arrests triggered a huge protest at the police station during which the military fired on demonstrators. International publicity brought world attention to these events, but the arrested organizers were to be tried as terrorists under a Salvadoran version of our Patriot Act.

Mike joined a delegation of 10 people to go to El Salvador to do whatever they could to free the Suchitoto 13. One of them turned out to have a good relationship with his congressman in Massachusetts. This congressman mobilized 63 others to complain about the treatment of the protestors to the Salvadoran government. Money was at stake here - the U.S. agreed in 1990 to subsidize the government if it observed the peace accords.

With pressure from the U.S. congressmen behind them, the delegation was able to meet with the president of the Salvadoran Supreme Court and the Vice President of Foreign Relations. The latter official seemed to Mike to regard people as chattel and reminded him that an estimated 73,000 out of 80,000 people killed during the civil war were killed by the Salvadoran military. The day after that they met with a representative of the U.S. embassy, the largest U.S. embassy in the world next to Iraq.

Members of the delegation asserted that they were not going to go home until the 13 were released. They got the support of Jesuits at the University of Latin America and a lot of press and TV coverage. Finally, just last March, they heard that all the 13 had been released.

Mike found the experience very exhilarating.

The Rings have been engaged in a number of other projects in El Salvador. Mary has been particularly interested helping women. Maria Elena returned to the country to complete her college education and has been involved for many years in a program to bring mental health support to marginalized women and children.

They reported that the country is controlled by 14 or 15 wealthy "white" families who feel it is their privilege to exploit the majority of people who are a "burnt" color. There is a lot of gang violence in San Salvador, the capital, and the atmosphere seems very militaristic and is very restrictive. In former times, Mary was able to wander around freely and go shopping, where she is now advised to stick to her hotel. It is also not advisable to ride a bus wearing earrings or a ring. But Mike said that a gang member told him that gangs often were blamed for crimes they did not commit. Much needs to be done, the Rings said, to re-create respect for one another's rights.

The poverty is deep; people are just surviving. Peasants land was expropriated a long time ago by United Fruit, Anaconda and Grace. The government drove them off other land, forming cooperatives to grow export crops but the peasants do not see the revenues from that. In sweatshops now people work long hours where they do not even get a bathroom break. The Rings recommended Naomi Klein's Disaster Capitalism to understand what was going on there economically.

Some people are hopeful about presidential elections that will take place there in March. Activists would like international observers to come there to ensure a fair election.

The School of the Americas Watch goes on. Last year 20,000 protesters demonstrated at Fort Benning against the School of the Americas. Mike was fined $1000 and given a year's probation for his activity then. There is hope that an Obama administration will close the school.

One of the people who attended the evening's dialogue was about to depart for El Salvador where he would be helping Habitat for Humanity build some houses. The Salvadorans who would be living in the houses contribute their "sweat equity."

The Rings are grateful to their son Michael who led them into this deep involvement with people in another land. In the final go-round of the evening, one person observed that many people would find it extremely gratifying to be passionately involved in such work.

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