Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 148 | Noviembre 1993


El Salvador

A Revealing Health Workers's Trike

While the government launched a campaign with the slogan "We will keep improving", public attention during the month was captured by the strike of health workers, who are denouncing the deterioration of the public health system.

Omar Serrano

Just as the Cristiani government launched a huge pre election publicity campaign stressing its achievements with the slogan "We'll keep getting better," health workers went on strike against both the miserable conditions in the country's state hospitals and their own miserable salaries. Their strike held the country's attention for a whole month.

Everyone in El Salvador knows that salaries in the Ministry of Health are lower than those of almost any other public officials. The armed conflict worsened this situation during the past decade, since a significant chunk of the national budget for health and education was shifted to defense.

The strike, which began on August 30, started with a work stoppage in San Salvador's key hospital centers. Gradually the hospitals in the rest of the country began to support the demands and join the strike. The unions, which represent most of the workers in this sector, demanded an improvement in medical surgical equipment, improved supply of basic medicines, free health services for the population and a 500 colón salary increase.

Solidarity from Everyone

As the days passed with the government essentially ignoring the strikers' demands, what had begun as a work stoppage turned into a truly national strike. Many unions from other state institutions, political parties, student organizations and other groups, even including the Catholic Church, publicly showed their support for the health workers' demands with work stoppages and street demonstrations. In on the street surveys by some radio and television stations, most people said they felt the workers' demands were just.

Unlike other occasions, the health workers not only demanded their own rights but topped their list of demands with the right of the poor to free, good quality medical care. TV images from the Rosales Hospital of the incredible conditions in which the poor are treated at the country's largest health center had an enormous impact on people.

San Salvador's auxiliary bishop, Gregorio Rosa Chávez, held that the strike demonstrated the harsh reality and that the government had neglected the country's very poorest to an extreme.
The key left wing party, the FMLN, went to the Rosales Hospital to show its support for the workers and their demands, as did workers from the Ministry of Public Works, telecommunications and the electrical utility, as well as teachers, students and other sectors.

And the Government?

The first reaction of President Cristiani and the Ministry of Health was to parrot the government's standard line on strikes: it was illegal because the Constitution prohibits strikes. During El Salvador's entire history as a republic, only three strikes have been declared legal. The workers are never right because, de facto, they are violating the Constitution.

As the strike began to affect other state institutions and the executive branch itself, ARENA, the governing party, called the workers' demands nothing but "a plan orchestrated and directed by the FMLN to destabilize the country with an eye to the upcoming elections." As it had done in now obsolete times, the Salvadoran right wing persisted in drawing attention away from the real problems of misery and injustice that most Salvadorans live with, blaming the entire conflict on the "Communist left."

Army Gives Away Medicines

During the strike, most of the country's hospitals only treated emergencies. Outpatient services used by thousands and thousands of Salvadorans were suspended.

The army offered basic health services at some of its units and handed out free medicine in public plazas in places like Chalatenango and El Paraíso, even though the Constitution limits the army's functions to protecting national sovereignty and ensuring the integrity of national territory. The army, which has been busily seeking some function to justify its continued existence and allow it to maintain contact with the civilian population, had deployed some battalions around the country even before the strike to carry out medical and dental campaigns and offer free attention and medicines.

Thus, while public hospitals lack basic medicine and equipment and, because the Ministry of Health claims to have no budget, a fixed fee is charged all patients, no matter how poor they are, the Salvadoran army seems to have the wherewithal to offer free medical attention and waste medicines. Almost all Salvadorans ask why the health services under the military umbrella are not transferred to the public health sector, where they could do more good and be put to better use.

The Government Prevails

Despite the health strike's progressively mounting strength, the government managed to weaken the union movement and break its unity, also progressively. First it fired 87 workers it characterized as the strike "agitators," and refused to pay the workers for the days they were on strike. These measures intimidated many workers, particularly those from regional hospitals, but the strike held fast and won the solidarity of other state workers. The measures had their desired effect, however, in negotiations with authorities from the Ministry of Health. On August 26, the "leaders" of some unions signed an agreement with the government, having decided to suspend the strike to end the firings and avoid possible future reprisals against those who had participated in the strike. Not one of the original demands was dealt with.

With that, the strike fell apart. Almost immediately, some workers expressed their disagreement with the leaders for not consulting the union rank and file first and for having only two organizations sign the accord. Most of the regional hospitals suspended the strike and started work, isolating the workers at the Rosales Hospital, who struck to their original demands.

Lack of unity and coordination have been the Salvadoran labor movement's Achilles' heel since the signing of the peace accords. This was more than evident in the economic and social concertación forum. There the lack of unified and firm positions allowed private business and the government to stand firm on such crucial issues as freedom of union association, the right to strike and collective bargaining. Some of the divisions and disagreements are the product of the different tendencies in the FMLN and are reflected in the diverse unions representing the workers. Grassroots interests have not been able to prevail over party ideologies.

ARENA Campaigns with State Funds

El Salvador is currently saturated with propaganda by the central government to reinforce the ARENA campaign. Ads by various state entities in the print media and on television stress President Cristiani's "great achievements" in his four years of government.
Each one ends with the phrase, "and we'll keep getting better..." During the strike that triumphalist slogan contrasted sharply with the depressingly real images of the state hospitals, which also saturated the nation's media.

The mayor's office of San Salvador is also developing a p.r. campaign, none of whose ads is complete without the image of ARENA presidential candidate Armando Calderón Sol, even though he stopped being mayor over a month ago.

It is outrageous that the party in power uses state resources which come largely from the people themselves to finance its campaign. Although ruling parties have traditionally done this, it is more serious in ARENA's case, given the virtually inexhaustible resources that this oligarchic party has at its disposal compared with the country's other political parties.

ERP Now Social Democrat

On September 28, one of the five organizations making up the FMLN, the ERP, whose initials formerly stood for the Revolutionary People's Army and today stand for the Renovating Expression of the People, officially defined itself as a party of social democratic ideology.

According to ERP leader Joaquín Villalobos, two fundamental reasons led to this change, one of which is the party's attempt to bring its party doctrine in line with changes at the international level and with El Salvador's own new reality. The second is that social democracy has significant international support, especially in the European countries with which the ERP established close relations during the war and in the peace negotiations. This affords the ERP the international backing it needs at this moment.

In his speech explaining the change, Villalobos declared that his party believes in a market economy, in the country's progressive business sectors and in the honest military officers who want to change El Salvador's history.

This change in the ERP touched off a series of diverse reactions. The extreme right sees it as nothing more than a tactic to recover lost trust and gain power through the electoral route. Some of the more moderate forces in ARENA, such as the president of the Legislative Assembly, on the other hand, say that this faction of the FMLN has finally understood the error of its Marxist Leninist ways, adding that, if this change in vision is true, the ERP should no longer be part of the FMLN. The Democratic Convergence, running in coalition with the FMLN in the upcoming elections, sees it as a sign that the most radical left element is adapting to the demands of the new situation. The Christian Democrats reacted along the same lines.

The most disturbing element in the ERP's ideological about face is the consequences that it could have within the FMLN. The ERP's differences with three other FMLN organizations the FPL, PC and PRTC are well known; most of them have to do precisely with distinct ideas about what road to take in light of the new national situation. Since the peace process began, the ERP expressed its conviction that it is necessary to take the center stage in national politics and, from there, win over as many sectors of the population as possible. It has received firm support for this position from the National Resistance, also a member organization of the FMLN. The three other organizations hold that the left should make common cause with other progressive political forces from a position defending the interests of the poor majority. This is the vision that has prevailed within the FMLN as a whole, both in terms of its presidential slate and in the platform it will promote in the upcoming elections.

None of the FMLN's other organizations reacted publicly to the ERP's decision. They all consider it best for the FMLN to remain unified as a party until the March 1994 elections, but many now feel that the writing on the wall spells out the FSLN's future disintegration.

More FMLN Arms?

After the May arms arsenal explosion in Managua's Santa Rosa neighborhood, other FMLN arsenals were found and dismantled in Nicaragua, Honduras and El Salvador. The FMLN, handing over its last arms inventory to ONUSAL on August 4, declared that it had no more hidden and it was not responsible for any future arsenals that might be found subsequent to August 18, the date on which all weapons that had been found were destroyed or warehoused.

According to information made available by the new National Civilian Police, dozens of rifles and hundreds of grenades were found in two hidden caches in Santa Elena and Jucuarán in the eastern department of Usulután, which had a strong guerrilla presence, particularly of the ERP, during the war.
In a war the scale of the Salvadoran conflict, it is inevitable that a number of weapons scattered through the country will be discovered. What is not normal is that they be found in such significant quantities.

The government unofficially accused the FMLN of having deceived ONUSAL and the entire Salvadoran population for the umpteenth time. If in fact the new cache belonged to the FMLN, this ex guerrilla organization is offering up a silver platter of "arms" to ARENA to use against it in the upcoming elections.

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El Salvador
A Revealing Health Workers's Trike

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