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Deal to End El Salvador War Threatened by Slow Reforms

Red tape hampers effort to sell land to peasants; US needs to step up its role

By Nancy M. Ryan. Nancy M. Ryan is a member of the Sister City Project linking CambridgeMass., and San Jose Las Flores, El Salvador. / January 17, 1995

EL SALVADOR'S heralded but fragile peace is in disarray and threatens to collapse.

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During the first four months of 1995, the time period for transfer of land expires and the United Nations peacekeeping force, ONUSAL, is due to begin departure from the country.

The three-year life of the negotiated settlement has been marked by a powerful tension between hopes for meaningful steps toward resolution of economic inequalities and government red tape and foot-dragging. War and peace hang in the balance. Yet the US government, which poured at least $4 billion of overt and covert aid into the Salvadoran government's war on its own people, is standing on the sidelines in this critical moment.

In 1992, El Salvador disappeared from public attention, its militarily unresolved war concluded by a historic negotiated settlement. The Salvadoran Peace Accords and their national reconstruction plan were heralded as the model for ending similar civil conflicts because of their provision for land transfers. Ex-combatants and displaced peasants would have access to low-interest loans to purchase land at fair prices from landholders. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) pledged millions of dollars to establish the loan fund.

As 1995 begins, the land-transfer program has stagnated and threatens to fall short of even one-third of its goals before its April 30 cutoff. To date, only 21 percent of eligible beneficiaries have been able to purchase land. During the week before Christmas, 4,000 landless peasants and displaced persons converged on San Salvador, the country's capital, to demand speedier land transfers. They also want economic aid to integrate into national life former combatants from both sides of the civil war. They are anxious and becoming disenchanted with the accords' unfulfilled promise.

The Chalatenango example

The region of Chalatenango, and in particular the people of the village of San Jose Las Flores, provide a lens through which to understand what is going on - and what isn't. Five Boston-area cities and towns built sister-city partnerships with communities in the region and are witnessing the current deterioration and the potential chaos of a land-transfer process characterized by benign neglect.

Because of Chalatenango's isolation, marginal farmland, and poverty, land redistribution has strong support among the people. The region was a major theater of war during the 1980s. Some 50 percent of its population suffered damage to or loss of their homes. The Salvadoran Army forcibly depopulated San Jose Las Flores in 1983 in an attempt to clean out any pockets of support for the opposition group, the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN).

In 1986, during the height of the war, refugees organized to repopulate Las Flores and other abandoned areas. Without electricity, roads, or water or waste systems, they re-entered a desolate landscape to reconstruct homes. They organized a collective agricultural program and a town council. They endured aerial bombardments and constant incursions by government armed forces. Yet the town, and dozens like it, survived the war and looked forward to the possibility of owning some of the land they had been occupying, defending, and developing.