Staff writer Gus Daly ’19 sits down with fellow student Henry Chavez to hear about his experience unexpectedly living in El Salvador this past summer and through the fall semester, after the U.S. Department of Homeland Security lost his refugee paperwork.
What is your relationship with El Salvador?
I was born in El Salvador but came to the U.S. in 1997. All of my family is actually refugees from the Salvadoran civil war. So when I went back this was really my first time seeing El Salvador but I had always followed up with [Salvadoran] politics.
Could you give some background about the Salvadoran civil war?
El Salvador had its civil war during the 1980s, which was basically the left versus the communist right quote unquote death squads, which were supported by the U.S.
So you went back because of a Google internship?
Well, I went back because I wanted to go back, I’m Salvadora. I have a Salvadoran passport. I’m a refugee here, and I’ve never been back to where I’m from.
Had you heard a lot about present-day El Salvador?
I have distant family there and a big chunk of my father’s family, we’ve always sent money back. It’s a lot different learning about the country than actually being there.
What are the major differences between studying a Latin American country and actually being there?
We always study Latin America, and we always talk about little things the U.S. did in Latin America and U.S. imperialism and what it is. I think what stood out to me the most is how much the U.S. really affects El Salvador: how U.S. foreign policy and U.S. economic investment affects every day life. Growing up here, I thought that having U.S. investments in El Salvador was good – like how it provides jobs. But once you’re there, you see how these American corporations are paying Salvadorans the minimum wage of El Salvador while selling their products at American prices. American companies are making huge profits while paying their Salvadoran employees way less than their American counterparts. U.S. companies are making a lot of money but are not investing in El Salvador.
Do you think American ignorance feeds into the problems in El Salvador?
It’s pretty sad to see how unaware many Americans are to what the U.S. has done to many Latin American countries. Historically, U.S. involvement in Latin America just shows why there are so many Latinos in the us and an influx in immigration because how the U.S. has wrecked these countries and how Latin Americans will do whatever it takes to get to the U.S.
Do you think the U.S. government thinks they’re actually helping El Salvador?
I think they do. El Salvador is part of the triangular countries, and these countries are the main Central American countries experiencing huge waves of illegal immigrants. The U.S. believes they’re helping these countries, so they [propose] a billion dollar investment plan for these countries in order promote social and economic gains but really it just funds policing and security. It’s true we have a violence problem, but what people are really facing are structural problems, so if you don’t provide the economic opportunities to improve their lives it’s just the same cycle of poverty where people buy into violence and gangs to survive. The U.S. thinks they’re helping with security but they’re not helping with the basic structure of making successful country.
Do you think the lack of economic opportunity causes this influx of American companies entering el Salvador?
Since El Salvador is so poor, the government will do anything to provide jobs to its people. These companies enter rural areas to help agricultural development but are really there to create a profit, for example sugar cane production. These corporations have plans to gain profits, create a few jobs, then get out of there. The government has tried to put these corporations on trial, but the tribunal courts that deal with these cases just take bribes from these huge corporations and nothing is ever fixed.
How present are gangs in El Salvador?
If you type “El Salvador” into Google the first thing that pops up will be about gangs. One of the first things I learned in El Salvador is that the government has been controlled by the right wing for so long and that the right wing has a huge influence on social media in El Salvador and recently, this past presidency, was the first won by a left-winger. The right wing is using social media as a tool to make the left look bad so this is why you see the issue of gangs so present in media seen in the U.S. Yes the gang problem is a big problem in El Salvador that will need deep analysis to solve it. Gangs are almost respected as a government agency. The citizens and police know not to go to areas because gangs control them. I was given a map telling me where not to go because of gang activity. They control large areas, and what’s interesting is that there’s two gangs with big issues with each other. The media covers the violence between them, but an ordinary citizen is not likely to be shot by a gang member, as long as you stay out of their business you’re usually fine.
So gang activity does not affect the day-to-day?
A lot of these gangs are composed by youth. They’ve given up hope on education and the gang provides security, they pay you, and are your family. I completely understand why these kids join gangs. Gangs put a tariff on small businesses that needs to be paid or they’ll kill them.
Do you think Americans have a skewed view of El Salvador?
Well, social media only focuses on gang violence. But the U.S. government isn’t happy with the left government being in charge and they fear something is going to go wrong. So this social media effect of making the left look bad is not helping the view of people outside of el Salvador, not just Americans. With 1/3 of the Salvadoran population living in the U.S. I think its time for people to take a serious look at what both parties are doing. The U.S. needs to realize that investing in el Salvador isn’t going to solve the problem.
So you ended up with a Google internship while in El Salvador – how’d you score that?
Well, the Department of Homeland Security had lost my paperwork, so they told me I needed to say in El Salvador for a few more months. So I had been applying to Google (before I was planning on leaving) and after [the Department of Homeland Security] told me I needed to stay [in El Salvador], I took the 6-month commitment to Google. It was interesting to work for Google there. I never expected them to have an office there. It was interesting to see why they were [in El Salvador]. I learned that a main reason Google was there is that the Salvadoran accent is very subtle, and most can speak English very proficiently. Google likes to keep a clean communication through English, so it’s helpful that most of El Salvador is proficient in English. If Google has to pay someone $60,000 in El Salvador, they can someone in El Salvador $12,000. I was expecting Google to invest more in el Salvador, but it was really just Google in a different, cheaper place.
Did you do the same work as in Silicon Valley ?
I was in contact with Silicon Valley every day – we worked as if they were right downstairs.
Do you think the U.S. should stop all political involvement in El Salvador?
Historically, the U.S. has been extremely involved in El Salvador. In the 1980s, the U.S. poured millions into the Civil war, the U.S. has a duty now to help the people. As sad as it is to say, El Salvador wouldn’t exist without the U.S. The U.S. employs so many Salvadorans, so many Salvadorans live in the us, if the U.S. just stepped out it would be kind of unfair. The U.S. started this problem they should help fix it. I would appreciate if the U.S. did not really get involved in Salvadoran politics. The American embassy in El Salvador has received a lot of criticism for critiquing Salvadoran politics because they are supposed to just there to support the U.S.’s goal. When the U.S. wants to fix the problem in Central America, they need to solve it bottom up, starting with the people.