How to help El Salvador rebuild

The decision by a federal judge in Orlando to deport a former top Salvadoran general accused of overseeing widespread torture and murder during the country’s 12-year civil war is welcome news for many Salvadorans, including those who escaped and came to the U.S. years ago.

During the 1980s, El Salvador’s military leaders — bolstered by extensive U.S. financial support — carried out a campaign of massacres and terror in an effort to stamp out a left-wing revolutionary movement. The conflict left more than 75,000 people dead. More than a quarter of the nation’s population was displaced by the fighting and many chose to resettle in this country.

Those who left El Salvador in the 1980s and 1990s say they remain uncertain about the future of the country, which still struggles with economic and social instability. And while the peace accords signed 20 years ago ended the armed conflict and opened the door to democratization and respect for human rights, inequality prevails.

More than 1.7 million Salvadorans live in the U.S. and about 240,000 reside in the Washington area. El Salvador, which is the size of Massachusetts, remains one of the most violent countries in the world. Today, violence in El Salvador is mostly attributed to gangs that vie for territory and drug trafficking routes.

According to many Salvadorans I have spoken with there is still a lack of opportunity in their country due to instability, a poor education system and lingering institutional weakness. Many Salvadorans who wait for a day job at Home Depots around the U.S. would like to return to their country and be part of its rebuilding. Indeed, Cynthia J. Arnson, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, argues that Salvadoran expatriates play a critical role by sending remittances home, but that is not enough. El Salvador needs people to rebuild the economy and provide education and job opportunities to keep people from joining gangs. According to the Central Bank of El Salvador it received $3.6 billion in remittances last year. That’s important, but not the same as creating productive capacity.

And yet this productive capacity can be created if we implement some simultaneous initiatives.

• First, we establish micro-loans to assist Salvadorans with start-up capital to rebuild their home country. A one-time capital raise of $5.1 billion would allow the 1.7 million Salvadorans to each get a loan of $3,000 to use as start-up money to build a business back in El Salvador. The experience Salvadoran expatriates have gained in the U.S. could be put to good use in rebuilding their country. A group of 100 expatriates could pool their resources to invest $300,000 in starting their own Chipotle franchise in El Salvador.

• Second, in order to sustain this reverse flow from the U.S. back to El Salvador, Washington can decouple a percentage of its trade with China and reorient it to El Salvador. Each year the U.S. imports $8 billion in toys from China. Imagine if through a public-private partnership rich countries from the Persian Gulf invested in plant and equipment to manufacture toys in El Salvador.

Simultaneously, American toy companies would sign long-term contracts with these manufacturers based in El Salvador to buy the products. Last year foreign direct investment in El Salvador was a mere $78 million and so an $8 billion injection into the local economy would create a sustainable job creating boom.

• Third, Congress must immediately pass the Dream Act to enable Salvadorans who are illegally in the U.S. to pay in-state tuition at American universities. Armed with the right degrees, young Salvadorans can go home and help rebuild their local communities.

For too long, Washington has ignored its southern neighbors and it is time to reorient our attention to stability and wealth creation in countries like El Salvador. A majority of expatriates I know would even welcome a deployment of U.S. military forces for a limited period to help bring violence under control. They would consider this a humanitarian gesture on the part of the U.S.

The wars in Central America left an indelible mark on its hardworking people. The United States has a duty to lead the crusade to rebuild El Salvador.

By Rob Sobhani, a former professor of U.S. foreign policy at Georgetown University.

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