If grassroots politics works for some, why not us?

First published:
April 10, 2002

The power of local government cannot be underestimated. A revolution can take place. A nation can change.

Take the case of Maria Marta Valladares, a.k.a. Nidia Diaz. She is a member of the Central American parliament, representing El Salvador and a former vice-presidential candidate for Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN), the party of the ex-guerrillas who successfully thwarted attempts by three American presidents to wipe them out. Ms. Diaz visited students at St. Mary’s Secondary School in Cobourg two weeks ago during a recent trip to Canada.

If the name doesn’t ring a bell, please don’t worry. She was not even recognized at Canada Customs when she arrived in late March. It was her fourth trip to the country and she was never delayed before. However, this time Ms. Diaz was held up for three hours, even though she was travelling with a diplomatic passport. After looking through all her documents, harassing her and the party waiting for her, the immigration officials decided she was legitimate and apologized. It would be similar to Alliance leader Stephen Harper being interrogated in a foreign country before entering.

Ms. Diaz is well known to American officials. She was one of four major leaders of the revolutionary army in El Salvador – the only women. She nearly died following an attack by Central American Intelligence agents who shot her five times, but did not kill her on the spot. She was dragged to a prison where she was left to die. Actor Mike Farrell, known best as a doctor on the television series M*A*S*H, intervened, negotiating to have a doctor see her. They saved her life, doing the surgery on the prison cell floor.

But Ms. Diaz has put her violent revolutionary ways behind her. After the signing of the peace treaty in 1992 – she was the only woman to sign the agreement – Ms. Diaz is very interested in political solutions.

“I have hope for change,” she said sitting at a table in the boardroom of Horizons of Friendship. She pushes up the sleeves of her sweater as the discussion warms up. There on her forearm are two scars from bullet wounds, a reminder of the price she paid.

“Ordinary citizens cannot endure the economic system (in El Salvador),” she explains. “There is too much civil insecurity. (Because of) organized crime (and) corruption, the political system has deteriorated.”

This is not the pretty picture painted by U.S. President George Bush, who visited her homeland on March 24, two days prior to our interview. He was there pushing a free trade agenda and gushing with accolades.

“It is one of the freest and most stable countries in the hemisphere,” Bush said in a speech during the visit.

For right-wing President Francisco Flores of the ARENA party, this was music to his ears, since the United States does $4 billion in trade with his country. He shot back with more praise.

“Many women in rural areas have an opportunity to work today thanks to the openness of the United States,” he said.

It is not the world Ms. Diaz sees.  Extreme poverty and hardship weigh down most of the people living in rural regions. Recent earthquakes have made things worse. While there is quite a bit of wealth, it does not reach out to most of the population, she said. Helping these people is what her party is most interested in, she adds.

To achieve this, the National Liberation Front has worked hard to gain power in the 262 municipalities and 14 provinces in El Salvador. It dominates the municipal councils in 80 municipalities and eight of the provinces. This means they are able to control about 70 per cent of the total production and work with 60 per cent of the total population.

A key legislative victory was recently won when her political party was able to get six per cent of the national budget to go directly to municipalities. Only four years ago it was 0.8 per cent. This has empowered local government to improve the lives of rural people most directly with all kinds of programs. And what is best, said Diaz, is citizens are driving the process through their involvement. As this movement gathers momentum, she hopes it will translate into power to lead the country during the next federal election in 2004.

“This is our methodology and our strategy,” she said.

As the Canadian provincial and federal governments fight over health care, education and other jurisdictions, municipalities are left on the sidelines. With limited powers for taxation, but increased responsibilities through downloading, it is very frustrating. The federal and provincial governments can release all kinds of economic indicators saying this or that about our economy and jobs, health care and education. But it is the municipal politicians that see the factories close their doors, the lines at the welfare office, the sick waiting in the halls of hospitals and neighbourhood schools shut down.

Maybe a page from Ms. Diaz’ formula might benefit us. If she believes a revolution can occur from the grassroots citizenry and municipal government, why can’t we?

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