Central America's civil wars may have ended in the early 1990s, but Saint Mary's students who traveled to Nicaragua and El Salvador during Jan Term found that psychological wounds linger and endemic poverty continues to plague the people.
"There's something wrong with economic conditions in Central America and there's something wrong with U.S. involvement in Central America, and we encourage you to learn more," said senior John Stratton, one of 15 students in Margaret Dick and Michael Barram's "Nicaragua and El Salvador: Religion and Politics in Conflict" travel course.
On Feb. 19 in the Soda Center, more than 100 people heard stories from students who worked in Nicaraguan coffee fields and interviewed individuals eking out a living by scavenging in the La Chureca dump outside Managua.
"There are 175 families living at the dump," said senior Megan Colla, noting that many move to the city during the 10 months of the year when coffee is not in season. "They suffer from severe respiratory problems and malnutrition."
Students also described how Nicaraguans and Salvadorans struggle under a "neoliberal economic system" of globalized trade.
"Neoliberalism has two main values - efficiency and profit," said sophomore Gio Garibaldi. "But these values do not support social interaction and emotion. (In neoliberalism) a person is only worth something as far as a transaction is concerned."
Junior Emily Esguerra encouraged American consumers to help Central American workers by shopping for fair-trade goods at stores like Trader Joe's and Whole Foods.
"A fair-trade label guarantees that farmers in developing countries are paid fair prices for their products," she said.
In El Salvador, several students heard chilling first-hand accounts from individuals directly affected by the violence that engulfed the country from 1980 to 1992, when more than 75,000 people were killed, including San Salvador Archbishop and human rights advocate Oscar Romero. Most were murdered by the right-wing government's soldiers, who received U.S. government funding throughout the 1980s.
Senior Ian McQueary shared the story he heard from his Salvadoran host Lolo, one of the few survivors of a 1980s village massacre where more than 750 people were killed.
Soldiers broke into Lolo's classroom and killed his teacher in front him and other students, and members of Lolo's family only escaped after hiding in a cave for days.
Sophomore Tim Huey noted that many Salvadoran military leaders who directed the country's mass killings were trained at the U.S. military's School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, which remains open as "The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation." He urged the audience to support HR 1707, a bill in Congress calling for the institute to be closed.
Salvadorans like Lolo, McQueary said, wanted Americans to know what happened in their country and take action to prevent future violence in the region.
"They asked us to tell their story and to do our part to close the School of the Americas," McQueary said.
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Photo by Gorbachev Lingad '10