The 1993 Caravan to Rebuild El Salvador was sponsored by twelve national organizations active in Central America solidarity work, including Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), National Center for US El Salvador Sister Cities, Oxfam America, and the United Universalist Service Committee. It was coordinated by Pastors for Peace, a Minneapolis-based organization with years of experience organizing material aid caravans. The caravan consisted of 76 "caravanistas" driving 34 vehicles from all over the United States. The total value of the material aid was estimated at $2-3 million.
I participated in the caravan as a representative of Boston TecsChange and the Somerville-Perquin Sister City Project. The Sister City Project purchased a reconditioned school bus that will provide transportation service for the residents of Perquin, and paid to send down a Jeep that was donated by a local supporter. I drove the Jeep from Boston to San Salvador. Boston TecsChange has been collecting and repairing used personal computers that are sent to progressive organizations in many third world countries such as El Salvador and South Africa. The caravan carried thirty of our computers. These were distributed to grassroots organizations such as women's groups, repopulated communities, artists' cooperatives, and healthcare projects. We also plan to use some of the PCs to start a computer school in San Salvador to serve the activist community.
This report will cover the trip to El Salvador, details of distributing the computers, and future plans of Pastors for Peace and TecsChange.
Pastor for Peace is a project of the Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization. IFCO was founded in 1967 to respond to rising urban unrest by exploring non-violent means of resolving conflict. Pastors for Peace was founded in 1988 by the reverend Lucius Walker, executive director of IFCO after a trip to Nicaragua where he was injured in a Contra terrorist attack on his passenger ferry.
Pastors describes their mission in a flier titled Empowerment not Charity. After criticizing charity work for not addressing the fundamental power relationships that create haves and have-nots (and thereby the need for charity), they propose empowerment as an alternative solution. "We deliver the basic tools that empower Central American communities to produce health, education, and economic development at the grassroots level". Accordingly, the guidelines for collecting donated material specifically recommended against collecting food and clothing which would have alleviated the short-term needs of a few individuals without contributing to their empowerment. Instead, their suggested list included construction and agricultural equipment, school material, medicine and medical supplies, and organizing tools such as office supplies and computers. Since its founding, Pastors for Peace has organized six caravans to Nicaragua and six to El Salvador. Their garage in Minneapolis is staffed by full-time mechanics and is responsible for preparing all vehicles for the trip. Solidarity groups across the US pay for the purchase, repair, and delivery of vehicles to their sister communities or organizations that they support. They then collect material aid that is sent on their vehicles. In December 1992 Pastors organized the first US-Cuba Friendshipment caravan as a direct challenge to the US government's trade embargo with Cuba. Friendshipment II is planned for July/August 1993. In addition, work brigades to El Salvador and study trips to Cuba are under way. Projects in Guatemala and Haiti are also being planned.
TecsChange was formed as a result of discussions at the first Boston Computers and Social Change conference in 1991. Our mission is to use technology to help promote social change in the third world. Over the past two years we have helped organize training for local organizations that work with Salvadoran refugees and for visiting activists from South Africa. We have also provided limited technical support to local progressive organizations. The caravan gave us the opportunity to deliver computers to a country with a large and well-organized popular sector that is rich in courage and determination but very poor in material resources.
We had received a large donation of surplus computer equipment from Lotus Development Corporation and small quantities from other sources. The equipment included everything from ten-year-old PCs with no hard disk to a few 386 systems. Some were in good working condition, while others needed repairs. Those that had serious problems were set aside and used for parts. A group of TecsChange volunteers spent the fall and winter months testing the computers, printers, and other equipment. We repaired what was repairable given our experience and available tools. Repairs consisted mostly of identifying the faulty component (usually a hard disk, disk controller, or video card) and replacing it with a working part from a computer that was not fixable. Systems were upgraded as much as possible. For example all working systems were equipped with at least 640K of memory - more for the more advanced systems.
In late 1992 four ATs and one 386 were delivered to the Fund for Free South Africa which sent them to popular organizations in South Africa. One XT was also sent to Nicaragua with a delegation. By February 1993 we had about thirty computers ready and tested.
This included two 386 machines, about twenty ATs, four XTs, and five dual-floppy PCs. On a very cold weekend in February, these were loaded onto four Mercedes boxed trucks that had been purchased by local solidarity groups.
The U.S. part of the trip consisted of ten routes. Vehicles left many northern cities on or around February 24 and slowly made their way to San Antonio where driver orientation was scheduled for March 7-10. Along the way we stopped at 112 cities, picking up vehicles and material aid, enjoying many potluck dinners, and participating in numerous fundraising events and press conferences.
Orientation included many hours of mechanical work on the vehicles that had developed problems along the routes. In addition, we all participated in food preparation and cleanups, and did overnight security in two-hour shifts. Evening meetings covered topics ranging from driving in a caravan and CB radio usage to cultural sensitivity.
Most of the caravan left early on the morning of March 11. The few vehicles with last-minute problems left that afternoon and caught up with the caravan at the US-Mexico border that night. We spent nine days on the road, arriving at the University of Central America on Friday March 19. Except for the two days that we spent waiting for permission to enter Mexico and El Salvador, a typical day would start around sunrise. Drivers were responsible for checking and warming up their vehicles. The day's trip would be explained in a short meeting. The advanced party (consisting of four of the smaller and faster vehicles) would leave and try to get a head start on the caravan. They were responsible for locating that night's meal and lodging; since the caravan had to avoid all major cities, finding accommodations for seventy six people on two hours' notice could be a challenge.
Fortunately we experienced no serious mechanical problems after leaving San Antonio. We followed the Gulf coast, crossing over to the Pacific coast in southern Mexico. We crossed Guatemala along the Pacific coast, avoiding the mountainous center of the country. We finally crossed into El Salvador on Thursday March 25 and were met by a large delegation of Salvadorans and North Americans who had flown to El Salvador to greet the caravan. That night we celebrated at a hotel close to the border. However the next morning we were told that the national assembly had failed to pass a resolution granting tax exempt status to the entire caravan as the government had promised. The UN Truth Commission that had been set up as part of the peace accords had just released its report on the worst human rights violations of the war, implicating the government and its security forces for %85 of the violations that it had investigated. The FMLN guerrillas were blamed for %5 of the violations. The previous day, the national assembly had started debate on a law granting a blanket amnesty for all political crimes committed during the war. It had recessed after many hours of intense debate without voting on our tax exemption.
We were told that the vehicles could not be moved from the border. After many hours of negotiations and threatening to close the border crossing through civil disobedience, we were allowed to proceed early in the afternoon. Our original plan had called for leaving early in the morning and passing through many cities and towns on the way to San Salvador. But the crowds that had come out to greet us caused such a large traffic jam at the first town that it was decided to take the Pan American highway in order to reach San Salvador before dark. The vehicles were parked on the UCA campus and we headed for a Baptist orphanage that was to become our home for the next ten days.
As mentioned earlier, the caravan was planned as a political project from the start. This was also reflected in the schedule that had been prepared for us. On Saturday a welcoming march was planned for us in the Plaza Civico, site of many demonstrations and massacres during the 1970's and 80's. The caravan was officially welcomed by representatives of different sectors of the popular movement. Early in the afternoon it was announced that the national assembly was about to pass the amnesty law for human rights violators. The (largely Salvadoran) crowd was asked to march to the national assembly and demand rejection of the amnesty law. Once we reached the assembly some in the crowd got carried away; they jumped over the fence and opened the outside gate. The crowed rushed in and entered the building, where the day's session was shut down with shouts of "justice". This was a peaceful act of civil disobedience; I neither saw nor heard of any violence or vandalism. That evening we discussed the implications of the day's events. Some felt that presence of North Americans in the crowd could give the right wing an excuse to portray the people's demands for justice as foreign agitation. Others felt that without the presence of international observers (who usually have a restraining effect on local security forces) the people may not have been able to take over the national assembly in the first place.
Other events during that week included numerous meetings with representatives of political and grassroots organizations, US embassy officials (who days after the release of the Truth Commission report continued to claim that both sides had been equally responsible for human rights violations), an open-air concert by the Venezuelan band Los Guaragao, and another rally at the Plaza Civico on the anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero, who is already referred to as St. Romero by the people of El Salvador. At this event Shafik Handal, general coordinator of the recently-legalized FMLN party gave an impassioned speech condemning the amnesty law, not out of a desire for revenge, but because amnesty before the whole truth is known would be a form of cover-up.
Another experience that will be with me forever was our visit to the rose garden at the University of Central America where in November 1989 soldiers of the Atlacatl battalion murdered six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter. Our visit to the Jesuit University also included a talk be Rev. Dean Bradley, a North American Jesuit who had come to El Salvador to replace one of the murdered six. He explained that the majority of the country's population lives in a few large cities that were controlled by the government during the war, where the only media outlets allowed to function had been those owned by the right wing. This explained the decision of the FMLN radio stations (Radio Venceremos and Radio Farabundo Marti) to move to the capital. According to Rev. Bradley this also demonstrated the importance of the Truth Commission report and the publicity created by its release.
On March 11 we moved the seventy-odd boxes that contained the computers, monitors, printers, and other equipment to the offices of CONTA, an organization that provides accounting and administrative training to cooperatives, repopulated communities, and other grassroots organizations. Their garage became my new workshop for the next nine days. All systems were unpacked, reassembled, and tested. Surprisingly, all of the equipment except for two hard disks had survived the journey -including our detour through a riverbed in Mexico! Recipients were chosen in consultation with CONTA, according to the following criteria:
The resulting list included many women's organizations, some healthcare providers, a few repopulated communities, and artists' cooperatives. The dual-floppy PCs and one of the faster ATs were set aside to be used in the computer school that TecsChange plans to sponsor.
TecsChange plans to continue acting as a clearinghouse for used computer equipment. We are looking for used IBM-compatible personal computers in good working condition. We are also looking for volunteers who can test these systems and do minimal hardware troubleshooting. Volunteers of all skill levels are welcome!
TecsChange also plans to sponsor the computer school mentioned above. We are looking for an instructor to teach DOS, Lotus 123, and Wordperfect at the user level. If you know the above software, have some knowledge of in Spanish, and would like to spend six months to a year in El Salvador during the most exciting period of its history, please contact us ASAP!
We also plan to work with the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador in support of the opposition ticket in the March 1994 where the presidency, all national assembly seats, all local government posts are at stake. The right wing has a huge advantage in sophisticated computer equipment, which allows them to analyze voter lists, demographic polls, and themes. We can offset that advantage by supplying the opposition with the computer power and expertise to conduct their own analyses. If you have expertise that may be applicable to this project and are interested in spending a month or two in El Salvador in the fall please contact us or CISPES. Finally, our projects and the struggles that we support are only limited by the interests of our volunteers. If you have other ideas for using technology to promote social change in the third world we would like to hear from you! For Peace with Social Justice.