LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
In El Salvador, an important presidential election campaign is drawing to a close. No leftist politician has ever won the presidency in the Central American country. But the candidate from a former Marxist guerrilla group has staged a strong challenge to the right-wing ruling party called ARENA. No matter who wins Sunday's ballot, he will face a faltering economy, entrenched poverty, rampant crime and a population that is still recovering from a civil war.
NPR's Jason Beaubien reports.
JASON BEAUBIEN: One of the most telling facts about how tough life is in El Salvador right now is that a quarter of its population chooses not to live here. An estimated two million Salvadorenos, out of a population of less than seven million, live and work in the United States. Remittances from those migrants rival exports as the leading source of revenue for the country.
(Soundbite of crowded market)
BEAUBIEN: In the central market in San Salvador, vendors hawk vegetables, clothes, frying pans. El Salvador has moved aggressively under the conservative ARENA party to align its economy with the U.S. In 2001, it adopted the dollar as its sole currency. And in 2006, it ratified a free-trade deal with the States. The trade agreement led to a modest boost in exports, but here in the market, shoppers and shopkeepers say it hasn't helped them. At a stand selling underwear, Joaquin Orlando Jiron says things are terrible right now.
Mr. JOAQUIN ORLANDO JIRON: (Spanish spoken)
BEAUBIEN: At most, he sells $10 or $12 worth of briefs a day. He says after expenses, this isn't enough for a family of four to live on. Jiron used to sell fruit, but he switched to underwear because when sales are slow, at least underwear doesn't rot. The 55-year-old says he works seven days a week just to make ends meet. And he's not optimistic about the upcoming presidential election.
Mr. JIRON: (Spanish spoken)
BEAUBIEN: The politics, one candidate or another, it's all the same, Jiron says. Here in the market you have trained professionals working here because it's the only work they can get. The upcoming election pits Mauricio Funes from the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front, or FMLN, against Rodrigo Avila from the ruling ARENA party. The FMLN were the Marxist guerrillas who took up arms in 1980. ARENA is the conservative party linked during the 12-year civil war to brutal right-wing death squads.
Now the two are battling at the ballot box. Whoever wins will take over a country with serious social problems that's trying to swim upstream against a shrinking global economy. On the outskirts of San Salvador, a new squatter camp emerged last year. Within a couple of months, 1,200 families flooded into the area. Now the residents live in an expanse of shacks cobbled together out of scrap wood and black plastic sheeting.
Ms. ANA MERCEDES ALVARADO: (Spanish spoken)
BEAUBIEN: If there wasn't the need, we wouldn't live here, says Ana Mercedes Alvarado. Because the conditions are really bad, but it was out of necessity that we had to move here. There are only four water taps for the more than 1,000 shacks. There's no sewage system. The dirt paths turn to streams of mud whenever it rains. But Alvarado says by not paying rent here, at least she can afford to eat.
Ms. ALVARADO: (Spanish spoken)
BEAUBIEN: The salaries here aren't dignified salaries. They're salaries of hunger, she says. In the factories and on the farms, the people earn $45 for half a month's work. How are the poor people in the countryside going to eat on $45 a fortnight? It's a calamity and a sin.
And this is just one of El Salvador's problems. Crime is rampant. The birthrate is high. Social mobility remains limited in a place that just fought a civil war over its vast inequities in wealth. Leonel Gomez, a criminal investigator and political analyst in San Salvador, says the social discontent stewing in the country could explode.
Mr. LEONEL GOMEZ (Criminal Investigator, Political Analyst): That's what I'm afraid of. It might happen. I'm not saying that I'm for that — I'm not. But I'm not calling the shots here. Hunger is calling the shots. Dead kids are calling the shots. Overpopulation are calling the shots. Stupid political leaders are calling the shots.
BEAUBIEN: Gomez says the biggest challenge to the next government will be to root out corruption so there's more investment, economic growth and legitimate opportunity for people to make a living.
Jason Beaubien, NPR News, San Salvador.
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