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Democracy Flourishes at the Grassroots in Central America

In recent years, news out of the “Northern Triangle” of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) rarely gives cause for celebration. Drug trafficking, gang murders, and political strife splash across the bright front pages of local tabloids. After decades of conflict and corruption, many have low expectations for democracy.

Not Mayor Silvia Chavarria, the first female mayor of San Antonio Pajonal, a small town in western El Salvador.

Last week we had the opportunity to visit with Mayor Silvia as part of an IRI exchange between Guatemalan and Salvadoran municipal leaders. She bantered back and forth with the all-male Guatemalan contingent, digging for concrete facts. How did they fund their local economic development projects? What were their plans to increase tourism? Who were the municipal staff? She buzzed with energy, taking copious notes in her small office half filled with food supplies to be distributed to elderly and disabled residents. As the afternoon dragged on, she became impatient – she wanted to show the visitors her two prized projects before it became too dark.

Near the bottom of the valley on the eastern edge of town, construction has finished on the town’s new family excursion center and recycling plant. Mayor Silvia is animated as she explains the recycling operations to visiting Mayor Edgar Mayorga from San Cristobal Acasaguastlan in Guatemala – how waste is separated, where the organic composting occurs, how the town makes money from selling bottles and cans to recycling companies. The Guatemalans nod in unison, wondering out loud how to convince residents in their town to separate all of their garbage. The family excursion center has a pool, a restaurant, and a soccer field; in the back the municipality is planting a row of coconut trees around a pair of wooden gazebos. “Now we just need to get the word out,” Mayor Silvia says, “so that people from further away will bring their families here on the weekend.”

Mayor Silvia leads Mayor Mayorga around the recycling plant

Being a mayor in El Salvador is not all glamour. On the way back into town we pass a few men sitting by the side of the road. The Mayor’s assistant tells her that one of them had been coming by the office, agitated, asking to meet with the Mayor. “You know,” she says, turning in her seat to face us, “he didn’t even vote! If you’re going to complain, you should at least vote.” She adds with a laugh: “Even if you vote for the other side!”

Mayor Silvia, like the other five mayors we met on this trip, are excited about what they can accomplish at the local level despite conflicts in national politics. In Candelaria de la Frontera, the mayor started setting up regular town hall meetings around her rural municipality after visiting Guatemala on a past IRI exchange. In Nahuizalco, the mayor put up shops for local businesses to rent and sell to the international tourists visiting the beautiful new colonial-style town square. In Caluco, the mayor is petitioning for funds to renovate a historic church in her town, the oldest Catholic Church in El Salvador. What we saw very clearly is that these mayors and their staffs are deeply engaged with citizens, searching constantly for ways to respond to their needs and improve their lives. We left the trip feeling enthusiastic, about IRI’s partnership with COMURES, the Salvadoran association of municipalities, and about the flourishing of local democracy throughout the region.    

New town square in Nahuizalco