TOPICS > World

Newsmaker: Francesco Flores

March 2, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: On January 13, a massive earthquake hit the tiny nation of El Salvador. At 7.6 on the Richter Scale, it shook the capital, San Salvador, and triggered landslides in the suburbs nearby. Exactly one month later, another quake measuring 6.6 hit. This time the greatest devastation was felt in the country’s hard-to-reach mountainous areas.

Combined, the two quakes killed at least 1,300 people, wounded 4,000, and left nearly a quarter of the nation’s six million people homeless. El Salvador’s President Francisco Flores came to Washington this week looking for help. And at a White House meeting with President Bush, he got it. He won an increase in U.S. earthquake aid from the $10 million originally pledged to more than $100 million, and an agreement to let an estimated one million Salvadorans working illegally in the U.S. stay on for now.

Those immigrants send more than $1.5 billion each year to relatives back home, a vital part of the economy for what is Central America’s smallest, most densely populated country. Francisco Flores, 41, was elected President in 1999 as the candidate of the conservative Arena Party. A graduate of Amherst College in the U.S., He served as President of the legislature before winning election. President Flores was in the forefront of trying to help El Salvador recover from the quakes, urgently asking other countries for help. Many countries responded with pledges of aid, and British and Taiwanese workers were among the first on the scene.

SIMON WALLER: I’m quite sure that the incidence of diarrhea would have gone up. We could possibly be facing the outbreak of something like cholera, typhoid, hepatitis, or dysentery that are common diseases that could creep in very quickly.

MARGARET WARNER: But since the first quake, relief officials say, the help has tapered off. And they specifically faulted the United States for initially pledging only $10 million. That’s about the same amount Washington is spending to construct a new staging platform in El Salvador for U.S. soldiers and aircraft to monitor drug trafficking in the region. Even with today’s increase, U.S. earthquake relief will be less than the $150 million it sent after a deadly quake in 1986, at a time when the U.S. was supporting the government in its bloody 12-year war against leftist guerillas.

MARGARET WARNER: And joining us now is President Flores. Thank you for joining us, Mr. President.

PRESIDENT FRANCISCO FLORES: Thank you, Margaret, thank you very much for the opportunity.

MARGARET WARNER: Are you pleased with the outcome of today’s meeting?

PRESIDENT FRANCISCO FLORES: Yes, I am pleased. As you know, the most effective aid will come to Salvadorians from Salvadorians. There’s a very important Salvadorian community in the United States that fears, you know, that they might be sent out of the country. So these temporary protective stat us will allow them to have more permanent jobs and to help their families in El Salvador.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that will increase– they’re awfully sending an awful lot, $1.5 billion.


MARGARET WARNER: Do you think this temporary amnesty will actually increase that amount?

PRESIDENT FRANCISCO FLORES: Yes, I think it will. We have an experience with this, Margaret in the past. The United States granted a TPS for Salvadorians close to the signing of the peace accords in 1992. And this created a sense of security in Salvadorians, they assumed more permanent jobs, and we’re expecting remittances to go up 20% to 25%.

MARGARET WARNER: So how it the recovery going from the earthquakes?

PRESIDENT FRANCISCO FLORES: Well, it’s a very difficult situation. It’s a very difficult to understand the magnitude of it. It has affected one quarter of the population which are homeless, and it has shook– shaken the– all the mountain chain in El Salvador, which means that is 158 municipalities of 260 have been devastated. This is equal to– I don’t think you have ever experienced anything like this in the United States. It would be like all the states of the South being devastated, or the central region. So it’s something that has an immense magnitude.

MARGARET WARNER: Are you getting the kind of international aid you need?

PRESIDENT FRANCISCO FLORES: We hope we will get it. We have… we are very satisfied with what happened in Washington today. The relief package, which is $52 million in relief for this year and $58 (million) for next year, is going to be very important in the effort. We’re going to Madrid next week to a consultative meeting where we’ll present the damages of the earthquake, and we hope to find more resources.

MARGARET WARNER: You said yesterday you planned to point out in your meeting with President Bush to point out the discrepancy between the massive and very quick aid that the United States sent after the war and the paltry response this time. Did you raise that with him and what was his response?

PRESIDENT FRANCISCO FLORES: First, Margaret, there was no need because in the meeting I had prepared to do a very convincing speech around the TPS and the relief package. Right from the beginning he said Mr. President yes to both, yes to the TPS and yes to the relief package, so he left me with no argument.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think that America’s deep involvement in your 12-year civil war, during that time now gives the U.S. a special obligation to help El Salvador in a time of peace?

PRESIDENT FRANCISCO FLORES: I think more than an obligation in the sense of having been involved in hell Salvador’s conflict. I think what’s happened is El Salvador has a functional economy, an economy based on free enterprise, open market economy, and has redesigned institutions to create those two objectives I mentioned first. So I find that El Salvador is the country that has in Central America advanced much more in ideas that we share with the United States, and I find the commitment of the United States more related to those values than to their involvement during the war.

MARGARET WARNER: So you don’t feel that somehow once the war was over that the United States lost interest or didn’t show as much interest in your country as before?

PRESIDENT FRANCISCO FLORES: Well, I find that there has been a cycle of U.S. involvement with the region and then a distancing from the region, and I find that this is something that is very negative. I think that President Bush’s decision to be involved in Latin America is very important to the region, and I find that in those periods of time when the United States has distanced itself from its neighbors, then there is a tendency to revert many reforms that are very positive for region.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the U.S. military is also getting reinvolved in El Salvador, and one of these monitoring posts, these anti-drug trafficking posts that we saw in the piece in Colombia is also being set up in El Salvador. Why did your government agree to that, to let the Pentagon come in?

PRESIDENT FRANCISCO FLORES: You see, Margaret, the U.S. has been very effective in facing the cartels in Colombia. And these cartels were centralized, the Cali Cartel, the Medellin Cartel and they operated in Caribbean, you know, in the corridor that went from El Salvador to Florida and to the states of the South. Now, the United States and the Colombian government were effective in facing these centralized cartels. When these cartels were dismembered, there was a decentralization of the cartels and they started using the Pacific corridor. As you know, El Salvador is in the Pacific Coast and has no boundary with the Caribbean Coast. So we started experiencing that the corridor was through El Salvador. We didn’t have the capacity to monitor that, and we needed an alliance with the United States to face a problem. The last thing we need is a Colombianized El Salvador.

MARGARET WARNER: Is there that danger? Do you feel your country is threatened by the drug, the drug phase or the anti-drug war?

PRESIDENT FRANCISCO FLORES: Yes, there is the danger and that’s the reason why we took the decision. And even though El Salvador is not a destiny, by becoming part of the corridor, it can face many, many of the problems. I think we are in time to stop it.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, when you say part of the corridor, do you mean that part of the El Salvadorian economy is now becoming involved in the drug trade?

PRESIDENT FRANCISCO FLORES: What we experienced was, for example, we would find an area that had intense level of violence and delinquency and we went to these areas to find out what was going on, we found an airstrip. So what happens is these narco traffickers, what they do is that they protect themselves by a belt of delinquency and violence. So these are the very negative things of being part of that corridor.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you share the dire view that Senators Dodd and Hagel that just outlined about really the state of central America or Latin America or the parts that are affected by the drug trade, that it’s really that bad?

PRESIDENT FRANCISCO FLORES: Yes, I do share with their opinions, though I feel that the decision of the United States to forward the Plan Colombia is the best decision. Because you see, in Colombia, the most important thing is to know who you’re going to fight and who you’re going to have a political dialogue. And I think that Plan Colombia makes that distinction very clear, that they’re going to fight the narcos and they’re going to deal with political problems in a civilized way. So I find that is the most important strategic element of the Plan Colombia.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, your leftist opposition in the legislature of course opposed this and argues that return of U.S. military to Latin America ultimately could mushroom beyond fighting the drug war and get involved in political conflicts in the region. Is there any danger of that?

PRESIDENT FRANCISCO FLORES: Not at all. You know, the monitoring facility in El Salvador, the ones that are involved in the monitor facility don’t even use weapons. It’s a technical device used to monitor whatever happens in El Salvador, its coast or in its airspace and providing information to our authorities so that we can attack the problem. I find no problem with that.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, President Flores, thank you very much, and good luck with the earthquake cleanup.

PRESIDENT FRANCISCO FLORES: Thank you very much. Thank you very much, Margaret.