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Finding Sacagawea in El Salvador

In El Salvador, dollar coins, including the Presidential one dollar coins are even more common than the bill.

Does anybody remember the Sacagawea dollar coin first minted in 2000?

Sacagawea was a Native American (Shoshone) who in 1804 made history by guiding the Louis and Clark expedition that helped establish trade with the Native Americans in the West, and advanced America’s transcontinental expansion to the Pacific.The coin was unpopular and it disappeared from circulation.

However, on a recent trip, I found where Sacagawea went.

She is in El Salvador where she is ubiquitous in the daily and constant exchange between vendors and customers.

The colón, El Salvador’s monetary union since 1892 was replaced by the US dollar in 2001. Today, dollars are the medium of exchange in that country.

Dollar coins, including the Presidential one-dollar coins are even more common than the bill.

Sacagawea’s metaphorical “deportation” to this new role in a global out post serves as a reminder of the US influence on Central America’s history and economy, and provides greater understanding of why in 2014 so many women and children from Central America left and migrated to the US.

In an attempt to curb the mass exodus of thousands of unaccompanied migrant children fleeing violence in Central America, the Obama administration has proposed “Plan Central America,” a $1 billion aid package designed to improve the region’s economy and security.

In the 1970s, El Salvador’s ruling elite began to face political challenges from a center-left coalition. What followed was two decades of brutal repression by the military, aided by the United States. To combat the leftist trend, between 1980 and 1989 the US provided economic assistance to El Salvador totaling nearly $2.6 billion. This was the fourth-largest economic aid program in the world.

US currency played a part in the plan to stabilize El Salvador’s economy after years of civil war, which ended in 1992.

In 2006, the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) was signed by the United States and five Central American countries, including El Salvador.

This summer, on a trip to attend an academic conference in El Salvador’s capital, San Salvador, I witnessed a city of contrasts. Armed guards were posted at almost every public entrance. Impoverished and marginalized neighborhoods exist alongside modern high-rises and the opulent residences for foreigners in gated communities.

A taxi-cab driver, bristled at the high walls that sheltered wealthy foreign investors from those who toiled for a pittance on the streets, pointed these communities out to me we headed to my hotel. He rattled off the names of the foreign companies represented there.

He rolled up his sleeve to show me a now-deformed right forearm. It was one of two scars from bullet wounds that nearly killed him at age 14 during the civil war, when he had fought alongside others for the reforms they hoped would provide economic relief for El Salvador’s poor.

El Salvador has become a US sweat shop. Engulfed in modernity, it has all but lost its soul.

The prices of consumer goods and services during my stay were what I expected to pay for like items in the United States.

According to the State Department, more than 300 US companies have a commercial presence there, including Wal-Mart, Nordstrom, Hanes, The Gap, North Face, Adidas, Nike, Reebok, Aéropostale, Dallas Cowboys, Fruit of the Loom and Land’s End.

Production takes place in “maquiladoras,” foreign-owned factories that benefit from low wage labor and poorly regulated employment and environmental standards. Combined with governmental concessions toeliminate taxes, tariffs or reduce other production costs, foreign producers enjoy higher profits.

In El Salvador the minimum wage for maquiladora workers is $187.68 a month. In a country whose entire population is 6.42 million people, a sizeable 81,000 work in maquiladoras. Of these, 82 percent are women.

Around 90 percent of all manufactured goods in El Salvador are exported to the United States. Trade between the United States and CAFTA region countries has risen 83 percent since 2006.

Since CAFTA, poverty has increased in El Salvador, and impoverished women often turn to migration north to the United States in hopes of surviving. Long hours at work also means their children become likely targets of ruthless gangs, the Mara Salvatrucha, or “Maras.”

In desperate efforts to protect their children from gang violence, in 2014, Salvadoran mothers fled to the United States. This crisis at the border included an additional 16,404 unaccompanied Salvadoran minors who were also detained trying to cross the US-Mexican border.

Spurred by neoliberal economic policies, the transcontinental expansion of US trade and aided long ago by Sacagawea continues today and extends south to El Salvador. In this regard, the Sacagawea still represents US imperial prowess, but one in which today fuels the crime and poverty from which other women and their children flee.

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