Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

El Salvador: Expanding Ties of a Far-Flung Diaspora: Long Battered by Civil War and Natural Disasters, Central America's Smallest Nation Taps into the Talent and Knowledge of Salvadorans Living Abroad to Boost Its Economy

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

El Salvador: Expanding Ties of a Far-Flung Diaspora: Long Battered by Civil War and Natural Disasters, Central America's Smallest Nation Taps into the Talent and Knowledge of Salvadorans Living Abroad to Boost Its Economy

Article excerpt

Guadalupe de Romagoza, a 48-year-old entrepreneur living in San Juan, Puerto Rico, loves ceramics. For years, her four employees back home in El Salvador have been turning out a dizzying variety of colorful, oven-baked enamel souvenirs ranging from ashtrays and jewelry boxes to candle holders and crucifixes. "People in other countries have no idea what El Salvador is like. They think it's an impoverished country without cars or universities," says Romagoza, longtime owner of L'Atelier Ceramica in La Libertad. "Our idea is to familiarize people with our artisans and promote tourism to El Salvador that way ."

Jose Barahona, 62, is on a mission of a different type.

In 1970, the dirt-poor immigrant from Chalatenango snuck into the United States illegally, landing a job making salads in a restaurant in San Francisco. Despite being deported several times, the illiterate Barahona came back again and again, finally making it in the business world.

Today, Barahona is a multimillionaire. His Washington, D.C. janitorial company, Able Service Contractors Inc., has 600 employees and annual sales as high as $12 million. And he owns six Pollo Campero restaurant franchises in suburban Maryland and Virginia.

"I look for opportunities, and when I find them, I go for it," he says. "It doesn't matter where you go. You have to respect the system, adapt, and grow economically. You have to be disciplined in your business and have lots of courage."

Romagoza and Barahona were two of just over six hundred Salvadorans who returned briefly to their homeland in mid-October to attend an unusual event: the Second Presidential Forum with Salvadorans Living Abroad. The two-day conference--held at San Salvador's Radisson Plaza Hotel--attracted successful Salvadorans from across the United States and 20 other countries ranging from Australia to Sweden.

This forum was the brainchild of President Elias Antonio Saca, who in November 2004 presided over a similar conference attended by another six hundred Salvadoran expatriates.

"Saca's the one behind everything," says Ernesto Nosthas, a government official whose job title at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is unusual in itself: General Director of the Office of Attention to Communities Living Abroad. "For the first time in the history of this country, a president created a special government agency to deal with the diaspora. This was an historic event."

In an interview with Americas, El Salvador's foreign minister, Francisco Lainez, added: "Events like this create a forum where Salvadorans living abroad can share their experiences and enrich the country's understanding of what these Salvadorans want and need. With their ideas and proposals, the government can create better policies to work with them."

The diaspora is particularly important for El Salvador, Central America's smallest nation. With 6.7 million inhabitants crammed into an area smaller than Massachusetts, El Salvador ranks as the most densely populated country in Latin America.

It also has a higher proportion of its citizens living in the United States than any nation on Earth. Over 2.9 million Salvadorans reside abroad, 95% of them in the 50 states. Last year, said Nosthas, family remittances from Salvadorans living abroad came to nearly $3 billion--or nearly 16% of the country's Gross Domestic Product.

Billboards for Western Union, MoneyGram, and other wire transfer services crop up all over the countryside, from San Salvador down to the smallest towns in the interior. Millions of Salvadorans have come to depend on these remesas for everything from buying groceries to paying their monthly cell phone bill.

Nearly all this money comes from north of the Rio Grande, and the reason for that is simple: during El Salvador's long and bloody civil war, which claimed 75,000 lives between 1980 and 1992, nearly a quarter of the population fled the country. …

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