For Arlington Del. Adam Ebbin (D), the world has gotten a little smaller. On the heels of a good-will visit to El Salvador and Nicaragua this month, Ebbin said his experiences have revealed how closely Arlington and the two nations are linked, a connection he is now hoping to foster at home.
Through the American Council of Young Political Leaders (ACYPL), a bi-partisan group, Ebbin toured the two developing countries along with a group of seven representatives from other corners of the United States. The purpose: to build lasting bonds with young politicians and to exchange ideas. And the ties that Arlington, home to many El Salvadoran and Nicaraguan residents, shares with Central America became immediately evident.
“Wherever we went there, it was amazing to see how many people were aware of Arlington and of Arlandria,” Ebbin said. “We met with President Francisco Flores, for example, and when I told him where my constituency is, he asked me if I knew Walter Tejada from the Arlington County Board.”
According to AYCPL director Brad Minnick, roughly one-quarter of El Salvador’s population lives in the United States and those transplants send almost $2 billion each year back to their native country, often to support their families.
The visit, Ebbin said, opened his eyes to the national issues El Salvador and Nicaragua face. To explore them, the delegation traveled both to urban centers and rural communities, visiting poverty-stricken neighborhoods battling gang violence and agricultural businesses in the countryside, many struggling to stay afloat amid international competition.
Central America’s near dependency on the US economy, Ebbin said, played a significant role in discussions everywhere they went.
“One person told me in El Salvador that when our economy sneezes, theirs gets pneumonia,” he said. “You have to remember that the U.S dollar is the currency of choice there.”
Economic policy was at the forefront of the visit as many in Central America await the outcome of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, currently being debated on Capitol Hill. The agreement, like the North American Free Trade Agreement, would open up Central America as free trade zone to U.S. companies.
“There is support for it there but also some hesitation among certain groups,” said Chris Hodgon, a Republican economic developer from Nashua, N.H., who also participated in the visit. “It would break down the barriers to trade like tariffs, but some of the former rebel groups in both countries are uncertain about entering into these kinds of agreements with the United States. But for the U.S., there are many potential benefits. Free trade creates jobs and improves quality of life.”
Ebbin and Hodgon both met with representatives of the Sandanista party, once the driving force behind Nicaragua’s civil war, and with El Salvador’s Frente Farabundo Marti de Liberacion, or FMLN, former guerilla fighters, many who are now representatives in the national government.
“In the same government, you have people working together who were on opposite sides of a civil war only a few years ago,” Ebbin said. “It sure makes the divide between Republicans and Democrats in this country look small by comparison.”
The delegation also had a chance to meet with El Salvadoran troops — many had fought against each other during the war — upon their recent return from service in Iraq. But it was law enforcement and policing strategies that Ebbin found most interesting as part of the nation’s struggle to regain credibility among its people.
“In El Salvador, people had come to distrust the police during the civil war,” he said. “But their new officials showed how they came to rebuild that trust, first by separating the police from the government, making them independent of the military, and by taking on more of a community-based approach to policing.”
The delegation arrived in Nicaragua shortly after the nation’s municipal elections and in Nandaine, a vibrant rural community, Ebbin listened as the city’s mayor launched a campaign to end gang violence.
“It is such an optimistic country, particularly after the ways it has struggled with democracy, civil war and tremendous poverty,” he said. “I was amazed to see him speaking in this neighborhood that they are trying to reclaim from the gangs, speaking without fear in a public park.”
Democracy became the subject of much discussion in November, when Ebbin hosted a group of 76 delegates from El Salvador, Nicaragua and other Central American nations as part of the AYCPL’s exhange program in the United States.
“There were lots of questions about why our voting system is not standardized from state to state,” he said. “In one Central American country, they stamp your thumb with green ink when you vote to make sure you don’t cast more than one ballot. The ink stays there for days. They wondered why we didn’t have some kind of similar safeguard.”
And the lessons Ebbin has brought back with him from being a part of AYCPL’s program, he said, will translate into an increased effort to reach out to Arlington’s Central American community.
“What I’m going to try and do is to reach out more and to communicate better with constituents in immigrant communities,” he said. “To build on those commonalities and to understand the struggles they go through, that can only help.”