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Dollars, Kin Tie El Salvador to U.S.

March 23, 2002

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador (AP) _ The bus-stop candy seller reached into her basket and tossed a box of mints to one customer and two cigarettes to another. But she hesitated as they paid her _ closely examining the pennies, nickels and dimes that felt strange to someone accustomed to another coin.

But Maria del Carmen Rodriguez, 35, says she’s getting used to the U.S. change that has replaced El Salvador’s national currency, the colon. ``It’s rare now when somebody pays in colones,″ she says.

George Washington has all but replaced Christopher Columbus _ Colon in Spanish _ in the wallets, if not the hearts of Salvadorans.

Perhaps no nation in Central America is so tightly _ and sometimes uncomfortably _ bound to the United States as is El Salvador, where President Bush will visit on Sunday.

``El Salvador is totally connected to the United States, in many ways,″ said Alberto Arene, an economist and political analyst. ``It is our main commercial partner, it is the only outside power with decisive influence and El Salvador is linked through the migration of our people _ approximately 2 million people.″ He said that even the more cautious estimate of 1.5 million migrants would put about a fifth of El Salvador’s people in the United States.

Those migrants sent home nearly $2 billion last year, helping to keep an otherwise troubled economy growing slightly despite two massive 2001 earthquakes that destroyed almost 100,000 houses in a country of only 6 million people. Nearly 850 people died and 1.3 million others were at least briefly forced from their homes.

Even the money is an immigrant. In January 2001, the government began adopting the dollar as the official currency. Despite confusion with unnumbered coins in a foreign language, dollars now account for most of the money in circulation _ and nearly all of it in the capital, San Salvador.

While President Francisco Flores has embraced Bush’s call for free trade, the country’s biggest fear may be that the United States will someday crack down on Salvadoran migrants, slashing the flow of remittances.

``The main escape valves for social tensions are the remittances and migration,″ said Roberto Rubio of the National Foundation for Development, an independent research and aid group. ``Without those escape valves, there could be an explosion.″

Rodriguez, the candy seller, said her father sent money from the California cities of Los Angeles and San Francisco until they lost touch five years ago. But the loss was deeper than merely financial. ``He doesn’t know that my brother died,″ she said. ``He was his only son.″

Rodriguez said she lost her house in the earthquakes that struck in January and February of last year. Her new home is a $3-per-day bus ride from her prime sales spot _ a stiff fare for someone whose living comes from selling 6-cent boxes of breath mints.

Across the street, 38-year-old Santos Maravilla struggled in broken shoes to push an ice cream cart past a gleaming new computer store. He shrugged off questions about funny coins and visiting presidents. The quakes, he said, ``left me with nothing.″

``In my family, we lost two people, my father and mother,″ he said, explaining that the family’s house in Comasagua collapsed on top of them. He said officials wouldn’t let him rebuild on ground whose stability was suspect and also refused to help him find new lodgings.

``I’m camping out,″ said Maravilla, who said that his family of four now shares a one-room shack with another six-person family.

Hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans are living in similar conditions more than a year after the quakes, even as foreign aid interest drifts elsewhere. Tens of thousands live in improvised shelters of laminated metal or plastic _ dwellings the locals call ``microwaves″ because of how rapidly they heat in the tropical sun.

For Arene, both free trade and dollarization pose opportunities and risks. He said El Salvador must make itself more competitive and productive or risk seeing an overly strong currency it cannot influence drive investors to other countries.

For Margarita Posada, who is helping to organize a rally protesting the Bush visit on Sunday, free trade is even more dangerous.

``It’s like setting a tethered burro against a free lion,″ Posada said. ``We are not ready to enter a treaty that would put us at a disadvantage.″

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