Street Vendors Defend Right to Make a Living in San Salvador

Edgardo Ayala

HAVANA TIMES, Dec. 22 (IPS) — Juan Antonio Gallegos sells Mexican tortillas in Cuscatlán Park in the capital of El Salvador. Like other street vendors who work in the area, he has one thing on his mind these days: how to resist the imminent eviction that forms part of the city’s government’s urban renewal plan.

He is one of 25 street food vendors in the area who received a letter in which the San Salvador city government of Mayor Norman Quijano notified them that they would have to leave the area as of Jan. 2.

“That is an eviction notice; if a majority of my colleagues agree, we will resist to the utmost,” Gallegos told IPS while spreading guacamole on a corn tortilla.

Since June, the mayor has ordered the forced eviction of 1,053 hawkers, as part of an attempt to regulate street vending in a city where more than 16,000 street vendors hawk their wares, occupying many streets and plazas.

Several of the evictions, which form part of what the metropolitan police has dubbed “Operation Thunder”, have ended in pitched battles, with dozens of people arrested or injured.

Civil society organizations, the Catholic Church, legislators and the human rights ombudsman have called for talks, in order for the two sides to come up with a negotiated solution to address their opposing needs: an orderly, functional city centre and the right of vendors to make a living.

“The problem isn’t going to be solved by means of violent evictions,” Saul Baños, a lawyer with the Foundation for the Study and Application of Law (FESPAD), a local human rights organization, told IPS. “Negotiations should be held, to come up with the best compromise between these two needs.”

The archbishop of San Salvador, José Luis Escobar, stated this month that “this issue is of great concern to the Catholic Church.

“We understand the need to bring more order to the city, but it is important for people not to lose their source of work, and to be able to continue making an honest living,” he said.

Forced evictions are frequent in cities of Latin America and in other developing regions, where the proliferation of street stalls crashes up against plans to clean up cities and make them more orderly.

“It’s not that we love selling on the streets; it’s that with unemployment so high, this is the only way we have to earn a living and support our families,” Martin Montoya, a leader of the United Independent Vendors Movement (MVIU), told IPS.

The MVIU is one of the movements at the forefront of the street demonstrations and occupations of buildings that have been staged to protest the evictions and defend the rights of street vendors.

The current relocations, like similar ones carried out in other countries of the region, don’t usually work, Montoya said, because the vendors tend to be moved to places with low levels of foot traffic, where they can’t sell enough to make a living.

The key, he said, is to move the street traders to places with sufficient foot traffic — something that can only be achieved through negotiation, he added.

Montoya, who said the vendors are willing to engage in talks, proposed that Human Rights Ombudsman Oscar Luna and archbishop Escobar sit in on the talks as observers.

Both of them have stated their willingness to do so.

A large proportion of those who are marginalized by the formal economy in Latin America make a living in the informal sector, especially street vending.

This deeply rooted problem is aggravated every time a financial crisis strikes in the region.

The executive secretary of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), Alicia Bárcena, has described the informal economy as “an alternative for survival” that expands during times of financial crisis and rising unemployment, like 2009.

In Mexico, for example, some 12.2 million people, nearly one-third of the workforce, are active in the informal sector, according to official figures from November 2009.

And in Bolivia, 62.5 percent of the economically active population works in the informal economy, according to the United Nations Development Program’s (UNDP) Regional Human Development Report for Latin America and the Caribbean 2010.

In El Salvador, a country of six million, 48 percent of the economically active population do not have formal jobs and earn less than the minimum wage, the UNDP study says.

ECLAC reported this month that El Salvador will be one of the slowest growing economies in Latin America this year, with one percent growth, compared to a regional average of six percent.

The rigidity of the labor market in Latin America, the UNDP states, has a marked gender component, with many women in the region driven into the informal economy and other low-paying sectors.

The streets of San Salvador, where a large proportion of the hawkers are women, reflect that phenomenon.

Many of these women are raising their children on their own, and their young ones can often be seen sleeping on the sidewalk next to them, or playing among their baskets and wares.

Relocating many of the 16,000 street vendors in this city of 2.1 million and strictly regulating the rest are at the centre of the plans of Mayor Quijano, of the opposition right-wing Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA).

“All of the countries of Latin America have had this problem in their capitals, and all of them have addressed it,” Carolina Ramirez, head of municipal development in the San Salvador city government, told IPS.

“We want to cause the least possible collateral damage to all of the vendors who make an honest living,” she said.

She explained that in the short term, the city government plans to remodel and expand several existing markets, for which it has a four million dollar loan from the Inter-American Development Bank. It is also seeking financing to build new markets, as part of the longer term plan, she added.

According to Ramirez, recuperating public spaces from street hawkers is more complicated in San Salvador than in other Latin American cities, because of what she described as “manipulation” of some vendors by leaders with alleged ties to gangs and organized crime.

She said these leaders were behind the occupation of streets and sidewalks, where they later sell or rent space to traders. “These violent groups are the ones opposed to the new zoning, because we took their business away from them,” Ramirez alleged.

The MVIU’s Montoya said he and his group had nothing to do with such practices, but acknowledged that leaders of other vendors’ organizations do make a profit at the expense of the members.

Street vendors in El Salvador are grouped in 53 different organizations, and although they have managed to come together to some extent in specific critical circumstances, they are far from achieving a united front.

Ramirez rejected the complaints that the mayor refuses to negotiate. She said Quijano has made concessions and flexible proposals for relocation, but the vendors insist on staying in the streets. “That kind of negotiation is totally unproductive,” the official said.

Gallegos, the tortilla vendor in Cuscatlán Park, has a simple argument for why he plans to resist eviction: he cannot accept relocation to a place with little foot traffic, because “I won’t even earn enough to eat.”