Salvadoran student Luis depends on US aid for his coding education

Doug Sovern, KCBS Radio

For Young People In El Salvador, US Aid Is A Matter Of Life Or Death

Programs Trump Wants To Cut Keep Migrants From Coming To US

Doug Sovern
April 24, 2019 - 12:15 am
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Thirty-two young people sit at computers in San Salvador. They're learning Java Script, C-Sharp, Android Studio and other coding languages, as part of a nine-month training program. But unlike most coding camps, this one is literally a matter of life or death for the students. One of them, Giselle, who's 18, spends as much time commuting back and forth over rugged roads from her distant town, as she does in class.

"It takes two or three hours to come here," she tells KCBS Radio. "It depends on traffic. Sometimes it takes four."

She says that long commute, up to eight hours a day roundtrip, is more than worth it "because I have the opportunity to learn something new, that is related with technology. And we know that technology is the future." She adds that she might not have a future at all, if she weren't here. That's because her town is split between two rival gangs, who hack people to death if they venture onto the wrong turf. Her coding classmate Luis, 21, faces a similar threat in his town, Sonsonate.

"I'm not allowed to visit some places, even in my own city," he says, matter-of-factly. "They will tell you, where are you coming from? Oh, that place? You must be from the other gang, Unfortunately, we have to kill you."

The gangsters don't care, says Giselle, that the hard-working computer students are not involved with gangs.

"It doesn't matter. You're going to be killed."

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The students in this class, held at the Centros de Desarollo de Software, or CDS, proudly wear bright blue shirts with USAID logos on them. The U.S. Agency for International Development funds this program, and 25 others like it here. But its future is in grave doubt, because President Trump intends to eliminate its funding.

"I've ended payments to Guatemala, to Honduras and to El Salvador," the president said recently during a visit to Florida. "No money goes there anymore. We were giving them 500 million dollars. We stopped payment," because, said the president, those three governments "are not doing enough" to stop their citizens from migrating to the United States.

In fact, no payments have stopped. The president and his State Department have informed Congress it will end the annual assistance program to the Northern Triangle countries. But two sources, one within USAID and the other with the United Nations, tell KCBS Radio that 140 million dollars in American aid to El Salvador is still in place. It was already appropriated and disbursed, and the White House doesn't have the power to take it back. The president can ask Congress not to appropriate any more in its next budget, but that's up to Congress. And contrary to the way the administration couches it, the money does not flow to or through those foreign governments. It is disbursed by USAID, directly to non-governmental organizations and nonprofit programs. The United States, not the governments of the Northern Triangle countries, holds the pursestrings.

The students' coding class is run by Fabiola Escobar, director of CDS, which translates to the Center for Software Development. Through an interpreter, she says she's taking 400 young Salvadorans off the streets and teaching them a career skill.

"They wake up to the reality that they can do things that they didn't even imagine they could do," she says.

But without almost four million American dollars a year in USAID funding, the program will have to shut down.

"It would be a disaster if we lose our funding." says Escobar.

That could force more of these students into the desperate choice to join a migrant caravan, to escape poverty and the risk of death, which Giselle says is not some abstract thing.

"It happened on Saturday (two days before our interview)" she says. "Two students were killed. They got lost" on their way to school and wandered into gang territory. "That's why they were killed."

An armed soldier patrols the streets in Panchimalco, El Salvador
Doug Sovern, KCBS Radio
Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney disputes the effectiveness of the U.S. aid.

"If it's working so well," he asked on CBS News, "why are the people still coming?"

But a KCBS analysis of United Nations International Organization for Migration records shows emigration from El Salvador is slowing, and USAID records show that its funding has created more than 22,000 new jobs in the last seven years in El Salvador and has helped reduce homicides by over 60 percent in the cities where its programs operate.

San Salvador Mayor Ernesto Muyschondt tells KCBS Radio that cutting the funds would be, in his words, "a massive mistake."

"It's much more profitable," he says, "to invest in opportunities than to invest in a wall."

The White House did not respond to KCBS Radio's request for comment on this report. 

This is Part 3 of KCBS Radio Political Reporter Doug Sovern's five-part series, "A Desperate Frontier: Death And Dreams In El Salvador," which is airing this week.