Monday, October 15, 2012

Bureaucratic tangles

Last week I had two brushes with Salvadoran bureaucracy that left me both crazed and awestruck.

Darren and I came out of a meeting at the Ministry of Health - I'd been pleased to find a place to park my car right in front of the building - to find a ticket on the windshield.  I saw that I'd parked by a yellow-painted curb, and down at the other end of the block was a small sign saying that parking was only available for official cars.  Ooops.  It had been raining and the ticket was soaked, so we put it to dry on the back seat.  A couple of stops later we noticed that the car no longer had license plates.  Our first and natural assumption was that they'd been stolen - a good possibility, as the Ministry of Health is in the historic center of town where thieves are said to abound.  Darren called a lawyer friend to ask how we should report this crime, and the lawyer asked if by chance we'd gotten a ticket.  Well.....yes.  And when we looked more closely, we discovered that the ticket - which was listing this parking mishap as the heaviest possible level of transportation crime and assessing a fine of $54, astronomical in Salvadoran terms - had a little checkmark noting that the plates had been removed.

So we called Darren's lawyer friend again and he sent us to an office of the transportation police.  When we got there, the guard at the gate refused to even let us enter; instead, he gave me a one-page paper telling me that I couldn't pay the fine and get my plates back for 24 hours.  I drove back to Suchitoto hoping I wouldn't have to explain myself, and then back into the capital the next day, 24 hours later, to pay the fine.  In Sertracen (where one pays fines and renews licenses) they happily took my $54 and told me to go around the building to the Vice-Ministry of Transportation Office to collect my license plates.  When I got there, the officials on hand looked at my paperwork and looked at their files and informed me that my plates were....somewhere else.  I would have to come back the next day.

And so I drove back to Suchitoto (this time at least I had paperwork to show I'd paid the fine, and a good thing too, as finally the police did stop me to ask why I was driving with no license plates) and back to Sertracen the next morning where I finally got the plates, but not the nuts and bolts that had held them on the car - those had apparently been discarded on site, or in someone's pocket.  I'm still trying to figure out why parking in a forbidden parking space is a crime more heinous than speeding (ticket of about $15 if I remember correctly, and no tinkering with the license plates) or any of the other really dangerous tricks that Salvadoran motorists get up to daily. 

That same day, after retrieving my plates, I went to the Migration office where I'd paid for my year's Residence Visa in January, but had yet to receive it.  I've had to purchase two 3-month temporary visas so I could leave and re-enter the country.  But the best moment in this particular bureaucratic hell was in August when the office called me to come in, and told me that I had to get a letter from the embassy to say that I am really who I say I am because the version of my name was slightly (very, very, very slightly) different in my birth certificate, my police check, and my passport.  Never mind that all three showed the exact same place and date of birth and that the difference was between Susan Vera Dewitt, Susan Vera De Witt, and Susan V. Dewitt.  Not only did I have to go to the embassy for a letter ("we see this all the time," they said, tiredly), I had to pay to have Salvadoran staff in a special little office not far from the embassy to put an apostille on my letter from the embassy to certify that it was genuine.  I had, of course, to pay for that, which may well have been the point. 

This time, in October, I didn't get past the front desk of the Migration office.  The receptionist kindly informed me that my card wasn't ready, and probably wouldn't be, and they were changing the whole process somehow, and things would be different next year, but meantime...meantime....

And then I went home, asked Alcides to attach my license plates, and tried very hard to stay peaceful.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Elemental struggles

I'm back from London, where every street was rich with history, with elaborate architectural detail, with an immense variety of people from all parts of our world.  Thanks to our Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace Congregation Programme, we were able to see beyond that beauty and visible wealth to the struggles of those who are just trying to survive, trying to get a foot in the door, or losing their petition for asylum. 

Now I'm back in El Salvador where history is briefer and more ambiguous,where there's less variety of peoples, but where the struggle to survive is often sharper and more challenging.

The problems my Salvadoran friends have to confront and survive make me sad and humble.  One of my friends called to tell me his brother had been arrested, accused of a murder that happened two years ago.  My friend thinks he can prove his brother was at work at the day and hour of the murder, but he has to find money for a lawyer to put those proofs before the court, and his family is poor.

Another friend stopped by with her 18-year-old daughter, who is scheduled for kidney surgery tomorrow.  She's been taking care of her daughter and her father, who has a failing heart.  She makes her family's living by doing laundry, and she's looking pretty desperate right now.

I can help a little, thanks to Sisters and Associates who have generously given money that I save for the needs of people here in Suchitoto, but it's very limited help, and the needs are huge.  I'm painfully aware of the gap between the rich world - in London asylum seekers who were admitted could also get housing and some income support - and the poor world, where the struggle just to put food on the table can be overwhelming.