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What a change El Salvador has gone through. What a challenge. How do individuals deal with that challenge, especially with regard to their faith?

I think that in normal conditions, in peaceful, prosperous conditions, your core identity can be clothed in many layers. But to the degree that you suffer, and that you face yourself with crisis, you face yourself with the possibility of death, that you face yourself with the loss of family members, you are left only with your faith. And in the end, that is what pulls a country forward. In the end, it’s the strength of an individual people that decides to pull forward, stagnate, or stay. So I think that in El Salvador, faith played a fundamental role in the decision people took of facing the challenge.

And I think it’s important to tell you what my faith is. I lost faith in the Catholic Church when I was very young—an adolescent—because of what happened with liberation theology. I tried to find a sense of purpose through philosophy later on. Through it, I found some answers. Now, I have come to a different understanding. I have come to separate the organization from its teachings. So now I can feel comfortable with the teachings of the Catholic Church, though I don’t feel comfortable with some of its representatives.

You have said that essential to freedom is the ability to choose our path. If choice is freedom, what is the standard to make the correct choices, right choices?

I think that I was using the word in the sense of self discovery, in the sense that as you question yourself as to what is your purpose in life, then you’re faced with two paths. Either you take what the crowd or what the circumstance pulls you to, which is the most comfortable choice, or you are honest with your inner calling, with your inner voice that tells you this is right. You know, this is what you should be doing. This is the one thing that, later on in life when you go back and see yourself, you will say I’m proud of you for taking that choice. So I was talking of choice in that sense, in the sense of choice as the process of self conscious, self discovery, that allows you to discover what your mission is. And your mission always has to do with doing something good for others.

Part of that is honesty, being honest with yourself about what you feel is right?

Yes. And I think an even better word would be integrity, being true to your character, your inner voice.

You have also said that one of the reasons for El Salvador’s success is that it stopped blaming others. How do you engender a sense of responsibility among an entire people?

Again, [when] you are faced with the responsibility of guiding, then you have two choices. An easy choice, which is to tell people that nothing is their fault; it is somebody else’s fault and I will take it upon myself to fight that person or that circumstance that is making people ill at ease. This is the populist message. That is what most populist leaders do when they’re faced with their country. They say, “Oh, this is the fault of the United States, or it’s the fault of the multi-national corporations, or it’s a historical fault.” And then you have the tougher choice of saying the truth, saying, “Listen, we are responsible for this; we are the ones who have made all these mistakes, so we better correct them.” Now, this message is, of course, very difficult at the beginning, but it has a very powerful consequence, which is that people feel immediately empowered. Immediately. Once you’re able to communicate that you have to accept responsibility and stop blaming others, then people start to feel that they can do it. It’s the responsibility of a leader to say, not only it’s our responsibility, but this is the path. So that people say, “okay, then we’ll take these decisions and we’ll take these sacrifices, but we’ll pull through in the end.”

Does the government have a moral obligation to ease the transition to freer markets and a more responsible society?

The best metaphor—it’s not a pretty one, but it’s the best metaphor to explain it—is as if you had broken your leg and it had been operated on improperly. And that’s the way most countries are. They have a wound and that wound has been fixed improperly. So to correct it, you have to operate again and it’s painful. And, of course, many times it takes many operations. And I think one of the things that is very important in this process is to know how much you can do at a certain period of time. You can transform the educational system. You can transform the monetary system. You can transform this other system. And each one of them is going to be a painful process. You can’t do them all at once, but you have to choose the most important ones and measure correctly the right timing to do it. It is very important to pace yourself.

What is the greatest threat to freedom in El Salvador?

I think there will be two or three threats. In El Salvador, the political system is a system born out of the war, out of the conflict, out of the Peace Accord. So the major parties are the incorporation of the main combatants during the war. So this means that El Salvador does not have a choice between a conservative party and a moderate left or center party. It has a choice between a conservative party and a communist party. So [in] every election, El Salvador takes a risk upon its destiny. If the [communist party] FMLN would win an election, then the FMLN would make El Salvador another Cuba. So this is, I think, the most important threat. The second most important threat is the tendency in Latin America for leaders to support the populist message. Presidents don’t want to take risks because they feel that the atmosphere is against them, against reform, against free-market policy, against opening the economy, and against transferring responsibility. And so the second greatest threat is for the leaders of the country to take the easy choice. That is another threat. And the third most important threat, is that El Salvador’s success has been the continuous reform-oriented leadership in the past fifteen years. Every past administration has made an important reform, and these reforms, even though they are in varied fields, have one thing in common: they have limited the role of government. They have made transparent the costs of the old system. They have reduced bureaucracy. They have transferred responsibility to the Salvadoran people. And I think one of the threats is to stop doing it, because if you stop doing it, you’ll start paying consequences. Because then the old system is very hard to support. And there are many institutions that need to be reformed, and if they are not reformed, then it is so easy for political opponents to say, “you see, what they claim to be such a success as a model is not a success. It’s a failure. Look at how we are. Inflation is rising. The unemployment rate is rising. El Salvador is not growing. The systems are not working.” So that is another threat, stagnation. Stagnation in public policy is like a swimmer with a rock on his back. He is either swimming or he’s sinking. You have to push forward, because if not, you go down.

Some criticize free trade because they fear that the United States will somehow export some sort of “cultural corruption” in addition to goods and services. How do you respond to these critics?

Well, I think there are two important arguments against free trade. One is the cultural corruption argument. And the other one is the job loss argument—people who say, “why should we give American jobs, U.S. jobs, to other countries?” To the cultural corruption argument, I would say the following: All cultures have positive and negative aspects, and what a culture assimilates from another is that culture’s choice. In France, for example, you can assimilate the values of liberty from the French Revolution, or you can assimilate its socialist tendency in social services. Now, the United States has a core set of values that I think is universal in application: democracy and individual rights. Those two values, the pillars of the United States’ system, are values that I share as a Salvadoran, and most Salvadorans share with all Americans. So, I find that if we are able to emulate what is best in U.S. culture, it will be a very positive thing. Now, some people say that they’re against trade because they will be losing jobs. What these critics don’t realize is that the choice is not between giving a job to a Salvadoran or giving it to an American citizen. That’s not the choice. The choice is whether you will allow your enterprises to survive or not. If you allow your enterprises to create a more efficient division of labor and become more competitive by creating alliances throughout the world, then your corporations will survive. If you keep them closed in, then what will happen is that other corporations throughout the world will construct these alliances, you will lose the competitive edge you have, and you will not only lose jobs, you will lose the companies. So I find that that choice is not a correctly thought out choice.

In a country where national disasters are frequent, is there a need for a strong central government, or can the needs of such emergencies be handled otherwise?

You know, I think that the secret of being effective in dealing with major crises of this type is first to be flexible. I’ll explain that because I think that that is a very important part of it. And second, to understand that you can face a challenge of that magnitude only by making one team of all the population with its leadership. I say flexible, first, because everybody thinks that you can develop an organization that has the capacity to face a major natural disaster. I think that is, by definition, wrong. Because the one thing that you need to know to structure an organization is its objective. What is it going to face? And you don’t know that. You can prepare an organization for floods. It will be a totally different organization if you would be getting ready for a major earthquake. You don’t know what the natural disaster will be, so the only way you can prepare is to save. Have funds to be able to face the issue and follow a certain set of very basic rules.

The first is that there has to be one person in charge, and that person has to bear the full responsibility of dealing with that. I think if there is a diversity of organizations working with this effort, that’s another disaster. It has to be one; one person. This person, whether he be the president or whoever is named to do this, has to first gather enough information so he has a clear picture of what he is facing, and don’t make any decisions at first. This is something that can be done in the first two or three hours of a disaster.

After that, he has to have a brutal priority as to what he does, and the first priority is to save lives. After that, he is to protect lives that are vulnerable. And after that comes the reconstruction process. But these are very basic rules that allow you to really focus on what you have to do.

Thirdly, it is very important that you communicate to people what is happening, what you're doing, why you're doing [it], and what you ask of them, constantly. I don't know if you've been in a car accident or any type of crisis situation. The problem is people trying to help without any direction. So, you have to make sure that everybody has a role to play and everybody has a job to do so that things become effective.

So I think that these are very, very basic rules. First, a consciousness that is not “papa government.” It is something you do together. Secondly, that you’re flexible enough to understand that you can't predict these things and you have to have the flexibility of making the changes that need to be made in order to face a crisis. And thirdly, of course, to have these priorities I'm talking about. And fourth, to have everybody involved. And fifth, to have everybody informed.

What role do you think religion will play in creating a free and virtuous society in El Salvador?

El Salvador has undergone one of the most dramatic religious reformations that I have seen in any society. It was principally triggered by the war, but the real reason is the fact that people felt that the Catholic Church had become part of the conflict. Catholic priests, led by liberation theologians, really became part of the same team [as] the guerrilla movement. So this left a society that was really vulnerable, and in such need of spiritual comfort, that they decided to look elsewhere. So, El Salvador has become one of the most thriving evangelic Protestant situations in all of Latin America. You know, you find churches of all denominations—Presbyterians and what you will—have become the most important growth in terms of people’s choice. Because that is the consequence of war, a complete loss of all values; and after peace—as in the case of my country—[it] creates a need for values. And you find parents now looking for schools that have a strong ethic or religious bent to them. So I think this is a really important part of El Salvador today.

To listen to President Flores’s speech at the Acton Institute fifteenth anniversary dinner, please download the MP3 available from the Acton Podcast.

Francisco Flores, president of El Salvador from 1999-2004, is the founder of the America Libre Institute, a Washington-based think tank.