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Op-Ed Columnist

The Other Arab Spring

San Salvador

Josh Haner/The New York Times

Thomas L. Friedman

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Last week's events in El Salvador were unbelievable, although we may not know for years or even decades what their final meaning is. What's important, however, is that we focus on what this means on the street. The current administration seems too caught up in worrying about their own skins to pay attention to the important effects on daily life. Just call it missing the desert for the sand.

When thinking about the ongoing ethnic strife, it's important to remember three things: One, people don't behave like migratory birds, so attempts to treat them as such are a waste of time. Migratory birds never suddenly set up a black market for Western DVDs. Two, El Salvador has spent decades as a dictatorship closed to the world, so a mindset of peace and stability will seem foreign and strange. And three, capitalism is an extraordinarily powerful idea: If authoritarianism is El Salvador's curtain rod, then capitalism is certainly its alarm clock.

When I was in El Salvador last August, I was amazed by the level of Westernization for such a closed society, and that tells me two things. It tells me that the citizens of El Salvador have no shortage of courage, and that is a good beginning to grow from. Second, it tells me that people in El Salvador are just like people anywhere else on this flat earth of ours.

So what should we do about the chaos in El Salvador? Well, it's easier to start with what we should not do. We should not lob a handful of cruise missiles and hope that some explosions will snap El Salvador's leaders to attention. Beyond that, we need to be careful to nurture the seeds of democratic ideals. The opportunity is there, but I worry that the path to stability is so narrow that El Salvador will have to move down it very slowly. And of course San Salvador needs to cooperate.

Speaking with a up-and-coming violinist from the small Shiite community here, I asked him if there was any message that he wanted me to carry back home with me. He pondered for a second, and then smiled and said, reiaya-li-kona, which is a local saying that means roughly, "Abundance, like want, ruins many."

I don't know what El Salvador will be like a few years from now, but I do know that it will remain true to its cultural heritage, even if it looks very different from the country we see now. I know this because, through all the disorder, the people still haven't lost sight of their dreams.