The following is reproduced from a special edition of our Europe Through the Back Door Newsletter from 1988.
I'm a travel writer. For ten years I've written accounts of beaches, great hikes, fondue and wine. I've just experienced the richest travel experience of my life in a very unlikely place — chaotic Central America — and I came home with one goal in mind: to share what Rousseau called "the privilege of firsthand experience."
I spent two intensive weeks in El Salvador and Nicaragua in December of 1988 with 14 Americans (mostly from the Seattle-area) on a tour organized by Augsburg College's Center for Global Education in Minneapolis. Ya sure, that's a Lutheran school and our guides were pastors, priests and nuns. The tour was straight "educational tourism", a non-stop schedule of meetings with groups of all kinds designed to give us a balanced look at a very complicated situation.
The purpose of this special edition of my Europe Through the Back Door Travel Newsletter is to give you the benefit of my experience. (Our normal European Budget travel focus will resume with our next issue.) This is my journal, condensed a bit, with a few names changed or left out to protect people or groups we talked with.
For $1700 and 15 days, my experience was a bargain. If, by reading this, others like you can enjoy some of what I learned, it will become time and money even better invested.
This journal is a chronology of our meetings. I've relied heavily on quotes from a land where middle ground is almost non- existent and nearly everyone has clearly taken sides. This passion colors facts and figures. As you read, pay attention to who's saying what. If I say something, the figures are conservative. I was keenly aware of the dangers of being "duped" by propaganda.
Being a student of history, I'm sorry I missed the French Revolution — or America's, for that matter. But there's a feeling that, today in Central America, a kind of feudal age may be coming to a fitful end. And I wasn't about to miss the opportunity to drop in for a look.
Day 1 — From Suburbs to San Salvador
The San Salvador airport was hot, filled with wealthy locals and plastered with government propaganda posters showing a little girl with one leg blasted off — "Victims of the Leftist Insurgency." We were being detained by an immigration official who couldn't believe that we eight gringos would visit his war- clenched country simply as tourists.
We were taken to a room to wait while bureaucrats drank cokes, read the newspaper and wondered what to do with us. We all had a chance to think, there in that room surrounded by old manual typewriters with weak ribbons, a map of San Salvador and mugginess.
"It's not a good time for you to visit," we were told. "The guerrillas have moved into the city."
I was inclined to believe him, and my worst fear played itself out in my mind. I would be killed by the right-wing military, but the leftist guerrillas would be framed for the murder. My death would create an American surge of support for the government and a wave of disgust with the people's movement. I could picture my maimed body on one of the government propaganda posters here in the airport with the caption — "Another Victim of the Leftist Insurgency!"
Back at home, it's Christmas time. It was tough to leave my wife Anne and two year old Andy, but the chance to take this tour and see history first-hand was too exciting to pass up.
Our last breakfast together was with my Mom and Dad, who looked at me a little like the professional couple who just can't understand why their son gave up his credit cards and joined an ashram in India. Dad's attitude about the repression in Salvador was predictable — "communist lies". Mom shows as much intellectual independence as a banana republic. Their farewell to me was, "Don't be duped!" Welcome to El Salvador
Our episode with El Salvador customs lasted about an hour. The immigration man kept insisting that our lives would be in danger from a guerrilla attack. Then Maria, our local organizer and guide, joined us and, magically, we were released. She gave me a feeling of calm and security. As we grabbed our bags a man said, "There's a huge popular rally tomorrow. Bound to be trouble. It's dangerous for you. Don't go." I'll let Maria make those decisions.
We piled into our 15-seat bus and drove 45 minutes into town on El Salvador's only real freeway. We drove by a post-earthquake suburb of tin shacks, towards the capital city whose population has doubled to a million in the last few years — for many rural people, urban squalor is seen as preferable to life in the war- torn countryside. Lots of military presence, road checks, rich people in cars, poor people on the shoulder walking.
At one check point, a girl in a blue dress lay dead in a circle of blood on the road. She'd been hit by a car, but my brain still flashed "Death squad" — a natural reaction in a war- torn country.
A crowd gathered to direct traffic and wait for her ten- year-old body to be taken away. The sign under the bridge said: "Welcome to the Democracy of El Salvador."
A civil war rages in El Salvador, pitting leftist guerrillas (the FMLN) against a US-backed government. Despite $3 billion in US aid, the Salvadoran army has not been able to win the war.
A wealthy elite owns most of the country's agricultural land. The ruling military has a long history of violent repression. During the 1960s the army permitted some political activity, but prevented the opposition from taking office in 1972 and 1977 when it won elections. Since then a broad opposition movement has developed, seeking a new society with fundamental economic and political reforms, and a negotiated solution to the civil war.
Since 1979, right-wing "death squads" and the army's operations in the countryside have killed more than 60,000 civilians. Government violence and the war's devastation have driven more than a million Salvadorans (20% of the country's people) from their homes as refugees inside and outside the country. After a five-year lull in killings, in the last year bloodshed has increased, with more right-wing death squad murders and a new guerrilla offensive into the capital city, San Salvador.
The US government says it has tried to foster a democratic, centrist government around Napoleon Duarte, but his failure to carry out serious reform and his party's reputation for corruption have denied him popular support. As the economic and military situation has deteriorated, the oligarchy has moved toward the extreme-right ARENA party, led by Alfredo "Freddie" Christiani, which is expected to win the upcoming elections.
Many Salvadorans are skeptical about the upcoming elections, and many will refuse to participate. Regardless of who wins, history has taught them that real power remains with the armed forces and the US-backed oligarchy.
Major players on the political scene here are:
FDR political wing
leftist Christian Democrats
many Catholic priests and nuns
student and labor groups
Army and death squads
Orientation: Don't Feed the Guerrillas
At our hotel, we had our orientation meeting and met our tour guide. Looking around the room I realized that this group was one of hardened political thinkers — lawyers, a legislator, political organizers, business people and citizens who questioned our government's actions way back when I was still voting for Ronald Reagan.
Margarita, an Hispanic Washington State Representative, and Wendy, who works for Seattle's Central American Peace Campaign, each speak Spanish and were returning to these countries for a second look. David, a long-time political organizer, was our group's shutter-bug. Rounding out the group were Art — a dentist and friend of mine from church — a small-town plumber, a homemaker, a university student and eight others. It was clear to me that I would learn from my partners as well as from our travel experience.
14 gringos on tour in Central America.
In our orientation, we covered the basics first. We learned to buy our water at "Happy's" across the street, to put TP in the waste basket not the tender toilet and to recognize people with diarrhea by the thin pink Pepto Bismol line around their lips.
We learned to be careful when we speak in El Salvador. Nicaragua, a touchy subject here, is to be referred to as "Nebraska". We learned that "security" in a country at war means security for us, for the locals and for our program. Photos could incriminate anyone we meet, including our guides. The last thing El Salvador's government wants in these difficult times is nosy tourists.
International phone calls are monitored. We will be watched and rooms very well may be bugged. For the safety of our program and those we visit, we are to carry our notebooks and schedules with us at all times. It's illegal for us to take part in any rally or demonstration. Don't be out at night. The guerrillas have moved the war to the city so the wealthy can experience some of it. Fast food places, theatres and government police stations are likely targets. Speed bumps — built to slow down guerrilla attack cars — mean you're in a sensitive area.
We also learned that it's not possible for people to live here and avoid taking sides in this situation. Objectivity is a luxury this poor country cannot afford.
Maria promised to introduce issues to us without bias, and to give opinions only if asked. Our coordinators shared their fear that despair can outweigh and overwhelm hope. But they noted how hope is continually inspired by the Salvadoran people's wonderful ability to continue celebrating life — even this life.
Teachers Under Siege
Wendy, David and I hired a taxi and loaded the ten suitcases full of donated children's clothes and first aid supplies we'd brought from home. We dropped off half of them with a poor Baptist church school and the rest with the teacher's labor union.
We happened to hit the teacher's union headquarters just as teachers from around the world were converging on San Salvador for a three-day convention to support El Salvador's National Teacher's Union, which is independent of the government.
The physical presence of foreigners in the building is considered the only thing saving this opposition group from destruction by the right wing. If international observers go, so does the free voice of Salvadoran teachers. Talking with some visiting Canadians and Danes, I realized for the first time how dangerous it is to stand up for basic freedoms here.
Our taxi driver, who had happily waited outside for us at our previous stop, knew this was no place for him to loiter. He asked for his money and was gone.
A Walk Through San Salvador
Now I was alone to wander. The people of San Salvador rushed by me like a river.
The nearby outdoor market bustled, stoked by this war economy. I stumbled into a dark and steamy banana warehouse. Imagine the world's biggest K-Mart filled with bananas — many different kinds, but only bananas. No shopping carts, just ladies artfully balancing giant woven baskets full of bananas on their heads.
On the sidewalks, babies suckled, men hunched over games of bottle-cap checkers, and legions of laborers worked on the National Palace building. An impromptu Christmas market was set up in front of the cathedral with gaily painted ceramic models of Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus... and soldiers killing peasants. I bought two soldiers standing over a slain peasant for 40 cents. This gruesomeness is a routine part of the average peasant's manger scene — as casual as the Doublemint twins.
Buses passed by — some packed with people, but some almost empty. I later learned that when the insurgency (FMLN) calls a transportation strike, a few private buses continue to run. Their licenses are noted and reprisals are made — violently. Guards are posted on these marked buses. Yesterday two were ambushed and killed. I saw several soldiers guarding marked buses today, looking alert and frightened under their berets.
There's Blood on Your Banana
I sat in the square, wishing the bananas looked tastier, feeling tired and somewhat overwhelmed. All the facts and figures I'd read to prepare for this trip were now staring me in the face....
Central America's five countries offer a textbook look at Developing World problems and American foreign policy. These former Spanish colonies have become, in our century, something like economic "colonies" of the US and Europe — exporting their raw materials and importing our finished products. As a result, though these are fertile agricultural countries and they supply the "First World" with coffee, bananas and sugar…they still must import US goods to feed their own people.
Politically, Central America is not far from its "banana republic" roots. The wealth and power still belong to a few noble families and industrialists who rule with military support, while the vast majority of people are landless, uneducated and poor.
To put things very simplistically on the political spectrum, the landowners, businessmen and the military are right-wing, trying to keep their hold on power. On the left are those that want change — peasants, workers, students and the popular church. There are few "moderates", since the middle class is very small. The masses of poor peasants, with little education and no political voice, have only recently begun to get politically involved with leftist groups that want change. The US has traditionally supported the right.
America is very influential in the region. Large American companies invest heavily, owning large tracts of land to grow cheap crops for export. Historically, the US has been able to install governments friendly to American business interests, through economic pressure or actual invasion. Even today, US support is almost essential for a government to survive.
To give an idea of America's enormous impact in the region, consider that US aid to El Salvador exceeds that country's GNP. And in Nicaragua, over half the national budget is spent defending itself against the US-sponsored contras. The interest alone on Latin American debts to US banks exceeds many of these countries' entire export earnings.
In El Salvador and Nicaragua, there are two clearly opposite cases of US involvement. In El Salvador, the US-backed government is in power, while the leftist insurgency is "in the hills", fighting the government. In Nicaragua, on the other hand, the leftists are in power and a US-backed counter-insurgency is "in the hills."
Stepping out of our simplistic left/right spectrum, we see the reality that thousands of civilians are dying, the local debt is growing, poverty spreads, and in many areas, half of all the children die before the age of ten. It's a very human story, and you and I — whether we like it or not — are intimately involved…
After only 24 hours away from home, I've already lived a week. I headed back to the group, and we enjoyed a quiet and atmospheric restaurant meal — sea bass with garlic, rice, consomme and fresh-squeezed orange juice. Back at the hotel, I eagerly began introducing the Canadian teachers I had met to our group as delegates in an exciting convention. I'd forgotten the warnings about security, and everyone shut me up. We're not in Kansas anymore, Rick. And next week it's Nebraska.