The following is reproduced from a special edition of our Europe Through the Back Door Newsletter from 1988.
Day 2 — Ballots or Bullets?
Today, our first full day in El Salvador, was spent hearing about the difficult political situation. As the elections approach, things are heating up.
The Salvadorans have two choices in the election. The ruling Christian Democratic Party under Napoleon Duarte is closer to the center but is viewed as corrupt, ineffectual and a U.S. puppet. As a result, the far-right ARENA party will probably win with their new "moderate" image and likeable candidate, Alfredo "Freddie" Christiani — American-educated, fluent in English and good on American TV.
On the left is the FMLN. They have significant political support and exercise control in some areas of the country, but hold no political power. They have refused to participate in the elections, not wanting to legitimize a process they consider a sham. They prefer a negotiated compromise, instead. Recently, however, they've offered to participate if the elections are postponed, and if candidates' security can be guaranteed.
The FMLN proper consists of a small band of dedicated guerrillas (about 6,000) hiding from government troops in the countryside, occasionally attacking government installations. Their political arm is known as the FDR.
The Democratic Convergence is a new coalition of groups on the left that will enter candidates in the election. In an atmosphere marred by physical and psychological terror, it doesn't hope or expect to win. It doesn't believe elections are a solution. Many on the left want no one to run. They see the military only allowing the election as a bonsai tree — "it adorns your house with political respectability, and when it grows you trim it."
Regardless of who wins the election, the real power in the country lies with the Army. In both 1972 and 1977, the Army stepped in and negated the democratic elections, putting their own people in power.
El Salvador's recent history is one of civil war between the right wing military and the left wing FMLN guerrillas. The FMLN grew into a mass movement in the 1970s. Fearing a repeat of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua in 1979, the Salvadoran Army staged a pre-emptive coup and took over the government.
The FMLN responded by mounting a general insurrection in 1981. But Alexander Haig called Salvador a textbook example of communist expansion, and U.S. aid poured in. Airpower financed by U.S. aid ($1.5 million a day) enabled the Salvadoran government to survive. As the FMLN's "Final Offensive" petered out, the Army and right-wing death squads went on a rampage, killing thousands, mostly civilians. Many activists were exposed and killed. The remainder fled to the hills and formed the present guerrilla army, learning to adapt to survive air raids.
By 1984, the Army was clearly winning. Many popular organizations had been decimated, and the FMLN had to shift tactics and operate in smaller units. Death-squad activity became more selective. Having reached a military stalemate, the Army effectively used elections to legitimize the right and delegitimize the left.
But the war is far from over. As the '89 elections draw nearer, the popular organizations have regained strength, and violence from both sides is increasing. The FMLN guerrillas are currently waging their biggest offensive since '83 — several mayors have been assassinated, and Salvadoran Army bases are being attacked, even in the capital.
An anti-government poster showing the bloody consequences of U.S. military aid to El Salvador.
For their part, the Army is carrying out more countryside massacres, security is tightening, travel in the countryside is restricted and there have been very strong responses to demonstrations. The Army has grown from 10,000 troops in 1980 to well over 50,000 today. Death squads are active again. There are currently 30-40 assassinations weekly. And U.S. aid — most of it military — continues to pour in to the tune of ten million dollars a week.
The Press in an Oppressed Land
An American journalist who writes for several mainstream U.S. publications met with us for 90 minutes, giving us a fascinating glimpse of a journalist's life here. He explained:
"Traditionally, Latin American journalists are like waiters — lousy pay but good tips from city hall, coffee growers or whoever you cover "properly".
"When you read the U.S. press, remember, the higher up people get in the media world the more conservative they tend to be. Editors are way up there. Writers whose work is not chosen can starve.
"There's no official censorship in El Salvador — they just kill those who write critically. ARENA does a cost-benefit analysis of how much bloody repression can work without risking a cutoff of US aid. They make sure not to target any famous victims — just middle managers of unions, universities, and so on."
Murder in the Cathedral
Our journalist ran off for a dental appointment and we rode our mini-buses downtown for a quick look at the tomb of Oscar Romero, the charismatic archbishop who was gunned down in his church by a right wing death squad in 1980. Romero had been active in organizing and inspiring groups to help the poor. The right wing saw this as a threat, and shot him as he was leading a mass.
The cathedral where he used to preach is huge but very plain, made of concrete and rebar (the steel bars inside reinforced-concrete structures). They were selling Romero posters in the sacristy and we bought the man out. Romero has become something of a modern saint among poor Salvadorans, who put up posters of him as a symbol of hope.
For centuries in Latin America, life has meant suffering. (Good Friday — the day when Jesus was executed — is the big holy day, not Easter Sunday). But with a more hope-filled attitude among Christians known as "liberation theology", the resurrection is the optimistic new focus. Romero taught that the local life and community which has been "killed" can also be resurrected.
On a restaurant wall in San Salvador, we saw a quote from the Bible, Isaiah 43: "Others died that you might live. I traded their lives for yours because you are precious to me and honored, and I love you. Don't be afraid, for I am with you."
Archbishop Romero had said he would be resurrected in the people of El Salvador.
Poor Shacks and Pizza Huts
We rode up into the fortified neighborhood where the wealthy live — coffee growers, landowners and military leaders. Hitting speed bumps, I remembered to look for something important — there behind high walls and guards lived the new American ambassador, William Walker. (Ironically, he has the same name as the American soldier of fortune who virtually owned Nicaragua in the 1800s.)
The mansions are huge, very fortified and fully equipped with nearby Pizza Huts, Mister Donuts and all the necessary First World boutiques. We couldn't photograph any rich houses because someone might note our license plate number and report the bus.
Rashes of poor huts were breaking out all over these rich neighborhoods. Poverty — what an eyesore. The poor — they follow you everywhere.
This poverty is structural, not brought on by simple laziness. El Salvador has always been a land of grossly uneven distribution of wealth. Some two hundred families own the vast majority of land and industry, with foreign corporations owning much of what's left over. Currently, El Salvador has a booming war economy subsidized by U.S. aid. The rich are getting richer, while health and education are ignored.
Minimum wage is supposed to be 15 colones ($3) a day. But 5 colones ($1) is the average coffee worker's wage. Over half the population is illiterate. And the civil war hurts the poor the hardest — 20% of the population has been displaced, 60,000 death-squad murders this decade with no prosecution, and things are getting worse.
Thoughts have been pinpricking me all day. They'd prick you too in a land of poverty where a jolly Santa Claus arrives at a Salvadoran shopping mall in a U.S. helicopter.
What about U.S. aid? Why isn't it reaching the poor? The U.S. spends $1.5 million every day on aid to El Salvador. Two- thirds of that is spent on weapons, and much of what's left over is spent to build the infrastructure of war — roads, bridges, and so on. When aid money does reach the people, it's for the video-taping of a publicity film to influence U.S. public opinion.
Consequently, our aid is really subsidizing huge capital flight. Many claim that, as U.S. aid increases, so does the flow of local capital to Swiss banks. The Salvadoran rich have planted nest eggs in Florida or Switzerland, and are ready to flee when necessary.
If a group is considered a "Marxist" front, then U.S. aid goes elsewhere. In Salvador, anyone that seriously challenges the wealthy status quo is said to be either a front for the communist guerrillas or "duped" by propaganda.
As one observer put it: "If you give food to the poor, you're called a saint. If you ask why they're poor, you're called a communist."
Organized Labor Organized Murder
UNTS is the umbrella organization of Salvadoran unions. Very large and vocal, it's not at all appreciated by the government. We met with three members of its executive committee.
"78% of Salvadoran workers are unemployed or underemployed. Wages are frozen. Since 1983, the average worker's real income has dropped by a third. The people starve while millions in aid is taken by the elite. The vast majority of the people are worse off now than ever before in this century.
"We workers must constantly battle against the label of "communist". The government runs ads in papers weekly tying union groups to the FMLN. And before every UNTS activity, there is a government campaign of psychological terror and publicity.
In 1980-82, when times got very dangerous for all groups, the unions went underground. Then the U.S. embassy led a disinformation campaign that we were subversives. So the U.S. created a parallel union organization, one that is supposedly more "democratic", using U.S. funds. All the money is going to this U.S. group... but all the workers are coming to us.
"Organizing labor is dangerous here. 6,000 labor organizers and political prisoners are held secretly in local jails. And Duarte says there's no repression in Salvador...."
On the upcoming elections: "Elections in the 1970s had broad participation. Not these of the '80s. The USA says vote. Why should the people give this system their approval by voting?
"The voters are given a "choice" between two parties that both want a military solution to El Salvador's problems: ARENA wants to destroy all opposition, massacring 100,000 top dissidents in an all-out war. On the other hand, the Christian Democrats (and the U.S. embassy) figure that eight more years of the current policy — civil war and repression — will exhaust the opposition. What kind of choice is that?
"Even so, it can be very dangerous to NOT vote here, so nearly half the ballots dropped in voting boxes are unmarked or scrawled with obscenities."
The union man explained that Salvadoran activists will never die of hunger. "If we're going to die, we'll die fighting. And we won't bow to the USA."
Fighting WW III Today: Low Intensity Conflict
We met at our hotel with Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer. Jack has lived and worked in Central America and has written several books on the subject (including "War Against the Poor", 1989, Orbis). He gave us a powerful talk on his area of specialty — low intensity conflict.
"In order to protect its worldwide economic interests, the U.S. is engaging in a new kind of warfare throughout the Third World. Since World War II we've built a far-flung economic empire. Countries around the world have natural resources, a ready market for U.S. goods or foreign debts that make them vital to our economy. Any threat to U.S. business interests in these countries is seen as a threat to the U.S. itself. We defend our interests by supporting, defending or installing governments with economic policies we favor. Traditionally, the U.S. has been less interested in promoting democracy than in promoting U.S. business.
"In Vietnam, we learned that sending our own soldiers to fight local insurgencies in faraway civil wars is very costly, hard to win and unpopular at home. Now the USA has turned to a new kind of war. Pentagon planners call it "Low Intensity Conflict."
"Low Intensity Conflict (LIC) is total war — weaving psychological, economic, diplomatic and military together into a comprehensive package. "LIC" is many different branches of the U.S. government fighting in concert. Pentagon planners see us fighting World War III right now.
"The wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua are textbook examples of LIC. The U.S. puts psychological pressure on its enemies (El Salvador's FMLN and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua) with a constant threat of invasion — war games in nearby countries, sonic booms from U.S. aircraft, and so on.
"Economically, the U.S. supports its friends with millions in foreign aid and punishes its enemies with embargos, boycotts and leverage from these countries' huge debts to U.S. banks. Diplomatic weapons include pressuring allies, withdrawing ambassadors, paying defectors and supporting sham elections. By forcing fledgling governments to turn to Cuba or the Soviet Union for support, the U.S. can easily get popular backing at home to fight the so-called "Marxists".
"And, of course, there's the crucial military side to Low Intensity Conflict, better described as "low visibility warfare". Instead of sending our own boys, we pay mercenaries (the Salvadoran Army or the contras) to do the dirty work. We send teams of military advisers and covert teams — the CIA and the "second CIA" of Oliver North fame — to sabotage elections, spread disinformation, influence public opinion by ghost-writing for opposition newspapers, manage terror, ruin peace initiatives, support fundamentalist Christian sects that support the status quo and instigate a host of other political dirty tricks.
"This is the way a superpower fights a guerrilla war. In the final analysis, there's little difference between economic and military aid — the results are the same.
"You don't have to actually win this kind of war. Sure, a victory is best. But when a military victory is impossible (like Vietnam), just stalemating the opposition can be enough. In El Salvador, there's no need to wipe the FMLN off the face of the isthmus. The death squads have sown so much fear already, that now the repression can be "managed", and just a few assassinations a year are enough to keep the enemy down — or so it is hoped.
"LIC is based on an inaccurate view of Latin America. It insists on an East-West analysis of foreign affairs which are fundamentally North-South problems. The U.S. government can't believe that an insurgency group might be purely homegrown — it figures there must be Soviets or Cubans behind every revolution. The fact is, though, that these are usually nationalist groups who are legitimately questioning the system that oppresses them - - much like Americans in the 1700s. "Ultra-nationalism", the term the U.S. uses for when a nation is overly concerned about its own people, is something America's resources must be protected against.
"Consider this. 40 million people in the Developing World die hunger-related deaths every year. That's the equivalent of 300 fully loaded 747s crashing every day with no survivors. When planes crash, we question the system. Yet when someone questions a political system that allows this much death, they're labeled "Marxists" and become the victims of a Low Intensity Conflict with the United States."
After a local style outdoor dinner of beans and tortillas, we met at the hotel to plan our meeting at the U.S. embassy tomorrow morning. (The embassy almost insists that delegations meet with them at the start of their visit... before they've seen too much?)
After today, it all seemed fairly clear — there's good guys and there's bad guys. But so far we've only heard from one side. Tomorrow the puddle is stirred.
Art, Chris, Wendy and I discussed marriage, mid-life crises and communicating — a refreshing break from war and politics. Later, as I wrote in my journal at poolside, I heard a loud crash. I thought it was a bomb and started to duck. The waiter laughed... and picked up his tray.