Banana-ology: 12 Days in Central America — Day 3-5

The following is reproduced from a special edition of our Europe Through the Back Door Newsletter from 1988.

Banana-ology: Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3-5 | Day 6-8 | Day 9-12


Day 3

Lean to the Left
Lean to the Right
There's No Middle
Fight Fight Fight

We had a tasty breakfast of scrambled eggs, refries, goat cheese, toast, fried banana, o.j. and coffee — the menu called it "Traditional", though I wondered where the campesinos plugged their toasters in. Then we left for the American Embassy. No photos, no tape recorders.

The U.S. Embassy

We passed a swamp of Salvadoran people waiting patiently to be denied visas and arrived at the elaborately guarded and fortified gate. This is famous around here as the "Million Dollar Wall". A low estimate.

At precisely 8:30, we passed security and got in. We paused at a memorial to the 14 Americans who've been killed in El Salvador — 12 servicemen, 2 agricultural workers... and zero nuns. Today is the anniversary of the murder of four American church workers by right wing elements, so the absence of their names was conspicuous.

We were taken to a briefing room. A man sat quietly in back who is always present to take notes on what is said and to assure that the "party line" is adhered to. Then an official from the political section came in. He apologized for being late, but explained he didn't work well in the morning. He was chummy and self-deprecating, and talked to us like we were all in on an inside joke here about the inept local people. He was a likeable guy — like a traffic cop, full of jokes and small talk. He answered our questions well for our government:

"El Salvador has traditionally had a basically feudal economic system — your typical "banana republic". But with the large shift of people from the countryside to the cities in the 1960s and '70s, the system that had worked so well began to deteriorate. The resulting civil war was inspired by the FMLN.

"Thanks to U.S. money, the situation today is much improved. The guerrilla army of 12,000 is now only 6,000, there's been a significant readjustment of power with new key players in the economy and much broader access to bank loans and education. Most U.S. officials figure the democratic process here merits continued support."

We asked: Will the U.S. support an ARENA victory?

"In l984, the U.S. supported Duarte in every way it could. Back then, ARENA's right-wing extremism would have meant the end of U.S. involvement. But things change, and ARENA is now more moderate. The U.S. embassy will live with an ARENA victory if they win — as long as they behave."

How about charges that ARENA is linked to political violence?

"Violent repression has increased, but we see no political link. Most killings aren't political, just private feuds, settling of scores, and so on."

The embassy's primary source of human rights violations reports are the local newspaper and the military, which are, admittedly, right wing. But, he explained, "the numbers are the numbers."

As we were leaving, we asked if we could take a photo of the outside of the embassy from a distance down the road and were told no.

Human Rights — Keeping Tally

Our next stop was Tutela Legal, the human rights office of the archdiocese and a very powerful independent voice locally. In sharp contrast to the embassy, their office was like a grade school building — low tech, plain and filled with down-to-earth people.

This is the organization that all major embassies here — except the U.S. — rely on for information on human rights violations. The U.S. calls Tutela Legal a guerrilla front.

Tutela Legal's report: "There is no democracy in Salvador. Recent history on human rights can be divided into three stages: 1) From 1980-82, hellish. 2) 1983-87, far fewer assassinations. 3) October 1987 to the present, getting worse. The roots of the problem — a weak government and an untouchable military — remain unchanged."

We asked: Who is responsible for the most violations? The government or the guerrillas?

"There are undoubtedly more government violations than FMLN ones. 68% of human rights violations are from the government and Army while 32% are from the left. The government propaganda routinely tries to blame the FMLN for its own terrorist activity, concocting a false history around important murders with elaborate TV coverage and the works to frame the FMLN." (I flashed back to the "Victims of the Leftist Insurgency" posters we saw at the airport.)

We had to cut our conversation short in order to make the special anniversary mass. From photo albums of corpses to "passing the peace" with blue and white clad nuns.

Mass for Martyrs

In a poor but lovingly decorated church, some 300 locals and 50 internationals gathered to worship. The service was a typical Latin American "liberation theology" service. A Mariachi-type band played a Latin cliche of happiness. People clapped and there was a very strong feeling of unity. The priest was a prominent voice of the popular church rare in the post-Romero church hierarchy.

The mass was in honor of the four American church women who were murdered in 1980 — presumably by a right-wing death squad - - while working for the Salvadoran poor. The message of the service was one of hope, applying the word of God directly to these people's struggle.

While we Americans pray that the judge will let our traffic ticket be just a warning this time, they pray that their blood waters the seeds of their hope and continued struggle; that those who've made the ultimate sacrifice might still live on with them; that the Latin American church might continue to work for the needs of the people.

"Passing the peace of Christ", when everyone greets their fellow worshippers, was a wonderful experience. (The practice, stilted in uptight U.S. churches, is party time here. "May the peace of Christ be with you!") I was very moved — almost tearful. These young nuns were the soldiers of peace.

The Hopes of the Right Wing

We ate bananas on the bus, racing to the National Assembly House. We were met with smiles and kisses on cheeks by Horacio Rios, the ARENA deputy representing the district of Santa Ana. A very gracious man, he ordered us all cokes, invited us to take photos of anything, assured us with a laugh that the National Assembly was not really the infamous arsenal of the death squads ("We can look around for guns if you'd like"), joked that in spite of his slight paunch he too had struggled, reminded us several times that he'd nearly been killed three times, mentioned that he gives clothing to Nicaragua's poor Miskito Indians, and that his mother has just passed away. He pulled a chain out of his shirt and showed us his crucifix.

Though ARENA, the political party with a majority in the National Assembly, is too far to the right for even our U.S. embassy to easily embrace, most people assume ARENA will soon rule El Salvador. The U.S. government realizes that they'll most likely be dealing with these people, so many ARENA leaders are spending time in the USA cleaning up their act and getting to know the power that fuels their political oxygen tent.

ARENA is trying to build a new image. They have been thought of as the party of the death squads (60,000 murders this decade). Now they're "working very hard for the poor and their children." They hope to "teach them the American lifestyle."

Rios explained: "We are finding our way to democracy. It's difficult. We have 77% un- or under-employment. We need your help and aid. We want no Nicaragua. We need land reform but first we need better education. The campesinos (farm people) can't even handle their money at this point. 80% of the campesinos support ARENA. The rich don't really like our policies."

Then he closed with a passionate and eloquent explanation of how this is our (America's) war. "You live in paradise and have much to lose. The struggle is simply USA vs. USSR. People, economy, social problems, and so on, are secondary. Nicaragua fell. Without your $3 billion in aid, Salvador would also have fallen. Your last buffer, Mexico, is in worse shape than you think. The USA itself is threatened. Please, help us win this war for you."

It's strange. I wanted to believe that the ARENA man was a well-meaning, hard-working good guy. But does he really believe the things he says? Is he duped by right-wing propaganda? Am I duped by left-wing propaganda? Is it possible to be objective in this country? This is a struggle. I see only difficulties for El Salvador.


Exhausted and hungry, we went to the hotel for a time of reflection before dinner. I feel like we've listened to The Big Lie all day. I want to believe it. But the world is more than red and white. Today we saw how democracy is "elections". And the people on the right will ride on that symbol. But graffiti all over town reads: "Elections with repression are no solution at all."

A subtle new angle showed up in the use of the concept of terrorism. The ARENA man had justified violent repression as an antidote to "terrorism". Could this apply to the U.S. as well? How far would our leaders go in order to "protect us from terrorism"? Even if the fear of communism fades, "terrorism" will be the excuse for denial of civil liberties, social tension and gross defense spending. An SS force needs legal permission.

Earlier in the day, I'd wondered if I was duped by left-wing propaganda. Now, after hearing from the right wing, I've decided — if siding with the people is being "duped", then I'm duped. I don't know about you, but I'm duped.

On Day 4, we hiked into a remote village of 350 campesinos who are settled here temporarily until they can return to their rural farms. It was a fascinating day which rounded our Salvadoran experience out nicely. If this was a 36-page newsletter, I'd tell you all about it.

I see two needs for these people, needs that often conflict: the socialist material need for basic human dignity — peace, food, clothing, education, health and land to work. And the free enterprise need to have the opportunity to get so rich you don't know what to do with all your snowmobiles. Not everybody has or needs the American dream. By pushing this dream on others, we Americans are more likely to get more of this dream cake ourselves, but leaving the Developing World with raped land, civil wars, urban elites and enhanced appetites.

Writing in my journal at very quiet pool side, the late night waitress brought me my agua mineral with lemon. We enjoyed our flirty, nightly ritual as she shoved my straw that floats too well back into my drink. The Salvadoran people make me hate war more than ever.

Day 5 — Young Christian Soldiers

The last thing my dad had told me before I left home was "Be sure you talk to the real people." Like most Americans, he was concerned I'd be duped by a series of smooth talking leftists. In our quest for objectivity, it was another long intense day of learning.

We drove to a large unfinished church I'd describe as "rebar gothic". The arches of the ceiling ended with rusty concrete reinforcement bars. The nave was walled off, and the rest of the church was a dentist office, daycare, home to an American church worker and a honeycomb of other social services. The basement was once a hidden refugee center where scores of displaced people lived like moles, never coming out for years at a time.

It was a warm and uplifting mass. The songs made you feel good and strong even if you didn't understand Spanish. Several were Nicaraguan folk hymns — a strong statement in this land where our tour has to say "Nebraska" for the N word.

After church, we went downstairs, made a large circle of chairs and met with fifteen teenagers from the church's youth group. In our introduction, when one of our group mentioned that she was trying to change U.S. foreign policy in the region, the kids clapped.

I was immediately impressed by the maturity, commitment and faith of these 14-to-19 year olds. Surrounded by rough concrete, a few bare fluorescent bulbs and piles of musty old mattresses, I took notes feverishly, trying to imagine the youth of my church so committed. I'd like to think that in a similar situation the youth of my country would leave their safe world and take the reigns of their lives too. The answers the youth group gave were short, direct and without all the rhetoric we've heard from politicians. We covered a lot of ground.

They told us about their school environment. "The government bombards our youth with messages to ignore poverty. Most become apathetic, but many are active. Government education is at an all-time low. There is absolutely no encouragement to think critically about reality. The focus is on materialism, cosmetics, fashion, parties and how to look good for our boyfriends. We are taught to respect superiors and the hierarchy. Our student councils are fronts for the school administration. They think that all the students are stupid!"

"Only the poor boys are recruited — by force — for the Army, yet the Army fights for the rich."

"Change requires a struggle on all possible fronts — in the mountains and in the cities. For this reason, I don't join the FMLN, which hides in the countryside. We cannot abandon the city."

"Christians can turn to violence. For ten years our popular movement was a peace movement. Only after the murder of our priest leadership and all the death squads have we turned to violence. The Army bombed our churches, soldiers defecated on the holy host. It's a struggle of life or death. We want a negotiated settlement, giving us peace with dignity and social justice."

"Please help stop the flow of U.S. money. Don't just feel sorry for us — join in our political struggle. Your work is not in vain. Christ is being crucified again here in El Salvador. But we have faith and hope — and He will be resurrected."

It was a powerful experience, to hear teenagers tell us their struggle in the crude basement of a half-finished church, hardly noticing the soft thud of bombs falling on ramshackle villages just outside the capital city.

These youth organizations train a broad base of leadership so they won't be shaken by the death or disappearance of a charismatic leader. They train each other. Some are to take the spotlight so that others are able to keep a low profile, ready to take over if necessary.

After the ritual shaking of the hand of every person in the room, we drove to the appropriately named Puerta del Diablo (Devil's Gate) on a lush windy promontory overlooking the city. This is a romantic viewpoint... but notorious as a body dump for the death squads.

I greeted a jovial man with a wife and baby in a car with black tinted (polarized) windows. We chatted, I admired his baby and he started asking questions. Way too many questions. The conversation turned cold, and I conveniently lost what meager ability I had to speak Spanish. Those cars with polarized windows are the typical death squad cars.

Don't Worry, Be Happy

Next we visited a priest in a tin church whose parish consists of 50,000 people who have settled literally on the garbage dump. Before touring the "parish", we sat down for a most enlightening conversation.

"The Salvadorans are soft people. After 500 years of repression, they are good at being on the bottom. They're timid and have a tough time saying no. When they play checkers they just don't like to jump you. When they attend a rally, they are going against their nature. Unfortunately, their non-violence is answered by violence.

"They are terrorized into silence and saturated with propaganda from the right. They all have the same needs and concerns but they can't speak out. First off, there's no mass media voice of the left (radio, newspaper or TV). And second, the periodic disappearances and murders remind them where the power is, so they'd better keep quiet.

"One disappearance every six months is enough to keep the fear so high that even good friends and close neighbors don't really know each other's politics. They discuss other controversial things with gusto (like religion) but politics is not to be dealt with. Many former refugees don't even say where they're from since certain areas and towns are black-listed as communities that "organized" politically against the government."

(At one point today, when asked a particularly sensitive question, one of our contacts had to say: "I can't talk about this. I don't know who you are." We found out several weeks later that his suspicions were justified — he was arrested.)

"The government neglects social services. Though there are government schools, the students must wear uniforms. The very poor can't afford these uniforms, so they'd get no education without the help of a church school. The state provides one clinic with one doctor and almost no medicine for this area of 50,000. People prefer the church clinics.

"Organized religion offers the people of El Salvador two outlooks on life, "colonial theology" and "liberation theolology". Colonial or conformist theology, taught by the fundamentalist and evangelical sects in poor communities, says that the Kingdom of God is not of this world, that things cannot be changed, so just suffer quietly and await your reward in heaven. Like the medieval church, their main attraction is escapism. Reality is ignored. They tell people, "Christ is coming soon. Don't worry, be happy." Assembly of God (Jimmy Swaggart) is the biggest, but there are many others. These churches are sent to Salvador by the same country that finances its war — the U.S. — and enjoy government support while other churches are harassed.

"Liberation theology, taught in many Protestant and Catholic churches, says that God loves the poor and encourages them to carve out some dignity in their mortal lives.

"They fight for the people's loyalty by offering day care, schools, clinics, and things like love, respect, and truth. This is seen as a threat to the status quo. Only the evangelicals are unharassed by the government.

"The Lutheran and Baptist churches are making the strongest political statements these days. The Lutheran headquarters was bombed twice in early 1989. The Catholic hierarchy is doing little now, but the people seem to be propelling the church on their own and with their liberation theology."

The priest explained that the people are incredibly religious here. "The least religious Salvadoran is more religious than the average European priest."

He finished by noting that, "Salvadorans, like campesinos throughout Latin America, are beginning to speak out loud. This is a big step. When you speak your mind, even if it's only to a group of five or six people, you feel your dignity as a human being."

The City Built Upon a Garbage Dump

We wandered for half an hour around this "city" of 50,000, dusty frills of garbage blowing like old dandelion spores in the wind. It was a ramshackle world of corrugated tin, rocks and laundry. I'll not forget the piles of tin, the ripped and shredded sofas, tire parts and filthy plastic bowls I saw at one point. This was a store whose major supplier was the city dump. Corrugated tin was used for chairs, tables, walls and roofs.

Overlooking the tin shacks was a billboard from a local bank, advertising home loans for the wealthy. It read: "With every day that passes, your house is closer to being yours."

We passed through a "suburb" of tin shacks which lived off the dump, walking past houses where they sorted out saleable garbage, stacked broken glass and pounded rusty metal barrels into cooking pots and pans. In a church there was a sandbox manger scene with two soldiers standing over a slashed and bloody campesino positioned next to the Wise Men and cows — the new centurions are the government, while the poor people see themselves as Christ figures, crucified for the truth.

The people had done what they could to make their slum liveable. There was greenery, cute children bringing home huge jugs of water (2 cents each) and lots of mud, bamboo and corrugated tin buildings. As we approached the ridge overlooking the main dump, I thought to myself this really wasn't all that awful.

Then we went to hell. We'd heard of the people living off garbage dumps, and now we were in for a firsthand look. Huge bulldozers, circling black birds, and a literal mountain of garbage ten stories high with people picking through it. It was an urban fruit rind covered with human flies.

A policeman with a machine gun kept the people away from one half of the mound. That was where aid items which the government figured would cost them too much to disperse were being buried under the garbage. About thirty people gathered, waiting for the guard to leave. Our escort told us this, but I couldn't believe him. But then the guard left and all thirty scavengers broke into a run and dashed into the best part of the dump. The smell was sweet and sickening.


Back at the hotel, Art and I laid down, heads spinning, and ordered orange juice. We figured that a good garbage picker earns in a day what we'd just spent on that juice. Or, another way to put it, he earns in a day about what the two photos I clicked of him will cost me to develop.

What can be done about these people? Will they one day just grab guns to meet their basic needs any way they can? It occurred to me that an interest in the hunger problem, nourished by the right books, could slide the unsuspecting "First World" observer right into progressive politics.

Earlier, as we'd walked through the worst part of the garbage dump slum, I told the person behind me that Jesus was a liberal. My friend corrected me — "Jesus was a radical."


Banana-ology: Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3-5 | Day 6-8 | Day 9-12