Rick's 1991 Journal — New Hope Close to the Ground in El Salvador

The world is full of islands, sunny but not fit for cruise ships. Only "educational tours" visit the less idyllic corners of what we too optimistically call the developing world. Landlessness is the weight which has kept peasants down throughout history. Land is life in Central America. And land is the necessary focus of any "reality tour" of Latin American.

I spent two weeks in El Salvador and Nicaragua. To visit the land reform battle front, we drove two hours from San Salvador city through army checkpoints, over bombed-out bridges — heavily guarded and precariously rebuilt — into the "conflictive" zone of Usulatan. Our target was a refugee community of about six- hundred people. Like a fifth of all Salvadorans, they fled the bloody death squad 1980s. After ten years of exile in a peaceful unclaimed corner of Panama they returned to their homeland. Their camp was becoming a town. Its name, Nueva Esperanza, or "New Hope."

We met with the community leaders in their outdoor chapel of San Romero de America. (Locals aren't waiting for the Vatican to saint their patron, the Salvadoran arch-bishop who was assassinated by the army.) The community lives off a little international charity and what they can grow. They all eat equally, spending the equivalent of $4000 ($7 per person) a month for food. Money needed to finish the homes must be spent on milk for the kids and the sick. They hope to buy cows soon. Meat was a once a month treat. But lately that's not possible. Poor as they were, they still provided a warm welcome. A lady brought a crate of Coke on her head as we listened to the community's epic story. As we opened our Cokes our host joked, "We're here to serve the client."

The Salvadoran government is threatened by "non-government organizations." Even today, it calls most "NGOs" communist fronts. It allows refugee repatriation only to those who abandon their community, and are willing to be dispersed one family at a time. Most communities insist on staying together. "In El Salvador if the poor don't struggle, we die."

As a council person explained the problem of land reclamation, like a slow moving lasso, it surrounded us. A cowboy-looking messenger came with urgent news. The dreaded National Guard was moving a new neighboring community of refugees out of the land they claimed. The people of Nueva Esperanza needed to stand in solidarity at the crossroads to head off the National Guard and convince them that the new group could stay at Nueva Esperanza. The leader requested our presence. This village, which had nothing, automatically mobilized to help 150 strangers who needed land. There was no question, they would stand up to the National Guard and then take the refugees in — a refugee camp within a refugee camp. The popular class of Central America has only one weapon: solidarity.

This upped the anti considerably and we suddenly saw ourselves slipping from concerned students to active participants. Group dynamics kicked into high gear. All of us wanted to help. Many felt a need for a quick gut fast solidarity response. Others were more careful. As our guides discussed the appropriate action to take, a breathless woman with long straight black hair and a blue shawl arrived. Her message: the National Guard had taken the community's leader (a one- legged man, whose physical condition was evidence enough that he was a former FMLN guerilla) and five Europeans (detained and charged for "inciting land take- over and violence against the army"). But the community was allowed to come to Nueva Esperanza...a victory for now.

Then, just as we realized our dilemma on whether or not to act was solved for us, over the clearing streamed 150 refugees: men, women, children, all carrying their worldly belongings in corn bags that read USA. Little girls with loads on their heads marched as adults. They calmly set up camp, hitched hammocks, comforted babies, and got out the tortillas as the United Nations observation jeep rolled in.

The community held a fascinating pow wow - cowboy hats, machetes and ragged jeans. The children played quietly and waited calmly — not traumatized, just waiting again for the bus to justice. A deep purple sunset was the warm-up act for a sky full of stars and the chirping of countless crickets. Nueva Esperanza housed 150 refugees and 25 gringos graciously. To make the new-comers feel more welcome, the villagers gave us the town hall filled with mattresses and spread the refugees out among the community families. The open air church was filled with hammocks. Most of our group slept in the hall. I dragged my mattress out under the stars, a decision that seemed great until the wind sent the temperature down. Satellites blipped across the sky, a constant reminder that there was a First World looking on.

Roosters from all corners howled competitively through the night. At one point a human on a radio seemed to be singing with them as an operatic accompaniment. Pigs roamed threatening to snuggle. I was so cold I might not have argued. A black silhouette dog pranced in and out. A child coughed through much of the night.

At dawn the roosters seemed to taunt each other... I can't heeear you. Fires crackled and the community began to stir. Watching one particularly organized family set up was impressive. Their platform was filled with roosters, dad rolled up the ground clothes and stowed the hammocks, as mom carried water from the well. Corn hung from the leafy roof of their shelter, fire wood was stacked neatly, and two boys listened to the FMLN radio report with all the interest of a gringo commuter checking the traffic report. I could see clearly the popular foundation of a revolution that has survived even against the ingrown ideology of the USA (and $4.5 billion of military aid). These people don't ask for the American dream (as El Salvador's US-backed ARENA party so eloquently told us). They don't apologize. To them, land and peace are the staples of a decent life.

A villager narrated the community story (a modern-day Exodus) as told in the church mural: with the need to bury Bibles, the murders, exile in Panama, the return — with this mural, plank by plank — the new land, the assassination of Romero, and the "nueva esperanza." As children watched and listened, the seeds of much future folk lore were planted. Some day, when the war's over, life will be good in Nueva Esperanza. (Rick Steves, author of Europe Through the Back Door, recently returned from a tour by Augsburg College's Center For Global Education in Minneapolis.)

The Jesuit on a Motorcycle

Driving out of Nueva Esperanza, the local priest rode his motorcycle in the safety of our international wake. In the middle of nowhere on a long and rutted muddy road, the Marines stopped us and eyed the priest. The major insisted, in fluent English, that he come with him. The priest explained he was legitimate priest of this parish and blocking him was unconstitutional. They talked soft and frank. Ten camouflaged marines armed to the teeth and 24 gringos in tee-shirts and cameras stood by. I was five feet from the major as he told the priest, "We don't need this shit. Stay in your country. This is our place." (We passed an armed American advisor at the next bridge, who was apparently welcome to meddle). Understanding the power of our presence, we stayed and waited things out. To see the steel nerves of the priest and the macho power of what the locals call "insecurity" forces square off was more thrilling than I can explain. After searching our buses (we had bags of the five interantionales who were arrested yesterday) we were on our way. The priest was allowed to follow us...this time. He was making a point that according to law, the armed forces cannot intimidate campesinos in their daily routine by stopping them and asking for their identification papers.

US Embassy in San Salvador:

We visited the fully airconditioned boonsborough of Capitalism behind the most fortified wall in El Salvador. Nothing but the best for the forces of freedom and liberty. Promoting democracy is making the developing world safe for investment. (It's amazing to me that an American who worked here could read this and perceive it as complementary.)

During our meeting the American official explained that the US embassy is here to help US companies looking for a market. This is a positive time, a time of negotiations. In spite of his bureaucratic kind of detached compassion and his pure party line, he spoke with more flexibility and understanding than I heard here three years ago. He actually admitted that the popular armed insurrection was justified from 1930 until 1987. But now, with a negotiated settlement possible, continuing the war is wrong.

The Salvadoran Pentagon

The publicity man for the Salvadoran army started his talk saying that the Salvadoran army is so good on human rights that when their war is over, it can help UN forces. He reminded us that "a rapist or thief will still be a rapist or thief after joining any army. Education is the problem."

He showed a destain for the "popular" (Catholic) church explaining that these days priests are too materialistic and forget the nature of spiritual bread. He sounded relieved to report that the sects, "who feed the soul and leave the body alone" are growing fast.

"Land is not a problem. The real challenge for the Salvadoran society is to create jobs and develop respect for private property. No where on earth has land reform resulted in any progress. If we give every family land soon we'd all have about as much as the tile I'm standing on to live on. Why not build factories?" I thought, refusing to see campesinos need for land is like expecting American Indians to just go to the factory. "Okay, here's your starter kit. Now fit in."

Showing the army's sensitivity to world opinion, he complained, "The whole world screams at us if we stop a priest from being political." He added, "And CISPES is just a front for a world wide communist conspiracy." Just like three years ago, the army representative made a point to single out CISPES as the most effective solidarity group in the USA. "How could little El Salvador struggle against such a huge organization as that which supports CISPES? Only with the help of the US government. But we want peace. Violence begets violence. We'll even negotiate with the FMLN to bring peace."

When asked about the five arrested internationales..."if you were caught pushing the campesinos to land take-overs you'd be in big trouble too. They are self-deporting today." (great double speak.) Our country is plagued by what we call "return ticket revolutionaries."

In each of these meetings with the right (US embassy, ARENA, the local military) I felt like a kid given one wack at the Pinyata of political truth. With a large group, it was frustrating to have only a question or two, especially when the politicians were so adept at dodging questions.

Interviewing the FMLN (a week later in Nicaragua)

A small wiry, nervous man, who kept rubbing the fingers that stuck numbly out from his too tight cast and who's eyes darted about as if he was expecting an ambush said we could tape record but please no photos. He was a 35 year old biologist from University of Central American in San Salvador. He was able to meet with us openly as a member of the FMLN only because we were outside of El Salvador. It was a thrill for all of us to actually talk with a member of El Salvador's leftist armed resistance.

He welcomed us by making it clear that the FMLN always recognizes the difference between governments and their people. Below are a few quotes from our interview with him:

The situation right now in Central American is that every country is basically in line with the neo-liberal policy of the US. Neo-liberalism proposes to overcome economic injustice of the region but it ignores the roots of the problem: economic inequality, lack of democracy and poverty.

The conflict in Central America is not created by the USSR and Cuba. For two years the USSR is basically gone, Cuba is in economic crisis and the Sandinistas are out of power but the struggles in El Salvador and Guatemala continue. The USA still cannot accept that a revolution can have internal roots.

With the fall of socialism, the US is changing. It sees the structural roots of poverty, which the FMLN is fighting, as hurdles to peace. Unfortunately this is ten years late. 175,000 have been killed in Guatemala, 70,000 in El Salvador and 50,000 in Nicaragua. This is a lot of death in a small region based on the US fear of communism. Now they have decided that the threat is not there.

The best contribution that the USA can make is to allow people in Latin America to solve their own problems. We are political adults here.

Poverty here is deep and widespread. Over 50% of the people are in extreme poverty. In Guatemala 2% of the people own 60% of the arable land. 60% of the adults are illiterate. These societies have failed. Capitalism here has failed as dramatically as socialism has failed in Eastern Europe. But the US press gives us publicity only when there is a war.

In Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras the military forces are the power behind the "democracy." Real democracy here requires demilitarization. There has been a change in El Salvador lately in most sectors. Salvadoran society cannot bear the weight of the military and still succeed.

We are realistic. We are fighting the rear guard of the USA. It has sustained the El Salvador military and can easily continue. For instance, one day we gunned down six helicopters. It cost an enormous amount of lives, munitions and resources and the mission was planned for months. It was a brilliant success but within two weeks there were twelve helicopters in their place. Negotiation is more rational. In '89, the US had 70,000 men ready in Panama. Their intervention, had we pushed our offensive to military success, would destroy El Salvador. Many civilians would die. In El Salvador, 70% of the war casualties are non-combatants. The FMLN cannot be adventuresome. We are not at war because we like war but to achieve justice. Right now in the world, the left understands that financial support will dwindle. Negotiation is the rational answer.

I could be a geologist with a home, a job and a family but I chose this struggle. The University is the natural entree to this struggle. After seeing two El Salvador elections won by the opposition and stolen by the military, like many, I joined the FMLN.

Today, the FMLN has veto power in Salvadoran society. We have enormous popular support. There is hope from moderate president Cristiani backed by modern-thinking business elements that a consensus with the FMLN can be found. People are seeing that only a government with that broad base of support could effectively rule a peaceful El Salvador.

While industrialization may be the long term answer it cannot happen without land re-distribution. 60% of Salvadorans are farmers. They need a life before they can consume.

Today the land is poorly distributed. 54% of the capital is in 5% of the people. The FMLN respects problems that East Europe, Cuba and Nicaragua had with their socialist models. We understand that market forces must be respected. We are looking for a model with pluralism and justice. We'd like socialism as a moral base with a capitalist motor.

The result of the negotiation may turn the FMLN into a legal and unarmed political party. The most difficult part will be integrating the FMLN into the armed forces. Nicaragua has done very well in this respect. It's army is down by 75%. Today in Nicaragua an amazing thing is happening: a leftist (formerly Sandinista) army is supporting and protecting a US-backed government. The Sandinistas recognized that you can't start from zero with each election. The army is an institution which protects the government and state. They key is to allow the politicians to fix the problem rather than having it fixed by politicized armies.

95% of El Salvador is Christian. Liberation Theology has given religion a powerful push into politics. They legitimized the armed struggle. But they are a force for peace too. The Jesuits told the FMLN there was no possibility of victory by war and we would have to negotiate long before the rest of us realized that. The murder of the Jesuit leadership of UCA was a great loss. The fall of the Berlin Wall coincided with the Jesuit murders. In the developing world these two events are of about equal historical importance.

Electronic preachers have a clearly defined agenda. Removing people from politics is their politics. But the sects are not considered a real threat to the forces of peace with justice.

The key to all the debate among the left today is how much freedom will the USA give us. Central America is the USA's back yard. Recently the US has used Honduras as a dumping ground for their toxic waste. We are second class people. Our alternative tho that role is war. That is what Viet Nam, El Salvador and Nicaragua are all about. Why must the US have no exceptions to its plan (Cuba). Not all can think alike. In parliament you have left and right. Is Central America really democratic if we must all follow the US party line. In the USA there are only two parties. And 33% voted in the last election. And Bush wants to teach us about democracy. This black and white, bad and good conception of the world makes life in the developing world difficult. We see clearly the devastating result of Nicaragua's attempt at independence. That is the reality of life south of the USA.

Peace is coming in El Salvador. That I think is irreversible and more necessary than ever. The tendency is for Central American to be forgotten in peace time and just left with its poverty. Please don't forget us.

El Salvador Final Analysis

Five most powerful forces, their source of power, and accountability in El Salvador

  1. USA (including 1,000,000 Salvadorans in USA)
    Military and economic might. Accountable to its electorate and business
  2. Armed Forces
    Empowered by the Salvadoran constitution and USA money. Accountable only to the USA.
  3. FMLN
    Empowered by the people and the teaching of liberation theology. Accountable to the goodwill of the people.
  4. Oligarchy
    Empowered by its land, tradition, the army, and the church hierarchy.
  5. The Salvadoran government
    Empowered by its constitution, its electorate, and the USA. Accountable to the USA.

Money sources in El Salvador:
1-Salvadorans in USA
2-US aid
3-coffee and exports
the tax base is tiny

Money sources in FMLN:
taxation of land controlled
rich locals
international solidarity groups

In FMLN territory, landowners get an annual letter explaining how much they'll pay their workers and their tax bill. If they want to grow crops, they'll meet these obligations.

This is the analysis of the leading UCA Jesuit. In a fascinating group think process, we arrived at his same conclusions. I figured the Oligarchy was #5 because the value and extent of their holdings is dropping, the military is becoming an elite class because of all their corrupt wealth, and because some democracy is being forced upon the country even now. All agreed that the Oligarchy is on a downward trend.

The leading Jesuit (who was one of the six murdered and considered the leading proponent of liberation theology) explained that power sectors of Salvadoran society must concern themselves with the USA's military and economic might. In war those with arms are next. US armed alleys are stronger than the FMLN. War has really messed up the Oligarchy. Only government is not independent anywhere. The Constitution gives power to others. FMLN collects taxes.

The church is conspicuous in its absence. It's too divided to be a power. In 1980 95% on the people were Catholic. This is splintered now with the church hierarchy and the sects on the right and the liberation theology and base Christian communities on the left.

The Intelligencia was murdered. And most of the 80,000 disappeared are from non-government organizations in the popular movement — all the union, human rights, teacher groups that are the peaceful voice of opposition. They are now meeting as the Permanent Committee of the National Debate. With peace, they will coagulate and, according to the Jesuit, they are the hope and on the rise.

Taking at break for a swim on the vast and nearly empty sandy beach of the Pacific coast we could only see the potential of a happy land. Body surfing, we did battle with the crashing waves. The waves, like the obstacles that seem to keep coming into the people's path, were relentless. But on the crest of an unusually big wave I saw, in the thin nearly transparent slice of water that zips along the top, a fish swimming gracefully ahead of the breaking crest and into the sunset.