by TOM HAYDEN
June 15, 2009
Tom Hayden has traveled to El Salvador three times, has written extensively about cross-border street gang issues and, as a California state senator, passed legislation authorizing creation of the first Central American studies program on an American campus, California State Northridge, in 1999. His writings can be found at tomhayden.com. Research, translation and photographic assistance for this article came from Jessica Levy and Jason Cross in San Salvador.
With the election of Mauricio Funes, El Salvador has its first elected progressive government in 188 years.
The ‘very small club’ falters
The woman in the brown pantsuit looked flustered as she ordered pastries, pulling her young daughter by the hand, in the upscale San Salvador restaurant. Recognizing the two Salvadoran journalists I was sitting with, she began describing in rapid English her meeting with Hillary Clinton about women’s issues the day before. She kept looking out the window, twice interrupting her Hillary vignette to note that her husband was waiting in the car, impatient. The little girl looked stranded on her mother’s hand. Suddenly the husband rushed through the door, gesturing angrily that she should hurry up.
The likely reason for the tension was that just two hours before, this woman, Marisol Argueta, was the foreign minister of El Salvador. The former television journalist Mauricio Funes, candidate of the Farabundo Martí Liberation Front (FMLN), was now the Salvadoran president, the first progressive left government elected in the 188 years since the country’s independence, and now Marisol Argueta was on the street.
Back on September 18, 2008, Argueta had spoken to a neoconservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), in Washington, where she was introduced by Roger Noriega, an AEI fellow and former top Bush administration official in Latin America, as “part of a very elite and, unfortunately, very small club; we call them allies.”
As evidence of this small elite club at work, Noriega could mention El Salvador’s being the first country to join the Central America Free Trade Area (CAFTA), or its basing a secret Forward Operating Location for US counterinsurgency, counter-narcotics, and counterintelligence operations. Noriega, formerly a senior staffer for the late, ferociously conservative Sen. Jesse Helms, chose to celebrate the fact that 300 soldiers in El Salvador’s Battalion Cuzcatlan were the only Latin Americans fighting on the American side in Iraq.
Noriega was one of the many conservative hawks who came to power in the Central American wars, which now were ending in progressive political victories for the FMLN and the Sandinistas, and changes in Guatemala and Honduras and across Latin America. Their grip on policy has been a long one, however, and casts a shadow on the future. Current Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, for example, was the CIA official who secretly advised in 1984 that “negotiations only allow communists to further entrench themselves,” and that it was time to overthrow the elected Nicaraguan regime, because “the fact is that the Western Hemisphere is the sphere of influence of the United States,” and who worried about domestic opposition in the United States. Elliott Abrams, who lobbied heavily for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, once lied to Ted Koppel that “there were no massacres in El Salvador in 1984,” and pleaded guilty in 1991 to having withheld facts from Congress in 1986 about the Iran/Contra affair. Admiral John Poindexter, another figure in Iran/Contra, was shaping the shadowy Total Information Awareness program in 2002.
Col. James Steele, who trained the ruthless paramilitaries in Iraq, was the Special Forces officer who fielded the discredited Salvadoran paramilitaries in the 1980s and collaborated with Oliver North to smuggle weapons to the Nicaraguan Contras. Just this week, The Nation published an interview with the current head of the American secret operations command in Iraq, who said he was “very proud of what was done in El Salvador,” where he trained their special forces decades ago.
The long list of recycled neocon diplomats and secret warfare specialists from El Salvador to the present justifies historian Greg Grandin’s view that Central America has long been “the empire’s workshop.” Now, as I watched El Salvador’s former foreign minister rush off, I waved to her little girl and wondered if the bloody wars finally were coming to an end, in this place where 75,000 to 90,000 people died, today’s equivalent of 10 million Americans, the vast majority of them killed at the hands of US-backed security forces, and what the future might hold for the living.
Inauguration Day, June 1
The New York Times account of inauguration day described El Salvador as a pawn in global power politics, not as a democracy emerging from years of interventions, bloodbaths and death squads. The United States, according to the Times’s story, is trying “to reclaim influence in Latin America where Iran has made inroads.” Hillary Clinton asserted that Iran’s influence in the region is “quite disturbing.” In her September AEI speech, Arguetas also railed against the spectre of Iranian influence. It took fourteen paragraphs for the Times account of inauguration day to acknowledge that “Iran is not known to have a big presence in El Salvador and it was not represented at Mr. Funes’ inauguration.”
Instead of seeing El Salvador as a pawn, the Obama administration needs new eyes. Inauguration Day revealed an El Salvador finally becoming itself, a center-left country with a devastating legacy of war, a $1 billion debt, 50 percent of its population making less than two dollars per day, and the reality of 2 million people–fully one-third of its entire population–now living a hybrid identity in the United States and sending back remittances. America, like a violent intruder, wrecked the place, and it will never be the same.
To list El Salvador on the scorecard of Latin American politics today is to reinvent cold war thinking and worse, to practice avoidance about the shameful rise of the US neoconservatives during the Reagan wars in Central America. The Obama adminstration needs to apologize for the past, respect El Salvador’s right to self-determination and forgo the repetition of past patterns of low-visibility, high-casualty warfare that began in Central America and continues today across Colombia, Mexico, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In his inaugural speech, President Mauricio Funes said his “reference points” were Lula and Barack Obama, and his spiritual guide the martyred Monsignor Óscar Romero, at whose monument he paid his respects that morning. In an editorial the following day, El Mundo described him as emblematic of “moderation without extravagant ideologies.” Inaugural day passed with notable calm, as had election day on March 15, despite the depth of political fissures in the country. The public expectation seemed to lie in what Funes called “reinventing hope.” He promised 100,000 new jobs, an expansion of healthcare, education and housing, an aggressive program of redirecting public subsidies away from privileged interests, and a crackdown on a pervasive culture of institutional corruption. Instead of the mano duro (tough-fisted) repression of any young people with tattoos, there will be a greater emphasis on rehabilitation, jobs and partnership with gang intervention groups such as Homies Unidos. (See “Gato and Alex–No Safe Place,” in The Nation, July 10, 2000.) Underlying these policy priorities will be the theme of liberation theology–a special preference for the poor–advocated by Romero and a generation of 1960s theologians.
This will be a huge project of radical reform, endangered by powerful right-wing opposition and hardly helped by policies like CAFTA, whose privatization measures have made the lives of the poor even more precarious. The FMLN, with Funes’s support, led a successful street campaign against privatizing health services in 2007, the largest mobilization since the war ended in 1992.
El Salvador will benefit from the progressive continental nationalism sweeping Latin America. Some elites try dividing the continent into a “bad” populist bloc (led by Venezuela) versus a “good” left that collaborates with the US (led by Brazil’s Lula). This reductionism places Funes in the ranks of the “good,” but the distinction is not so simplistic. In his inaugural remarks, Funes announced his first foreign policy initiative, the recognition of Cuba, to a long standing ovation. He was in Venezuela the previous week, successfully seeking the expansion of Venezuela’s discounted oil program from local FMLN municipalities to his new national government.
Then there is Funes’s alliance with the FMLN itself, considered the “bad” left by the national security hawks. FMLN leaders in the Funes cabinet will include the elected vice president and minister of education, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, key ministers for health and educational expansion, and a former commandante in charge of the intelligence services (all discussed below). None of the economic portfolios, on the other hand, went to FMLN representatives, perhaps as a signal to investors.
According to one independent supporter of the FMLN I interviewed, “the government of Mauricio Funes and the government of the FMLN are two separate entities, and will be negotiating the terms of their coalition.”
Funes benefited hugely from the rapid growth of Los Amigos de Mauricio, a formidable fund-raising and outreach network, somewhat like Barack Obama’s vast independent volunteer structure, with the potential of becoming a political party of its own. While Los Amigos includes former members of the FMLN, its principle founders include members of a modern business elite like Carlos Caceres, later named Funes’s treasury minister, and Alex Segovia, his chief of staff. This rising elite tends to be composed of businessmen in technology, banking and real estate development, more than the narrow and notorious “fourteen families” of coffee barons who controlled the country for more than a century. This new class will have to construct a new social contract with the FMLN and social movements rooted among rural campesinos, urban workers, those who toil in the informal economy and the left-wing intellectual class.
This said, it is true that Funes is not part of the movement towards “twenty-first-century socialism” embodied by Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba, does not seek an ideological confrontation with the United States, and is not a favorite of the Latin American left. It is true that Funes is extremely close to Lula. Funes’s wife, Vanda Pignato, is a native Brazilian who met him when she was working as the embassy representative of Brazil’s Workers Party in San Salvador. Brazil is loaning El Salvador $500 million, currently more than the European Union, and other forms of Brazilian assistance will follow.
But the new Latin America, despite contradictions, has more in common than not. Besides the unity about Cuba, the continent has rejected the failed neoliberal policies of the Bush years, and seeks to negotiate far better trade, energy and diplomatic deals with Obama. Lula, widely labeled a moderate, recently faulted the Wall Street meltdown on “white-skinned people with blue eyes.” The Brazilian-led, southern-tier common market (Mercosur) is compatible with Venezuela’s sponsorship of the Andean development project.
Both counties are deeply engaged in Unasur, the twelve-nation initiative to resolve South American disputes among Latin Americans. As Brazil’s foreign minister puts it, these projects represent “countries of all ideological strands harboring the common desire of integrating Latin America and the Caribbean as their common space.” This Latin America is a completely different continent than the one ripped apart by coordinated death squads, police repression and right-wing dictatorships only decades ago.
If the Funes-FMLN coalition holds together, it will be a microcosm of the political currents already evolving, both in unity as well as tension, across Latin America.
Hillary Clinton must have sensed all this in as she sat quietly amidst other diplomats while one Latin American president after another ascended above her to the inaugural stage. Not only did she sit through the huge applause for the new FMLN vice president (Sánchez Cerén), but for Cuba, and the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay, Ecuador, Brazil and Chile, interrupted by periodic ¡que viva!s for Venezuela, Vietnam, Palestine, and Monsignor Romero. “¿Quienes aqui?” rippled across the well-dressed crowd of dignitaries, professionals and diplomatic observers, and the answer was shouted back, “el Frente Farabundo Martí.”
This will be a rowdy coalition.
At a press conference during the inauguration, Clinton turned from the cold war paradigm to more constructive thoughts on the occasion: “Some of the difficulties that we’ve had historically in forging strong and lasting relationships in our hemisphere are a result of our perhaps not listening, perhaps not paying close enough attention.”
How the March election was won
It was very, very close. The final figures for the March 15 national election gave Funes and the FMLN 51.32 percent, versus 48.7 percent for ARENA (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista), the party of the Salvadoran right that had won every presidential election since the 1992 peace accords. In the national assembly, the FMLN won thirty-five seats, ARENA thirty-two and traditional parties the remaining twenty.
The victory was caused primarily by internal factors, but external ones like the Wall Street crisis and the neutrality of the Obama administration played important parts as well.
The ARENA campaign plan was about front-loading, trying first to win January’s election in the FMLN-controlled capital of San Salvador, then exploiting that momentum to capture the presidential election in mid-March. They would emphasize the themes of mano duro, free trade and public fear that an FMLN victory would threaten remittances and the temporary protective status (TPS) of many Salvadorans in the United States, and turn the country into a haven for terrorism. Continuous television spots were run associating Funes with the FMLN, Hugo Chávez and narco-terrorism.
ARENA’s initial move was successful. The FMLN was vulnerable to charges of mismanagement and crime after a decade in power in San Salvador, and was driven out of office in the January elections. But Funes and the FMLN launched a political counter-offensive.
Funes could portray himself as a genuine independent. His older brother Roberto was an FMLN member killed by the police on August 14, 1980, but he himself had never joined. Instead, he became the country’s best-known television newscaster and commentator, periodically harassed by the ARENA and corporate media owners. He was considered a tough questioner, fair-minded, willing to disagree at times with the FMLN, while describing himself as a reporter indignant at structural injustices. Five years ago, Funes expressed an interest in the presidency, but the FMLN chose its Marxist founder and commandante, Schafik Handal, whose candidacy never reached beyond the organization’s hardcore base of approximately one-third of voters. The FMLN seemed doomed to perpetuate the pattern, unless something changed internally.
To learn what happened in 2009, I interviewed a longtime contact and renowned FMLN commandante, Eduardo Linares, known as Commandante Douglas Santamaria during his years in the mountains of Chalatanango. Under the 1992 peace accords, Linares became the police chief of San Salvador, and later a member of the capital’s city FMLN council bloc, which had been defeated in January. On the day Hillary Clinton was arriving, Linares was directing security preparations for the inauguration and an FMLN rally of 50,000 people. The following day he would be named chief of intelligence for the government.
Linares’s description of the FMLN strategy was as methodical of any of his guerrillas campaigns.
The hardest strategic decision was whether to support Funes in an effort to win, or to once again put forward a commandante candidate destined to lose.
Paying close attention to their popular base, Linares said, the party heard a massive call for a strategy to finally defeat ARENA, its police and free-market policies. A majority of the party’s militants also concurred, that they needed “a plan to take the right out of power,” to “start believing in themselves as a party strong enough to win,” and put forward Funes, the only candidate who “would not make the people afraid and the right afraid.”
Not everyone on the left was in agreement, and the possibility of a long fratricidal primary loomed, with the FMLN’s factional disunity on public display. Therefore, Linares said, the party adopted a plan to pre-empt other candidates and unify early around Funes. “We became verticalist,” he said. “Internal democracy wouldn’t work in the primaries, but at least we had the advantage of knowing what the people wanted and the party members too.”
The FMLN cemented a pact with Funes by choosing its national coordinator, Sánchez Cerén–“my jefe in the montanas,” Linares called him–as the vice-presidential nominee. They also negotiated a platform agreement that included such guarantees as an increase in health spending from 3 percent to 5 percent of the country’s gross economic product. The campaign was on.
Other domestic factors helped the FMLN coalition along. ARENA and the Salvadoran right were splintering among themselves. In a bizarre twist, a faction of evangelicals blessed the Funes-FMLN ticket in the final days. But the most important issue factor was the Wall Street meltdown, whose social impact brought back deep historical memories. The FMLN had risen from such a crisis eighty years before; according to a recent Lonely Planet guide, “the stock market crash in the US…led to the collapse of coffee prices in 1929. Thereafter, the circumstances of the working classes, and in particular the indigenous Salvadorans, became that much more difficult.” The 1932 rebellion led by Farabundo Martí in response to capitalism’s collapse was crushed but gave rise to the Front that still bears his name. The next great Wall Street crash, in 2008, according to observers, was decisive in the FMLN’s victory in 2009.
The other critical external factor was the role of the new Obama administration, which, under pressure from solidarity activists, made clear its neutrality as the election approached, thus deflating the ARENA claim that protective status and remittances would be repealed with an FMLN victory. According to Linares, “the Obama win (in November 2008) was a big hit against ARENA.” The theme of change was in the air. An FMLN delegation had been invited by the National Democratic Institute–considered a hawkish conduit of campaign assistance–to attend the August 2008 Democratic convention in Denver, where they held discussions with party leaders. Obama’s declared new diplomacy of dialogue implied the end of the wars, hot and cold, against the FMLN.
But FMLN supporters were deeply worried about a repeat of 2004, when ARENA and US Republicans generated a fear of sanctions if the FMLN won. This time the FMLN, and a strong Salvadoran-American lobby, pressured the administration to dissociate from television ads quoting an Obama senior adviser, Dan Restrepo, and a spiritual adviser, Antonio Bolainez, which warned of disaster if the FMLN succeeded. The ads were a false depiction of Obama’s stand on the election. After a torrent of pressure, the State Department’s Thomas Shannon issued a statement two days before the election denying an American tilt, dissociating from the commercials and pledging to work with the winner. In an election decided by less than two percent of the votes, the US position became a critical factor.
Four thousand people descended on El Salvador as international observers, most of them longtime participants in the solidarity movements of the 1980s. Fear of a stolen election kept the observers, along with thousands of FMLN activists, on high alert for fraud, including the ARENA tactic of busing in illegal voters from Honduras and Nicaragua. “People became more suspicious and started watching the borders and highways, thinking they had to protect the election for the good of the country,” Linares said. Popular radio stations began broadcasting warnings about potential ARENA schemes. Fearing that democracy would be stolen, many Salvadorans took spontaneous direct actions, at one point attacking a bus they believed to be full of illegal voters.
On election night, amid a sea of red banners, red shirts and red posters, Funes proclaimed victory in the name of Monsignor Romero.
How will they govern?
The new Salvadoran government may be the most complex of the new arrangements in Central and Latin America. The majority is slender. Funes is a television commentator, not an executive. The FMLN has a relatively weak record of governance. The unity that was achieved in the electoral campaign may break down on the terrain of governing. The right-wing, like the Republicans here, relishes a nasty oppositional role. The outgoing ARENA government left a $1 billion debt, its corrupt extravagance symbolized by the outgoing president taking 300 people on a goodbye tour of the Middle East.
For answers, I turned to the case of healthcare and the role to be played by another FMLN revolutionary from the war period, Eduardo Espinoza, vice-minister of health in the Funes government. During the war he was “Felipe Dubón,” the FMLN’s specialist in “battlefield medicine,” charged with tending to wounded fighters as well as civilian populations living in zones controlled by the FMLN, all under conditions of aerial assault and guerrilla war. When President José Napoleón Duarte’s daughter was kidnapped and held hostage by the FMLN in 1985, Dubón’s name was number two on the list of prisoners the FMLN demanded released, an exchange that took place forty-four days later.
I interviewed Espinoza in a leafy open-air coffee shop at the Sheraton Hotel, near the spot where two American labor attachés were killed along with a Salvadoran land reform official, in January 1981. Shocked as a young man by police murders of students at his university in 1975, he felt that “the 1970s started the dream just being realized now,” as he prepared to address El Salvador’s healthcare crisis in the role of top adviser to the new health minister, the FMLN’s María Rodríguez.
I wondered if addressing the institutional healthcare crisis would be harder in some respects than the battlefield medicine he improvised in the jungle. Espinoza certainly was prepared. After the war, he returned to teaching and became dean of medicine at the national university, where his boss, Rodríguez, served as president. During the campaign, Funes promised to expand the share of economic resources going to healthcare from 3 percent to 5, so Espinoza was gearing up.
Dominating the public health crisis are poverty and institutional corruption. Espinosa’s research reveals that El Salvador has the highest prices for medicines in all of Latin America and among the highest in the world, adjusted for purchasing power. “It takes $30 to give birth in a hospital, which is impossible when you make a dollar a day. It can mean thirty days without feeding your family, so you don’t go to the hospital,” he said.
Every year there are fewer doctors per person, so young doctors have to become unemployed or leave for the exclusive private sector of medicine. “It’s not a question of having enough doctors, it’s a problem of not having enough employment for them in the public sector,” he added.
Espinoza said he shows Michael Moore’s movie Sicko–chuckling and savoring the pronunciation of the word–to his medical students as the best overview of the current crisis.
Of the four main distributors of medicines, those who broker between manufacturers, hospitals and pharmacies, three are owned by a cousin of the outgoing president, Antonio Saca, and the other by the family of a former president, Alfredo Cristiani. It gets worse: sometimes the system purchases medicines, including cancer and HIV medications, just before they expire and can no longer be given to patients.
Funding for increased access therefore will have to come from wringing efficiencies out of a system in which power is both bloated and maldistributed, a very difficult task. CAFTA worsens the crisis by extending patents, fostering market prices and “not considering healthcare a human right but a service.” There still is room for negotiations over CAFTA, according to Espinoza, but it’s a long way to his dream of a national healthcare system for Central America as a whole. As a leader of the recent battles against further privatization, he believes a greater social movement will be necessary “to address the social determinants of health.” As for the public, he says it wants “total” and “radical reform” in the direction of universal care, and that its voice will be heard.
Now that relations with Cuba are being affirmed after fifty years, might Cuban doctors and medical schools help the transition in El Salvador? “They could be a good resource now that we are trying to revamp everything, because they have a different perspective,” Espinoza replied; but the problem remains a Salvadoran one, of the power of social movements and former revolutionaries to change a system still designed to benefit a few.
The role of solidarity movements
They came on foot, or often in the trunks of cars, separated violently from their families, often in the hands of uncaring coyotes who took the little money they carried. One-tenth of the Salvadoran people became war refugees living in Los Angeles alone. “The solidarity movement had a huge role in this victory,” Linares reflects. “Our dreams are the dreams of the solidarity movement.”
It is important to remember this movement in its many forgotten strands, for its tenacity, variety, duration and lasting effects. Refugees, most of them undocumented, beginning without material resources, eventually formed service and advocacy organizations such as the Central American Resource Center (CARACEN) El Rescate (the Rescue) and the Salvadoran-American Leadership and Education Fund (SALEF), which became extremely influential.
Carlos Hernandez Vaquerano is the leader of SALEF, which has provided hundreds of scholarships to Salvadoran youth and carried on voter education campaigns. He was in El Salvador with a delegation of longtime allies. His seemingly exceptional profile is like many others. He was born in El Salvador in 1960, and three of his brothers–Marciel, Numan and Osmini–were kidnapped, murdered or disappeared by death squads in the 1980s. Encouraged by his family to leave before he himself was killed, Carlos made his way to Mexico in October 1980 and crossed the Tijuana border while lying face down on an engine block under the hood of a GMC truck. He was 20 years old, leaving behind a mother and several siblings. His father died of alcoholism when Carlos was 4.
He immediately joined the Los Angeles branch of the FMLN, whose offices were on Bonnie Brae street adjacent to MacArthur Park, as a volunteer, supporting himself as a day laborer and factory worker. On Sunday mornings he and his friends made and sold tamales door-to-door to raise money for El Salvador, handing out political leaflets at the same time. Soon he began working with the sanctuary movement, a vast underground railroad established mainly by religious organizations to shield and harbor escaping Salvadoran and other Central American refugees. More than 300 churches and synagogues nationally declared themselves safe havens, and at least 100,000 Americans signed pledges of active support. After years of solidarity work, he went on to lead SALEF, and became a prominent supporter of the Funes campaign.
Another exile was Rosanna Perez, who came to the United States in the 1980s after the authorities repressed the university student movement, disappeared her husband, and kidnapped and tortured her in prison for two years. She crossed the border on foot; her daughter, Sara, 2 years old, was being smuggled ahead. For years afterward, the daughter dreamed about hiding Rosanna in a closed room while a man was trying to abduct her; only many years later, when she was a UCLA student, did Sara call Rosanna to ask what happened. Both started crying.
Once in LA, Rosanna adopted the alias “Sara Martínez,” and began working with the Comite Santana Chirino Amaya, named after a Salvadoran deportee who was tortured and killed, and also with El Rescate and a clinic named for Monsignor Romero. At first she thought the war would end in a couple of years and she could return home. Instead, she found herself joining the sanctuary movement, learning English, and speaking before audiences of ignorant but sympathetic church-goers. “Believe me, those were days of meetings, meetings and endless meetings. My kids would fall asleep under the tables.” Her son, Tonatiuh, now 22, “learned to walk and talk at meetings, being passed from arm to arm.” The process, she says today, was something like community organizing when she was back in the university, going out into the countryside, asking what was needed, and talking with people about how to achieve their goals. It took several years, but a US Circuit Court ruled in favor of the refugees’ cause in 1988, and the movement achieved temporary protection status in 1990, allowing Salvadorans facing persecution if deported to gain residential and employment rights in the United States. What was simple asylum for millions of anti-Castro Cubans was a much harder struggle for Salvadorans fleeing persecution from the right.
Other veterans of the US civil rights and anti-Vietnam movements formed groups like the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES), which prompted the FBI to open a five-year investigation on some 2,000 individuals in 1,000 groups. Others formed Medical Aid to El Salvador to send medical supplies into the war zones. Also targeted by the Reagan administration was the North American Committee on Latin America (NACLA), an anti-imperialist think tank that grew from the 1960s.
According to the historian Walter Le Feber, “not a single shred of wrongdoing on CISPES’ part could be shown.” But the goal, according to an internal FBI memo, was to “formulate some plan of attack against CISPES and specifically against individuals who definitely display their contempt for the US government by making speeches and propagandizing their cause.” According to Le Feber, over 60,000 Americans signed a pledge in the mid-eighties to commit civil disobedience if the United States invaded Nicaragua.
It was a moment of simmering public antiwar sentiment that the national security elites deeply feared. The sentiment even was reaching into the American religious hierarchy. The Robert F. Kennedy family became engaged with Salvadoran women’s groups. Congress, still influenced by the Vietnam experience, began asking questions and formulating proposals to cut military aid. Even the ambassador to El Salvador, Robert White, began speaking out against the atrocities. Marjorie Tabankin, now a top Democratic progressive, who worked for the Arca Foundation at the time, began organizing trips to refugee camps on the Salvadoran border with actor-activists like Mike Farrell, among many others. Deeply struck by liberation theology priests she encountered, she traveled to El Salvador with delegations five times, spending eight years on solidarity work through the foundation she directed. An offshoot of that work was grassroots pressure in numerous congressional districts to stop military aid, as well as dialogue with Beltway opinion leaders.
“The Salvadorans then had two amazing qualities, a driving individual spirit and a grace and joy about their whole personalities,” despite all the carnage, Tabankin recalls. “But the killing of the nuns (in December 1980) made it an American issue,” she believes. And Congress in those times, she adds, was far more progressive and activist than the current Democratic majority when confronted with evidence of US-backed death squads.
At the time, Pentagon strategists still viewed El Salvador as “an experiment, an attempt to reverse the record of American failure in waging small wars, an effort to defeat an insurgency by providing training and material support without committing American troops to combat.” On the home front, however, a majority of Americans were souring on the Central American counterinsurgencies, and were flatly against sending American ground troops. The US was forced to accept a negotiated peace accord in 1992, having failed to defeat the FMLN after spending $6 billion and contributing to 90,000 deaths over a twelve-year war. Besides that failure on the battlefield, it had become idiotic to accuse the FMLN of being agents of a Soviet Union which no longer existed.
Now “Los Angeles is the second capital of El Salvador,” Rosanna Perez says of the place she lives. Carlos Vaquarano was in El Salvador for countless meetings during the inauguration along with leaders of CARACEN and El Rescate. CARECEN in LA today services 65,000 immigrants with legal aid and advocacy, and has fifteen sister organizations in cities like San Francisco; Houston; Washington, DC; New York; and Boston. Salvadorans are experts at multiplying organizations; one of CARECEN’s founders, Angela Sambrano, how heads the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean communities.
The irony is that in the 1980s White House communications director Pat Buchanan was promoting low-intensity warfare in Central America, while today he is a vociferous opponent of the “flood” of Central American immigrants, never acknowledging that his own administration caused their exodus.
“This country became our home in a way,” says Rosanna, “but I still don’t feel it is. At the end of this, we are trying to make sense of all the history. The idea of the solidarity movement was maybe a layout of something bigger, a visionary thing, preparing the path for a change to happen.” She herself never sought asylum or TPS. “I refused. It was ridiculous to have to prove my husband was disappeared and I was in jail or tortured, it was inhuman to ask those questions.” For the sake of her children, she decided to marry an American, the first time in 1986, for a combination of love and legal protection, and later a second time to build a family. (Her husband is a landscape architect and a friend of mine, currently advising me on pruning roses.)
Rosanna became a student, then a lecturer, at Cal State Northridge, home of the country’s first Institute of Central American Studies, which serves hundreds of Salvadoran immigrants. She aspires to a master’s degree in comparative literature, Spanish and English. “I have this idea of a book, always cooking in my mind, based on my strong mother and grandmother, of an indigenous woman telling a story in the 1800s, speaking in Nahuatl, Spanish and English. It’s about how the conquerors altered the production of literature in El Salvador. It’s about identity,” she says.
While Carlos and Rosanna were being exiled in America, Leslie Schuld is an example of a solidarity activist who emigrated permanently to El Salvador. From her days in the Dayton, Ohio, CISPES chapter twenty-eight years ago, her commitment has been steadfast. It started when she was shaken while studying for her university finals during the massacres of 1981. Having seen the film Revolution or Death and heard the radical priest Father Roy Bourgeois on campus, Leslie started having serious questions about her priorities. She became a full-time CISPES organizer, including two years in Washington, DC, then moved to El Salvador after the 1992 peace accords, along with her mentor Angela Sambrano. She has lived there for sixteen years, and today directs the Center for Interchange and Solidarity (CIS), a San Salvador-based outgrowth of CISPES, which offers education, scholarships, support for women’s enterprises, and continuing delegations to El Salvador. CIS, which is supported by numerous American churches and humanitarian groups, promoted the coming of hundreds of observers during the March election. When I asked Leslie to sum up the decades of solidarity work, she was quick to answer:
“We curbed any possibility of a larger escalation involving ground troops.
“We saved many lives with our urgent telexes to US and Salvadoran officials.
“We raised up awareness of human rights as a core policy issue; we ended funding for the military dictatorship; and we told who the FMLN was and what they represented, bringing up speakers and sending so many delegations here.”
She had learned firsthand that social action can mean a lifetime, not a short stint on the picket lines. “It’s gonna be tough,” she says of the future, shrugging off the challenges. “Funes and the FMLN will need the social movements.”
About Tom Hayden
Tom Hayden is the author of The Other Side (1966, with Staughton Lynd), The Love of Possession Is a Disease With Them (1972), Ending the War in Iraq (2007) and Writings for a Democratic Society: The Tom Hayden Reader (2008). more…
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