El Salvador Rising
by Tom Hayden
www.thenation.com/, June 15, 2009
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
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
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
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
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
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
On election night, amid a sea of red banners,
red shirts and red posters, Funes proclaimed victory in the name
of Monsignor Romero.
_With the election of Mauricio Funes,
El Salvador has its first elected progressive government in 188
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
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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).