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Distorted Reports of the El Salvador Crisis

SYNOPSIS: The U.S. media coverage of the outbreak of civil war in El Salvador was dangerously misleading. Either through willful misinformation or ignorance, the major media supported a misguided U.S. foreign policy that threatened to embroil Americans in another Vietnam War.

A popularly promoted media myth was that the current government of the tiny Central American country is a "moderate" junta, struggling to maintain order in the face of left and right-wing extremist minorities. However, Murat Williams, a former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, and other observers, report that the "left" is more accurately a heterogeneous mix of peasants, students, teachers, priests, nuns, and middle-class businessmen, comprising about 80 percent of the population. What remains is less "center" than "right," comprised chiefly of the military and the oligarchy. The few "moderates" of the civilian-military junta and the Cabinet of 1979 had resigned by January 1980, despairing of any real governmental reforms.

Further, the U.S. press has generally perpetuated the belief that the bulk of El Salvador's estimated 10,000 assassinations in 1980 were the work of "Marxist-inspired guerrillas" or reactionary right-wing forces. But records of the Legal Aid Office of the Catholic Archdiocese of San Salvador show that government military units themselves were responsible for 80 percent of the country's political assassinations.

Another media myth is that Cuban- or Russian-inspired guerrillas were the cause of El Salvador's social upheaval rather than the country's real enemy-a century of economic and social injustice.

There was also much media-generated paranoia regarding Cuban or Russian arms shipments to the "leftist guerrillas," obscuring the reality of an alarming U.S. military buildup in El Salvador. According to the Institute for Policy Studies, U.S. security assistance to El Salvador between 1950 and 1979 totaled $16.72 million; in 1980 alone, more than $5.7 million in U.S. military aid was sent to El Salvador and U.S. military advisers were stationed there.


UPDATE: The Salvadoran civil war continued to 1992 when the United Nations-sponsored peace accords ended the 12-year conflict with the rebels forming a formal political party-the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN). It was also in 1992 that forensic experts unearthed skeletons of children and babies in El Mozote, El Salvador, confirming that hundreds of civilians were killed in the largest massacre in the civil war.

It wasn't until mid-March 1993 that mainstream media in the United States finally reported what the alternative press had been publishing for more than a decade. The government of El Salvador, with the support and funding of the Reagan and Bush Administrations, was responsible for the horrible atrocities during the 12-year conflict. The atrocities, which took the lives of an estimated 75,000 people-Salvadoran civilians, including many women and children-were supported with more than $6 billion in economic and military aid, including $1 billion in covert aid, furnished by the Reagan and Bush Administrations.



Something is Rotten in the Global Supermarket

SYNOPSIS: While modern technology has increased worldwide food production and raised per capita income, millions of landless peasants in Third World countries face starvation and malnutrition.

Prime agricultural lands in Third World countries have increasingly been converted to the production of cash export crops by vast transnational agribusiness firms. While this succeeded in increasing exports and ameliorated balance of payments problems for underdeveloped countries, the benefits did not accrue to everyone.

Multinational corporations increased their profits, taking advantage of cheap labor resources abroad. Foreign governments and the few landed gentry also benefited from the arrangements. But peasant farmers were driven from their subsistence lands when the multinationals arrived. New technology production did not offer enough employment opportunities to compensate for the massive displacements. Those who managed to find seasonal work in agribusiness were not paid enough to cover their subsistence food needs.

Vast migrations of hungry peasants fled to the cities where employment opportunities were not much better. The specter of urban poverty, filth, and slums proliferated throughout the Third World.


UPDATE: Despite the dire 1980 warnings about the problems in worldwide food production, funding for agricultural research targeted to Third World countries declined drastically during the 1980s and continues to decline, according to the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), a Washington-based institute that monitors trends affecting the world's food supply. The IFPRI reported that while scientific advances in agriculture have boosted worldwide food production in recent decades, a record explosion in the world's population will outstrip food production in coming years if research on new farming technologies and food policies is neglected (Chicago Tribune, 4/4/94).

One hopeful sign is the formation of the Tufts International Famine Centre at University College, Cork, Ireland, according to Dr. J. Larry Brown, of Tufts University in Boston. He said for the first time, widespread famine and disaster related deaths could be prevented. The Centre would seek to establish better early warning systems, research, and analysis, as well as training, technical support and early mobilization of international agencies and the media when necessary (The Irish Times, 11/20/95).



The Circle of Poison

SYNOPSIS: The export of banned pesticides from the industrial countries to the Third World is a scandal of global proportions still little covered by the major news media. To compound the problem, investigative reporters David Weir and Mark Shapiro have discovered that from 50-70 percent of the chemicals are not used to grow food for the hungry but are actually used on luxury crops like coffee and bananas destined for the U.S. and Europe-creating a "circle of poison." Dangerous pesticides create the circle of poison by endangering the workers in American chemical plants, injuring Third World workers in the fields where they are used, and, finally returned to us in the food we import.

The U.S. is one of the world's top importers of food and at least ten per cent of our imported food is officially estimated to be contaminated. Moreover, the Food and Drug Administration's (FDA) most commonly used test fails to measure 70 percent of the almost 900 food tolerances for cancer causing chemicals.

At least 25 percent of the U.S. pesticide exports are products that are banned, heavily restricted, or have never been registered for use in the U.S. Many have not been independently evaluated; others, like DDT, are familiar poisons, widely known to cause cancer, birth defects, and genetic mutations. Yet the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide and Rodenticide Act explicitly states that banned or unregistered pesticides are legal for export.


UPDATE: According to Total Health (February 1995) Americans are consuming more fruits and vegetables, which is good for us, but in the process are ingesting more insecticidal toxic substances. Equally disturbing, according to Business and Society Review (January 1995), the U.S. depends on Latin American produce for about 20 percent of its annual produce sales. In turn, Latin America depends on U.S.-banned pesticides. Roughly ten percent of the annual $22 billion in global pesticide sales is of such pesticides. Latin American farmers often use these pesticides on export crops such as bananas, cocoa, coffee, corn, rice, sugar cane, soybeans, and tomatoes.

As a result, tests by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration show that residues of U.S.-banned pesticides still contaminate some five percent of imported produce. While this shows a substantial improvement since 1980, it also confirms that the circle of poison is still spinning. Meanwhile, the National Cancer Institute has launched a major, three-year agricultural health study to examine cancer risks among workers who have direct exposure to pesticides. The study, launched in 1996, will involve about 75,000 adult subjects (Environmental Health Perspective, April 1996).

Unforeseen in earlier studies was the impact of NAFTA on the "circle of poison" as noted in a 1997 study by a number of watchdog groups including the Economic Policy Institute and the Institute for Policy Studies. The report, titled "The Failed Experiment: NAFTA at Three Years," revealed that NAFTA had weakened food safety inspections. While imports of fresh and frozen fruits from Mexico grew by more than one-third since NAFTA was enacted, some shipments of strawberries, lettuce and carrots have illegally high levels of pesticide residue of 18.4 percent, 15.6 percent, and 12.3 percent, respectively (San Francisco Examiner, 6/29/97).



The Oil Companies Monopoly on the Sun

SYNOPSIS: In the early seventies, it was said that we wouldn't have solar power until the oil companies got a monopoly on the sun. Now it appears that this is happening.

Within the last five years, a powerful elite of multinational oil companies, aerospace firms, utilities, and other large corporations has been quietly buying into the solar industry. The group's aim appears to be to squeeze out smaller competitors and control development so that alternative energy will never threaten its massive investments in fossil fuels and, nuclear power.

Most of these are the same corporations that for years have been viewed by alternative energy activists as solar's worst enemies. In countless advertisements, political campaigns and conferences, they have branded solar technology as impractical and expensive, a source of power that at best will someday provide one percent of our national energy needs.

Now, however, solar technology appears interesting to companies like Shell Oil, Atlantic-Richfield, Northrop, Amoco, Exxon, and Mobil-all corporate giants that have taken control of solar power firms in the last several years.

Further, the federal government is even helping them in their efforts toward monopolization. More than 90 percent of the federal solar energy budget for research and development has ended up in the coffers of the largest corporations in the United States.


UPDATE: Following the energy crisis in the early 1970s, entrepreneurs rushed to develop solar power projects to free America of its oil dependency. Many of them went broke or were bought out by large corporations, including the big oil companies. By 1994, Time magazine was ready to announce a "sunny forecast" for solar energy and Shell International Petroleum in London predicted renewable power, particularly solar, would dominate world energy production by 2050.

By 1996, the first large, commercially competitive solar power projects were underway. In India, the Rajasthan State Electricity Board signed a 25-year power purchase agreement with Amoco/Enron Solar for power. In China, Amoco/Enron signed an agreement with the State Science and Technology Commission which could lead to a solar cell manufacturing center and 150MW generating facility. Bob Kelly, co-chairman of Amoco/Enron Solar, a joint venture between Amoco, the U.S. oil company, and Enron, North America's largest natural gas company, announced, "We think there is a great big market out there and we are going for it" (Financial Times, 7/3/96). It took some time, but the big oil companies finally got their monopoly on the sun. A stirring account of the battle for the sun is contained in Who Owns the Sun? People, Politics and the Struggle for a Solar Economy by Daniel M. Berman and John T. O'Connor, published by Chelsea Green, 1997.

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