Returning to El Salvador after 25 years is a step through time featuring vast changes and too much of the same old same old.
No longer is the roadway from the now-more-modern airport littered with corpses to warn those seeking an end to "La Represión," a war on the people waged by a U.S.-trained military with our tax dollars. Yesteryear's "body dumps" are gone. The fume-belching traffic is heavier, if absent the menacing death squad wagons with smoked windows. The once-threatening military presence, if less intense, still evokes a chill. Muscle memory.
Though little has changed for the poverty-stricken majority, reaching San Salvador one sees wealthy homes that no longer sport machine-gun-toting guards and totally new city sections exhibiting hotels, shops and strings of U.S.-exported junk-food purveyors. Traffic is even worse and, startling to see and hard to grasp, signs everywhere openly boast the once-verboten letters: FMLN.
It's amazing enough to see the signs, but the idea of being here for the inauguration of former FMLN Commandante Salvador Sánchez Cerén as President of the Republic of El Salvador beggars the imagination.
In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan proclaimed the Salvadoran civil war a Moscow/Cuban-communist-inspired effort to threaten democracy in the Americas, insisting it and other threats would leave us open to attack through the soft underbelly of Texas. His knee-jerk support for the oligarchy and its military caused many to join an effort to keep him from turning El Salvador into another Vietnam. U.S. citizens and others, alarmed by his bellicose rhetoric and aghast at a blood-thirsty "ally" that slaughtered impoverished peasants, murdered priests, assassinated the beloved Archbishop Oscar Romero and four American churchwomen, went to El Salvador to see for themselves.
Once there they met barely disguised contempt from a U.S. Embassy intent on defending the Reagan fiction and with it the pretense that the savage war was not simply a continuing repression of the country's impoverished majority by a vicious partnership of oligarchs, the political right, paramilitary "death squads," the armed forces and the government, but instead a defense of democracy, an honorable response to world-threatening communists, "outside agitators" and their minions.
Tenacious investigation, however, proved otherwise. Visits to refugee camps across the Honduran border and those for displaced people inside the country, meetings with campesinos, labor, church groups and courageous human rights researchers were enlightening. Meeting the valiant Mothers of the Disappeared, scholars, priests, torture victims, intellectuals and many others, including members of the U.S. Congress willing to risk the wrath of anti-communist zealotry at home, was more so. This and more - meeting with intrepid investigative reporters - revealed a fierce struggle against age-old repressive forces being waged by the FMLN, a broad array of groups and individuals of many different political tendencies and views who had come together to free their country from the ruthless grip of powerful forces that had kept it in bondage for generations.
Through years of struggle in the U.S. and El Salvador, Reagan and his henchmen who considered Salvadoran peasants and refugees "the families and friends of the guerrillas" were ultimately deprived of their wish for another anti-Communist war as, to their chagrin, the FMLN continued to press its case on the battlefield and in the diplomatic world. Finally, after more than a dozen years and an horrific human toll, the war ended through a UN Peace Accord in 1992.
But in El Salvador the struggle continued, as forces long in control held the reins of the political machinery. While the FMLN, coming out of the mountains, had to find a way to contend, ARENA, the party of the hard right, remained in power and the poor stayed poor.
In the face of the UN finding over 90% of the human rights violations committed during the war to be the work of the Armed Forces and the death squads/paramilitary units of the right, the ARENA-controlled legislature quickly passed an Amnesty Law prohibiting the prosecution of those responsible for massacre and torture, and the status remained quo.
After 17 years, in 2009, ARENA's lock was broken and Mauricio Funes, a TV broadcaster sympathetic to the FMLN, was elected President of El Salvador. His Administration struggled mightily with limited success, but the door had been opened and today Presidente Sánchez Cerén was being inaugurated.
So, with a delegation from the Center for Democracy in the Americas, here I am, 25 years later, stunned by the differences, amazed at the apparent possibilities, anxious for the future of a people I had come to love and admire, and fearful about how easily all this excitement and hope could come unstrung.
We enjoyed a string of joyful, powerful meetings in these heady, FMLN- celebrating days, but the CDA will report on them. I'll touch here on what left me somewhat queasy.
The new U.S. Embassy, an impregnable fortress designed and built during the war and opened just after the UN-brokered peace (oops), was meant to be the world's largest such outpost and in fact was until the Bush-created monster arose in Iraq. Huge walls, mammoth gates and intense security systems (our van got the complete mirror-inspection-of-the-undercarriage treatment despite the presence of a U.S. Congressman and former U.S. Ambassador among our number) crush any pretense at a mutually respectful alliance with those outside. It screams of the years and dollars and meetings and plans to defeat the FMLN before they had the audacity to fight the war to a draw and then go and get elected, and it reeks of discomfort with the new paradigm.
Once inside all was friendly, if formal. Ambassador Mari Carmen Aponte is gracious, charming and ebullient; her staff friendly, polished and ready with details of the work they're doing in support of the nation's successful transition. Much concern is expressed about the impact of gangs, a culture imported from Los Angeles by young Salvadoran deportees. When the question of talking to the gangs is raised it becomes clear that, as with terrorists, it's a no-no to engage them directly. Later, some discomfort again creeps into the meeting with mention of piercing the veil of the Amnesty Law and pursuing prosecution of those who committed human rights violations during the war (one of whom serves in the legislature today). Beyond that were smiles and handshakes and reassuring words, and we left.
A hard one for me was a stop at UCA, the University of Central America, the home of the six Jesuit priests, scholars who quietly and courageously opposed the policies and politics of the government and its enforcers. The rose garden in the yard where they were murdered in 1989 now serves as a memorial, a tribute to the memory of these fine men, gunned down along with their housekeeper and her daughter by the U.S.-trained Atlacatl Battalion, itself a creature of the infamous U.S. Army School of the Americas. The garden is painful to behold, as is the museum below, not least because I failed to make time to come up and see them again on my last visit to the country. Months later they were slain.
A meeting with one of the founders of ARENA was... difficult. He was a pleasant-enough appearing businessman who spoke hopefully of possibilities for compromise with President Sánchez Cerén while at the same time roundly condemning the arrogance and imperiousness of his predecessor, President Funes. This gentleman's prescription for dealing with the gangs, however, gave a sense of his remedy for social problems: sweep them all up, confine them in detention camps and forcibly re-educate them. In fairness, my take on him may have been impacted by the large photographs posted all over his office of the founder of ARENA, the late Major Roberto D'Aubuisson, death squad leader, architect of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero and, in the words of a former U.S. Ambassador, "a pathological killer."
One hopes for the success of President Sánchez Cerén and his party. It will take cooperation and compromise. Sánchez Cerén has shown a willingness to do both and it remains to be seen how those traditionally in opposition will respond. We should know before long.
The inauguration itself was a festive occasion filled with hope and enthusiasm. It was peppered with cheers and FMLN chants, music, decorous presentations, stately parades of national leaders and their delegations, military processions and boisterous excitement. In contrast, the United States, having been represented at Mauricio Funes' inauguration 5 years ago by a delegation led by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, sent this time a delegation led by the head of the SBA. Yes, the Small Business Administration.
Invited to a post-inauguration party at the U.S. Embassy, we thought it appropriate to show up for a few minutes.
"What did you think of the festivities?" asked a man from USAID.
"I was embarrassed for my country," I replied.
"Because of the way they treated our delegation?" he suggested, referring to the lack of acknowledgement it received from the dais as compared to the proud hailing of those from Ecuador, Chile, Bolivia, Guatemala, Cuba, etc.
"No," I said, "because of the way we treated them."
Given the disgraceful way we've dealt with this country and its people for decades and the war we waged against them by proxy, the commitment they've made to freeing their people from desperate poverty and political oppression and their commitment to democratic principles have earned them respect in the world. We embarrass ourselves by not recognizing that. The least we could have done would be to send a delegation to this inauguration that honors them, their history and their achievements rather than dismissing them, by inference, as small business.