!Viva La Lucha!
A Somewhat SENTIMENTAL EDUCATION
In the summer of 1987 I had two choices. To be a student delegate to El Salvador, or to go back to serving meals to vacationing families in Santa Barbara at the university alumni club. It took zero coin tosses to make the decision to go.
Our delegation was called the Sister University Project. It consisted of an exchange of material aid in the form of books, clothing, and money to a group of Salvadoran university students. We also planned to collect the stories of the struggle, and bear witness to their lives.
“She’ll never get State Department clearance if she goes on this trip,” said my uncle. This caveat may have carried significance to a Washington insider, but not to a kid renting a hovel in a Southern California student ghetto. And though I had been studying the subject of Central America and imperialism for a few months, I was ill prepared for the gobsmacking. I did not know what I was getting myself into.
El Salvador’s military was swollen with US money. In 1980, the United States allocated $5.7 million to the Salvadoran military. This aid kept coming until finally in January 1992 the U.N.-brokered peace agreements ended the war. But in 1984 former President Ronald Reagan’s justification for the U.S. funding characterized the country as a kind of gateway to socialism. Given El Salvador’s diminutive population of 5.134 million souls, the magnitude of the threat was surrealistically out of scale.
“What we see in El Salvador is an attempt to destabilize the entire region and eventually move chaos and anarchy to the American border,” said Reagan.
True, the guerilla army of the FMLN was supremely capable. It built networks of labor unions, student, and peasant groups that could be mobilized by the thousands in El Salvador’s major cities. Through mass strikes, it could shut down the country. The difference between civilians and guerrillas had started to seem indistinguishable. Masked Salvadorans scaled downtown buildings to spray paint messages like “People organize,” “Viva la lucha,” “El pueblo unido/jamas sera vendico.”
Though in spite of their subversive power, the FMLN cared more about social and economic reform in their own country than the spread of a vast communist conspiracy. FMLN fighters took years to graduate from using machetes and pistols to grenade launchers; Their might not in weaponry, but in tactical organization. It was a David and Goliath face-off between a small army of foot soldiers hiding in the mountains and a government with massive military funding from a superpower.
By the time we were headed to the city of San Salvador, hallmarks of martial law had already popped up in both rural and urban areas: Suspension of civil liberties, electoral fraud, and massacres. In July of 1975, students had been massacared in downtown San Salvador. In 1982 the Army had massacred 27 unarmed civilians during house raids in a San Salvador neighborhood by dragging them outside for street execution.
Supporters of reform were considered enemies of the state. Anyone who supported the FMLN became a de facto target. This made death squad bait of clergy, university officials, unionists, and farmers.
Into this theater we arrived, rehearsing our roles as humble students on an academic delegation. We dressed for the part by scrounging the Goodwills for conservative clothes. Women wore skirts. We dyed our hair back to natural colors. We were briefed on how to speak so carefully, vigilant of putting our hosts at risk of blow back for their association to us. If we drew attention it could prove fatal to Salvadoran friends. Our rooms were bugged. We spoke nearly at a whisper at all times.
Puffed up with personnel, the National Guard hung around everywhere. Henchmen tailed us in brand new white Range Rovers. I handled the stress by sleeping through long bus rides. The absence of shock absorbers didn’t register; I became semi-narcoleptic.
One of our guides was disappeared after our visit. Outside of the documented 75,000 deaths, thousands “disappeared” during the civil war. This young man, translator and co- pilot to our driver, was added to the people buried in unmarked graves.
The piece de resistance of the schedule was to be our appearance at the international solidarity march in memory of the 1975 Molina regime’s attack on students at the University of El Salvador. Soldiers no older than 17 brandished M16A1/A2 assault rifles from open helicopters. It took six of us to carry a banner with red-lettered words “In Solidarity with University of El Salvador” as we marched across the same bridge where students had been murdered.
Denialiast spin was in heavy rotation at meetings with officials. The Minister of Justice, a bureaucrat with overactive glands, spent our meeting speaking madly of the existence of “a vast communist network,” waving as proof letters from Amnesty International.
Human Rights Watch researcher Cynthia J. Arnson writes,
“when the killing was at its height assigning responsibility for the violence and human rights abuses was a product of the intense ideological polarization in the United States. The Reagan administration downplayed the scale of abuse… Because of the level of denial, as well as the extent of U.S. involvement with the Salvadoran military and security forces, the U.S. role in El Salvador…became an important part of El Salvador’s death squad story.”
The best way to make an action seem futile is to ignore it. What a delight then, when the State Department sent letters to newspaper editors disputing our published stories! As the uncle had predicted, clearance with the State Deparment was never to be. This was my tiny jab back at the U.S. government for being on the wrong side of history.
I waved proof to anyone who would listen to my slide presentations. I had a tough audience, and honestly, I was a dead bore. Sliding into witty repartee to help the bitter pill go down felt wrong with this subject. On top of that, in post-Vietnam America, the idea of a little remote controlled war that our tax dollars subsidized didn’t register as shocking news.
Now I tell myself that in the confusing din of wartime, it’s critical to find the signal in the noise. It took Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist Nicholas Kristoff years to figure out the angle. After covering atrocities in Darfur, Kristoff discovered that folks want to hear about those who rise above. He finally understood that by seeking out the individual stories of survival, his writing would generate a response rather than a turned page.
“Lessons from recent research in social psychology show that we intervene not because of stories of desperate circumstances, but when we can be cheered up with positive stories of success and transformation,” he concluded.
That summer we accomplished as a group something greater than each of us alone could have done. I was jostled out of undergrad sleepwalking into marching for human rights, with my sights on social justice.
Youthful morality is impossible to keep up in middle age. Geopolitical paradoxes make a tangle of my thoughts these days. Still, I really can’t help myself. I identify with the scrappy, hard-working underdog because I am one. In this Trumped-up country, more than ever, I’m on the “losing” side. More than ever, the fight for justice is a fight for survival.