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El Salvador: Same Old, Same Old?

[Please welcome actor Mike Farrell to C&L. Mike is an old friend of C&L and we're pleased as punch to publish his occasional contributions.-- Ed.]

[Please welcome actor Mike Farrell to C&L. Mike is an old friend of C&L and we're pleased as punch to publish his occasional contributions.-- Ed.]

What’s going on down south? Is it the ‘same old, same old’ in different form?

Yesterday, Archbishop Jose Luis Escobar Alas of San Salvador, echoing the assassinated Archbishop Oscar Romero, asked Salvadorans to stop the wave of violence that has shaken the country during the current election campaign, saying, “Our country has already suffered too much violence in the past, and it is not possible to turn the clock back on the peace and reconciliation process that we are striving to consolidate. I ask everyone not to fall into the temptation of violence during this time when the country must make a choice.”

These words from a leader of the church today evoke strong memories for one who was involved in the effort to stop the Reagan Administration’s crusade against the popular will in El Salvador in the 1980s. I’ll never forget the scars on the chest of the man I interviewed in Morazan prison, burns from acid poured on him by torturers those many years ago. And now it’s as if the presidential candidacy of Mauricio Fundes, leading in the polls in a campaign to be decided on March 15th, has loosed the furies in El Salvador once again.

Why should we North Americans care? Well, for me and others who spent time in the region, the memories remain raw. For us, the UN-brokered peace agreement in 1992 was met with a mixture of joy, satisfaction and fear.

The joy, of course, was that the killing had stopped – at least in large part. The death of tens of thousands of people, most of them innocent civilian victims of the U.S.-supported Salvadoran military, was an outrage. The torture, the rape, the murder, all done with a wink and a nod from the military and those in power, was hard to comprehend. How, we found ourselves asking, even for the most mindless of the zealots who were whispering “Commies!” in Reagan’s ear, could this savagery be justified? How could they look the other way when nuns are raped and murdered, bishops assassinated, priests slaughtered?

Apparently, behind the shield of anti-communism, they found a way.

My satisfaction, such as it was, came in the form of the UN Truth Commission’s report acknowledging the loss of 75,000 lives (though a church-sponsored human rights group said it was probably twice that), and finding that the “vast majority” of the human rights violations had been committed by the Salvadoran military, the government-allied paramilitaries and the death squads. The U.S.-funded, -trained and -maintained military was, despite U.S. and Salvadoran denials, responsible for the massacres at El Mozote and the Rio Sumpul. When Roberto D’Aubuisson was denounced for his involvement in the murder of Archbishop Romero, I felt that some of our efforts, reports and testimonies had been vindicated.

There was satisfaction in knowing that despite our inability to avert the cruelty visited on the poor in that beautiful country, it had not, at least, become another Vietnam.

But the fear came from knowing that despite the end of the war, the advent of democracy was far from assured. The matching political and business interests in El Salvador and the U.S. remained powerful and would not look kindly on a truly empowered populace. Our suspicion sprang from experiencing what was obvious on the ground: the ferocious will of those long in power to remain so; the connivance of the U.S. Government; and the unwillingness of the perpetrators to face the consequences of their deeds.

Our fears were underscored when El Salvador’s National Assembly, under the control of the right-wing ARENA Party, enacted an amnesty law only days after the release of the Truth Commission’s report, that protected the perpetrators of crimes committed during that bloody war from prosecution.

Impunity reigned.

So today, seventeen years after the peace agreement, the struggle continues. While the guerillas of the FMLN - the umbrella organization uniting the five militant groups that fought for popular control during the civil war - have come out of the mountains and entered the political lists, they continue to face the same ferocious antagonists. If “War in nothing but the continuation of politics by other means,” as von Clausewitz observed, in El Salvador it may now be the reverse. After years of standing up against those long in control, a candidate who represents the people now appears to have a clear chance at victory in El Salvador’s presidential election, now only ten days away.

A popular Salvadoran TV personality, Mauricio Funes had no involvement in the war and was never a member of the FMLN, but because he posed tough questions to those who lord over Salvadoran society he became a popular hero and earned their support. This, apparently, is enough to bring all the retrograde forces to bear against him.

In a February 27, 2009 letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, over two hundred U.S. academics called her attention to the upcoming election, citing their fears concerning “foreign intervention in the electoral process, increased levels of violence, pending reforms to the Salvadorian Electoral Code which could facilitate fraud, and statements made by the Minister of Foreign Relations, Marisol Argueta, in Washington D.C. in September 2008 soliciting the intervention of the U.S. government in order to prevent the victory of the FMLN candidate.“

After a recent visit to the country, the academics say that as the election approaches, the situation has worsened. They fear that the same forces long in control of El Salvador will, through media-manipulation, clandestine violence, electoral fraud and claimed support of the U.S. Government, once again frustrate a long-overdue opportunity for the Salvadoran people to determine the future of their country.

Along with the right-wing ARENA, a political party with bloody connections, they name newly formed front groups and, most troubling, ads featuring a policy advisor to the Obama Administration and an evangelical minister who claims to be a religious advisor to President Obama that give the clear impression that this administration favors the election of the establishment candidate.

The academics ask only that Secretary Clinton make a clear, public declaration that 1) neither ARENA, other right-wing groups or individuals in El Salvador or the U.S. speaks for the Administration; 2) that she disavow all allegations of same currently being made in such fear campaigns; and 3) unequivocally state that the U.S. is willing to work with any fairly elected party or president and fully intends to maintain friendly relations with El Salvador regardless of which political party is in power.

In a March 4th letter to President Obama, 22 members of the U.S. Congress have asked that the U.S. respect the independence of the Salvadoran elections process, repudiate past statements made by U.S. officials intended to impact its outcome, quash the suggestion that U.S. immigration policy be used as a political instrument, explicitly reject requests by the ARENA party for a U.S. endorsement, and otherwise demonstrate that we will not seek to undermine democracy in El Salvador

With the memory of all those who were murdered and brutalized by the use of our tax dollars in mind, can anyone who believes in democracy do any less?

--

Mike Farrell, President of Death Penalty Focus and Co-Chair Emeritus of the Southern California Committee of Human Rights Watch, is the author of “Just Call Me Mike: A Journey to Actor and Activist” and “Of Mule and Man.”

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