Bush, U.S. media back Salvador government as Congress considers aid

Salvador Update:

By Charley McMartin
September 1990; pages 14-15; Volume 2, No. 1

The brutal reality of El Salvador is beginning to sink in on Capitol Hill. As the new decade brings continued bloodshed in the Central American country torn by ten years of civil war, Congressional leaders consider next week cutting aid to the government of El Salvador.

U.S. Congress votes on aid

Senator Dodd (D-Ct) - historically a friend to the ruling, right-wing ARENA government - admitted in August that "the principal stumbling block [to a negotiated settlement] is the Salvadoran Armed Forces. There will be no peace, no justice, no democracy in El Salvador so long as the military and security forces in that country can act with impunity."

By September 15th, the U.S. Senate will vote on the Dodd-Leahy Bill which would withhold 50 percent of the $85 million in arms aid for El Salvador requested by the Bush administration for fiscal year 1991, including funds already "in the pipeline."

On June 27th, the U.S. House of Representatives approved similar language introduced by Rep. Joe Moakely (D-Ma) and his colleague, John Murtha (D-Pa).

"American taxpayer money," Rep. Murtha explained, "has not been used to build peace with democracy [in El Salvador], but to destroy hope and build the private bank accounts of those who get rich at the expense of the Salvadoran people and the American people."

The current rupture in the bipartisan consensus which had existed on El Salvador during the 1980s offers significant hope for weakening the Salvadoran Army's grip on El Salvador's future. A cut in U.S. aid would be a tacit condemnation of the Army's role in rights violations during the 1980s.

U.S. obstructs justice in Jesuit case

Meanwhile, the Bush administration scrambles to protect the Salvadoran army - its bloody but close ally. The Administration threatens a presidential veto of the entire U.S. foreign aid bill for 1991 if the Dodd-Leahy language is included this month.

In related news, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency denied a request by lawyers for documents which may implicate both Salvadoran Army officials and U.S. Embassy members in the November 1989 assassination of six Jesuit ministers in El Salvador.

The New York based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights recently filed a Freedom of Information Act request on behalf of the Jesuits asking to see 21 documents held by the U.S. government on the case. The United States Defense Intelligence Agency denied the request citing national security reasons. The Jesuit provincial, Jose Maria Tojeira, stated that such a refusal showed the United States was obstructing progress in the case.

The Jesuit case is the central component of Congressional efforts to withhold aid this month. In August, a U.S. Congressional task force accused the Salvadoran Army's high command of "a conspiracy to obstruct justice" in the Jesuits' slayings. According to Rep. Moakely, senior Army officials "withheld evidence, destroyed evidence, and repeatedly perjured themselves in testimony before the judge."

Army's Jakarta Plan

The U.S.-Salvadoran Army cover-up further unraveled when late last month, a Salvadoran Army plan to eliminate opposition leaders came to light.

The Army code named its repressive campaign the "Jakarta Plan" after Indonesia's slaughter of hundreds of thousands of suspected leftists in 1965. (Later documents showed that the U.S. Embassy had provided the Indonesian government with the lists of the opposition leaders in 1964 and 1965.) In the Salvadoran Army's "Jakarta Plan," as many as 100 religious, trade union, peasant and student leaders were placed on the Army's death list - including Salvadoran Catholic Church head, Archbishop Arturo Rivera y Damas.

On November 16th last year, soldiers raided the Lutheran Church's main offices and homes of many prominent critics of the government. Most opposition leaders had already gone into hiding. The six Jesuit priests, however, refused to take precautions despite numerous death threats. Their work on behalf of human rights had gained them international recognition and they believed the Army would be reluctant to target them for attack.

Lies of Our (NY) Times

Thought control in a democratic society is an enormously subtle process. Indeed, it must be. Corporate media replace the re-education camps and gulags. The commissar's grip on history takes new form in the editor's careful redefinition of issues. The portrayal of El Salvador in the New York Times offers a case in point.

Take the August 27 NYT article by Lindsey Gruson entitled "Freer Speech Offers a Small El Salvador Paper a Role as a Gadfly" which appeared on page A4. The article portraits the afternoon daily paper in San Salvador known as Diario Latino. Gruson's focuses on the willingness of DL to publish paid advertisements and press releases of the political opposition in El Salvador, a country in which to be an open critic of the government or of the military is to risk one's life.

The punch line of Gruson's article is the following, taken from paragraph eight: "Diario Latino's emergence reflects [Salvadoran] society's developing tolerance after a decade of ideologically driven civil war."

In paragraph seven, Gruson frames the central threat to freedom of expression in El Salvador as "[the] long history of right-wing death-squad activity."

Finally, Gruson asserts that none of the "centers of power" in El Salvador "escape criticism" amidst this "nascent political opening." In paragraph eleven, Gruson identifies the four "centers of power" as the Salvadoran Army, the governing National Republican Alliance (ARENA), the "opposition" Christian Democratic Party (PDC) and the "leftist guerrillas and their political fronts."

Gruson takes the civil war in El Salvador and successfully obscures the three most important pieces to understanding revolution in Latin America and in particular, El Salvador. In the words of Edward Said, by "covering" El Salvador, Gruson has "covered-up" El Salvador.

Let's look at these pieces mentioned above. First, Gruson skillfully air-brushes the chief force of El Salvador out of his "centers of power" picture: the United States Embassy in San Salvador.

The United States government provides more aid to the ARENA government of Alfredo Cristiani than that government itself raises in taxes, tarriffs and other revenues combined. The majority of the Salvadoran Army's leaders are graduates of U.S. military schools and all received some form of U.S. military training.

In 1988, the U.S. Embassy blocked the delivery of an U.S. Congressional appropriation for higher education in El Salvador so as to punish the University of El Salvador for its criticism of U.S. policy in Central America.

Why does Gruson forget to include this center of power? Without the U.S. in the picture, the violence in El Salvador is more easily protrayed as a "dark quagmire," a not-so-subtly racist condemnation of Latin American revolutions.

Without the United States in the picture, there is no reason to debate U.S. aid, on reason to inquire into U.S. prior knowledge of Army human rights violations, nor any basis upon which to question U.S. foreign policy generally.

The decisive role our government plays has been successfully obscured. (The commissars are taking notes.)

The second piece to Gruson's game of thematic redefinition is the threat to democracy and free expression in El Salvador. According to Gruson, it is "right-wing death-squad activity." Punto. Somewhere between Gruson's investigation and the final article, the overwhelming evidence of Salvadoran Army involvement and U.S. Embassy complicity in violations of freedom of expression was ignored. It is unclear whether Gruson left it out or whether the Times editors took it out; blame cannot be accurately assigned.

The central issue is this: the critical connection between the Salvadoran death-squads and the institutions of power and privilege in El Salvador is obscured. And it is these powers which erode any semblance of freedom of expression in El Salvador. A few examples from the horror chamber will suffice to demonstrate this point.

In July 1989, witnesses reported men in Army uniform on the UCA campus moments before the Jesuit university's publishing house was destroyed by bomb-blast. In November 1989, members of the Army's First Brigade reportedly assassinated Dagoberto Aguirre, editor of the student newspaper at the University of El Salvador.

U.S. Solidarity March
U.S. solidarity delegation prepares to participate in a commemorative march.
Photo by Steve Fuchs

And this year, Christian Science Monitor reporter Chris Norton condemned the U.S. Embassy for falsely listing his name (for the second time since 1988) as responsible for a report critical of the Salvadoran Army. The previous two examples reveal the result Norton feared by being publically listed in El Salvador.

The third piece of the puzzle is the Times' redefinition of free expression. According to Gruson, opposition newspapers are commensurate with free speech. And for those who do not own a newspaper?

On August 8th this year, a small group of labor organizers entered the central market of San Salvador to distribute leaflets and to hang a banner. Sellers in the central market have been hit hard by the austerity measures of the ARENA government. The price of immediate goods such as propane for stoves to cook "fast food" has more than doubled during the first six months of 1990 alone.

The activists hurriedly passed out the leaflets which condemned the Cristiani government for the price hikes. As market sellers and customers eagerly snatched them up and looked them over, two other activists quickly hung a banner which expressed their support for the secondary school teachers in the midst of their own work stoppage.

Within fifteen minutes, soldiers and members of the National Police gathered outside the market and began harassing those who had taken the leaflets. The activists broke into pairs and exitted in different directions to escape capture by the security forces.

Opposition newspapers are necessary but far from sufficient for free expression. The right to distribute (and to read) leaflets, to operate radio stations, to publish union newsletter, to pass out information at work-sites and to organize are left out of the NYT definition of free expression. Having done so, the activities and risk of trade union activists, peasant organizers and students - the gritty trenches of Salvadoran free expression - are filtered out of the article.

The propagandist's main task in a democratic society is to frame the terms of debate in such that the central issue is obscured. The task accomplished, permissible debate (between Democrats and Republicans) can then be proceed without harm to the institutions of power and privilege. The task of overturning this dynamic may prove to be decisive in the struggle for an open and just society.

As we go to press

As Polemicist goes to press this week the following information comes to us from sources in El Salvador. One spokeswoman for the urban commandos of the FMLN in San Salvador noted in conjunction with this latest information that the prospects for a cease-fire in 1990 "look grim." She added, "the necessity of further military pressure on the [Salvadoran] Army increases each day."

In the provincial capitals of Santa Ana and San Vicente, over 75 political prisoners were beaten during the early morning hours of August 21st by soldiers of the Salvadoran Army. The Committee of Political Prisoners of El Salvador (COPPES) reported that afterwards, the 75 were removed from the facilities in the two cities and not all have been accounted for.

The same day, in the town of Guarjila in the northern province of Chalatenango, two Jesuit priests were shot at by snipers after the Salvadoran Armed Forces had begun five days of military operations in the area. Father Jon Cortina, ex-professor at the Central American University (UCA) in San Salvador and friend to the six Jesuits murdered there in November 1989 as well as Father Nicolas Alvarenga, escaped unharmed in the attack. Residents of the town of Guarjila charged the Army with bombing fields and buildings belonging to the town during the five days leading up the attack against the two Jesuits.

In a move that bodes ill for civilian participation in later rounds of negotiations, the Salvadoran government of ARENA president, Alfredo Cristiani, rejected requests by the Permanent Committee of the National Debate for Peace in El Salvador (CPDN) to participate in the negotations process, according to CPDN leader and Baptist minister, Reverend Edgar Palacios.

In the past months, representatives of the CPDN carried on conversations with both the government negotiators and the rebel negotiating team at Mexico and at San Jose, Costa Rica. The CPDN represents over 70 organizations working for peace in El Salvador. Their combined membership is estimated at 1.5 million.