* The Nation
June 15, 2009
Tom Hayden has traveled to El Salvador three times, has written extensively about cross-border street gang issues and, as a California state senator, passed legislation authorizing creation of the first Central American studies program on an American campus, California State Northridge, in 1999. His writings can be found at tomhayden.com. Research, translation and photographic assistance for this article came from Jessica Levy and Jason Cross in San Salvador.
With the election of Mauricio Funes, El Salvador has its first elected progressive government in 188 years.
The woman in the brown pantsuit looked flustered as she ordered pastries, pulling her young daughter by the hand, in the upscale San Salvador restaurant. Recognizing the two Salvadoran journalists I was sitting with, she began describing in rapid English her meeting with Hillary Clinton about women's issues the day before. She kept looking out the window, twice interrupting her Hillary vignette to note that her husband was waiting in the car, impatient. The little girl looked stranded on her mother's hand. Suddenly the husband rushed through the door, gesturing angrily that she should hurry up.
The likely reason for the tension was that just two hours before, this woman, Marisol Argueta, was the foreign minister of El Salvador. The former television journalist Mauricio Funes, candidate of the Farabundo Martí Liberation Front (FMLN), was now the Salvadoran president, the first progressive left government elected in the 188 years since the country's independence, and now Marisol Argueta was on the street.
Back on September 18, 2008, Argueta had spoken to a neoconservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), in Washington, where she was introduced by Roger Noriega, an AEI fellow and former top Bush administration official in Latin America, as "part of a very elite and, unfortunately, very small club; we call them allies."
As evidence of this small elite club at work, Noriega could mention El Salvador's being the first country to join the Central America Free Trade Area (CAFTA), or its basing a secret Forward Operating Location for US counterinsurgency, counter-narcotics, and counterintelligence operations. Noriega, formerly a senior staffer for the late, ferociously conservative Sen. Jesse Helms, chose to celebrate the fact that 300 soldiers in El Salvador's Battalion Cuzcatlan were the only Latin Americans fighting on the American side in Iraq.
Noriega was one of the many conservative hawks who came to power in the Central American wars, which now were ending in progressive political victories for the FMLN and the Sandinistas, and changes in Guatemala and Honduras and across Latin America. Their grip on policy has been a long one, however, and casts a shadow on the future. Current Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, for example, was the CIA official who secretly advised in 1984 that "negotiations only allow communists to further entrench themselves," and that it was time to overthrow the elected Nicaraguan regime, because "the fact is that the Western Hemisphere is the sphere of influence of the United States," and who worried about domestic opposition in the United States. Elliott Abrams, who lobbied heavily for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, once lied to Ted Koppel that "there were no massacres in El Salvador in 1984," and pleaded guilty in 1991 to having withheld facts from Congress in 1986 about the Iran/Contra affair. Admiral John Poindexter, another figure in Iran/Contra, was shaping the shadowy Total Information Awareness program in 2002.
Col. James Steele, who trained the ruthless paramilitaries in Iraq, was the Special Forces officer who fielded the discredited Salvadoran paramilitaries in the 1980s and collaborated with Oliver North to smuggle weapons to the Nicaraguan Contras. Just this week, The Nation published an interview with the current head of the American secret operations command in Iraq, who said he was "very proud of what was done in El Salvador," where he trained their special forces decades ago.
The long list of recycled neocon diplomats and secret warfare specialists from El Salvador to the present justifies historian Greg Grandin's view that Central America has long been "the empire's workshop." Now, as I watched El Salvador's former foreign minister rush off, I waved to her little girl and wondered if the bloody wars finally were coming to an end, in this place where 75,000 to 90,000 people died, today's equivalent of 10 million Americans, the vast majority of them killed at the hands of US-backed security forces, and what the future might hold for the living.
Inauguration Day, June 1
The New York Times account of inauguration day described El Salvador as a pawn in global power politics, not as a democracy emerging from years of interventions, bloodbaths and death squads. The United States, according to the Times's story, is trying "to reclaim influence in Latin America where Iran has made inroads." Hillary Clinton asserted that Iran's influence in the region is "quite disturbing." In her September AEI speech, Arguetas also railed against the spectre of Iranian influence. It took fourteen paragraphs for the Times account of inauguration day to acknowledge that "Iran is not known to have a big presence in El Salvador and it was not represented at Mr. Funes' inauguration."
Instead of seeing El Salvador as a pawn, the Obama administration needs new eyes. Inauguration Day revealed an El Salvador finally becoming itself, a center-left country with a devastating legacy of war, a $1 billion debt, 50 percent of its population making less than two dollars per day, and the reality of 2 million people--fully one-third of its entire population--now living a hybrid identity in the United States and sending back remittances. America, like a violent intruder, wrecked the place, and it will never be the same.
To list El Salvador on the scorecard of Latin American politics today is to reinvent cold war thinking and worse, to practice avoidance about the shameful rise of the US neoconservatives during the Reagan wars in Central America. The Obama adminstration needs to apologize for the past, respect El Salvador's right to self-determination and forgo the repetition of past patterns of low-visibility, high-casualty warfare that began in Central America and continues today across Colombia, Mexico, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In his inaugural speech, President Mauricio Funes said his "reference points" were Lula and Barack Obama, and his spiritual guide the martyred Monsignor -Oscar Romero, at whose monument he paid his respects that morning. In an editorial the following day, El Mundo described him as emblematic of "moderation without extravagant ideologies." Inaugural day passed with notable calm, as had election day on March 15, despite the depth of political fissures in the country. The public expectation seemed to lie in what Funes called "reinventing hope." He promised 100,000 new jobs, an expansion of healthcare, education and housing, an aggressive program of redirecting public subsidies away from privileged interests, and a crackdown on a pervasive culture of institutional corruption. Instead of the mano duro (tough-fisted) repression of any young people with tattoos, there will be a greater emphasis on rehabilitation, jobs and partnership with gang intervention groups such as Homies Unidos. (See "Gato and Alex--No Safe Place," in The Nation, July 10, 2000.) Underlying these policy priorities will be the theme of liberation theology--a special preference for the poor--advocated by Romero and a generation of 1960s theologians.
This will be a huge project of radical reform, endangered by powerful right-wing opposition and hardly helped by policies like CAFTA, whose privatization measures have made the lives of the poor even more precarious. The FMLN, with Funes's support, led a successful street campaign against privatizing health services in 2007, the largest mobilization since the war ended in 1992.
El Salvador will benefit from the progressive continental nationalism sweeping Latin America. Some elites try dividing the continent into a "bad" populist bloc (led by Venezuela) versus a "good" left that collaborates with the US (led by Brazil's Lula). This reductionism places Funes in the ranks of the "good," but the distinction is not so simplistic. In his inaugural remarks, Funes announced his first foreign policy initiative, the recognition of Cuba, to a long standing ovation. He was in Venezuela the previous week, successfully seeking the expansion of Venezuela's discounted oil program from local FMLN municipalities to his new national government.