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The Central America US Border Blues

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I saw the masked men
Throwing truth into a well.
When I began to weep for it
I found it it everywhere.

-Claudia Lars

I was raised an atheist and remain an atheist, but I came to appreciate Jesus Christ after several trips to Honduras and El Salvador during the Reagan Wars there. In the 1950s, my father tried to go corporate in a suburb outside New York City, where he worked for a pharmaceutical company; to be politically correct, he sent me to Sunday School in the basement of a small Presbyterian church. All I recall from that brief episode was that Jesus was a fellow in sandals and a robe who loved everybody and helped poor people.

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Fast forward to the early 1980s. I ended up in Philadelphia to pursue a masters degree in journalism at Temple University. I taught myself photography in a closet darkroom. Then, I joined a junket to Central America that was deported from Honduras for opposing US intervention there. What I learned from this trip was that my government was on the wrong side of good and evil. The story was, no doubt, very complicated, but this was war where the first casualty was truth and everything becomes a matter of life and death. The fact was, the Reagan administration supported a proxy army based in Honduras that used violence and terror in an effort to overthrow the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. While it did PR at home to clean up unsavory facts for the comfortable American mind and for the corrupt Congress of the time.

I'd never seen the kind of poverty up so close that I witnessed in Central America. In Vietnam, I'd been protected as a member of a huge military invasion/occupation force. Central Americans were trying to retain their dignity under US occupation in Honduras, or, as in El Salvador, they were fighting outright against a ruthless army and murderous paramilitary forces fully supported by my government that was winking, nodding, shifting and jiving so cynically at home anyone who wasn't paying attention (and that included lots of people) could see nothing but a classic struggle against "communism", a misleading label that amounted to a target for acceptable violence. This was the climate in the 1970s when Salvadoran poet Claudia Lars wrote the lines quoted above.

Honduras suffered its latest humiliation under President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. I'll let Dana Frank, a woman who has spent many years in Honduras, tell the story from her recent book, The Long Honduran Night: Resistance, Terror, and the United States in the Aftermath of the Coup.

"On June 28, 2009, at 5:30 in the morning, the Honduran military deposed democratically elected President Jose Manuel Zelaya Rosales, in the first successful Latin American coup in over four decades. "During the weeks that followed, the Obama administration moved swiftly to recognize and then stabilize the post-coup regime. In the face of an international outcry against the coup, the United States helped the perpetrators play out the clock until a previously scheduled election arrived in November, then recognized the outcome of a completely illegitimate electoral process controlled by the coup leaders themselves bringing to power a vicious and corrupt post-coup regime."

Before the coup, it was true, Honduras had been run by corrupt oligarchs. But "the forces of complete corruption remained at bay. "The coup precipitated a rapid downward spiral that cast Hondurans into a maelstrom of repression, violence, and increasing poverty. "The murder rate shot to the world's highest. "In response to their country's devastation, hundreds of thousands of Hondurans fled the country and traveled north in the worst of dangerous circumstances."

The fact is, US complicity with the coup, whether before or after the fact, made a rotten situation much worse.

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It was in the homes of peasants that I met the same kindly Jesus I'd encountered 30 years earlier in Sunday School, a humble, loving human being. Of all people, the tough-guy novelist Norman Mailer wrote a 1997 novel titled The Gospel According to the Son. Jesus is the first-person narrator who says this in the closing lines of the book:

"[W]ho but Satan would wish to tell us that our way should be easy? For love is not the sure path that will take us to our good end, but is instead the reward we receive at the end of the hard road that is our life and the days of our life. So I think often of the hope that is hidden in the faces of the poor. Then from the depth of my sorrow wells up an immutable compassion, and I find the will to live again and rejoice."

Mailer begins his audacious "gospel" by having his Jesus tell us the gospel of Mark "has much exaggeration," while those of Matthew, Luke and John "gave me words I never uttered and described me as gentle when I was pale with rage." Mailer made a career out of being audacious, so why not an equally fictional gospel for our age?

The people I met in El Salvador felt a strong loyalty to the Jesus of Liberation Theology; this is a Jesus who stands in direct opposition to the imperial Jesus familiar to followers of the American fundamentalist right. In a tiny, densely-populated nation like El Salvador, a similar entrenched rightist theology is ingrained in the formal, conservative church of large, ornate cathedrals with priests wearing crinkly, golden vestments and fancy hats; this is a church powerfully linked with the most wealthy and conservative elements of society. In El Salvador, it was "the 14 families," which refers to the oligarchy that controlled El Salvador during the 19th and 20th centuries; it also may have something to do with the 14 regional "departments" the nation is broken into. This oligarchy has been historically closely aligned with the United States and consistently oppressed the poor, taking the most arable land by force and using violence to get its way. Priests told the peasantry that life was about suffering, and if one lived a good, obedient life, one would go to Heaven where there would be no more suffering. Asking for a better life while one was still alive was frowned upon, and if one did raise one's voice, well, there were always the cruel men with guns those "masked men throwing truth into a well" Lars wrote of. According to Wikipedia, "Eight business conglomerates now dominate economic life in El Salvador." They are, of course, linked with powerful forces in North America.

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I'm a 72-year-old American who served in Vietnam as a naive 19-year-old. From that moment on, I've been studying and re-thinking what US counter-insurgency war means. I live outside of Philadelphia, where I'm a writer, photographer and political (more...)

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