* 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.
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.
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.
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.