COVER

UNDER THE VOLCANO

El Salvador has always been a bloody; frightened land; now it’s about to erupt

June 15 1981
COVER

UNDER THE VOLCANO

El Salvador has always been a bloody; frightened land; now it’s about to erupt

June 15 1981

UNDER THE VOLCANO

COVER

El Salvador has always been a bloody; frightened land; now it’s about to erupt

Last week, NDP leader Ed Broadbent returned from his 11-day mission to Central America. He had failed, despite a string of in-depth talks with the leaders of Cuba, Nicaragua, Mexico, Venezuela, El Salvador and the Salvadoran rebel forces, to mediate in El Salvador's bloody civil war. In fact, tensions throughout the entire volatile region are escalating, as Maclean’s senior writer Val Ross, who has just returned from a 16-day trip to El Salvador and Nicaragua, reports.

During curfew in El Salvador—from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m., when the military shoots to kill and death squads roam the roads—there is nothing ordinary people can do but stay indoors, wait and listen. In the violence the present government cannot or will not control, at least 20,000 people have been tortured, shot, burnt or literally hacked to meat with machetes. According to the latest reports of the national human rights commission, each morning reveals at least 70 more bodies. So even on peaceful nights, when a bone-white moon splinters light across the smooth Pacific, one sweats as much from watchfulness as from heat.

Waiting for sleep to come to him and his beach house guests, a young Salvadoran listens through the boom of surf for the sound of gunfire. Tonight, nothing happens. His huge dogs sleep; his servants clear away the dinner dishes. Nevertheless, the man keeps his .357 Magnum within reach—even as he throws the sticks of the Chinese prophecy Book of Changes, the I Ching, a pastime he picked up in his university days in the United States. No Salvadoran with anything left to lose lets journalists use his real name. But the young man is real; he once marched for George McGovern and took courses in revolutionary politics. Now revolution has come to his own country. It has divided his wealthy, landowning family and taken his most idealistic friends into the mountains to join the guerrillas. “I can understand why,” he confesses softly. “But there must be an alternative, a saner rate of change.” The hot night’s silence is oppressive; host and guests sit immobile in the darkness. As the same question confronts policy-makers throughout the world, the darkness over El Salvador seems total.

El Salvador: four centuries ago a conquistador whimsically named this resource-poor patch of volcanic jungle “The Savior”—before massacring its native inhabitants. Ever since, it has been a country where landless, illiterate half-breeds have been oppressed by a tiny, ferociously reactionary oligarchy. For the past 50 years of military rule, the five million inhabitants (average yearly income $350) have kept silent their political resentments.

Today, violence in The Savior dwarfs that of Northern Ireland. A missionary from Victoria, B.C., who teaches English in the capital, San Salvador, says: “You get hardened to the deaths. Last weekend my sevenand 11-yearolds reported two bodies lying at the end of the block. I don’t react as I used to.” So many of the deaths seem gratuitous, casualties of the sheer exercise of power: amid the flyblown shanties of La Bermuda refugee camp 30 km northeast of the capital, Maria Hernandez Serano shows reporters a treasured photo of her son Benjamin, who was |taken away by the >army last January for ghis “subversive” activities as a sacristan in £the village church. Up to 80 per cent of such murders have been attributed to right-wing elements in the all-powerful armed forces and to hooded, plainclothes men riding pickup trucks—self-appointed death squads which the oligarchy supports and for which the military moonlights. When Monique Gauthier, a Canadian organizing oyster fishermen, was picked up by hooded men earlier this year, she was finally permitted to remove her blindfold in a National Guard station. A nervous captain told her: “We picked you up for your own protection. You should leave the country.” Gauthier did.

There has always been violence in this bloody, frightened land, but now it is political, part and parcel of the class war that currently divides the country and threatens world peace. At present, 5,000 leftist guerrillas control more than half the northern provinces of Morazán, Cabañas and Chalatenango. They are dug into 2 Vè-metre deep mortar-proof trenches on the slopes of the volcanoes. Right now, the rainy season is on their side, obscuring helicopter searches and the army’s bombing runs. Well-armed against them—by the U.S. government which says it is fighting “Soviet-equipped” terrorism—are the armed forces of a shaky coalition of hard-line and reform-minded military with a few genuine centrist democrat civilians patched on, at U.S. insistence, as decoration. Much American effort must be spent keeping the junta together, for the military is known to have shot progressive members of its own government, such as Rudolfo Viera, head of the land reform program, who was gunned down last January. The battalions of this unstable government seldom stay in one posting longer than a month; one constantly sees them being trucked about the countryside. It’s a poor way to run a war, but army command is terrified lest another garrison defect to the left (as Santa Ana’s did at the beginning of the year) or participate in the ultra-right military’s threatened coup d’état. Despite their unpredictable loyalties, government troops are wellequipped with new M-16 rifles and field mortars and outnumber the guerrillas three to one. The civil war promises to be a long and costly standoff.

And the hope for a “saner alternative”—a peaceful political solution— has never seemed more remote. Late last month, NDP leader Ed Broadbent, in his capacity as vice-president of the Socialist International (Si), took the Si’s offer to mediate to El Salvador’s president, José Napoléon Duarte. Broadbent told reporters that the meeting “couldn’t have been better.” The following day the government officially quashed the Si’s initiative, as it had those of the Roman Catholic Church, Mexico and West Germany, and reiterated that “elections remain the most adequate political solution.” That’s questionable: the head of the national election commission, Jorge Bustamante, has publicly stated that under martial law and violence, elections would be “a farce.” Then, last week, the U.S. Embassy admitted that it had barely restrained the National Guard from ransacking the new office of the country’s centrist political party, the Christian Democrats—Duarte’s own. All things considered, perhaps the young man on the beach is right to predict El Salvador’s future in consultation with the I Ching.

The country’s divisions seem unbridgeable. Many who once believed in the possibilities of moderate change have been utterly disillusioned. Last May, a widely published open letter to junta member Dr. José Antonio Morales Ehrlich from his son accused him of abandoning his personal principles. The son, José Morales Carbonell, announced that he was joining the guerrillas. Captured last June, he is now held in the crumbling citadel of Santa Tecla. The prison is filthy, its cracked blue plaster splattered with red-painted slogans. Morales Carbonell welcomes visitors with a question: “If this government is centrist, where are all the rightwing political prisoners?” His prison mates include Hector Recinos, leader of the country’s largest group of trade unions, held for 10 months without trial; Rafael Carias, a primary school teacher active in the teachers’ union; and Francesco Quesada, a Costa Rican journalist imprisoned for making contacts with the left.

The comments of these four as they gather round a rickety table in Santa Tecla’s sunbaked courtyard show how current repression has only hardened the opposition. Carias, showing reporters the hideous acid scars on his chest and thighs he received after a torture session with the army, says his “revolutionary beliefs” have kept him from going mad with the pain. The journalist, Quesada, recalls how peasants in the San Vincente region resisted the army with bare hands and sticks. Then the lanky, bearded young Morales Carbonell states flatly: “The Christian Democrats excuse all the dead by saying there’d be more if they weren’t in the junta. I say they are opportunists, and a tool of American imperialism.”

There have always been deep divisions in Salvadoran society, but once such revolutionary passions were as dormant as the country’s green volcanoes. A decade ago the Salvadoran left consisted of a few aging Moscow-liners who squabbled with a handful of nationalistic students. Rapid industrialization changed that; the landless campesinos of El Salvador’s 16th-century agricultural economy were catapulted into the 20th century. The once reactionary Catholic Church was another catalyst. In the late 1960s, young priests, inspired by the “liberation theology” sweeping Latin America, began to form the stoic, hope-dulled campesinos into agricultural co-ops. They put readers in their hands and quoted Marx from the village pulpits. Deeply alarmed, the oligarchy and the military conspired to consolidate their grip on the country. The army organized ORDEN (a network of rural spies and death squads) and defrauded three presidential elections in a row. Dr. Fabio Castillo, rector of the national university (see box, page 24), was deprived of his victory in 1967. After the 1972 fraud, Castillo, together with the new president elect, José Napoléon Duarte, and his running mate, law professor Guillermo Ungo, were forced to flee. In 1977, death squads announced they were going to liquidate all the Jesuits in the country; since then the right has killed 11 priests, three U.S. nuns, the archbishop of San Salvador and untold numbers of people who were simply good Catholic congregants.

What brought the U.S. more sharply into this chaotic picture was an event in neighboring Nicaragua: the July, 1979, overthrow of dictator Anastasio Somoza. The shock waves rumbling through Central America emboldened the left, drove the right to ever more desperate defence and galvanized Washington. U.S. aid to El Salvador increased by 400 per cent, and the order came down: counteract another revolution; reform fast. A group of progressive young Salvadoran army officers got the message. On Oct. 15, 1979, led by a chess champion, Col. Adolfo Majano, they overthrew the military dictator and formed a junta promising sweeping reforms. There was champagne at the U.S. Embassy that night. But hopes for a smoother future were short-lived.

El Salvador’s present government is that “reform” junta, more or less. Founding members such as Majano have fled, to be replaced by equally expendable reformers such as two former mayors of San Salvador, Duarte and Morales Ehrlich. By pushing for proAmerican army officers in the junta, the U.S. takes much of the blame for the government’s instability. It has also foisted the same land reform scheme on the junta with which it once tried—and failed—to win the loyalty of South Vietnam’s peasants. As with other U.S. policies, land reform has only exacerbated violence. And even on estates where there has been no violence, such as Pasatiempo, a lush dairy and coffee farm west of San Salvador, land reform benefits are questioned by the 1,250 new landowners. Serafino Melendes, co-op president, worries that low world coffee prices mean the co-op won’t be able to repay its government loan this year without borrowing from the bank. Squinting at the waiting, shimmering fields from under the brim of his sombrero, he muses, “There’s no material improvement in our lives so far—just more responsibility.”

The left, too, bears blame for destroying the junta’s faint glimmer of reform. After the 1979 coup, guerrillas sabotaged the government’s land reform by burning crops and killing “coopted” campesinos. Kidnappings redoubled and bomb attacks still occur, reliably, each evening in the capital. Other factions in the left did try dialogue. Last November, six leaders of the broad opposition coalition, the Frente Democrático Revolucionario (FDR) held a press conference in San Salvador. Suddenly armed men entered the conference and abducted the six. Their tortured bodies were found hours later. With no other options, even moderates in the FDR called for a general strike to coincide with last January’s “final offensive.”

Both strike and offensive appear to have fizzled. The Ronald Reagan administration has eagerly pounced on this as proof that the Salvadoran people do not back the FDR. In point of fact, however, the strike was successful enough under the circumstances. More than 10 per cent of the labor force walked out despite death threats and the imprisonment of their leaders. The guerrilla offensive, while not “final,” did mark the first time the various factions of the left co-operated in combat. Government forces would have been exhausted by February, a colonel confessed to a British reporter, if not for American aid.

The U.S. has always interfered in its Central American “backyard.” Currently, the U.S. pursues a policy of economic strangulation against Marxist regimes in Nicaragua and Cuba, while offering massive doses of military aid— the Pentagon has requested more than $100 million all told—for the “friendly” governments in El Salvador, Honduras and oil-rich Guatemala (whose reputation for government-backed torture rivals that of El Salvador).

The buildup has only destabilized the region further. Gunfire echoes daily along the Nicaragua-Honduras border as right-wing Somocistas make raiding forays into their former homeland under the implicit protection of the Honduran army. Nicaragua has had to respond with its own military buildup. Its army is already twice the size of war-torn El Salvador’s, and growing. Unverified U.S. intelligence reports speak of the recent arrival of Soviet tanks. In the Nicaraguan capital of Managua late last month, this reporter met 12 Russian pilots whom a source in contact with the Soviet Embassy identified as air force trainers. America’s cry of Russian Wolf is finally starting to come true.

In El Salvador, the U.S. is bogged down in an unwinnable civil war. Fiftysix U.S. advisers are training the army to use $25 million worth of new equipment. As long as the U.S. remains El Salvador’s principal source of arms, it pressures the country’s real rulers, the military, to keep up the hypocrisy of centrist appearances. But despite its military commitment, U.S. leverage is weakening. Late in May two junta strongmen, Col. Jaime Abdul Gutiérrez and National Guard Commander Eugenio Vides Casanova went to South America seeking more arms with fewer human rights conditions.

The net effect of this war is that more than one Salvadoran in 15 is now a refugee. They huddle in sunbaked camps which are periodically raided by the army searching for suspected subversives. The country’s once proud economy—Central America’s most industrialized—is in a shambles; the region’s most productive work force cannot find work. In a square near the cathedral of San Salvador, a hundred unemployed men cluster around reporters to air their grief. “We want work—we are guanacos” (the national nickname meaning “beast of burden”). An out-ofwork TV salesman pleads, “Tell Reagan we need rice and beans, not bullets.”

Assuming that the loyalties of men like these will ultimately go to whichever political system offers them food and work, the Reagan administration has just committed a whopping $1 billion in aid for the entire Central American region. But in an atmosphere of increasing violence and insurrection that may be money down the drain. There is no better symbol of American policy failure to bridge El Salvador’s divisions than its own embassy in downtown San Salvador. The building has sustained seven rocket and machinegun attacks so far this year—by both the left and the right. Marines patrol the exterior in front of a new, threemetre-high wall of fresh concrete; sandbags obscure the shattered windows of upper floors. Inside, one sees bullet-riddled furniture, scorch marks, ceilings blown away. Yet deep within the bunker, policy-makers persist in dreaming of elections, due legal prosecution of murderers, economic miracles, sane alternatives.

While they dream, nightmares come true for the Salvadoran people: for Maria Hernandez Serano, waiting in fear at La Bermuda refugee camp for the arrival of another army raiding party; for the wealthy young Salvadoran, studying oriental mysticism at his beach house “to prepare for my own death”; for Dr. José Antonio Morales Ehrlich, the junta member responsible for land reform, powerless and disowned by his guerrilla son. As families are divided, as people throughout Central America pick up guns and take sides, El Salvador exists under a wakening volcano.