As any tourist knows, United States imigration law bans an entry visa to any known member of ‘anarchist, communist or terrorist’ organisations or groups which advocate such goals. The latest victim of that ruling, on September 16th, 1983, was Rubén Zamora, one of the principal leaders of El Salvador’s opposition FDR-FMLN coalition, Zamora had been scheduled to address a conference at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and to hold meetings with US Congressmen. There was nothing new in this. For two years, the FDR spokesman has been a familiar figure in Washington, tramping patiently through the corridors of Congress in a sober business suit to plead his case.
His life story could serve as a metaphor for the course of the Salvadoran revolution - first a Jesuit seminarian, then an university lecturer (including a stint teaching politics at Essex University). A firm believer in electoral methods, party politics took him into the Christian Democratic Party, where he blossomed as a close protégé of future president José Napoleón Duarte. From there, he would eventually move to the centre of power, as Minister of the Presidency in the Salvadoran government. That was in October1979, when the Army ditched the dictatorship of General Carlos Humberto Romero, Zamora still believed, as did many other centrist figures, that peaceful reform could yet save El Salvador from the anguish of civil war. He remained in the government until March 1980, when he resigned, days after his brother Mario - also a Christian Democrat and the nation’s Attorney General - was dragged into his bathroom and shot through the head by a right-wing death squad. Mario’s crime (or perhaps in the political culture of Central America ‘heresy’ is a more appropriate word) was to have talked to segments of the Left. For this, he was condemned to death as a communist. Most Salvadorans believed his killing was the consequence of being fingered on television as a traitor by cashiered intelligence officer and death-squad organiser Major Roberto D’Abuisson,
In those five months after the coup, two successive juntas and their cabinets disintegrated, bringing an exodus of Social Democrats and Christian Democrats, Some are now dead; others have thrown their political weight behind the FDR-FMLN opposition, Others still are fighting in the hills with the guerrillas.
Four years later the selling of El Salvador’s regime as ‘centrist’ remains a cornerstone of the Reagan Administration’s Central America policies. In the process we have seen something of the infinite capacity of bureaucrats and ideologues to mutilate language, making a word mean whatever they want it to mean. Terms like ‘moderate’, centre’ and ‘democrat’ have never travelled well from the United States to Central America. These days, Roberto D’Abuisson is president of El Salvador’s Constituent Assembly. Once known to the US Embassy as ‘a pathological killer’, he is now more conveniently rehabilitated as ‘the model democrat’. And Rubén Zamora, the quintessential centrist democrat, is excluded from the United States as a terrorist.
People like Zamora are accustomed to hearing themselves described as extremists and Soviet puppets in their own countries. So too are Guatemalan priests and catechists, small businessmen who defied Somoza in Nicaragua. Honduran trade unionists and human rights workers, All that has changed is that the war of language has come home to where it began - the United States,
The logic of history is straightforward enough. Central America is the backyard. The Central American republics are close to the United States - so close in fact that Defence Secretary Caspar Weinberger declared El Salvador to be ‘on the mainland of the United States’ in one recent address. And they are uncomfortably close to Cuba, that perpetual thorn in the side, which another senior Reagan adviser calls Washington’s biggest foreign policy failure of the 20th century. The five countries are also tiny and weak; balkanised states with poorly developed political institutions. There is no room here for the ambiguity of a Yugoslavia or a Zimbabwe, no such thing as non-alignment; instead, there is only the blanket obsession of anti-communism.
When local societies are subordinated to the demands of geopolitics in this way, the governments which result are likely to be mutants - ‘Death squads with national anthems’ as the New Yorker magazine called them. Assigned by the United States to the frontline of defence of Western Christian civilisation, it is little wonder they deny the domestic roots of their problems and claim carte blanche in dealing with opponents. ‘We are in the middle of a professional war between the United States and Russia,’ declared one rich Guatemalan businessman. ‘No one can any longer contend that there was anything internal about the wars in Nicaragua and El Salvador, and no Guatemalan can say that there is discontent within Guatemala.’
But of course many do and the resulting carnage is quite predictable. As far back as 1971, the Guatemalan military set the tone by gunning down Social Democratic congressman Adolfo Mijango López as he sat in his wheelchair. Having patented the death squad, the military went on to eliminate as communists’ the next generation of centrist political figures - party leaders Alberto Fuentes Mohr and Manuel Colóm Argueta, scores of teachers from the University of San Carlos, promoters of cooperatives in the Indian highlands. Said Colóm Argueta in his last interview, ‘Every single murder is of a key person, . . they are simply the people in each sector or movement who have the capacity to organise the population around a cause.
El Salvador and Somoza’s Nicaragua were not to be outdone, In January 1978 the killing of conservative newspaper editor Pedro Joaquin Chamorro by a Somoza hit-team turned out to be the spark for mass insurrection; in El Salvador, the last four years have seen a numbing litany of murdered Christian Democrat mayors, Roman Catholic Delegates of the Word, an assassinated Archbishop.
Where centrist politicians have died, their parties have been squeezed from power by subtler coercion. Electoral fraud has been the mainstay of the military, denying victory to Christian Democrat-led coalitions in El Salvador (1972) and Guatemala (1974). In their place, the party system allows for two variants, One is the hollow shell, the party as Army-sponsored instrument of personal enrichment and corruption - Guatemala’s PID and El Salvador’s PCN are the prototypes. The other, more frightening, is what passes for legal mass politics in this moral wilderness - the true fascist parties, like Guatemala’s MLN or El Salvador’s ARENA.
Over entire stretches of eastern Guatemala the thugs and gunmen of the MLN hold sway. Their rallying point is the Black Christ of Esquipulas, Guatemala’s most revered Catholic relic. A replica sits, surrounded by dead flowers, in a side chapel of the MLN’s Guatemala City headquarters. On a nearby wall is a mural of the Soviet bear, blood dripping from its jaws as it savages Central America. Above, the warrior monk symbol of the party. ARENA militants, too, like to portray themselves as soldiers for Christ. Prior to the March 1982 elections in El Salvador, party chief D’Abuisson said his only request to the United States was for napalm to wipe out communism in three months.
The US foreign policy dilemma in Central America is largely of its own making; it is trapped by the monster it created. Principally, the anti-communist Right has used terror to crush the centre because its rule is so narrowly based that it cannot tolerate pluralism, But there are other factors too. Anyone who has sat by the poolside in a smart Central American suburb listening to the powerful describe how the Catholic Church and the Christian Democrats are in the pay of Moscow has sensed the sincere passion of ideology - these people actually believe it. Nor are they stupid, though they are easy to caricature, They have the shrewdness of the blackmailer and their war of terror on dissent challenges Washington to make the choice: who will you support when the chips are down? Us or the communists? Under President Reagan, Washington again accepts the starkness of those definitions.
The cemeteries of Guatemala and El Salvador work overtime yet the removal of the political centre is most starkly evident these days in Honduras. In November 1981 Hondurans voted for their first civilian president in a decade in US-sponsdred elections which were vital to Mr. Reagan’s claims that his policies were bolstering democracy. The result is not what Honduran voters expected. ‘Beneath the facade of democracy,’ says Efrain Diaz, the lone Christian Democrat congressman, ‘is the authoritarian reality of the national security state. We have become nothing but a platform for US military operations’
Another moderate alarmed by the trend is Manuel Gamero. the liberal editor of the daily paper Tienipo, who believes that democratic institutions are being destroyed by drowning Honduras’ frail local politics beneath the strategic requirements of the Pentagon. ‘To cast the problems of the country in East-West terms,’ he laments, means branding all dissent against the military, any talk of economic reforms, as communist.’
In its fierce war against dissent, the Honduran Army is building a wide array of new institutions. At the most visible level, there is the greatly enhanced power of the secret police, the DNI. More subtly, the military has sponsored a new grouping of right-wing business leaders called APROR (‘a clearly fascist project,’ says Gamero) and a network of Civil Defence Committees to act as informers to the DNI. ‘The peasants and workers organisations and the university are all infiltrated by communists: says Santiago Gradiz. political governor of the capital of Tegucigalpa. How can they be identified by his informers? ‘Oh, it’s easy’, Gradis says. ‘You can tell a communist by the way he acts, the way he speaks. You don’t need to ask anyone; it’s obvious.’
The body count in Honduras has not yet reached Guatemalan or Salvadoran proportions, but the drift is clear. Centrists are an endangered species. Efrain Diaz dreams of building a centrist coalition to confront the military, but recognises that he has little chance. Already, he says, ‘General Alvarez Martinez, head of the armed forces, has told us that we Christian Democrats are infected with communism. Our people are being beaten up and persecuted.’ Some centrists hold their defiant faith in peaceful change, but increasingly they seem an eccentric, even pathetic breed. Vinicio Cereso, leader of Guatemala’s Christian Democrats, believes the latest coup may open new space for the centre by deepening the crisis of the Right. But surrounding him in his garden in a Guatemala City suburb are three bodyguards with automatic weapons. Already the Army has tried to kill Cerezo three times.
Between a Cerezo and a Zamora the distance may be narrow, but it seems immeasurably deep. Zamora will describe his own odyssey less in terms of a process of radicalisation than as an obligatory change of method if he is ever to see his dream of democracy realised in El Salvador.
For one Salvadoran exile in Mexico City, the reasons for Washington’s ban on Zamora entering the United States are clear enough:
‘They are afraid right now of the American public seeing him speak. If people saw that the opposition position was so reasonable and moderate, it would undermine the propaganda that Reagan is interested in peace and democracy. It would show people that in Central America the centre is with the left.’
Help us produce more like this
Patreon is a platform that enables us to offer more to our readership. With a new podcast, eBooks, tote bags and magazine subscriptions on offer, as well as early access to video and articles, we’re very excited about our Patreon! If you’re not on board yet then check it out here.