issue 204 - February 1990
Repressive laws enacted in El Salvador
'Please find attached information on recent disappearances - urgent protest action required', read a recent fax message to the London-based El Salvador Committee for Human Rights. The fax contained details of the arrest of a Salvadorean Anglican Church leader and three other church workers; four of the hundreds of Salvadoreans illegally detained by the new far-right Republican Nationalist (ARENA) government since the FMLN guerilla offensive in November last year.
International human-rights organizations rely on such messages for accurate and up-to-date information. But under a new law passed in November, sending such information out of the country has become a crime punishable by five to ten years' imprisonment.
'A project of repression' were the words used to describe the legislation by Segundo Montes, director of the Human Rights Institute of the Central American University. Montes was one of the six Jesuits tortured and killed by uniformed soldiers on November 16. Their deaths have been followed by the murder of several unarmed opposition activists, raids on the offices of human-rights organizations and death threats broadcast by radio. Several opposition leaders have been forced into hiding and exile, including Lutheran Bishop Medardo Gomez.
The 'anti-terrorist' law prohibits peaceful demonstrations and the creation, distribution or even possession of 'propaganda that subverts public order'. There are tough penalties for those whose actions abroad could motivate other countries. to intervene in the internal matters' of El Salvador. Supposedly designed to curb guerilla activities, the laws have been interpreted as a thinly disguised attempt to muzzle the press and crack down on unarmed opposition to the ARENA government. 'This is the first step to close all political space,' commented auxiliary bishop Rosa Chavez of San Salvador in a recent homily.
The new law is not the only measure that the Government has taken to block the flow of information coming out of El Salvador. All TV and radio stations have been forbidden to broadcast news of rebel actions or any other military or political matter. One programme announced that it could no longer operate because of government censorship. At least 30 foreign relief workers, many of whom have provided an invaluable service in monitoring human-rights abuses, have been expelled from the country. The human-rights group Americas Watch has stated that their expulsion 'poses a grave threat to continued human-rights monitoring and documentation at a time when abuses are on the rise'.
Ordeal by ferry
Danger for Dar es Salaam commuters
It was a fine, bright Friday dawn in Dar es Salaam. The birds had begun to chirp from the mango trees that dot the Kigamboni area. My wife Juliana woke early. Theopister, my elder daughter, made the tea while younger daughter Rose swept outside the house. Four other children were still in bed. I showered, ironed and slid into my clothes, drank the tea, picked up some documents and cash and set out for Feri, to cross the 200-metre entrance to Dar es Salaam in a small fishing boat.
The boat could handle 25 people comfortably, but there were well over 50 and you could hardly move. Under our feet were about ten 50-kilo bags of fresh potatoes, tomatoes and fish.
As we were about to depart I craned my neck and saw the Panama-registered Cosmobil Ace looming. The operator of the 25 horse-power outboard engine had it running all right, but it was almost out of petrol.
Twenty metres from the other side the engine stopped. The current took charge, turned the boat and took it into the ship's course. Passengers stood on their toes as if ready to jump out. Then the ship honked. Everyone rushed for nowhere. The boat careened and we all went into the sea - bikes, baskets and loose timber on top of us.
The Cosmobil Ace was heading straight at me. The tricky current played games. It drew me to the ship, slamming me against its side. I pushed the ship with my left hand, but its surface was slippery. After two more pushes I realised I could not get away.
Then a new thought crossed my mind. The rotating propeller could reduce me to mincemeat. But the propeller was not running. The water behind was carpet-smooth.
I saw a sea of terrified heads bobbing in the water. Beautifully pleated heads, small heads, bald heads, blind heads, and dying heads. Among the passengers were three blind people on their way to beg in the streets. They swam hopelessly, all following the current towards the open sea.
I saw our boat again, upside down, five people clinging to it, their legs trailing in the water. The men on the top seemed to bask unworried while the rest of us struggled for life.
A tiny fishing boat came around and two men pulled me out of the sea.
I fainted and came to in hospital about four days later. Nine people died that Friday morning - including two schoolgirls and a child. Life continues, but the Kigamboni creek remains a death trap.
Sosthenes Paulo Mwita / Gemini
The terror remains
After Tiananmen Square
'We can talk about most things but not politics', said a Chinese student friend. That just about sums up the situation in the atmosphere of fear and suspicion that is abroad in the wake of the Tiananmen massacre. A cloud has descended over the country as Government reprisals continue, although they now receive less publicity in the West than immediately after the military crackdown of June 1989.
The mass arrests of pro-democracy activists appear to have subsided but police sirens can often be heard in the capital as more 'suspects' are picked up. Thousands languish in prisons for their part in demonstrations and signing petitions which called for more openness in Chinese society. Estimates put the numbers executed at over a hundred but it could be a lot more. The true figure may never be known. Many have received long sentences of hard labour in 're-education' institutions for daring to speak out against oppression and corruption.
In the capital, establishments where there was intense pro-democracy activity, such as the prestigious Beijing University, have found departments closed down and staff suspended. Their future conduct will be closely monitored.
The new academic year of 1989 saw the numbers of fresh enrolments slashed by the authorities in an effort to stem the tide of youthful opposition. Plans to modernize China by the year 2000 now appear unattainable, as does the stated desire to keep the 'open door' policy intact.
The feeling on the ground, however, is that most people are merely going along with the 'big lie', only superficially accepting the official version of events on that tragic weekend in June. This is what the authorities fear. They remain vigilant over a people they can no longer claim to rule legitimately with a 'mandate of heaven'. Deng's death, always an imminent possibility, may be the trigger to spark off more protests and calls for political change.
Liberation struggle continues
Photo: the authors
Hopes for a peaceful solution to the 16-year Western Saharan conflict were shattered in October 1989. The Polisario Front launched two major attacks on the defensive wall which Morocco has built across the desert and there were several hundred deaths. After nine months of relative calm, the renewed outbreak of fighting was caused by King Hassan of Morocco's refusal to hold further talks with Polisario, who have been fighting for an independent Western Sahara since 1973.
When Spain ceded its former colony to Morocco and Mauritania in 1975, a large proportion of the indigenous Sahrawis, whose right to self-determination had been flouted, fled to the Tindouf region of Algeria. It is from here that the Sahrawis' national liberation movement, Polisario, have been waging their war against the Moroccan invaders. There are now over 160,000 refugees, with their own government, the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR).
Over the past 14 years, under the progressive administration of the SADR and with substantial aid from Algeria, the refugee camps have evolved from a chaotic cluster of makeshift tents into a well organized 'state in exile'. Irrigated vegetable gardens bloom in the desert and small-scale factories produce and repair textiles, timber products and electrical and mechanical goods. Health care has improved dramatically with an extensive network of hospitals, nutrition centres and trained Sahrawi doctors. The efficiency of the educational system has provided the Sahrawis with one of the highest literacy rates in Africa.
By 1979 Polisario had forced Mauritania to withdraw its claims to the Western Sahara but this only led to Morocco extending its occupation over the entire territory. Following Morocco's construction of a continually expanding system of defensive walls, equipped with mines, sophisticated detection systems and up to 150,000 troops, the war has reached a stalemate. While continuing its 'war of attrition', Polisario has been concentrating its energies on the diplomatic front: 73 states now recognize the SADR and both the UN and the Organization of African Unity are pressing for a referendum as the only just means of determining the Sahrawis' future.
Thomas Llewellyn and George Theodore.
Two reports call for change
The dramatic events in Europe offer a unique opportunity to cut the vast amounts currently spent by the world every year on arms. But the arms industry is exerting pressure to increase arms expenditure because of the uncertainties of what experts are now calling a 'multipolar world'. Efforts are being made to redirect surplus production in Europe, which trade union estimates put at 40 per cent of the total, to developing countries.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Yearbook for 1989 shows that a fall in military expenditure in 1988 did not bring a corresponding decrease in the militarization of the Third World¹. Arms sales to the Middle East declined, but South East Asia increased its share of Third World sales from 12 per cent in 1984 to 22 percent an 1988.
The debt crisis means that public expenditure in many Third World countries is being cut. But if defence budgets are cut discontent may grow in the armed forces - particularly if cuts in housing, health and education result in popular unrest.
Meanwhile, the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute sees the present levels of military spending and research in rich and poor countries as a major threat to the environment². While militarization weakens a country's economy, Worldwatch argues, environmental security could come to form the basis for co-operation between nations. Defence/environment swaps should be added the debt/environment swaps.
For the first time in 40 years, there is the prospect of a complete rethink on defence and the chance to redirect resources to development. This will require Western politicians to grasp a new vision, as their Eastern European counterparts seem to have been able to do.
Geoffrey Tansey / Gemini
1 SIPRI Yearbook 1989: World Armaments and Disarmament (OUP, UK price £37.50).
2 National Security: The Economic and Environmental Dimensions, by Michael Renner, Worldwatch Paper 69 (published by Worldwatch institute, 1776 Massachusetts Avenue, NW., Washington Dc, 20036, US, $4.00)
This article is from
the February 1990 issue
of New Internationalist.
- Discover unique global perspectives
- Support cutting-edge independent media
- Magazine delivered to your door or inbox
- Digital archive of over 500 issues
- Fund in-depth, high quality journalism