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Back Yards

Whenever I give a talk about Solidarnosć to a British audience I can be sure that someone will ask: “But what about El Salvador?” Perhaps the Soviet Union has behaved badly in its Central European “back yard,” but has the United States behaved any better in Central America?

This kind of questioning is commonplace in Western Europe today. It is not confined to the peace movement and the left. Caspar Weinberger only narrowly defeated the motion that “there is no moral difference between the foreign policies of the United States and the Soviet Union” at the eminently conservative Oxford Union debating society. 1 It is most intense among younger people, but by no means confined to them. Often it is based on prejudice, unreasoned cultural and historical reactions (especially in West Germany), and, above all, on ignorance. But has it any rational foundation? After five years’ intense and bitter experience of Soviet imperialism in Central and Eastern Europe, I decided earlier this year to see for myself “what about Central America.”

At first glance, the differences were, as I expected, far greater than the similarities. In Central Europe the symbols of Soviet domination are obvious and explicitly political: the propaganda posters proclaiming “Eternal Friendship with the Soviet Union,” the red flags, the gray façades, Pravda-clone newspapers in the kiosks—all the dreary, identical furniture of countless Victory Squares across the Soviet bloc, from Magdeburg to Lublin and Gdansk to Plovdiv. In Salvador there are no such symbols. There are only Shell and Esso gas stations, Coca-Cola advertisements, TV commercials, station wagons, Newsweek in the kiosks. If you talk to the Jesuits in Kraków they will tell you that the root of Central Europe’s problem is the ruthless imposition of the Soviet system and its values. What Poland needs is less Soviet interference. Talk to the Jesuits in San Salvador and they tell you that the United States must impose a humane solution on the country. What El Salvador needs is more American interference, but of a different kind.

During a month’s stay in El Salvador and Nicaragua I nonetheless found—to my surprise—one or two good reasons for Western Europe’s moral questioning. In El Salvador, I peered into the gulf between US rhetoric and reality, while recent US policy toward Nicaragua raises the question at the heart of the United States/Soviet Union comparison: What justifies a superpower’s violating, with force, the sovereignty and self-determination of weaker nations? For the irreducible moral core of our objection to Soviet domination of Central Europe is surely this: that it violates, with force, the sovereignty and self-determination of the nations of Central Europe.

I was in Salvador for the first round of the presidential elections. This election, which I expected to be a redeeming showpiece of American policy in Central America, the vital refutation of any moral equation with Soviet policy in Central Europe, was in fact, for me as for many of my colleagues, a sad and depressing occasion. It was depressing because the election campaign gave free rein to a movement (ARENA) which I have no hesitation in describing as fascist; and because this fascist movement was sustained (and largely run) by the very Americanized business class that US policy has done so much to create. It was depressing to observe the administrative chaos caused by that over-elaborate, American-financed computerized system, and it was depressing to watch so many illiterate people going quite uncomprehendingly through the mysterious ritual of voting—because they had to. But it was depressing, above all, because of the fantastical way in which the whole event was presented by the representatives of the United States.

I don’t know if I should include in this category the American PR lady who greeted me at the Election Press Center, with a smart little display of sample computer printouts, ballot papers, and a clear plastic ballot box. Was the ballot box made in the USA? I asked. No, she replied brightly, some of the plastic was imported from the States, “but the ballot box is made here, MADE IN EL SALVADOR—like the election.” Did she specialize in elections? No, her previous work was in commercial advertising, but she’d just got an offer from the Dominican Republic to sell their election.

But I am thinking particularly of the team of US official observers who flew down on the Saturday afternoon before the election and returned to Washington on Monday morning, pausing only to give a brief, valedictory press conference. I was quite ready for them to give a positive assessment of the election: to say, perhaps, that although an election in a country at war was bound to be a very imperfect affair, and though there had been much egregious administrative confusion, the balloting was as free and fair as could be expected in the circumstances; and if the election could move El Salvador even a small step closer to a peaceful solution, then it must be welcomed. I would have agreed. (And after six months of the elected Duarte government they might point to positive results. Could the Duarte government even have begun peace negotiations without that democratic legitimation?)

That was not what they said, however. Instead, they told us this had been a truly wonderful election: an “uncomplaining, unbegrudging, joyous outpouring,” said House majority leader Jim Wright. The turnout was “far better than we get in the United States”—which proved how much the Salvadorans want democracy. And (observed Wright) the Salvadorans turned out “in their Sunday best.” Surely, said Senator William Roth, this was a “great civics lesson” for North Americans.

I said to myself: How can you cite the large turnout as conclusive evidence of the will to democracy, when voting is compulsory, and the compulsion was obviously backed by the fear of fines or all-too-familiar security force reprisals? How dare you pretend that this election was “a great civics lesson” for the United States, when an estimated 40 percent of Salvadorans are illiterate? What humbug. I have before me as I write a one-cent US stamp which says, “The Ability to Write. A Root of Democracy.” Exactly. And the fact that so many Salvadorans still cannot read or write—and therefore cannot participate fully in the democratic process—is at least partly a result of the uneven and unjustly distributed development promoted by the Alliance for Progress.

With the emetic condescension of these US official observers (“plucky little fellows, turned out in their Sunday best”!), with their mawkish moralism, we have touched a nerve end of European revulsion. Again and again, in Washington discussions of Central America, in the Kissinger Commission report, in every Reagan speech, we find an underlying pair of moral equations: (1) What the United States wants = what “the people” of El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, or wherever, want; and (2) The United States’ political/strategic interest in Central America coincides with its “moral interest.”

Both equations are highly questionable. It is a sound rule to disbelieve anyone who claims to speak for “the people.” The communists in Central Europe do it all the time. I have no idea what “the people” of El Salvador want. I only know what some people I talked to want. For example, the Americanized businessmen who support ARENA want the freedom of free enterprise but not the freedom of political democracy. It is very difficult to say what the peasant majority wants, since the campesinos too often tell you what they think the current local occupying power (army or guerrillas) wants to hear. But they all swear that the first thing they want is an end to the slaughter, as soon as possible, however that may be achieved. Is this the United States’ first interest in El Salvador?

As for the second equation, the very idea that nations have “moral interests” is a strange and suspect one to European ears. Political, strategic, economic, cultural interests—yes; but moral interests? As the Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, Michael Howard, writes (in War and the Liberal Conscience),

The United States…virtually alone among nations, found and to some extent still finds its identity not so much in ethnic community or shared historical experience as in dedication to a value system; and the reiteration of these values, the repeated proclamation of and dedication to the liberal creed, has always been a fundamental element in the cohesion of American society.

So much is this a commonplace of American politics that a very peculiar little paragraph in the Kissinger Commission report goes apparently unnoticed. Listing US interests in the crisis it places one goal first:

To preserve the moral authority of the United States. To be perceived by others as a nation that does what is right because it is right is one of this country’s principal assets.

This exemplifies the dubious amalgamation of the notions of moral duty and national interest. Kissinger et al. do not say “we must do what is right because it is right.” They say “we must be seen to do ‘what is right because it is right’ because it is in our national interest so to be seen.” But if you are doing (or claiming to do) what is right because you think it is in your own interest so to be seen, then you are not doing it because it is right. You are being self-interested, not disinterested; selfish, not selfless; political, not moral. If you pretend otherwise, you are being hypocritical.

In my experience, many Western Europeans object less to the substance of US policy toward Central America than to the moralistic rhetoric in which it is presented. If I had had to defend the Reagan administration’s Salvadoran policy before a European audience during the past year, I would have said something like this: “We are trying to support a democratically elected, civilian Christian Democratic government. We recognize that the overmighty Salvadoran military and security forces have been responsible for many terrible atrocities. We are doing our best to curb them. But you must appreciate that our power over them is not absolute. This policy is very unsatisfactory. But do you have a better one? ‘Power sharing’ is not a realistic possibility in El Salvador today; as it is not in Northern Ireland. Presumably you don’t want us to invade? No, you want us to withdraw. But please consider what would happen then. The most likely result of a precipitate withdrawal from El Salvador (as of a British withdrawal from Northern Ireland) is a blood bath: whether an anticommunist matanza by the army on the 1932 model, or guerrilla terror, or (probably) both.”

I can’t pretend I would be happy with this defense. Why did the Reagan administration do so little to curb the Salvadoran security killers in its first two years in office? Why did it supply them with so many arms in the same period? Doesn’t it realize that militarization is Salvador’s disease, not the cure? To these questions I would have no answer. But my defense would at least be comprehensible in the language of European politics. “Yes,” I would conclude, “our policy is not all good; some of the people it has financed and armed are evil. But politics is the choice of evils. All we claim is that this is the lesser evil.”

  1. 1

    By 271 votes to 232. Last year the same house voted by an overwhelming majority—416 to 187—that it would “fight for Queen and Country.”

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