I was told this summer by both Alvaro Magaña and Guillermo Ungo that although each of course knew the other they were of “different generations.” Magaña, the president of El Salvador, was fifty-six. Ungo, the leader of the opposition coalition, was fifty-one. Five years is a generation in El Salvador, it being a place in which not only the rest of the world but time itself tends to contract to the here and now. History is la matanza, the 1932 “killing,” and then current events, which recede even as they happen: the minister of defense, General José Guillermo García, is widely perceived as a fixture of long standing, an immovable object through several governments and shifts in the national temperament, a survivor. In context he is a survivor, but the context is just three years, since Colonel Majano’s coup of October 15, 1979, which displaced the government of General Romero.

All events earlier than the Majano coup have by now vanished into uncertain memory, and the Majano coup itself is seen as so distant that there is common talk of the next juventud militar, of the cyclical readiness for rebellion of what is always referred to as “the new generation” of young officers. “We think in five-year horizons,” the economic officer at the American embassy told me one day. “Anything beyond that is evolution.” He was talking about not having what he called “the luxury of the long view,” but there is a real sense in which the five-year horizons of the American embassy constitute the longest view taken in El Salvador, either forward or back.

One reason no one looks back is that the view could only dispirit: this is a national history peculiarly resistant to heroic interpretation. There is no libertador to particularly remember. Public statues in San Salvador tend toward representations of abstracts, the Winged Liberty downtown, the Salvador del Mundo at the junction of Avenida Roosevelt and Paseo Escalón and the Santa Tecla highway; the expressionist spirit straining upward, outsized hands thrust toward the sky, at the Monument of the Revolution up by the Hotel Presidente.

If the country’s history as a republic seems devoid of shared purpose or unifying event, a record of insensate ambitions and their accidental consequences, its three centuries as a colony seem blanker still: Spanish colonial life was centered in Colombia and Panama to the south and Guatemala to the north, and Salvador lay between, a neglected frontier of the Captaincy General of Guatemala from 1525 until 1821, the year Guatemala declared its independence from Spain. So attenuated was El Salvador’s sense of itself in its moment of independence that it petitioned the United States for admission to the union as a state. The United States declined.

In fact El Salvador had always been a frontier, even before the Spaniards arrived. The great Mesoamerican cultures penetrated this far south only shallowly. The great South American cultures thrust this far north only sporadically. There is a sense in which the place remains marked by the meanness and discontinuity of all frontier history, by a certain frontier proximity to the cultural zero. Some aspects of the local culture were imposed. Others were borrowed. An instructive moment: at an exhibition of native crafts in Nahuizalco, near Sonsonate, it was explained to me that a traditional native craft was the making of wicker furniture, but that little of this furniture was now seen because it was hard to obtain wicker in the traditional way. I asked what the traditional way of obtaining wicker had been. The traditional way of obtaining wicker, it turned out, had been to import it from Guatemala.

In fact there were a number of other instructive elements about the day I spent in Nahuizalco, a hot Sunday in June. The event for which I had driven down from San Salvador was not merely a craft exhibit but the opening of a festival that would last several days, the sixth annual Feria Artesenal de Nahuizalco, sponsored by the Casa de la Cultura program of the Ministry of Education as part of its effort to encourage indigenous culture. Since public policy in El Salvador has veered unerringly toward the elimination of the indigenous population, this official celebration of its culture seemed an undertaking of some ambiguity, particularly in Nahuizalco: the uprising that led to the 1932 matanza began and ended among the Indian workers on the coffee fincas in this part of the country, and Nahuizalco and the other Indian villages around Sonsonate lost an entire generation to the matanza. By the early 1960s estimates of the remaining Indian population in all of El Salvador ranged only between 4 and 16 percent; the rest of the population was classified as ladino, a cultural rather than an ethnic designation, denoting only hispanization, including both acculturated Indians and mestizos, and rejected by those upperclass members of the population who preferred to emphasize their Spanish ancestry.


Nineteen thirty-two was a year when Indians around Nahuizalco were tied by their thumbs and shot against church walls, shot on the road and left for the dogs, shot and bayoneted into the mass graves they themselves had dug. Indian dress was abandoned by the survivors. Nahuatl, the Indian language, was no longer spoken in public. In many ways race remains the ineffable element at the heart of this particular darkness: even as he conducted the matanza, General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez was dismissed, by many of the very oligatchs whose interests he was protecting by killing Indians, as “the little Indian.”

On this hot Sunday fifty years later the celebrants of Nahuizalco’s indigenous culture would arrange themselves, by noon, into two distinct camps, the ladinos sitting in the shade of the schoolyard, the Indians squatting in the brutal sun outside. In the schoolyard there were trees, and tables, where the Queen of the Fair, who had a wicker crown and European features, sat with the local guardia, each of whom had an automatic weapon, a sidearm, and a bayonet. The guardia drank beer and played with their weapons. The Queen of the Fair studied her oxbloodred fingernails. It took twenty centavos to enter the schoolyard, and a certain cultural confidence.

There had been Indian dances that morning. There had been music. There had been the “blessing of the market”: the statue of San Juan Bautista carried, on a platform trimmed with wilted gladioli, from the church to the market, the school, the homes of the bedridden. To the extent that Catholic mythology has been over four centuries successfully incorporated into local Indian life, this blessing of the market was at least part of the “actual” indigenous culture, but the dances and the music derived from other traditions. There was a Suprema Beer sound truck parked in front of the Casa de la Cultura office on the plaza, and the music that blared all day from its loudspeakers was “Roll Out the Barrel,” “La Cucaracha,” “Everybody Salsa.”

The provenance of the dances was more complicated. They were Indian, but they were less remembered than recreated, and as such derived not from local culture but from a learned idea of local culture, an official imposition made particularly ugly by the cultural impotence of the participants. The women, awkward and uncomfortable in an approximation of native costume, moved with difficulty into the dusty street and performed a listless and unpracticed dance with baskets. Whatever men could be found (mainly little boys and old men, since those young men still alive in places like Nahuizalco try not to be noticed) had been dressed in “warrior” costume: headdresses of crinkled foil, swords of cardboard and wood. Their hair was lank, their walk furtive. Some of them wore sunglasses. The others averted their eyes. Their role in the fair involved stamping and lunging and brandishing their cardboard weapons, a display of warrior machismo, and the extent to which each of them had been unmanned—unmanned not only by history but by a factor less abstract, unmanned by the real weapons in the schoolyard, by the G-3 assault rifles with which the guardia played while they drank beer with the Queen of the Fair—rendered this display deeply obscene.

I had begun before long to despise the day, the dirt, the blazing sun, the pervasive smell of rotting meat, the absence of even the most rudimentary skill in the handicrafts on exhibit (there were sewn items, for example, but they were sewn by machine of sleazy fabric, and the simplest seams were crooked), the brutalizing music from the sound truck, the tedium; had begun most of all to despise the fair itself, which seemed contrived, pernicious, a kind of official opiate, an attempt to re-create or perpetuate a way of life neither economically nor socially viable. There was no pleasure in this day. There was a great deal of joyless milling. There was some shade in the plaza, from trees plastered with ARENA posters, but nowhere to sit. There was a fountain painted bright blue inside, but the dirty water was surrounded by barbed wire, and the sign read SE PROHIBE SENTARSE AQUI, no sitting allowed.

I stood for a while and watched the fountain. I bought a John Deere cap for seven colones and stood in the sun and watched the little ferris wheel, and the merry-go-round, but there seemed to be no children with the money or will to ride them, and after a while I crossed the plaza and went into the church, avoiding the bits of masonry which still fell from the bell tower damaged that week in the earthquake and its aftershocks. In the church a mass baptism was taking place: thirty or forty infants and older babies, and probably a few hundred mothers and grandmothers and aunts and godmothers. The altar was decorated with asters in condensed milk cans. The babies fretted, and several of the mothers produced bags of Fritos to quiet them. A piece of falling masonry bounced off the scaffold in the back of the church, but no one looked back. In this church full of women and babies there were only four men present. The reason for this may have been cultural, or may have had to do with the time and the place, and the G-3s in the schoolyard.


During the week before I flew down to El Salvador a Salvadoran woman who works for my husband and me in Los Angeles gave me repeated instructions about what we must and must not do. We must not go out at night. We must stay off the street whenever possible. We must never ride in buses or taxis, never leave the capital, never imagine that our passports would protect us. We must not even consider the hotel a safe place: people were killed in hotels. She spoke with considerable vehemence, because two of her brothers had been killed in Salvador in August of 1980, in their beds. The throats of both brothers had been slashed. Her father had been cut but stayed alive. Her mother had been beaten. Twelve of her other relatives, aunts and uncles and cousins, had been taken from their houses one night the same August, and their bodies had been found some time later, in a ditch. I assured her that we would remember, we would be careful, we would in fact be so careful that we would probably (trying for a light touch) spend all our time in church.

She became still more agitated, and I realized that I had spoken as a norte-americana: churches had not been to this woman the neutral ground they had been to me. I must remember: Arch-bishop Romero killed saying mass in the chapel of the Divine Providence Hospital in San Salvador. I must remember: more than thirty people killed at Arch-bishop Romero’s funeral in the Metropolitan Cathedral in San Salvador. I must remember: more than twenty people killed before that on the steps of the Metropolitan Cathedral. CBS had filmed it. It had been on television, the bodies jerking, those still alive crawling over the dead as they tried to get out of range. I must understand: the Church was dangerous.

I told her that I understood, that I knew all that, and I did, abstractly, but the specific meaning of the Church she knew eluded me until I was actually there, at the Metropolitan Cathedral in San Salvador, one afternoon when rain sluiced down its corrugated plastic windows and puddled around the supports of the Sony and Phillips billboards near the steps. The effect of the Metropolitan Cathedral is immediate, and entirely literary. This is the cathedral that the late Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero refused to finish, on the premise that the work of the Church took precedence over its display, and the high walls of raw concrete bristle with structural rods, rusting now, staining the concrete, sticking out at wrenched and violent angles. The wiring is exposed. Fluorescent tubes hang askew. The great high alter is backed by warped plyboard. The cross on the altar is of bare incandescent bulbs, but the bulbs, that afternoon, were unlit: there was in fact no light at all on the main altar, no light on the cross, no light on the globe of the world that showed the northern American continent in gray and the southern in white; no light on the dove above the globe, Salvador del Mundo. In this vast brutalist space that was the cathedral, the unlit altar seemed to offer a single ineluctible message: at this time and in this place the light of the world could be construed as out, off, extinguished.

In many ways the Metropolitan Cathedral is an authentic piece of political art, a statement for El Salvador as Guernica was for Spain. It is quite devoid of sentimental relief. There are no decorative or architectural references to familiar parables, in fact no stories at all, not even the Stations of the Cross. On the afternoon I was there the flowers laid on the altar were dead. There were no traces of normal parish activity. The doors were open to the barricaded main steps, and down the steps there was a spill of red paint, lest anyone forget the blood shed there. Here and there on the cheap linoleum inside the cathedral there was what seemed to be actual blood, dried in spots, the kind of spots dropped by a slow hemorrhage, or by a woman who does not know or does not care that she is menstruating.

There were several women in the cathedral during the hour or so I spent there, a young woman with a baby, an older woman in house slippers, a few others, all in black. One of the women walked the aisles as if by compulsion, up and down, across and back, crooning loudly as she walked. Another knelt without moving at the tomb of Arch-bishop Romero in the right transept. LOOR A MONSENOR ROMERO, the crude needlepoint tapestry by the tomb read: “Praise to Monsignor Romero from the Mothers of the Imprisoned, the Disappeared, and the Murdered, the Comité de Madres y Familiares de Presos, Desaparecidos, y Asesinados Politicos de El Salvador.

The tomb itself was covered with offerings and petitions, notes decorated with motifs cut from greeting cards and cartoons. I recall one with figures cut from a Bugs Bunny strip, and another with a pencil drawing of a baby in a crib. The baby in this drawing seemed to be receiving medication or fluid or blood intravenously, through the IV line shown on its wrist. I studied the notes for a while and then went back and looked again at the unlit altar, and at the red paint on the main steps, from which it was possible to see the guardsmen on the balcony of the National Palace hunching back to avoid the rain. Many Salvadorans are offended by the Metropolitan Cathedral, which is as it should be, because the place remains perhaps the only unambiguous political statement in El Salvador, a metaphorical bomb in the ultimate power station.


I had nothing more to do in San Salvador. I had given a lecture on the topic that had occurred to me on the train to Tapachula: Little-known Books by Famous American Authors—Pudd’nhead Wilson, The Devil’s Dictionary, The Wild Palms. I had looked at the university; and no one could explain why there was a mural of Marx, Engels, and Lenin in the university of this right-wing dictatorship.

—Paul Theroux,
The Old Patagonian Express

The university Paul Theroux visited in San Salvador was the National University of El Salvador. This visit (and, given the context, this extraordinary lecture) took place in the late Seventies, a period when the National University was actually open. In 1972 the Molina government had closed it, forcibly, with tanks and artillery and planes, and had kept it closed until 1974. In 1980 the Duarte government again moved troops onto the campus, which then had an enrollment of about 30,000, leaving fifty dead and offices and laboratories systematically smashed. A few classes are now being held in storefronts around San Salvador, but no one other than an occasional reporter has been allowed to enter the campus since the day the troops came in. Those reporters allowed to look have described walls still splashed with the spray-painted slogans left by the students, floors littered with tangled computer tape and with copies of what the National Guardsmen in charge characterize as subversivo pamphlets, for example a reprint of an article on inherited enzyme deficiency from The New England Journal of Medicine.

In some ways the closing of the National University seems another of those Salvadoran situations in which no one comes out well, and everyone is made to bleed a little, not excluding the National Guardsmen left behind to have their ignorance exposed by gringo reporters. The Jesuit university, UCA, or La Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas, is now the most important intellectual force in the country, but the Jesuits have been so widely identified with the left that some local scholars will not attend lectures or seminars held on the UCA campus. (Those Jesuits still in El Salvador have in fact been under a categorical threat of death from the White Warriors’ Union since 1977. The Carter administration forced President Romero to protect the Jesuits, and on the day the killing was to have begun, July 22, 1977, the National Police are said to have sat outside the Jesuit residence in San Salvador on their motorcycles, with UZIs.) In any case UCA can manage an enrollment of only about five thousand. The scientific disciplines, which never had a particularly tenacious hold locally, have largely vanished from Salvadoran life.

Meanwhile many people speak of the National University in the present tense, as if it still existed, or as if its closing were a routine event on some long-term academic calendar. I recall talking one day to a former member of the faculty at the National University, a woman who had not seen her office since the morning she noticed the troops massing outside and left it. She lost her books and her research and the uncompleted manuscript of the book she was then writing, but she described this serenely, and seemed to find no immediate contradiction in losing her work to the ministry of defense and the work she did later with the ministry of education. The campus of the National University is said to be growing over, which is one way contradictions get erased in the tropics.

I was invited one morning to a gathering of Salvadoran writers, a kind of informal coffee hour arranged by the American embassy. For some days there had been a question about where to hold this café literario, since there seemed to be no single location that was not considered off-limits by at least one of the guests, and at one point the ambassador’s residence was put forth as the most neutral setting. On the day before the event it was finally decided that UCA was the more appropriate place (“and just never mind,” as one of the embassy people put it, that some people would not go to UCA), and at ten the next morning we gathered there in a large conference room and drank coffee and talked, at first in platitudes, and then more urgently.

These are some of the sentences spoken to me that morning: “It’s not possible to speak of intellectual life in El Salvador. Every day we lose more. We are regressing constantly. Intellectual life is drying up. You are looking at the intellectual life of El Salvador. Here. In this room. We are the only survivors. Some of the others are out of the country, others are not writing because they are engaged in political activity. Some have been disappeared, many of the teachers have been disappeared. Teaching is very dangerous, if a student misinterprets what a teacher says, then the teacher may be arrested. Some are in exile, the rest are dead. Los muertos, you know? We are the only ones left. There is no one after us, no young ones. It is all over, you know? At noon there was an exchange of books and curricula vitae. The cultural attaché from the embassy said that she, for one, would like to see this café literario close on a hopeful note, and someone provided one: it was a hopeful note that norteamericanos and centroamericanos could have such a meeting. This is what passed for a hopeful note in San Salvador in the summer of 1982.

The ambassador of the United States of America in El Salvador, Deane Hinton, received on his desk every morning during the summer of 1982 a list of the American military personnel in-country that day. The number on this list, I was told, was never to exceed fifty-five. Some days there were as few as thirty-five. If the number got up to fifty-five, and it was thought essential to bring in someone else, then a trade was made: the incoming American was juggled against an outgoing American, one normally stationed in Salvador but shunted down to Panama for as long as necessary to maintain the magic number.

Everything to do with the United States Military Group, or MILGP, was treated by the embassy as a kind of magic, a totemic presence circumscribed by potent taboos. The American A-37Bs presented to El Salvador in June were actually flown up from Panama not by Americans but by Salvadorans trained at the United States Southern Air Command in Panama for this express purpose. American advisers could participate in patrols for training purposes but could not participate in patrols in combat situations. When both CBS and The New York Times, one day in June, reported having seen two or three American advisers in what the reporters construed as a combat situation in Usulután province, Colonel John D. Waghelstein, the MILGP commander, was called back from playing tennis in Panama (his wife had met him in Panama, there being no dependents allowed in El Salvador) in order, as he put it, “to deal with the press.”

I happened to arrive for lunch at the ambassador’s residence just as Colonel Waghelstein reported in from Panama that day, and the two of them, along with the embassy public affairs officer, walked to the far end of the swimming pool to discuss the day’s problem out of my hearing. Colonel Waghelstein is massively built, crew-cut, tight-lipped, and very tanned, almost a cartoon of the American military presence, and the notion that he had come up from Panama to deal with the press was novel and interesting, in that he had made, during his tour in El Salvador, a pretty terse point of not dealing with the press.

Some months later in Los Angeles I saw an NBC documentary in which I noticed the special effort Colonel Waghelstein had made in this case. American advisers had actually been made available to NBC, which in turn adopted a chiding tone toward CBS for the June “advisers in action” story. The total effect was mixed, however, since even as the advisers complained on camera about how “very few people” asked them what they did and about how some reporters “spend all their time with the other side,” the camera angles seemed such that no adviser’s face was distinctly seen. There were other points in this NBC documentary when I thought I recognized a certain official hand, for example the mention of the “sometimes cruel customs” of the Pipil Indians in El Salvador. The custom in question was that of flaying one another alive, a piece of pre-Columbian lore often tendered by embassy people as evidence that from a human-rights point of view, the trend locally is up, or at any rate holding.

Colonel Waghelstein stayed at the ambassador’s that day only long enough for a drink (a Bloody Mary, which he nursed morosely), and, after he left, the ambassador and the public affairs officer and my husband and I sat down to lunch on the covered terrace. We watched a lime-throated bird in the garden. We watched the ambassador’s English sheep dog bound across the lawn at the sound of shots, rifle practice at the Escuela Militar, beyond the wall and down the hill. “Only time we had any quiet up here,” the ambassador said in his high Montana twang, “was when we sent the whole school up to Benning.” The shots rang out again. The sheep dog barked. “Quieto,” the houseman crooned.

I have thought since about this lunch a great deal. The wine was chilled and poured into crystal glasses. The fish was served on porcelain plates that bore the American eagle. The sheep dog and the crystal and the American eagle together had on me a certain anaesthetic effect, temporarily deadening that receptivity to the sinister that afflicts everyone in El Salvador, and I experienced for a moment the official American delusion, the illusion of plausibility, the sense that the American undertaking in El Salvador might turn out to be, from the right angle, in the right light, just another difficult but possible mission in another troubled but possible country.

Deane Hinton is an interesting man. Before he replaced Robert White in San Salvador he had served in Europe, South America, and Africa. He had been married twice, once to an American, who bore him five children before their divorce, and once to a Chilean, who had died not long before, leaving him the stepfather of her five children by an earlier marriage. At the time I met him he had just announced his engagement to a Salvadoran named Patricia de Lopez. Someone who is about to marry a third time, who thinks of himself as the father of ten, and who has spent much of his career in chancy posts—Mombasa, Kinshasa, Santiago, San Salvador—is apt to be someone who believes in the possible.

His predecessor, Robert White, was relieved of the San Salvador embassy in February, 1981, in what White later characterized as a purge, by the new Reagan people, of the State Department’s entire Latin American section. This circumstance made Deane Hinton seem, to many in the United States, the bearer of the administration’s big stick in El Salvador, but what Deane Hinton actually said about El Salvador differs from what Robert White said about El Salvador more in style than in substance. Deane Hinton believes, as Robert White believed, that the situation in El Salvador is bad, terrible, squalid beyond anyone’s power to understand it without experiencing it. Deane Hinton also believes, as Robert White believed to a point, that the situation would be, in the absence of one or another American effort, still worse.

Deane Hinton believes in doing what he can. He had gotten arrests on the deaths of the four American church-women. He had even (“by yelling some more,” he said) gotten the government to announce these arrests, no small accomplishment, since El Salvador is a country in which the “announcement” of an arrest does not necessarily follow the arrest itself. In the case of the murders of Michael Hammer and Mark Pearlman and José Rodolfo Viera at the Sheraton, for example, it was not the government but the American embassy that announced at least two of the various successive arrests, those of the former guardsmen Abel Campos and Rodolfo Orellana Osorio. This embassy “announcement” was reported by the American press on September 15, 1982, and was followed immediately by another announcement: on September 16, 1982, “a police spokesman” in San Salvador announced not the arrest but the “release” of the same suspects, after what was described as a month in custody.

To persist in so distinctly fluid a situation requires a personality of considerable resistance. Deane Hinton was even then working on getting new arrests in the Sheraton murders. He was even then working on getting trials in the murders of the four American women, a trial being another step that does not, in El Salvador, necessarily follow an arrest. There had been progress. There had been the election, a potent symbol for many Americans and perhaps even for some Salvadorans, although the symbolic content of the event showed up rather better in translation than on the scene. “There was some shooting in the morning,” I recall being told by a parish priest about election day in his district, “but it quieted down around nine AM. The army had a truck going around to go out and vote—Tu Voto Es La Solución, you know—so they went out and voted. They wanted that stamp on their identity cards to show they voted. The stamp was the proof of their good will. Whether or not they actually wanted to vote is hard to say. I guess you’d have to say they were more scared of the army than of the guerrillas, so they voted.”

Four months after the fact, in The New York Times Magazine, former ambassador Robert White wrote about the election: “Nothing is more symbolic of our current predicament in El Salvador than the Administration’s bizarre attempt to recast D’Aubuisson in a more favorable light.” Even the fact that the election had resulted in what White called “political disaster” could be presented, with a turn of the mirror, positively: one man’s political disaster could be another’s democratic turbulence, the birth pangs of what Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Enders persisted in calling “nascent democratic Institutions.” “The new Salvadoran democracy,” Enders was saying five months after the election, not long after Justice of the Peace Gonzalo Alonso Garcia, the twentieth prominent Christian Democrat to be kidnapped or killed since the election, had been dragged from his house in San Cayetano Itepeque by fifteen armed men, “is doing what it is supposed to do—bringing a broad spectrum of forces and factions into a functioning democratic system.”

In other words, even the determination to eradicate the opposition could be interpreted as evidence that the model worked. There was still, moreover, a certain obeisance to the land-reform program, the lustrous intricacies of which were understood by so few that almost any interpretation could be construed as possible. “About 207, 207 always applied only to 1979, that is what no one understands,” I had been told by President Magaña when I tried at one point to get straight the actual status of Decree 207, the legislation meant to implement the “Land-to-the-Tiller” program by providing that title to all land farmed by tenants be transferred immediately to those tenants. “There is no one more conservative than a small farmer,” Peter Shiras, a former consultant to the Inter-American Development Bank, had quoted an AID official as saying about 207. “We’re going to be breeding capitalists like rabbits.”

Decree 207 had been the source of considerable confusion and infighting during the weeks preceding my arrival in El Salvador, suspended but not suspended, on and off and on again, but I had not before heard anyone describe it, as President Magaña seemed to be describing it, as a proposition wound up to self-destruct. Did he mean, I asked carefully, that Decree 207, implementing Land-to-the-Tiller, applied only to 1979 because no landowner, in practice, would work against his own interests by allowing tenants on his land after 207 took effect? “Right!” President Magaña had said, as if to a slow student. “Exactly! This is what no one understands. There were no new rental contracts in 1980 or 1981. No one would rent out land under 207, they would have to be crazy to do that.”

What he said was obvious, but out of line with the rhetoric, and this conversation with President Magaña about Land-to-the-Tiller, which I had heard described through the spring as a center-piece of United States policy in El Salvador, had been one of many occasions when the American effort in El Salvador seemed based on auto-suggestion, a dreamwork devised to obscure any intelligence that might trouble the dreamer. I was struck, a few months later, by the suggestion in the report on El Salvador released by the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence of the House of Representatives (US Intelligence Performance in Central America: Achievements and Selected Instances of Concern) that the intelligence was itself a dreamwork, tending to support policy, the report read, “rather than to inform it,” providing “reinforcement more than illumination,” “‘ammunition’ rather than analysis.”

A certain tendency to this kind of dreamwork, to improving upon rather than illuminating the situation, may be inevitable, since the unimproved situation in El Salvador is such that to consider it is to consider moral extinction. “This time they won’t get away with it,” Robert White was reported to have said as he watched the bodies of the four American women dragged from their common grave, but they did, and White was brought home. This is a country that cracks Americans, and Deane Hinton gave the sense of a man determined not to crack. There on the terrace of the official residence on Avenida La Capilla in the San Benito district it was all logical. One step followed another, progress was slow. We were Americans, we would not be demoralized. It was not until late in the lunch, at a point between the salad and the profiteroles, that it occurred to me that we were talking exclusively about the appearances of things, about how the situation might be made to look better, about trying to get the Salvadoran government to “appear” to do what the American government needed done in order to make it “appear” that the American aid was justified.

It was sometimes necessary to stop Roberto D’Aubuisson “on the one-yard line” (Deane Hinton’s phrase about the ARENA attempt to commandeer the presidency) because Roberto D’Aubuisson made a negative appearance in the United States, made things, as Jeremiah O’Leary, the assistant to national security adviser William Clark, had imagined Hinton advising D’Aubuisson after the election, “hard for everybody.” What made a positive appearance in the United States, and things easier for everybody, were elections, and the announcement of arrests in cases involving murdered Americans, and ceremonies in which tractable campesinos were awarded land titles by army officers, and the Treasury Police sat on the platform, and the president came, by helicopter. “Our land reform program,” Leonel Gómez, who had worked with the murdered José Rodolfo Viera in the Salvadoran Institute of Agrarian Transformation, noted in Food Monitor, “gave them an opportunity to build up points for the next US aid grant.” By “them,” Leonel Gómez was referring not to any of his compatriots but to the Americans, to the American Institute for Free Labor Development, to Roy Prosterman, the architect of the Land-to-the-Tiller programs in both El Salvador and Vietnam.

In this light the American effort had a distinctly circular aspect (the aid was the card with which we got the Salvadorans to do it our way, and appearing to get it our way was the card with which the Salvadorans got the aid), and the question of why the effort was being made went unanswered. It was possible to talk about Cuba and Nicaragua, and by extension the Soviet Union, and national security, but this seemed only to justify a momentum already underway: no one could doubt that Cuba and Nicaragua had, at various points and in the context of their limited ability, supported the armed opposition to the Salvadoran government, but neither could anyone be surprised by this, or, in view of what can be known about the history of the players, be unequivocally convinced that American interests lay on one side or another of what even Deane Hinton referred to as a civil war.

It was certainly possible to describe some members of the armed opposition, as Deane Hinton had, as “out-and-out Marxists,” but it was equally possible to describe other members of the opposition, as the embassy had at the inception of the Revolutionary Democratic Front (FDR) in April of 1980, as “a broad-based coalition of moderate and center-left groups.” The right in El Salvador never made this distinction: to the right, anyone in the opposition was a communist, along with most of the American press, the Catholic church, and, as time went by, all Salvadoran citizens not of the right. In other words there remained a certain ambiguity about political terms as they were understood in the United States and in El Salvador, where “left” may mean, in the beginning, only a resistance to seeing one’s family killed or disappeared. That it comes eventually to mean something else may be, to the extent that the United States has supported the increasing polarization in El Salvador, the procrustean bed we made ourselves.

It was a situation in which American interests would seem to have been best served by attempting to isolate the “out-and-out Marxists” while supporting the “broad-based coalition of moderate and center-left groups,” discouraging the one by encouraging the other, co-opting the opposition; but American policy, by accepting the invention of “communism,” as defined by the right in El Salvador, as a demonic element to be opposed at even the most draconic cost, had in fact achieved the reverse. “We believe in gringos,” Hugh Barrera, a ARENA contender for the presidency, told Laurie Becklund of the Los Angeles Times when she asked, in April of 1982, if ARENA did not fear losing American aid by trying to shut the Christian Democrats out of the government. “Congress will not risk losing a whole country over one party. That would be turning against a US ally and encouraging Soviet intervention here. It would not be intelligent.” In other words, “anticommunism” was seen, correctly, as the bait the United States would always take. That we had been drawn, both by a misapprehension of the local rhetoric and by the manipulation of our own rhetorical weaknesses, into a game we did not understand, a play of power in a political tropic alien to us, seemed apparent, and yet there we remained.

In this light all arguments tended to trail off. Pros and cons seemed equally off the point. At the heart of the American effort there was something of the familiar ineffable, as if it were taking place not in El Salvador but in a mirage of El Salvador, the mirage of a society not unlike our own but “sick,” a temporarily fevered republic in which the antibodies of democracy needed only to be encouraged, in which words had stable meanings north and south (“election,” say, and “Marxist”) and in which there existed, waiting to be tapped by our support, some latent good will. A few days before I arrived in El Salvador there appeared in Diario de Hoy a full-page advertisement placed by leaders of the Women’s Crusade for Peace and Work. This advertisement accused the United States, in the person of its ambassador, Deane Hinton, of “blackmailing us with your miserable aid, which only keeps us subjugated in underdevelopment so that powerful countries like yours can continue exploiting our few riches and having us under your boot.” The Women’s Crusade for Peace and Work is an organization of the right, with links to Roberto D’Aubuisson’s ARENA, which may suggest how latent that good will remains.


This “blackmail” motif, and its arresting assumption that trying to keep Salvadorans from killing one another constituted a new and particularly crushing imperialism, began turning up more and more frequently. By October advertisements were appearing in the San Salvador papers alleging that the blackmail was resulting in a “betrayal” of El Salvador by the military, who were seen as “lackeys” of the United States. At a San Salvador Chamber of Commerce meeting in October, Deane Hinton said that “in the first two weeks of this month at least sixty-eight human beings were murdered in El Salvador under circumstances which are familiar to everyone here,” stressed that American aid was dependent on “progress” in this area, and fielded fifty-some written questions, largely hostile, one of which read, “Are you trying to blackmail us?”

I was read this speech over the telephone by an embassy officer, who described it as “the ambassador’s strongest statement yet.” I was puzzled by this, since the ambassador had made most of the same points, at a somewhat lower pitch, in a speech on February 11, 1982; it was hard to discern a substantive advance between, in February, “If there is one issue which could force our Congress to withdraw or seriously reduce its support for El Salvador, it is the issue of human rights,” and, in October: “If not, the United States—in spite of our other interests, in spite of our commitment to the struggle against communism, could be forced to deny assistance to El Salvador.” In fact the speeches seemed almost cyclical, seasonal events keyed to the particular rhythm of the six-month certification process; midway in the certification cycle things appear “bad,” and are then made, at least rhetorically, to appear “better,” “improvement” being the key to certification.

I mentioned the February speech on the telephone, but the embassy officer to whom I was speaking did not see the similarity; this was, he said, a “stronger” statement, and would be “front-page” in both The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. In fact the story did appear on the front pages of both The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, suggesting that every six months the news is born anew in El Salvador.

Whenever I hear someone speak now of one or another solución for El Salvador, I think of particular Americans who have spent time there, each in his or her own way inexorably altered by the fact of having been in a certain place at a certain time. Some of these Americans have since moved on and others remain in Salvador, but like survivors of a common natural disaster, they are equally marked by the place.

A United States embassy officer in San Salvador:

There are a lot of options that aren’t playable. We could come in militarily and shape the place up. That’s an option, but it’s not playable, because of public opinion. If it weren’t for public opinion, however, El Salvador would be the ideal laboratory for a full-scale military operation. It’s small. It’s self-contained. There are hemispheric cultural similarities.

The same embassy officer:

It’s not as bad as it could be. I was talking to the political-risk people at one of the New York banks and in 1980 they gave El Salvador only a ten percent chance of as much stability in 1982 as we have now. So you see.

An American reporter to whom I had mentioned that I had been trying to see Colonel Salvador Beltrán Luna on the day he died in a helicopter crash:

You would have had the last interview with an obscure Salvadoran.

Ambassador White (from the record of hearings before the Committee on Foreign Relations, US Senate, April 9, 1981, two months after Robert White left San Salvador):

My embassy also sent in several months earlier these captured documents. There is no doubt about the provenance of these documents as they were handed to me directly by Colonel Adolfo Majano, then a member of the junta. They were taken when they captured ex-Major D’Aubuisson and a number of other officers who were conspiring against the Government of El Salvador.

Senator Zorinsky:

…Please continue, Mr. Ambassador.

Ambassador White:

I would be glad to give you copies of these documents for your record. In these documents there are over a hundred names of people who are participating, both within the Salvadoran military as active conspirers against the Government, and also the names of people living in the United States and in Guatemala City who are actively funding the death squads. I gave this document, in Spanish, to three of the most skilled political analysts I know in El Salvador without orienting them in any way. I just asked them to read this and tell me what conclusions they came up with. All three of them came up with the conclusion that there is, within this document, evidence that is compelling, if not 100 percent conclusive, that D’Aubuisson and his group are responsible for the murder of Arch-bishop Romero.

Senator Cranston:

What did you say? Responsible for whose murder?

Ambassador White:

Archbishop Romero….

I suppose I think especially of Robert White, for his is the authentic American voice afflicted by El Salvador: You will find one of the pages with Monday underlined and with quotation marks, he said that April day in 1981 about his documents, which were duly admitted into the record and, as the report of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence later concluded, ignored by the cia; he talked about Operation Pineapple, and blood sugar, and 257 Roberts guns, about addresses in Miami, about Starlight scopes; about documents handed to him directly by Colonel Majano, about compelling if not conclusive evidence of activities that continued to fall upon the ears of his auditors as signals from space, unthinkable, inconceivable, dim impulses from a black hole. In the serene light of Washington that spring day in 1981, two months out of San Salvador, Robert White’s distance from the place was already lengthening: in San Salvador he might have wondered, the final turn of the mirror, what Colonel Majano had to gain by handing him the documents.

That the texture of life in such a situation is essentially untranslatable became clear to me only recently, when I tried to describe to a friend in Los Angeles an incident that occurred some days before I left El Salvador. I had gone with my husband and another American to the San Salvador morgue, which, unlike most morgues in the United States, is easily accessible, through an open door on the ground floor around the back of the court building. We had been too late that morning to see the day’s bodies (there is not much emphasis on embalming in El Salvador, or for that matter on identification, and bodies are dispatched fast for disposal), but the man in charge had opened his log to show us the morning’s entries, seven bodies, all male, none identified, none believed older than twenty-five. Six had been certified dead by arma de fuego, firearms, and the seventh, who had also been shot, of shock. The slab on which the bodies had been received had already been washed down, and water stood on the floor. There were many flies, and an electric fan.

The other American with whom my husband and I had gone to the morgue that morning was a newspaper reporter, and since only seven unidentified bodies bearing evidence of arma de fuego did not in San Salvador in the summer of 1982 constitute a newspaper story worth pursuing, we left. Outside in the parking lot there were a number of wrecked or impounded cars, many of them shot up, upholstery chewed by bullets, windshields shattered, thick pastes of congealed blood on pearlized hoods, but this was also unremarkable, and it was not until we walked back around the building to the reporter’s rented car that each of us began to sense the potentially remarkable.

Surrounding the car were three men in uniform, two on the sidewalk and the third, who was very young, sitting on his motorcycle in such a way as to block our leaving. A second motorcycle had been pulled up directly behind the car, and the space in front was occupied. The three had been joking among themselves, but the laughter stopped as we got into the car. The reporter turned the ignition on, and waited. No one moved. The two men on the sidewalk did not meet our eyes. The boy on the motorcycle stared directly, and caressed the G-3 propped between his thighs. The reporter asked in Spanish if one of the motorcycles could be moved so that we could get out. The men on the sidewalk said nothing, but smiled enigmatically. The boy only continued staring, and began twirling the flash suppressor on the barrel of his G-3.

This was a kind of impasse. It seemed clear that if we tried to leave and scraped either motorcycle the situation would deteriorate. It also seemed clear that if we did not try to leave the situation would deteriorate. I studied my hands. The reporter gunned the motor, forced the car up onto the curb far enough to provide a minimum space in which to maneuver, and managed to back out clean. Nothing more happened, and what did happen had been a common enough kind of incident in El Salvador, a pointless confrontation with aimless authority, but I have heard of no solución that precisely addresses this local vocation for terror.

Any situation can turn to terror. The most ordinary errand can go bad. Among Americans in El Salvador there is an endemic apprehension of danger in the apparently benign. I recall being told by a network anchor man that one night in his hotel room (it was at the time of the election, and because the Camino Real was full he had been put up at the Sheraton) he took the mattress off the bed and shoved it against the window. He happened to have with him several bulletproof vests that he had brought from New York for the camera crew, and before going to the Sheraton lobby he put one on. Managers of American companies in El Salvador (Texas Instruments is still there, and Cargill, and some others) are replaced every several months, and their presence is kept secret. Some companies bury their managers in a number-two or number-three post. American embassy officers are driven in armored and unmarked vans (no eagle, no seal, no CD plates) by Salvadoran drivers and Salvadoran guards, because, I was told, “if someone gets blown away, obviously the State Department would prefer it done by a local security man, then you don’t get headlines saying ‘American Shoots Salvadoran Citizen.”‘ These local security men carry automatic weapons on their laps.

In such a climate the fact of being in El Salvador comes to seem a sentence of indeterminate length, and the prospect of leaving doubtful. On the night before I was due to leave I did not sleep, lay awake and listened to the music drifting up from a party at the Camino Real pool, heard the band play “Malaguena” at 3 and at 4 and again at 5 am, when the party seemed to end and light broke and I could get up. I was picked up to go to the airport that morning by one of the embassy vans, and a few blocks from the hotel I was seized by the conviction that this was not the most direct way to the airport, that this was not an embassy guard sitting in front with the Remington on his lap; that this was someone else. That the van turned out in fact to be the embassy van, detouring into San Benito to pick up an AID official, failed to relax me: once at the airport I sat without moving and averted my eyes from the soldiers patrolling the enemy departure lounges.

When the 9 AM TACA flight to Miami was announced I boarded without looking back, and sat rigid until the plane left the ground. I did not fasten my seat belt. I did not lean back. The plane stopped that morning at Belize, setting down on the runway lined with abandoned pillboxes and rusting camouflaged tanks to pick up what seemed to be every floater on two continents, wildcatters, collectors of information, the fantasts of the hemisphere. Even a team of student missionaries got on at Belize, sallow children from the piney woods of Georgia and Alabama who had been teaching the people of Belize, as the team member who settled down next to me explained, to know Jesus as their personal savior.

He was perhaps twenty, with three hundred years of American hill stock in his features, and as soon as the plane left Belize he began filling out a questionnaire on his experience there, laboriously printing out the phrases, in obedience to God, opportunity to renew commitment, most rewarding part of my experience, most disheartening part. Somewhere over the Keys I asked him what the most disheartening part of his experience had been. The most disheartening part of his experience, he said, had been seeing people leave the Crusade as empty as they came. The most rewarding part of his experience had been renewing his commitment to bring the Good News of Jesus as personal savior to all these different places. The different places to which he was committed to bring the Good News were New Zealand, Iceland, Finland, Colorado, and El Salvador. This was la solución not from Washington or Panama or Mexico but from Belize, and the piney woods of Georgia.

This flight from San Salvador to Belize to Miami took place at the end of June, 1982. In the week that I am completing this report, at the end of October, 1982, the offices in the Hotel Camino Real in San Salvador of the Associated Press, United Press International, United Press International Television News, NBC News, CBS News, and ABC News were raided and searched by members of the El Salvador National Police bearing submachine guns; fifteen leaders of legally recognized political and labor groups opposing the government of El Salvador were disappeared in San Salvador; Deane Hinton said that he was “reasonably certain” that these disappearances had not been conducted under Salvadoran government orders; the Salvadoran ministry of defense announced that eight of the fifteen disappeared citizens were in fact in government custody; and the State Department announced that the Reagan administration believed that it had “turned the corner” in its campaign for political stability in Central America.

(This is the last of three articles on El Salvador.)

This Issue

December 2, 1982