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US motives in El Salvador were never pure

Column/Barry Klinger

In all the uproar over the recent rebel offensive in El Salvador and the murder of six priests there (apparently by the military), one question is rarely asked: Why are we in El Salvador?

Ten years ago, when civil war broke out in that country and United States involvement rose to unprecedented levels, our nation was being swept with calls for renewing hostilities against the Soviet Union. The success of Soviet-supported movements in Angola and Nicaragua, the fall of the Shah of Iran, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan were pointed to as examples of a tilt in the balance of power towards the Soviet Union. It is debatable that Soviet gains in the 1970s were ever as important as the growth of US ties to China and Egypt, but powerful interests wanted to end the revulsion North Americans felt after Vietnam and congressional revelations of Central Intelligence Agency murder, disinformation, and subversion throughout the world. Ironically, it was the Iranian hostage crisis, which had nothing to do with Soviet-American relations, which persuaded many voters that a "stronger defense" was needed.

Intellectuals were easily found to justify renewed belligerence. The most infamous was Jeane Kirkpatrick, who was awarded a post at the United Nations for her efforts. She argued that the kind of corrupt dictatorships the United States frequently supports sometimes give way to democracies, but once a country becomes communist, it has entered a totalitarian black hole from which it may never escape.

This argument always sounded more convincing than it actually was. Even in 1979, one might find some gaps in the evidence to prove this. Except for Russia, no country became communist before World War II, so the average age of communist regimes was probably around 30 years. Places like El Salvador and Haiti have been military dictatorships far longer, while there were numerous dictatorships -- Somoza, Franco, the Shah -- which had been maintained for decades. Thus it was premature to speak of the permanence of Leninist rule.

Now, an awful lot of cold warriors are scratching their heads as Solidarity takes over in Poland, Hungary's Communist Party dissolves itself and plans open elections, East Germany tears open the Berlin Wall, and the Soviet Union declares unilateral arms reductions.

If communism is a black hole with no escape, perhaps some in El Salvador would feel justified in committing any crime to stop it. Similarly, if the Soviet Union is depicted as an expansionist, belligerent adversary, some in the United States might justify bankrolling crimes in the Third World as necessary defenses against the Enemy.

We can watch the jubilant crowds dancing on the Berlin Wall and fear that their gains are not irreversible. But the chink in the armor of the anti-democratic side of socialism cannot be masked over. And even if reactionaries were to oust Gorbachev, they would have their hands too full at home to threaten the United States for many years. So now that the cold war is being declared over, we no longer have any reason to be fighting in Central America, right?

Not so fast.

In 1916, a year before there even was a Soviet Union, the United States dispatched troops to Nicaragua. We needed to guard against "Mexican Bolshevism." Earlier, US troops killed tens of thousands and confined many more to concentration camps in trying to squash the independence movement in the Philippines. Other examples abound.

In fact, US policy is anti-socialist independent of any perceived Soviet threat. Why not, when business interests control the media and the bulk of political funding? A leftist government in the Third World, if it can stand up to United States economic pressure, might divert profits to the peasants or urban poor of its country. It might set a "bad" example for other countries with valuable minerals or abundant cheap labor by valuing its citizens more than the property rights of its wealthy class. Its leaders might be viscerally anti-United States, having suffered at the hands of US-trained security forces. At the very least, this hypothetical leftist government would represent a slap in the face to free-enterprise ideology and a loss of control for the dominant world power. Rulers used to speak of Central America as "our backyard." Not our "neighbors," but somehow ours to control.

Usually our leaders are not so clumsy to say things like that, so they have to make up other reasons for supporting the Salvadoran regime.

"We have to give them guns and money so we have leverage to pressure them for human rights." They said this after Archbishop Oscar Romero was killed in 1979, and after four American churchwomen were raped and murdered by the Salvadoran National Guard in 1980. And they say that now. But the victims do not appreciate the efforts. They all say "please stop sending weapons from the United States" before they are killed.

"We must bolster the moderates in government against the extremists." Who is an extremist? Roberto D'Aubuisson, founder of the ARENA party, is widely considered a killer and extremist. Salvadoran President Alfredo Cristiani, current head of ARENA, is the latest to be dubbed a "moderate." Who brought Cristiani into the party? D'Aubuisson. D'Aubuisson can order some more priests killed, then send Cristiani to the funeral, thus permanently silencing critics of the government and showing the government's concern for human rights at the same time.

"We are supporting a fledgling democracy." El Salvador has had elections for decades. Whenever political movements without United States or right-wing support threaten to win, their supporters are physically eliminated.

"We have to consider the Japanese." No one has figured out how to use this one yet, but it would be no surprise.

Don't listen to anything Bush or the Congress says in support of money to El Salvador. It's smoke in your eyes. Nothing that happens in El Salvador can hurt the people here. Nothing our government is likely to do in El Salvador can help the people there. Why are we in El Salvador? For no reason we can be proud of. It's time we got out.


Barry Klinger G is a member of the MIT Committee on Central America and has followed events in El Salvador for nine years.

US policy is anti-socialist independent of any perceived Soviet threat.

Rulers used to speak of Central America as "our backyard." Not our "neighbors," but somehow ours to control.