Cover photo: Mass for slain Revolutionary Democratic Front (FDR) leaders, Metropolitan Cathedral, San Salvador. December 3, 1980. Photo from the book El Salvador, published by Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative, 1983.
By Mario R. Loarca Pineda[The author worked for several years with the American Friends Service Committee’s Peace and Human Rights Education Program. AFSC was a Quaker organization based in Philadelphia that had offices in Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia, and other nations. He was the only Central American member of the Ecumenical Task Group.]
When the plane took off I gazed down on Tehran from the air, and after the desert, it seemed to me as if all this had been a dream; and that in an exotic country, once called Persia and dreamt of by Ruben Dario, I had dreamt of the triumph of the Nicaraguan revolution.
Ernesto Cardenal, The Lost Revolution, A Memoir.
I flew from Mexico City to San Salvador in a TWA DC10 that had started its journey in Los Angeles. I was anxious, like someone readying themselves for a secret mission steeped in danger. Distressed, I tried to distract myself by looking out the small passenger window at a November afternoon’s blue sky. For a curious passenger, I came up with the excuse that I was traveling to deal with family matters. I arrived before 6 pm and a little later a TACA vessel arrived from Miami that carried a group of Americans, the Ecumenical Task Group (ETG) led by Phil, our expert director and inexhaustible cheerleader.
We met in customs and after we greeted each other I made my way to the exit where a great friend of mine from those days was waiting for me: Alberto Idiákez, then a professor-in-training at the famous Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas, a Jesuit university that since the 70s combined academic rigor with social conscience and political analysis. (For this work, in November 1989, six prominent Jesuit faculty were murdered by the military in their university residences.) On the way from the airport to the capital approximately 40 kilometers away, Idiákez recounted the details of a horrific crime committed against a group of American nuns, about the subsequent reactions and about the pressure from the U.S. ambassador to clarify the case. He also revealed, without going into detail, that the FMLN’s final offensive against the regime was planned for the first half of January of the promising year to come, 1981. [FMLN – the umbrella group for Salvadoran leftist guerrilla organizations.]
We behaved as though an important strategic task depended on us, a pair of modest Christian collaborators of the revolution. We were riding in a VW van, preparing for some military checkpoint, listening to the crickets’ song the whole length of the highway, formulating “logical” responses in case of interrogation.
Nothing out of the ordinary happened, and as part of the ETG, I was lodged at the American Guest House, very close to Arce street and the popular Temple of the Sacred Heart in the heart of the city; a suitable spot for adventurers, reporters and backpackers. Phil, the director of the group, had chosen it because it was discreet and cheap, “so we can go undetected, since they’ll think we’re just hippies.”
The trip had a special significance for me because for two years I had been involved in humanitarian and media work, like assisting refugees and reporting on massacres, that had benefitted the FMLN. A couple of “contacts,” individuals with pseudonyms, were “advising” me. They already had me overwhelmed with their messianic discourse about the revolution.
The ETG’s mission was to get a feel for the atmosphere in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and Puerto Rico, and weigh the effects of US foreign policy in the region. Was the U.S. preparing a military intervention against Nicaragua to expel the Sandinista Front from power? Would Washington tolerate the existence of a second Central American “revolutionary government” in El Salvador?
It was the beginning of the Reagan era and people spoke insistently of an imminent military operation to be launched from bases in Panama and Puerto Rico. We the members of the ETG were – almost without exception – idealists and believers, part of a now-extinct species known then as “supportive Christians.” We were persuaded to believe it was still possible to influence U.S. public opinion and a good part of the U.S. Congress through an arduous process of political lobbying and humanitarian action.
Phil, the leader of the group, was undoubtedly a meticulous guy, and experienced in political practice. He had Irish and Mexican ancestors. He had been a Catholic priest in Chile in the time of Eduardo Frei and Salvador Allende. He spoke Spanish with ease and had a deep understanding of the situation of each country of the Central American isthmus. Phil lived in Philadelphia, and from his study’s window, he could see William Penn’s statue on the horizon.
The group had been composed according to the criteria of cultural diversity: a couple of African-American activists, a pleasant Anglican originally from Guinea Bissau, a pair of “liberal” Quakers who were on the ETG board, a shrewd Methodist fundraiser, a Japanese pacifist, a gay journalist, and a slightly hysterical blonde of Italian background who worked with the Hispanic community in Miami and could hardly understand Spanish. Latin America was represented by a Chilean Lutheran who lived in exile in Boston and a Central American student.
It was clear that the U.S. Quaker/Catholic antiwar movement sought to make us aware of the social complexity before us and that they hoped for a stronger commitment from the ETG after the visit, to revolutionary movements with Christian and nonviolent foundations forced to take up arms by oppression, injustice, indiscriminate violence, and political persecution.
All this could be summed up in a phrase that represented the 1980s: the struggle for justice and peace in Central America. Though Phil, our director, preferred to speak of “the roots of the regional crisis in Central America.”
We would spend six days in San Salvador and environs. We moved maintaining certain security measures, always led by Phil, the only one who knew ahead of time our daily agenda of visits and interviews. Switching from a comfortable Mitsubishi van to rickety Dodge or Plymouth taxis we visited the University of Central America’s (UCA) small campus, the stately Archbishopric that had been converted into a refugee camp, and the rebellious town of Aguilares, besieged by the Armed Forces on the edge of the Lempa River, where a strong guerrilla presence, or “liberated zone,” began.
The Salvadoran tour included a formal visit to the U.S. Embassy, which I decided to skip to meet with Idiákez again. We went up to the plains of Renderos by car and had a bit to eat as guests of the sisters of La Asuncion. We spent the rest of the afternoon at the UCA, where I met a Guatemalan of Jewish origin: Heinemann, the inexhaustible director of the University Center of Documentation and a man loyal to the politics and theology of Iñaki Ellacuría, Segundo Montes, and Martín Baró, three of the six Jesuit faculty later murdered by the military during the FMLN’s “great offensive” of November, 1989.
We ended our meeting in the Pops ice cream shop gazing at the imposing presence of Volcano San Salvador and enjoying coconut and myrtle ice cream on the Boulevard of Heroes, a name which “honors” Salvadoran military officers who fought in the war against Honduras.
The last day of the visit, a Monday, Phil whisked us stealthily to the San Jose Day School, a prestigious Jesuit institution where the sons of certain influential families, as well as some of the leaders of the Democratic Christian Party and of the insurgency, had been educated. We entered the school through a back door which led to the Boulevard of Heroes. I was surprised to discover that they invited us to the Day School in broad daylight. I remember that someone, one of Phil’s “contacts”, led us into a discreet meeting room separated from the block of classrooms and school offices.
We sat at schoolroom desks and after ten minutes the revolution’s political high command filed in. The future government junta and part of the future cabinet would surely come from this group. The most distinguished of them were the former Minister of Agriculture, Enrique Álvarez Córdoba, from a wealthy family from Santa Ana, and the campesino leader Juan Chacón, from the Popular Block.
Despite the trying circumstances, they didn’t hide their optimism and spoke of the growing deterioration of morale within the Armed Forces, of agreements already arranged to decide a future revolutionary government which, after the triumph of the final offensive, would take power in January. “We already know the names of some of the ministers, though we can’t reveal them to you yet.”
From the start, the triumphalist and messianic language they employed showed clear echoes of the Nicaraguan experience of July 1979 (when the Sandinista Front took power) and the collapse Shah of Iran’s powerful army in February of the same year.
We left the Jesuit precinct exultant, convinced of having had the privilege of exchanging thoughts with members of the future popular, Christian, and revolutionary government.
That evening, I and another ETG member accompanied Phil to the home of the Siman Zablah family, businessmen of Palestinian-Lebanese ancestry. Dinner was abundant and exquisite, served on a long table decorated with incense and candles. The clan’s patriarch presided, and a small statue of a Lebanese religious figure stood in a corner. It was in that instant that I was struck with the feeling that something serious was happening. There was a prolonged power failure, and when we returned to the hotel, in fair-haired Zablah’s little Subaru, we encountered numerous military checkpoints on different streets and avenues. The entire capital lay in darkness and whole battalions stood in a state of alert as if some enemy air assault were imminent, as if the city were Saigon in the heat of war.
The following day, Tuesday, we got up early to get ready and go to the Cuscatlán airport. We boarded a COPA Airlines 737 at 7 am that took us to Managua. On the plane I sat next to a fondly remembered Jesuit from Navarre, Juan Ramon Moreno. He was en route from Guatemala to Managua, where he was the director of the Ignatian Center for Spirituality. We spoke for about 35 minutes, the length of the flight, and as soon as we landed in Managua he laughed at how several members of the ETG applauded with euphoria upon landing in the “promised land” of Latin America. He was among the faculty cruelly murdered at the University in 1989.
Phil had reserved a hotel right in front of the A.C. Sandino Airport. It was called Las Mercedes and consisted of a series of wooden cabañas for two or three people. Before the Sandinista victory, it had been a typical tourist motel for foreigners. Now it belonged to the popular government and the waiters and waitresses were addressed with “compañero/a,” a term of equality. In Managua one breathed an atmosphere of happiness and spontaneity.
A little after settling in, we gathered in the restaurant for breakfast. It was not yet 9 am and a journalist from Baltimore in our group bought a copy of Barricada, the Sandinista newspaper. He opened it, read the headline, and shouted, “Oh my God! Jesus Christ! This is horrible!”
What loathsome thing had happened? Nothing much: just hours after our meeting with them at the Jesuit Day School, the Salvadoran revolutionary leadership had been captured, tortured, and murdered by the military. The triumphant dream had become a sinister nightmare and a stupor claimed us all. A few days later, crestfallen, we continued our tour, visiting Costa Rica, Panama, and Puerto Rico.
There was something that forbade me from speaking of that trip for a long time. I finally realized its enormous significance one July afternoon in 1992 as I wandered the corridors of Karmel Juyu, a warm retreat that looks out onto Lake Atitlan, speaking with a Salvadoran theologian. The memories surfaced intensely, like a whirlwind crossing the lake. Six months earlier, the Treaty of Chapultepec had finally put an end to the Salvadoran Civil War.
Mario R. Loarca Pineda is a Guatemalan writer. He has published various articles and essays, and his book, Pecado nefando, was published in 2006 in Mexico City. He has degrees in social psychology and Latinamerican studies.
* Translated by Catherine Rendón and Richard Brown.