Report from Central America; Following the US Footprint Across Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua  (1986)

by Claude M. Steiner

For six weeks, Charles Rappleye, a Los Angeles reporter, 30 years old and myself, age 51 at the time, traveled, with journalists credentials  by car from California to Nicaragua to try to get an impression, on the ground, of US influence along the 4000 miles between Los Angeles and Managua.          Return to CS Home Page?

managua.gif (52268 bytes)As we progressed south, we interviewed (Charles as the reporter,  I as  the interpreter and photographer) men and women, children, old folks, journalists, bishops, labor leaders, teachers, refugees, newspaper editors, politicians, business leaders, peasants, super poor, poor, middle class and rich. Evidence from history books, interviews, bull sessions with journalists, disingenuous admissions by US embassy officials, blunt admissions by US and local military, and the evidence of our senses, all coalesced to create an unmistakable impression. A picture began to emerge, many aspects of which were unexpected, which added up to a dreadful sense that I will try to convey in the following pages:

Mexico; How do you pay a one hundred thousand million dollar debt?

There is joke going around Mexico: There are two solutions to the national debt; one is scientific, the other miraculous. The scientific solution is the Virgin of Guadalupe writes a one hundred thousand million (hundred billion) dollar check.  The miraculous solution is: she signs it.

In the last three years Mexico has gone through a vertiginous economic nose dive which most Mexicans blame on the huge national debt, which they in turn blame on the United States for knowingly lending the money to the thieves that run their government (The much talked about Mexican debt is one hundred billion dollars; a hundred thousand million to the Mexicans who don't seem to be interested in glossing over the true dimensions of the amount. We might find it educational to think of our own two trillion dollar national debt in these terms.)

U.S. bankers smile approvingly on Mexico's efforts to provide an example for the rest of the Latin American nations, and "responsibly" deal with their debt but Mexicans know the futility of the effort and are caught in a vise of inflation and austerity measures. It is difficult for us to visualize the effect of three digit inflation, coupled with withdrawal of state subsidies mandated by the IMF, which has become the universal experience for Mexicans and central Americans. It is as if a person, in this country, already barely able to make ends meet on ten thousand dollars a year, eight hundred or so dollars a month, found, one day, that a loaf of bread costs ten dollars, a gallon of gasoline fifteen dollars and a pound of rice eight dollars, so that the average shopping trip for a family of four's weekly necessities (forget meat or fish) will cost two hundred and fifty dollars and a month's income would not even cover one half of the month's basic necessities. Since money is needed for other things; transportation, housing, clothing and medical needs, the final consequence is: no one has enough to eat. This is what we found all they way from El Paso to Managua. In Mexico, the solution on everyone's lips is: repudiate the debt, the hell with Tio Sam.

We heard a lot about the debt, but how it affects Mexico and its poor did not become clear until we went to Chiapas. This southernmost state, bordering with Guatemala, until recently ignored by the federal government because of its remoteness and underdevelopment, is experiencing a peasant revolt. One reason for this rebellion is that at the same time that arable, fertile land becomes scarce due to population growth, the federal government is building three huge hydroelectric projects which, when completed, will flood a full one-third of the surface of the state and is driving peasants from their ancestral bottom land to higher, drier and infertile ground. All this to produce electricity which is supposedly needed in the northern states to power industry, geared up to the maximum to pay for the debt. The truth is probably that hydroelectric dam projects and transmission lines, are a rich source of treasury funds for corrupt government officials and contractors. Mexico sits on huge oil reserves and could cheaply produce energy with oil, but the pain being caused to peasants is dismissed in the name of progress and development.

Chiapas, which is geographically separated from the rest of Mexico by huge mountain ranges, anticipated for us the feel of Central America. The indigenous population is Chamula, a small round faced people who inhabit Chiapas and Northern Guatemala and who are preserving their language and colorful mode of dress and their elaborately embroidery skills. We saw in Chiapas cities many such Indians uncharacteristically dirty and unhealthy looking and found that they were displaced campesinos who have no place to live and, like our street people here, sleep and eat wherever they can. I saw a woman with one toddler and a child in arms simply squat next to a parked car on a street and defecate, sheltered from view by her wide skirt, her face a mask of humiliation and defiance. Never have I seen such a thing before and I can only assume that it is a sign of desperation, for the Chamulas are very shy and modest.

The depth and width of the misery we encountered as we traveled south grew steadily and everywhere the United States government was seen as having a major responsibility for it. We saw no evidence that this conviction was incorrect. In fact, while as apologists for the US are fond of saying "things are not as simple as that," we did not find them to be a deal more complicated.

Guatemala; Twenty Years of Genocide.

(Genocide: the systematic effort to exterminate a racial or national group.)

Genocide is a term not to be used lightly. Jeanne Kirkpatrick, who one itinerant US comedian in Nicaragua was heard to remark, "makes you wonder whether Eva Braun really died in that bunker..." is fond of speaking of genocide supposedly committed upon the Miskitu Indians in Nicaragua. But even if the most extreme reports about those events are true there were at most, and I don't mean to imply this is a small number, at most 27 (some claim 60) Indians killed by Sandinista troops in what might be called a massacre. But Kirkpatrick does not like to speak or be reminded of the true genocide performed upon the Guatemalan Indians, under US auspices.

Starting in 1965, after a CIA engineered coup of a democratically elected government, 15,000 Indians were killed by government troops in order to eliminate a few hundred guerillas suspected to be harbored by them. Fifteen years later, in a renewed genocidal anti-guerrilla effort, the US trained and subsidized Guatemalan military burned whole villages and machine gunned to death fleeing villagers who were eventually forced to abandon whole regions of Northern Guatemala and migrated North into Mexico where tens of thousands died and ten times as many are still refugees in camps in Campeche and Chiapas. Not surprisingly the Guatemalan government can claim that there are no guerillas left in Guatemala.

At one of the refugees camps in we visited in Mexico, we heard a village elder tell us how without any warning, one morning in 1980, at 4:00 AM, government soldiers woke his family from their sleep, congregated everyone in the village square, segregated 27 young men and took them to the town's outskirts, made them dig a grave and machine-gunned them into it. "The wails and screams of the women and children filled the air" he said."No one understood why this was happening; all the troops said was "Let this be a lesson to you...We'll be back next week..." Next day all the remaining townspeople left and walked nine days across the Mexican border.

This story repeated itself in hundreds of towns in Guatemala. Bishop Samuel Ruiz is dubbed the Red Bishop by the Chamber of Commerce in his town, San Cristobal, Mexico, because he is a liberation theologist and regards his obligation to the poor to be paramount. He told us of hearing about groups of about two thousand Indians in the Chiapas woods in Mexico, which when found where so sick and far gone that hundreds died every day as hundreds more arrived daily, even after food, doctors and medicine was brought to them. But as if that were not enough, Guatemalan troops and planes repeatedly attacked the refugee camps on Mexican soil killing hundreds more forcing the Mexican government to move them far into Mexican territory from where they could no longer walk back to their towns.

The enormity of this tale escapes the imagination. Death tolls in the tens, hundreds, thousands and tens of thousands roll off .the tongue until the figures become meaningless. One young Guatemalan man in Mexico who walked with us the five miles into the refugee camp told us how he, his mother and sister where the only ones left from his town at the refugee camp. I tried to imagined myself in his situation; my father, my children, my partner, all my friends and coworkers, everyone else I knew had disappeared out of my life (that is about one hundred people) and I was walking down this path to a shack in a refugee camp in a hostile foreign country to meet my mother and sister. For people who have not seen even one person dead by another's hand, the meaning of one hundred dead is elusive. In Guatemala, fifteen thousand (15 000) people, were killed in 1965, between thirty thousand (30 000) and sixty thousand (60 000) were killed in the early 80's, fifty thousand (50.000) more died from hunger disease during the same years and four hundred thousand (400,000) were displaced from their homes and scattered all over Mexico and the US. These killings were done by US trained troops, with weapons provided by the US to perform a task; the eradication - which was initiated, encouraged, and overseen by the US - of a land reform movement, some called it a guerrilla movement which the US did not find to it's liking.

As has become typical in Central America the nasty part of the job was performed by brown people in our pay; our hands were never bloodied. However, while our hands may appear to be clean, our conscience is not. We bear responsibility for the blood of these tens of thousands because without our encouragement and support, their genocide would not have taken place in our own "back yard". Eventually the mass murder became even too much for our Congress which, though it never took responsibility for our actions did pass some laws to prevent us from continuing to feed the genocidal machine, officially. But the CIA circumvented the Congress' actions even as the laws were being passed, using third countries as conduits for money and weapons. Israel, I am sorry to say, has figured prominently among countries which have involved themselves as proxies of the United States in Central America. Covertly our connection with Guatemala's genocide was never discontinued or atoned for, and continues to this day.

Our trip, planned for about one year turned out, in many respects to be very different from the romantic expectation with which it was conceived. Some of the bigger problems; ambushes, major mechanical breakdowns, despoiling theft, did not materialize. Spending seven weeks in each other's exclusive company tried Charlie's and my friendship to the limit, at times. But at a certain point, things broke down in other ways. I developed major gastro-intestinal disarray and increasing symptoms of a bleeding heart; depression and nausea, beginning somewhere in Guatemala, triggered by what I saw, and amplified by the passage, in Congress, of the 100 million dollar contra aid "package." The feeling of increasing horror regarding our role in Central America became what was to become, for me, the major feature of the trip.

The experience which triggered my bleeding heart happened in Todos Santos a remote Guatemalan village near the Mexican border, most of whose inhabitants had once fled to Mexico and many of which later returned. A Chamula Indian woman holding a baby gave me the usual engaging smile which we met wherever we went in Guatemala. I was missing my daughter so I tried to meet the baby's eyes and realized that there was something wrong. It was very small for its age and had the look, so often lately seen on TV, of a starving child. I asked her what was wrong, she answered that it had diarrhea now, for three months. "Have you seen the doctor?" "Yes, she said they gave me this." She handed me a plastic container of hydrating solution with English writing on it. "Your baby is starving," I said "Are you feeding him anything?" "Tortilla, sometimes it throws up." "You have to feed your baby something more nutritious than that. Rice and beans. Chicken broth ". She had been looking at me with great attention. Her face fell "No hay. There isn’t any." "You wait here, let me see what I can get." I said. I ran to the home where we were staying and asked for some rice and beans, mashed together a fair amount and took it back to her. But when we tried to feed the concoction to the baby, it spat it out and started crying. She looked at me for an agonizing instant of disappointment, anxiety, anger and despair, wrapped the baby up and walked away. I have no idea what she expected from me or how she reacted to my failure to cure her baby, but I got a good idea of how she felt, from the look on her face.

As we traveled through Central America we were never able, really, to get outside of a sort of personal California bubble that surrounded us wherever we wandered. We often met that smile which is so easily and reassuringly misinterpreted as a sign of well-being. But as I tried to look beyond that bubble, across it's membrane into the space in which Central American’s live; if I suddenly looked back or stole a glance while I was not being watched, I saw with haunting frequency that slack jawed, mind blown despair, that intense anxiety and deadened spirit that I glimpsed in that starving baby's mother. I became aware of the great gap of awareness between us and the events in Central America; the unfathomable experience of third world people, downtrodden beyond belief and defying accurate reportage.

The reasons for that feeling of despair vary from country to country, in detail but not in principle. In some countries the murder and mayhem has been so indiscriminate, in others inflation so mind boggling, in others both is true and misery is so deep and escalating so steeply that people are incapacitated with the speed and acceleration of it, but I began to slowly see the US's hand in all of it.

E1 Salvador; A Pacified Revolution

As we drive into E1 Salvador we are aware that this is a country which is presented to the north American public as a success story, a country where the "Reagan doctrine" has worked, in which democracy has taken hold and communism has been pushed back. Yet, we also sense that we are entering a dramatically unstable area of Central America. On the radio, The Voice of the United States of America has been reporting that the stretch of road between San Salvador and Honduras has been blocked by the guerillas and we are proceeding with caution. We read that a local congressman has been killed, probably by the right wing and that death squad activity and guerilla violence continues and we read that E1 Salvador's bishop complains that his human right workers, who keep track of these statistics have been threatened with death unless they leave the country within the month.

The distances here are very short; from the Guatemala border to the capital city, half way through the country, is a mere four hour drive. The roads are surprisingly good. We had expected punishing chuck holes and long stretches of dirt road, but we find a smoothly paved, two lane highway. We begin to realize that wherever there are guerillas there will be good roads; they are needed to move troops and equipment. The most impressive highway we traveled south of the US border is the twenty mile stretch between San Salvador and the airport; as wide and spacious a highway as we've ever seen. This multi-million, deserted, awesome stretch of asphalt is what US visitors see first and last when they visit this utterly impoverished country.

We arrive in San Salvador as night falls. The fact that this is one of the most populous countries in the world becomes immediately obvious; we see in the unlit city's streets amazing crowds swelling the sidewalks waiting for buses to take them home. We have witnessed poverty in Central America but this is a new level of it. A woman huddled on the sidewalk holding out a hand, clearly expecting nothing while her other hand holds a baby. An old man staggering down the street, his torn clothes stinking of urine, his eyes out of focus, seeing nothing. People everywhere selling plastic combs, shoelaces, pencils, anything to make a few cents. The capital city's cathedral is in a state of mid-construction, one of the ugliest I have seen, the National Palace's broken windows and the poverty and decay all around us attest to the desperate condition this country finds itself in, notwithstanding the five hundred million dollars in economic aid that the US has poured into the country yearly, since the Duarte election.

Next morning we go looking for a Radio Shack store where we can get some help for our ailing lap computer. The Yellow pages of the phone book direct us to the shopping center and we find ourselves in the middle of what could be a Los Angeles mall. Neatly dressed, brown-skinned women and men, cute babies, fashionable stores, the Camino Real Hotel, where a night's lodging costs ninety dollars, the American Embassy, late model cars, help us better understand where our tax billions are going.

Having fixed the computer we are on our way, a short drive to Honduras and on to Tegucigalpa.

Honduras; The US Army's Brothel

"It's good for the boys," says Tom Dolney, 28, a truly pleasant - one could say, sweet young man from South Dakota who is the army information officer at the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa. Speaking of the national guardsmen from the various states who spend a few weeks in training here, he confides: "They are used to packing for stints to other states. But coming here is a whole other thing. You have to bring everything you need. There is no Seven-Eleven around the corner". There is, however, Comayagua a small town next to the base where, an Austrian journalist tells us, nearly every young woman has become a US Army, medically supervised prostitute. Condoms, are provided free of charge.

We are drawn to the US embassy to see if we can interview the ambassador, John Ferch who has just been fired, on the eve of the congressional vote which finally granted Reagan his hundred million dollars for contra aid. As one journalist here remarks, "he doesn't look good in fatigues;" the ambassador, however, is not granting interviews. The feeling within the air conditioned embassy here is eerie in its homeliness; on a coffee table while we wait to speak with Dolney we spy an embassy newsletter, The Tegucittatler. It lists Job opportunities, (Program Specialist, Senior Secretary, Allowance and Payroll Assistant) Affirmations, (I am a radiant being filled with light and love, I am a powerful and creative force in the universe.) Recipes (Maria's pork roast) Classifieds. (Se vende: Nissan King Cab Modelo '84) Church News (...without religion democracy lacks essential moral support.") A reminder of the 4th of July picnic. (The marines will be serving hot dogs, hamburgers beer and coke...come dressed to compete in sack races.)

Outside, through the embassy picture windows we can see a long line of well-dressed Hondurans of all ages waiting patiently to get their visas to the US. Further in the verdant background, hang the Tegucigalpan hillside shacks, housing some of the most impoverished people in the Western Hemisphere. Beyond the horizon, a mere hundred and fifty miles away but strictly out of bounds even to journalists, are the contra camps where, one must guess, there is dancing in the streets.

Its all so chatty here, so easy going. We arrange to join a US Army MEDRETEX (Medical readiness training exercise,) a public relations ride for journalists.on a twin prop Chinook chopper to a remote Honduran village where the army personnel will spend a whole day practicing medical and veterinary skills on as many people and animals as can be crowded in during that time. The ride is spectacular; it beats anything at Great America. On the ground, affable doctors and nurses pull hundreds of rotten teeth, but can only handle uppers or lowers on any one person and will not get through the long lines of hopefuls as the four Hueys and one Chinook that brought us here wait patiently to remove us from the scene. Elsewhere, a crush of women standing in the hot sun, holding their sick children wait for hours for a diagnosis; no effort is made to ease their wait. Most, we are told by one of he doctors, receive placebos, none are seriously ill. We guess that the seriously ill probably can't make the trek to the MEDRETEX's location.

At the Honduran Air Force's Palmerola base, the US Lt. Colonel in charge of our troops there, who asked not to be identified by name, admits that the 100 million probably would not be enough money for a contra victory, that more would be needed in the future. But, he says "these fellas are willing to fight for democracy in their country and we can't let them down, it just wouldn't be fair."

The contras have taken over 450 square miles of Honduran territory (while holding none in Nicaragua) from which thousands of Honduran peasants and coffee growers are having to flee. It seems our irrepressible freedom fighters' activities are being extended to their hosts. The Honduran army, in turn demands more and more military aid which we continue to give. Everyone here knows that Honduras is a venal military dictatorship and that we are the force that stabilizes it and that we need these thugs in military uniforms to help house our contra-terrorists and do our dirty work.

Other Hondurans worry about what these Nicaraguan counter- revolutionaries will do if they continue to fail to insert themselves into Nicaragua as planned and have to settle within Honduras' borders. They also worry about the effect on their "fragile" democracy of the increased US military presence with its millions of dollars spent on further militarization, whores and beer.

The consequences of that Congressional vote of a week ago, are coming to fruition here. The stage is being set; as we drive on to Nicaragua through areas where contra attacks have left their mark an ominous sense of what is to come envelops us. This is the area where in all likelihood the money we are going to pour into the conflict will start paying off in headlines so that the Congress can feel that its anti-Communist "insurance investment" is paying off.

Nicaragua; A hungry people, waiting for Reagan's assassins.

It's the seventh and last week-end of our trip. We are in Esteli the city near the Honduran border where the Nicaraguans are celebrating the seventh anniversary of the the triumph of their revolution. It's early in the morning and people are streaming into the stadium, knowing that they will have to stand in the hot sun for hours to hear Daniel Ortega speak. "Their enthusiasm isn't as high as it has been in the past," says a veteran Nicaragua journalist. Small wonder, I muse. For one thing they seem hungry, for another they know that what they have to look forward to in this heavily attacked area; another year of hunger, fear and pain, courtesy, they are convinced, of Ronald Reagan. "Que se rinda tu madre!" is a frequently heard cry referring to Reagan's determination to squeeze Nicaragua until she cries "Uncle." "Que se rinda tu madre!;" ("Let your mother surrender!") There is defiance here, tempered by hunger.

As it turns out, Ortega speaks of the hunger that afflicts the country and asks the crowd "Are we going to surrender because we are hungry.?" I, myself have been hungry and have lost ten pounds over the weeks. Food is difficult to get, often there is not even rice, beans or potatoes. I think I know how I would feel If I was really hungry and was asked whether I want to surrender to the contras. After seeing what life is like in the US controlled "democracies" to the north and knowing what the Somocistas were like before they were beaten out of here, there could be only one answer: Surrender? Your mama!

The contras have promised to disrupt these festivities and the Sandinistas are determined to make sure they don't. For the last three weeks security has been extremely tight. We are constantly checked for papers, our car searched at road blocks. A friend is arrested and detained for five hours because he took a picture of a flower that happened to be growing next to a military installations's wall; to a concerned observer, this looks like further steps of the totalitarian clamping down we have been reading about in the US press. La Prensa has been closed, two catholic priests have been deported, there is definite tension in the air. But the day which the contras have promise to spoil has passed without a single incident and the whole country seems to breathe easy and security becomes, once again, relaxed. Nicaragua is the only Central American country we have visited that does not require every citizen to carry identification papers. In Guatemala, E1 Salvador and Honduras, failure to have papers on your person can land you in jail for days or weeks. The much touted Nicaraguan totalitarian state seems to get along fine without that particular police-state device.

In fact it seems from all appearances that the vast majority of the people here are loyal to the Sandinistas. "You must understand," says Maria, a journalism student, looking quite lovely in manicured nails and high heels, "we have no option but the Sandinistas. I am not a Sandinista, but the 'muchachos' are doing the best they can, given the aggression we are suffering. As long as the contras are out there we are with the Sandinstas." "And if the contras come in?" I ask. Her eyes flash fiercely "I will get a gun and kill as many as I can before they kill me." I am left with no reason to doubt that she means business. Yet it is also clear that if there were no contras at the border she would belong to the opposition, struggling with the Sandinistas for middle class privileges.

We found this to be an oft repeated theme. In fact, some of the most passionate criticism, nay anger, at the Sandinistas was expressed not by moderates or even conservatives but by Marxist- Leninists who consider the Sandinistas burgeois sellouts and complain, ironically, of harassment and betrayal of their revolution by the Sandinistas. Yet they too are in solidarity with the government for the duration of the aggression, they say.

Many here see themselves as a vanguard in an anti-imperialist struggle, the first people in America to stand up to the US and live to talk about it. They are extremely proud of their seven years of successful resistance. And indeed, if I think of the conditions that prevail in Central America, the hunger, the aimless killing, the torture that reigns, Nicaragua is not so bad a place after all. At least people have the opportunity to be hungry and die with dignity, with a gun in their hands, defying the hated enemies; the Somoza National Guard, and their new leader, Ronald Reagan.

That was the difference I saw between Nicaragua and the other countries, in Central America; the difference between people whose spirit has been crushed and in who the spark of life seems near extinguished and people who having fought for and gained their freedom, carry in their spirit the flame of solidarity, pride and defiance.

On our way back from Esteli we give a ride to a young Nicaraguan woman who is returning to her collective farm where she is the foreman of a cane cutting crew. She asks for a cigarette, wants to know where we are from. I am faced with a familiar feeling. I could say that I am Mexican; I have done that before and my Spanish is certainly good enough, but I decide to fess up. I tell her that I am ashamed to say so but I am north American. She looks at me to persuade herself that I really mean what I say and recognizing my diffidence, with the sweetest smile responds: "Oh, but we know that the people in the United States aren't our enemy, It's Ronald Reagan and the government that is responsible for what is happening to us."

I am momentarily reassured, but upon reflection I wish it was that simple. Our government is, after all, an expression of our will or lack of it. We look the other way when knowing that a strong majority of our people and our allies disagree with our intervention in Nicaragua, our President and Congress decides nevertheless to wage war, we look the other way when the international court passes judgment against us and our President ignores the verdict, we look the other way when our "freedom fighters" kidnap, rape, torture and kill Nicaraguans.

Our rider asks us to stop, steps out of the car and with a smile and a flourish walks off toward her home, her long hair and lovely body outlined against the setting sun. Next day we board an Aeoronica plane and fly back to Mexico City and California, traveling, in a few air conditioned hours what took us five sweaty, tear stained weeks to traverse by car. The car a beat up, red, '72, Datsun 510 four door sedan I refurbished for the trip is left in Managua with a solidarity group end eventually became a taxicab. (Still operating as of 1996. cs) 

Low intensity conflict; terror by another name.

The doctrine of "low intensity conflict" is the strategy being applied throughout Central America for dealing with the "confrontation between democracy and communism." It has been largely successful in imposing our will or "protecting US interests," at a minimum cost to us. To accommodate liberal sensibilities, low intensity conflict has been defined as the struggle for the hearts and minds of the people, as opposed to war for deaths and territory. "Hearts and minds" is a concept straight out of Lenin, Mao Zedong, Che Guevara and other Marxist revolutionary theorists but don't let that bother you; basically, it holds that to win a revolutionary war one must convince the people of the superiority of one's system so that they will support it with their hearts and minds as well as their lives.

Low intensity conflict is a new concept in war making. It is waged at three levels simultaneously, military, economic and propaganda. It seeks to place military intervention a distant second to nation building through political economic and psychological means and holds that to let a situation develop to the point that military or violent action is taken is to lose ground in the struggle. Violence is only used when needed to protect the delicate process of nation building against violent disruption from within and to fend off violence from the enemy.

But this is the pretty side of the picture. For those whose sensibilities do not run so much toward bleeding hearts and whose hate of communism is sufficiently intense, low intensity conflict is "total war at the grass roots." In this war, the battle for the hearts and minds is given transparent lip service while direct US military intervention is eschewed. But as we see the methods that are advocated, it becomes clear that rather than a struggle for the hearts and minds through essentially good deeds and nation building, low intensity conflict is a battle for the cowering, wretched souls of the people, using terror and hunger as weapons. The hard-ball version of LIC is "kicking communist ass" by persuading the people through a combination of "carrot and stick," where the carrot stands for humanitarian aid (food, economic, medical, agricultural, etc.) and the stick represents terror carried out by the local military.

If one thinks of the inhabitants of Central America as dumb animals to be domesticated, then the stick and a carrot metaphor used by low intensity advocates seems apt; what is really going on here doesn't bother to assume that people have hearts and minds that need to, or for that matter could, be won. The ignorance and racism of this approach is profound, the people's hearts and minds not known or understood. The message is: "If you do it our way we may feed you and take care of you. If you don't, we'll let you starve and beat you until you see it our way. This is for your own good and we are willing to kill you to make sure you get the point; forget communism or anything that resembles it."

Low intensity conflict is a flexible sort of war that adapts its tactics to each theater and as we traveled through Central America, we saw it applied in each country differently. In Guatemala we aided the military in the massacre of tens of thousands. In Nicaraguan we promote anti-Sandinista terror which targets Nicaraguan teachers, health workers, and other government representatives. In Honduras, the military are simply in complete control of the government and population, and at our beck and call. In E1 Salvador, a large, rebellious population has been softened into a cowering mass by US-inspired death squads and US- financed and supplied aerial bombing under military supervision. In everyone of these cases, indigenous military forces trained by us are the purveyors of terror, hunger and their complement; propaganda. We disavow their behavior, even claim that our presence serves to civilize them, but the fact is that we rely on them and without them we would have to do the job ourselves or we would lose the confrontation.

"Todo tranquilo," ("everything calml") was often the answer given when we asked people how things are going but we did not get a feeling of people who were at peace in their hearts and minds. Instead, we saw a devastated population, dying of starvation, disease and despair on a charred land where life can no longer be lived meaningfully. People seemed stunned and brought to mind the descriptions one hears of people in Hiroshima, days and weeks after the bomb was dropped; wandering around aimlessly, answering questions, smiling even, but somehow strangely absent, their minds blown by what they have seen...

Are we any different from the good Germans in the 30's? Central America minus Nicaragua seemed to me like a vast, low intensity concentration camp, guarded by native capos and directed by blue- eyed, "gringo" camp commanders from within well defended perimeters in which they attempted to enjoy life, amidst rot and corruption while we, the citizens responsible for all of this go on with our lives, apparently unaware of our involvement. There is more than a slight resemblance between the phony pretext given by Hitler when he invaded Poland and what might be awaiting Nicaragua if the contras don't do the job they are being paid to do. At least the Germans had reason to be afraid to protest. If they did, they would be next in the cattle car to Aushwitz.

When our national conscience-comes in conflict with our "national interest" don't we have a moral choice to make rather than the expedient, convenient, selfish, heartless, hypocritical, short term decisions that we are making these days? Can't we develop a constructive, non-military national policy in relation to Central America, based on an understanding of our long history of errors and on a desire to allow central Americans to develop their autonomy as they see fit?

I believe that we north Americans could be respected and appreciated in Central and South America instead of feared, envied and hated as we are. On this trip, I often found myself compelled to hang my head and avert my gaze in shame when I saw my country's deeds. Why can't we be good, generous, proud members of the American community? Everyone of us is, in some way, like it or not, responsible for what our government has been doing in Central America and everyone of us can do something to be counted on the righteous side of this most important issue in our history. My trip and this report are my contribution.

(This report was never published in any major media. I distributed hundreds of copies through ads in small local newspapers including the ITAA Script. Charles Rappleye is now news editor at the LA Weekly. After returning from this trip and recuperating from my bleeding heart I went back to being a psychologist and develioping Emotional Literacy Training)                                      Return to CS Home Page