Fighting for a Cure
TO WASHINGTON they may be just another row of dominoes to protect from communism, but the people of El Salvador have suffered worse evils than toppling over Dr. Hector Silva, former director of health in Eastern El Salvador, has been fighting the suffering of the Salvadorans for many years, first as a government health official, and now as an exile. Silva spoke at Harvard Thursday night along with two doctors from the committee for Human and Health Rights on the predicament of the Salvadorans. The doctors were quick to blame the Salvadoran government and implicate U S administrators supporting that regime.
As a government official, Silva experienced first-hand the frustration of attempting to improve Salvadoran health conditions in the face of government corruption and right-wing repression. At one point, he said in the speech he attempted to expose a high official as responsible for the disappearance of $150,000 of U S. medical supplies. He wrote to the health minister, but the official resigned in protest of the tendency for the military to cover up health problems. Then Silva informed the attorney general, but shortly thereafter the man was assassinated after being labelled a communist by rightist ARENA party leader Roberto d'Aubuisson. Eventually Silva himself resigned in protest of the constant government cover up of health problems.
For a time, he continued his efforts in a separate organization, the Health Workers and Professionals union. But this group faced terrifying repression from the Rightist groups dominating the government, who saw--and see--any attempt at reform as opposition. Every health worker in the independent group received death threats, and six physicians were murdered. Finally the constant danger in a country where the leading cause of death was violence forced Silva into exile.
Silva has lived in Nicaragua for three years now, and in the mean-time the conditions he was fighting have worsened. Drs. John Stanbury and Carola Eisenberg, his co-panelists, confirmed this deterioration. Eisenberg said that the seven members of the commission to study El Salvador originally intended to be objective nonpolitical judges, but they rapidly became politicized. They found the government had allowed the national hospitals to reach a "state of chaos" and that camps housing some of the 200,000 internally displaced Salvadorans suffered from high instances of malnutrition and disease. They found that food from the U.S. AID program which the Salvadoran military had responsibility for distributing appeared in the camps in cheaper and sparser form. In the prisons, they saw the scars left on hundreds of prisoners by military and paramilitary torture. Then, two days after they returned to the U.S., Congress rectified El Salvador for showing improvements in human rights.
Ironically, the reason the doctors had access to the stories of the tortured prisoners was because the government wished to show improvement in treatment of political prisoners. But Eisenburg made it clear that based on what she has seen, the "imprisonment" is purely cosmetic. One of the members of the El Salvadoran Committee on Human Rights is Col. Lopez Nuella, chief of national police, a man implicated in torture himself. It's no surprise human rights complaints are lower.
The doctors who spoke did not witness the scene of greatest human rights violations--the battle zone. Here the human rights rectification by the U.S. becomes particularly farcical. Government troops are pursuing a "Scorched Earth" policy, destroying all life--animal, plant and human--in a region suspected to be supporting rebel fighters. This horrible tactic was introduced to El Salvador by American advisors and first implemented in January 1982, a month after the U.S. undersecretary of defense signed the new U.S. military stategy for El Salvador.
Silva has not spent his visit to the United States making accusations. Rather, he warns that current policies will plunge us into another Vietnam. "To look at the media, Reagan seems to be selling the idea that with a little more effort--a few more advisors, a little more aid--the rebels can be defeated," he said in an interview Tuesday. "But escalating the military aid will decrease the results in the same proportion." The rebels, he says, have frustrated the efforts of the 22,400 soldiers and 11,000 security men of the Salvadoran government, and "the rhythm of the war" is in favor of them.
The rebels, he predicts, are bound to win--and "the more military the victory, the more hostile the regime" that will rise, particularly if the victory were against American troops. As a member of the Frente Democratico Revolucionaro (FDR). Silva has a stake in the success of the FMLN, the military arm of the revolution, but he fears success at the cost of what the Vietnamese went through.
TEN YEARS AGO, direct U.S. military involvement in Central America would have been unthinkable. Now, without any great public outcry, it has become a reality. Reagan recently stated that in no sense was the government "speaking of participation in combat by American forces." But Silva confirms that in February an American advisor, Sgt. Jay T. Stanley, was wounded during a rebel offensive in the Usulutan region. This incident of an American combat casualty was reported, but later omitted by both Time and Newsweek in recent features on El Salvador. Congress has complained not about the unethically of starting another Vietnam, but about the high cost and "lack of tangible effects." With the early-1960's style of mawkishness comes the same hackneyed talk of "Marxist-Leninist contagion."
Silva's response to claims that the rebels are propagators of Marxist revolution for the Soviets or Cuba is a firm "It is not so." The FDR, he says, is a coalition of many parties and unions, including the Social Democrats, the Social Christians, the national union of technicians and professionals, only a few of which are Marxist.
Reagan obviously hoped to lend the political system some legitimacy by pushing elections scheduled for March 1984 forward to this year. But the plight of Silva and other opposition members makes it clear that the elections will have no legitimacy. Members of the opposition are labelled subversives and would be in great danger in public in the urban areas of El Salvador. Rebels cannot place themselves at the rightists' mercy by laying down their arms. Silva maintains that attempts at reform are useless unless they "put the two parts together." The rebels made an offer for neutrally mediated negotiation last October. Silva says the offer still stands.
Silva stresses that at this time, the United States has reached a critical decision point: Either it must continue escalating military aid to the point of troop involvement or encourage negotiations mediated by other Central American nations. By persisting in supporting the existing regime, the U.S. state department is directing us toward the former alternative--a "solution" that can only lead to more of the horror stories which Silva makes vivid.