THERE IS A remarkable scene in the Belgian documentary Revolution or Death, in which a jeep full of El Salvadorean soldiers drives up to an outdoor meeting of peasants. The soldiers hop out of the jeep and at the order of their commanding officer, open fire on the unarmed group of men, women and children. When the gathering has been dispersed, and a number of its participants maimed or murdered, a soldier takes a machine gun out of the jeep and places it in the arms of a dead man. Then the soldiers take pictures of him.
That moment captures both the truth of, and the lie about, the conflict in El Salvador. The truth is that the repressive Salvadorean Government, enriched by American money and empowered by American weaponry, has embarked on a ruthless campaign of torture and death against its own people. The lie is that the violence begins with the revolutionaries. Russian-nudged troublemakers who are polarizing tranquil El Salvador.
Let us start with the facts. Since 1932, when the Salvadorean military quelled protests for a minimum wage by killing 30,000 peasants and workers, the people have lived under authoritarian rule. The present junta, presided over by Jose Napoleon Duarte, took power when a group of young army officers got rid of the right-wing government of General Carlos Romero in 1979. The new junta, however, began to disintegrate just three months later when every civilian cabinet member resigned in opposition to the military's domination of government. Many of those disenchanted civilians joined the forces of the Revolutionary Democratic Front, the broad popular coalition pressing for revolutionary change in El Salvador.
Since that time, the ruling forces have accelerated their purge of dissent and terrifying the population. The El Salvador Human Rights Commission, a private organization, recorded the violent deaths of 13,194 people last year, the overwhelming majority of whom fell at the hands of Government Security forces. Imagine an equivalent proportion of the American populace murdered: how would you react if the United States Army killed 450,000 Americans in 1980? You would be up in arms.
But after a while the numbers begin to blur, and the death tolls lose their human meaning. The blood will seem much redder if we look at the reports of actual atrocities committed by the El Salvadorean government and documented by a Congressional fact-finding mission. Rep. Gerry Studds (D-Ma.), Rep. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), and Rep. Robert Edgar (D-Pa.), obtained hundreds of first hand accounts of "murder, torture, rape, and the burning of villages and crops" by Government Security Forces. According to the United Press International (UPI):
One woman spoke of the army bombarding her village, and seeing the corpse of a pregnant friend whose body had been completely cut open by soldiers to remove the unborn child.
Another woman refugee said two of her own sisters and four cousins, all women and one of them pregnant, were raped and killed by troops, who left their bodies lying naked on the ground. These killings orphaned five children.
A third woman told of troops throwing a live baby into a river to drown.
Rep. Mikulski stated at the press conference that, "Without exception, all the refugees interviewed said the atrocities were carried out by troops of the Salvadorean army, the National Guard or a paramilitary group equipped U.S. arms." "The Congressional delegation, whose trip had been prompted by the appalling rape and murder of three American nuns and a missionary by government security forces, immediately telegrammed President Reagan and appealed to him to end military aid to El Salvador.
Their appeal echoed earlier calls from all over the world. A storm of protest had followed the 1979 murder of Archbishop Monseigneur Romero. Romero was the Archbishop of San Salvador who demanded that the United States halt military support to the junta, and was rewarded for his efforts by being assassinated in church while he was delivering mass.
YET, President Reagan has disregarded all of these entreaties, choosing instead to pour more kill power into the Salvadorean death machine. The New York Times reported two days ago that Reagan is committed to sending the Salvadorean regime another $225 million in economic aid, and another $25 million worth of military equipment--a gift package of helicopters, "small arms," radar systems, trucks and jeeps. Reagan will also dispatch an extra 34 military advisers from the Pentagon to join the 25 "training experts" already there. If you think the Salvadorean people feel the heat of American military operations now, try to imagine what happens if one of our military advisers get shot. With cowboy Reagan in the White House and General Haig at State, the prospect that such an incident may be used to justify an American intervention is unsettling.
Reagan has justified the military bolstering of the junta by invoking the time-proven strategy of finding a Communist conspiracy lurking in the background. The Department of State announced three weeks ago that the civil war occurring in El Salvador is nothing less than a "textbook case of a Communist plot" to subvert democracy. (It is intriguing how 80 per cent of the population, according to official sources in the Catholic Church, supports a plot to subvert democracy in their own country). Of all the nations allegedly implicated in this plot, the most prominent are, in alphabetical order. Cuba, Ethiopia, Nicaragua, "radical Arab governments," and the Soviet Union.
There are several defects in this textbook case theory--a type of argument frequently used to replace serious analysis with programmed responses, and often meant to silence, rather than enlighten, debate. In the first place, all of the nations accused by the State Department vehemently deny military involvement in El Salvador, and have publicly wondered why, if Mr. Reagan is so upset about this conspiracy, he has not bothered to contact their embassies or make any other effort at official communication. In fact, Leonid Brezhnev has asked our President to a summit meeting, in which the issue of El Salvador could be thoroughly discussed in an atmosphere free of rumors. But Reagan declined.
Secondly, it turns out that the alleged weapons deals outlined in the State Department's globetrotting "white paper" were uncovered by the Salvadorean army. The army claims to have found this "incontrovertible evidence" of foul play in captured rebel hide-outs. This assertion tends to cast some doubt on the validity of our reports. Generally, the State Department overstates the influence of the 250-member Communist Party in shaping policy of the Revolutionary Democratic Front--which is composed of every major opposition party in El Salvador, every trade union, teachers, doctors, students, and the Catholic Church.
Finally, whatever pressures the socialist world has applied in El Salvador has been greatly distorted in this country. The State Department dissent paper provides a fascinating picture of the sophisticated campaign orchestrated by the State Department to mislead the American public on what is happening in El Salvador. According to the dissent paper, the State Department has tried to plant in the media two major themes to obscure the reality of the Salvadorean struggle: the "far left versus far right" scheme, and the spectre of Soviet and Cuban power, the first theme, ingenious as it is, has largely failed; the Reagan Administration, therefore, is pushing the public's fear of communism panic button, hoping to activate a resurgence of the popular domino theory.
Of course, the premise of the "communist plot" argument is that if there were no socialist nations encouraging the rebels, there would be no revolution. But this assertion completely disregards the miserable conditions the people of El Salvador have lived under for so long. The per capita income of El Salvador does not even reach $700 a year, one of the worst averages in the western hemisphere. Ninety-five per cent of the people cannot read, and the government has made no attempt to reverse the condition of mass illiteracy. Malnutrition runs as high as 60 per cent. The infant mortality rate is double that of Cuba, and four times that of the United States. A New York Times reporter, Raymond Bonner, who toured the countryside reported:
Hundreds of thousands of peasants live in hovels made of packed mud: naked children with swollen bellies and open sores wander among the grunting pigs, garbage and flies.
Meanwhile, the minuscule economic elite of El Salvador is doing very well, living off the export of coffee, sugar cane, and cotton. Two per cent of the country owns over 60 per cent of the farmland, and 5 per cent of the people receive 50 per cent of the income. A corporation president in El Salvador recently told the truth: "It is a class war," he said. It does not take Fidel Castro to tell people they are being repressed, starved, taken away in the middle of the night, and shot down in the streets. A revolution was coming in El Salvador and no amount of cold war rhetoric can change that.
America should stop funding the generals and roaming death squads of El Salvador. It is extraordinary that the government of a nation of 220 million people, the most powerful nation ever to exist, feels so threatened by change that it sends tens of millions of dollars to repress the liberation struggle of a tiny, impoverished Latin American nation. It is the essence of hypocrisy to charge other nations with intervening in El Salvador when our own behavior embodies the cruel intrusion into Salvadorean affairs we claim to despise. It is a mutilation of history that one of the first nations to be born of popular revolution is now in the business of smashing popular revolutions all over the world. And it is truly frightening that the man who will whisper in President Reagan's ear for the next four years. Edwin Meese, would tell a national television audience that he would not disclose his plans for intervening in El Salvador, because it would be a good thing if the other nations of the world "went to bed at night, wondering what America is going to do the next day."
Jamie B. Raskin '83, a founder of the Harvard-Radcliffe Committee on El Salvador, is helping to coordinate next Thursday's candlelight march against American intervention in El Salvador.