The Books: Salvador, by Joan Didion

Next book on the essays shelf is Salvador, by Joan Didion.

Joan Didion went to El Salvador in 1982 at the height of the civil war. She was there with her husband, holed up with a group of hardened journalists in the same hotel, trying to make sense of what was happening on the ground. Things were not only chaotic but creepily quiet. Didion interviews people – a couple of Irish priests working there (at great danger to themselves). She talks to regular people on the street. She talks to other journalists. Something in El Salvador seemed to stun her. Which is not surprising, the place was a shithole of revolution at the time, with atrocities piling up … but being “stunned” is not Didion’s normal thing. It makes Salvador an interesting book, although lacking some of the urgency of her other books. During a plane ride across the country, she stares down at the landscape (she is so sensitive to landscapes), and tries to comprehend how this country came to be what it was. She saw it primarily as a frontier town, a lawless place where colonization had been brutally imposed, leaving deep scar tissue in the populace. All of this was reflected in the landscape, which made no sense to her.

Paul Theroux wrote a vicious essay (what a surprise) about El Salvador and the University there. By the time Didion was there, the university was closed. Everything was closed. It was war. She is haunted by those who have written about the place before, and the book is filled with quotes from other people. She seems to need their help to interpret what she is seeing.

Salvador makes me wish that Didion had a bit of Paul Theroux in her, or a bit of Robert Kaplan, meaning wanderlust, because I’d love to see her “take on” foreign countries. I’d love to see what she said about Russia, or China, or Ireland, or Iran. No matter what, it would be interesting. But Didion is so American. She seems to feel that there is certainly enough in America to keep her busy all the days of her life, and that is certainly true. In many ways, she looks at America as though she herself is a tourist. She seems to find things inexplicable, and she works it like a dog with a bone, trying to shake out the underlying truth, the underlying narrative.

This mindset failed her in El Salvador. The country would not open itself to her. But even that is an interesting situation, as most anything is in Didion’s hands.

Speaking of El Salvador, the essay “The Soccer War”, written by one of my idols, Ryszard Kapuscinski, is about the start of the “100 hour war” between El Salvador and Honduras in 1969, and how it exploded in the wake of a soccer game. It is a masterpiece of journalism.

Didion visits the Ambassador to El Salvador, because she wants to understand how America is wielding its power, and what the attitudes are towards our presence in El Salvador at the time. The U.S. was trying to create, basically, a second junta, to overcome the incompetent and violent first. Typical American naiveté and optimism – our best qualities, but boy, they get us into trouble. Not to mention our love-affair with elections. Former fascist/theocratic/Marxist country has one election and we declare democracy has been born. We have been duped so many times by our touching belief in elections, in pictures of peasants filling out ballots, etc. Meanwhile, people who actually live and work there – American case workers, American social workers and Peace Corps people, American servicemen stationed there – often know the truth, and can perceive it: “Whoop-dee-doo, an election. This is just a symbol, a bone thrown to the powerful American press.” There had been a coup d’etat in 1979, bringing about wrenching change, a big land-grab, and the nationalization of private companies. The economy shrieked to a halt. There was already a rebellion underfoot, due to some controversial elections. The army was acting independently, they became impossible to control. The junta that formed fought against those in power, they wanted land reform, unions, more power to the people – it was basically a progressive rebellion. Leftist in makeup. The entire country became warring guerrilla armies. The situation was extremely unstable. A former leader was recalled from exile. Nobody was buying that bullshit. Didion was there in 1982. The civil war would not end until a peace agreement was signed in 1992.

Here’s an excerpt.

Salvador, by Joan Didion

I have thought about this lunch a great deal. The wine was chilled and poured into crystal glasses. The fish was served on porcelain plates that bore the American eagle. The sheep dog and the crystal and the American eagle together had on me a certain anesthetic effect, temporarily deadening the receptivity to the sinister that afflicts everyone in Salvador, and I experienced for a moment the official American delusion, the illusion of plausibility, the sense that the American undertaking in El Salvador might turn out to be, from the right angle, in the right light, just another difficult but possible mission in another troubled but possible country.

Deane Hinton is an interesting man. Before he replaced Robert White in San Salvador he had served in Europe, South America, and Africa. He had been married twice, once to an American, who bore him five children before their divorce, and once to a Chilean, who had died not long before, leaving him the stepfather of her five children by an earlier marriage. At the time I met him he had just announced his engagement to a Salvadoran named Patricia de Lopez. Someone who is about to marry a third time, who thinks of himself as a father of ten, and who has spent much of his career in chancy posts – Mombasa, Kinshasa, Santiago, San Salvador – is apt to be someone who believes in the possible.

His predecessor, Robert White, was relieved of the San Salvador embassy in February 1981, in what White later characterized as a purge, by the new Reagan people, of the State Department’s entire Latin American section. This circumstance made Deane Hinton seem, to many in the United States, the bearer of the administration’s big stick in El Salvador, but what Deane Hinton actually said about El Salvador differed from what Robert White said about El Salvador more in style than in substance. Deane Hinton believed, as Robert White believed, that the situation in El Salvador was bad, terrible, squalid beyond anyone’s power to understand it without experiencing it. Deane Hinton also believed, as Robert White believed to a point, that the situation would be, in the absence of one or another American effort, still worse.

Deane Hinton believes in doing what he can. He had gotten arrests on the deaths of the four American churchwomen. He had even (“by yelling some more,” he said) gotten the government to announce these arrests, no small accomplishment, since El Salvador was a country in which the “announcement” of an arrest did not necessarily follow the arrest itself. In the case of the murders of Michael Hammer and Mark Pearlman and Jose Rodolfo Viera at the Sheraton, for example, it was not the government but the American embassy which announced at least two of the various successive arrests, those of the former guardsmen Abel Campos and Rodolfo Orellana Osorio. This embassy “announcement” was reported by the American press on September 15 1982, and was followed immediately by another announcement: on September 16 1982 “a police spokesman” in San Salvador announced not the arrest but the “release” of the same suspects, after what was described as a month in custody.

To persist in so distinctly fluid a situation required a personality of considerable resistance. Deane Hinton was even then working on getting new arrests in the Sheraton murders. He was even then working on getting trials in the murders of the four American women, a trial being another step that did not, in El Salvador, necessarily follow an arrest. There had been progress. There had been the election, a potent symbol for many Americans and perhaps even for some Salvadorans, although the symbolic content of the event showed up rather better in translation than on the scene. “There was some shooting in the morning,” I recall being told by a parish priest about election day in his district, “but it quieted down around nine A.M. The army had a truck going around to go out and vote – Tu Voto, Es La Solucion, you know – so they went out and voted. They wanted that stamp on their identity cards to show they voted. The stamp was the proof of their good will. Whether or not they actually wanted to vote is hard to say. I guess you’d have to say they were more scared of the army than of the guerrillas, so they voted.”

Four months after the fact, in The New York Times Magazine, former ambassador Robert White wrote about the election: “Nothing is more symbolic of our current predicament in El Salvador than the Administration’s bizarre attempt to recast D’Aubisson in a more favorable light.” Even the fact that the election had resulted in what White called “political disaster” could be presented, with a turn of the mirror, positively: one man’s political disaster could be another’s democratic turbulence, the birth pangs of what Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Enders persisted in calling “nascent democratic institutions”. “The new Salvadoran democracy,” Enders was saying five months after the election, not long after Justice of the Peace Gonzalo Alonso Garcia, the twentieth prominent Christian Democrat to be kidnapped or killed since the election, had been dragged from his house in San Cayetano Itepeque by fifteen armed men, “is doing what it is supposed to do – bringing a broad spectrum of forces and factions into a functioning democratic system.”

In other words even the determination to eradicate the opposition could be interpreted as evidence that the model worked. There was still, moreover, a certain obeisance to the land reform program, the lustrous intricacies of which were understood by so few that almost any interpretation could be construed as possible. “About 207, 207 always applied only to 1979, that is what no one understands,” I had been told by President Magana when I tried at one point to get straight the actual status of Decree 207, the legislation meant to implant the “Land-to-the-Tiller” program by providing that title to all land farmed by tenants to be transferred immediately to those tenants. “There is no one more conservative than a small farmer,” Peter Shiras, a former consultant to the Inter-American Development Bank, had quoted an AID official as saying about 207. “We’re going to be breeding capitalists like rabbits.”

Decree 207 had been the source of considerable confusion and infighting during the weeks preceding my arrival in El Salvador, suspended but not suspended, on and off and on again, but I had not before heard anyone describe it, as President Magana seemed to be describing it, as a proposition wound up to self-destruct. Did he mean, I asked carefully, that Decree 207, implanting Land-to-the-Tiller, applied only to 1979 because no landowner, in practice, would work against his own interests by allowing tenants on his land after 207 took effect? “Right!” President Magana had said, as if to a slow student. “Exactly! This is what no one understands. There were no new rental contracts in 1980 or 1981. No one would rent out land under 207, they would have to be crazy to do that.”

What he said was obvious, but out of line with the rhetoric, and this conversation with President Magana about Land-to-the-Tiller, which I had heard described through the spring as a centerpiece of United States policy in El Salvador, had been one of many occasions when the American effort in El Salvador seemed based on auto-suggestion, a dreamwork devised to obscure any intelligence that might trouble the dreamer. This impression persisted, and I was struck, a few months later, by the suggestion in the report on El Salvador released by the Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence of the House of Representatives (U.S. Intelligence Performance in Central America: Achievements and Selected Instances of Concern) that the intelligence was itself a dreamwork, tending to support policy, the report read, “rather than inform it,” providing “reinforcement more than illumination,” “‘ammunition’ rather than analysis.”

A certain tendency to this kind of dreamwork, to improving upon rather than illuminating the situation, may have been inevitable, since the unimproved situation in El Salvador was such that to consider it was to consider moral extinction. “This time they won’t get away with it,” Robert White was reported to have said as he watched the bodies of the four American women dragged from their common grave, but they did, and White was brought home. This is a country that cracks Americans, and Deane Hinton gave the sense of a man determined not to crack. There on the terrace of the official residence on Avenida La Capilla in the San Benito district it was all logical. One step followed another, progress was slow. We were Americans, we would not be demoralized. It was not until late in the lunch, at a point between the salad and the profiteroles, that it occurred to me that we were talking exclusively about the appearance of things, about how the situation might be made to look better, about trying to get the Salvadoran government to “appear” to do what the American government needed done in order to make it “appear” that the American aid was justified.

It was sometimes necessary to stop Roberto D’Aubuisson “on the one-yard line” (Deane Hinton’s phrase about the ARENA attempt to commandeer the presidency) because Roberto D’Aubuisson made a negative appearance in the United States, made things, as Jeremiah O’Leary, the assistant to national security adviser William Clark, had imagined Hinton advising D’Aubuisson after the election, “hard for everybody”. What made a positive appearance in the United States, and things easier for everybody, were elections, and the announcement of arrests in cases involving murdered Americans, and ceremonies in which tractable campesinos were awarded land titles by army officers, and the Treasury Police sat on the platform, and the president came, by helicopter. “Our land reform program,” Leonel Gomez, who had worked with the murdered Jose Rodolfo Viera in the Salvadoran Institute of Agrarian Transformation, noted in Food Monitor, “gave them an opportunity to build up points for the next U.S. AID grant.” By “them” Leonel Gomez meant not his compatriots but Americans, meant the American Institute for Free Labor Development, meant Roy Prosterman, the architect of the Land-to-the-Tiller programs in both El Salvador and Vietnam.

In this light the American effort had a distinctly circular aspect (the aid was the card with which we got the Salvadorans to do it our way, and appearing to do it our way was the card with which the Salvadorans got the aid), and the question of why the effort was being made went unanswered. It was possible to talk about Cuba and Nicaragua, and by extension the Soviet Union, and national security, but this seemed only to justify a momentum already underway: no one could doubt that Cuba and Nicaragua had at various points supported the armed opposition to the Salvadoran government, but neither could anyone be surprised by this, or, given what could be known about the players, be unequivocally convinced that American interests lay on one side or another of what even Deane Hinton referred to as a civil war.

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2 Responses to The Books: Salvador, by Joan Didion

  1. Pingback: Rongo tipsar: ”Salvador.” « Rongo Förlag

  2. albert says:

    Nice article, means alot to me. thank you

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