Monday, November 19, 2007

A Review of America’s ‘Investment’ in El Salvador

On November 16, 1989, six Jesuit priests, their cook and her daughter were murdered execution-style by the right-wing Salvadoran military government. The priests were killed for teaching their students ideas about liberating themselves from the oppression of the rich families that owned most of the country’s wealth. The cook and her daughter were killed because they were on the premises and potential witnesses to the crime.

The perpetrators were trained at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), a.k.a. the School of the Americas where Latin American military officers learn the latest methods of murder, rape and torture. Every year since 1990, Father Roy Bourgeois and the SOA Watch lead a weekend demonstration outside Fort Benning near Columbus, Georgia, to demand closure of this U.S. program. The execution of “the martyrs,” as the Salvadorans call them, finally put an international spotlight on the ugly civil war that had already cost 75,000 people their lives, including Archbishop Oscar Romero on March 24, 1980.

Congressman Joe Moakley (D-Massachusetts) investigated the situation in El Salvador, which began a process to end the 12-year civil war-and to reveal the U.S. government’s role in it as well. Eventually, the United Nations helped the warring sides to sign a peace agreement in January 1992.

Here is an eye-witness report of my visit to El Salvador last November. It illustrates the legacy of our government’s $6 billion “investment” in that war after 15 years of peace-and provides a sample of what we can expect from our $1.6 trillion and counting “investment” in Afghanistan and Iraq.


A shoeless boy wearily weaves his way down the street, alone, in a limp pair of soiled shorts and a torn t-shirt. Heaps of trash pile up in the vacant corners of neighborhoods and on grassy medians on the city’s streets. Dogs, comprised of many breeds, some of them obviously sick with disease, listlessly amble through the streets avoiding the path of a strutting rooster or a mother hen with her perky and curious chicks.

A shabby, dazed, young man slumps on his rump over one of the benches of a busy community laundry. As the women scrub their family’s clothes or those they’ve put out for hire, the man cuddles a greasy, white, plastic canister of glue with his nose stuck down deep in it as much as his face will allow.

Two men with sawed-off shotguns stand in front of a Burger King. The police, who work long, boring hours and lack the public’s respect, are unable to guarantee order consistently so business owners hire private guards to protect themselves, their customers, and their property.

Even on Saturdays the young women of the sweatshop factories, the maquiladoras, rouse themselves to report to work at 6 a.m. where they will spend the next 14 hours sewing fashion clothing soon be sold in stores all over the United States.

It’s dark at 6 p.m. in November and by 8 the streets of La Chacra, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the capital city of San Salvador, are deserted because the 30,000 residents close up their shops and lock the doors of their homes in order to secure themselves against the vagrancies of warring youth gangs with guns and drugs.

The polluted Rio Acelhuate runs through La Chacra but the kids who play in it and their families who use it for watering animals lack an understanding of basic public health principles. This means that they typically suffer physical ailments from their poverty: dermatitis and fungus (skin diseases caused by wet feet and close contact with garbage), gastro-intestinal conditions (from parasites), diabetes, arthritis, and hypertension.

It’s easy to see why upper respiratory diseases are so prevalent in the city. A thick, black cloud constantly hovers over the city due to all the diesel emissions of cars and especially the buses. At rush hour you can hardly breathe the air it is so polluted. Even the rain offers no relief and summer must be awful when the seamy, humid tropical air adds to this noxious soup.

While most Salvadorans obtain a sixth grade education, one of the lowest rates in the world, only 50 percent complete the ninth grade and 25 percent make it through high school. Unemployment or underemployment in the country is about 50 percent and the illiteracy rate stands at 60-70 percent. Most of the elderly cannot read. Consequently, education is highly valued and desperately needed to help this country improve its future economic and social outlook.

High school graduates in El Salvador have a chance to get jobs in shops and offices. If they go on to the university, they can be teachers, translators, businesspeople, health care workers, doctors, lawyers, professors, priests-and middle class parents.

Students realize that they are the future of El Salvador, however, they also know that without an education they will go nowhere. So they make the necessary sacrifices. Some of them take three buses to get to school. Most work during the day and study late at night while their parents-and sometimes their extended family-have two and three jobs at low pay to help their children obtain an education.

With a national population of nearly 7 million, it’s estimated that hundreds of Salvadorans struggle to cross into El Norte every day to join over 2 million of their countrymen who are already here. They are the ones who wash dishes, wait tables, and clean toilets in American cities, slaughter and slice carcasses at the meat packing plants of the Midwest, or perform endless hours of stoop labor as migrant farm workers in the Southwest, Florida, New York and Michigan.

In a recent study by the University of Central America in San Salvador, 42 percent of Salvadorans said they would leave their country to go to the United States if they had the chance. These people, who make $1-3 per day, are so desperate to feed their families that they are willing to risk a crossing. Some pay $6,000-7,000 for a coyote’s help, which requires a 50 percent down payment and must be paid back within three years at 20 percent interest. To raise this money, they put up their land, farm and house as collateral. When they finally make it to the United States (sometimes it takes two or three tries), all members of the family from both sides of the border face being separated from each other for unknown periods of time.

The current right-wing ARENA government denies that the country has a poverty problem; it wants the country to look good after getting such bad press during the 1980’s war. It also makes a lot of promises to improve health and education but then fails to follow through. Consequently, funds that poured in from abroad during and since those terrible war years are drying up as needs elsewhere in the world take priority.

Before the war started in 1980, 14 families of El Salvador owned most of the country’s wealth. Now the remaining eight families are privatizing the country’s resources and making trade agreements like the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which greatly advantages U.S. corporations.

President Bush’s call for a Coalition of the Willing in 2003 yielded only El Salvador’s participation from Latin America despite negative public opinion, according to the Council on Hemispheric Affairs. (Nicaragua, Honduras and the Dominican Republic sent a small number of troops at the beginning of the war but pulled them out in spring 2004.) Of the 1300 Salvadoran troops sent, five have been killed. Last March when President Bush visited Latin America, he didn’t even bother to stop by in El Salvador to thank them for their service.

This article appeared in CommonDreams.org on Friday, November 16, 2007

Monday, November 12, 2007

An Armistice Day Legacy

Elly and Bob Nagler grew up an ocean apart but their commitment to peace has strengthened them throughout their 50+ years of marriage. Neither of them stands out particularly in physical appearance. In fact, you might even miss seeing them at local peace vigils, but they’re there-every week, twice a week-since October 2002 before the war in Iraq began. And there’s no mistaking their devotion to the cause of peace and the depth from which it comes in all that they do and say. It began through their fathers who both fought in World War I.

Elly Nagler’s father was a Bavarian soldier and a French prisoner of war. He had hopes of becoming a priest but the war dashed that ambition.

“He had blood on his hands,” said Elly, “and didn’t feel he could be a priest.” Instead, he became a writer, an organizer and eventually secretary for the International Fellowship of Reconciliation (IFOR), a non-governmental inter-faith organization founded in 1919 in London as a response to World War I. IFOR was the first organization of its kind in the world to be committed to peaceful nonviolence in favor of healing and reconciliation.

According to its Web site, “the founders of IFOR formulated a vision of the human community based upon the belief that love in action has the power to transform unjust political, social and economic structures.”

Elly’s father established a branch office for IFOR in Vienna and operated from there until 1938 when Hitler took over Bavaria; then the office had to close. After the war he re-established IFOR. Today IFOR flourishes with a presence in more than 40 countries.

Elly’s sister, Hildegard Goss-Mayr, later took over her father’s work at IFOR and became an international figure. A prolific writer and speaker, the Vatican asked Hildegard for her input on its important encyclical, Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), published in 1963. She has also conducted training programs on nonviolence in Latin America, Africa and Asia and has served as a consultant to leaders like Cory Aquino of the Philippines. As a result of her work, Hildegard was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize three times.

In comparison to her father and her sister, Elly doesn’t consider herself a peace activist, but rather an “agitator for change.”

“I’m just a human being,” said Elly, the mother of four daughters and a son. “We should have a responsibility for each other and do all we can to make the world a better place.” She thinks that the only way to settle conflict is through nonviolence and living up to our possibilities.

Actually, Elly is no slouch when it comes to peace activism. In 1947 she joined the Quaker youth work camp movement in Austria, Sweden, Mexico and El Salvador to help rebuild houses in villages and to provide assistance in refugee camps that harbored Russians, Germans and Ukrainians.

“I lost half of my heart in El Salvador,” said Elly. It’s probably one of the reasons the Naglers were so active in the Sanctuary movement of the mid-1980s when they helped harbor a Salvadoran family.

Bob Nagler grew up in Iowa City, the son of a famous hydraulics engineer who consulted on the Hoover Dam and several Mississippi River projects. When he returned from World War I, he vowed always to make the world a better place through his work as well as through his commitment as a peace activist for the Methodist church. He wanted to rid the world of war and to promote nonviolence as a peaceful solution.

In 1933 Bob attended the Epworth League’s summer youth camp on Clear Lake, Iowa, a part of the Southern Methodists’ religious education program. The theme that year focused on peace and the Oxford Pledge. The children learned that the pledge was derived from the world’s first peace movement started in England during the late 1920s as a response to the disastrous global conflict of 1914-1918. Students at Oxford University had taken a pledge that they would “not fight for king and country” as their fathers had in World War I where 40 million people died, half of them civilians.

Bob was among half of the 200 kids at the camp who signed the peace pledge. Part of the reason the pledge has “stuck with him” to this day was because his father died less than three months later, leaving ten-year-old Bob, his mother and two younger siblings.

“My father was my hero,” said Bob who sought to remember him by making the Oxford pledge his father’s legacy to him. Eventually Bob became a Quaker. His father had worked with them and he knew they lived lives of peace and nonviolence. Besides, they helped other people in need, like his own family.

In 1943, while in the middle of his junior year of college, Bob was drafted into the Army. However, because of his Conscientious Objector status, he was assigned to a Civilian Public Service base camp in North Dakota under the direction of the Quakers. He later volunteered for a starvation experiment in Minnesota and an infectious hepatitis project in Philadelphia, where he became a human “guinea pig” and contracted hepatitis. His work with the Army led him to a career in science and he eventually became a chemistry professor and helped to start a chemistry program at Western Michigan University.

During his tenure at the university, Bob participated in a USAID science training program in Nigeria for a couple of years, which he found to be “the most fulfilling thing I ever did.” He worked with the top five percent of all students there.

During the Vietnam War, Bob advised WMU students on Conscientious Objector status and participated in peace demonstrations. Of course, he was under F.B.I. observation for his activities, but he was undeterred. Bob has also worked with the local and national environmental councils and with the Physicians for Social Responsibility. Today, he writes monthly letters to his congressman, a Republican who always votes with the president. Nevertheless, Bob continues to convey his concerns about the war in Iraq and about science, particularly those issues involving the environment and stem cell research. What keeps the Naglers going after all these years? That’s easy, they say: the consistency of their actions for peace and their concern for the world.

“You can make an impact on the world with your persistence in doing what you think is right,” said Bob. “It is symbolic of your conviction.”

Bob dreams that the United Nations will evolve into the meaningful peace organization it was meant to be.

“I’m not discouraged or encouraged about the world’s situation,” he said pointing out that there are now hundreds of organizations all over the world working for peace, educating people and publishing books on peace.

“Some of this will rub off. Peace activists are responding to those who make war more readily. They know that violence escalates itself and they want to stop it. They realize that other people have rights and opinions and that peace is a constructive activity.”

“You can never give up on hope,” said Elly, who has seen the total devastation of cities in her youth-twice-through two world wars.

“But we Americans and Europeans need to come off of our superiority complex,” said Elly. “We need to realize that human beings have value. We take it for granted that total inequality exists because we don’t know how to go about making the world where we see people as our equals. This will take much education.”


This article appeared in CommonDreams.org on Sunday, November 11, 2007