America: More Like El Salvador Every Day

OPS News, September, 2005

I preface these remarks with the encouragement that elections and voting are the only viable means for changing the faces in government enacting policies affecting all of us. Beginning with President Ronald Reagan’s two terms, I have observed an America becoming more like El Salvador every day.

During the 1980s, under President Reagan, the UmiliS annually poured $500 million dollars into El Salvador in mostly military aid to support the government’s defensive war against its own people.

El Salvador was ruled by 14 families which owned or controlled everything — police, army, industry, commerce, media, government — everything. And 90% of the people of El Salvador survived on poverty wages, often doing seasonal work, without benefits or access to public education, public health services, even safe water or sanitation. Little wonder that popular movements for social change, which had met no success lobbying their government nonviolently for decades, evolved into an organized revolutionary force determined to overthrow the elitist oligarchy misruling the tiny nation.

Sometime in the late 1980s I had the thought that if the US government was willing to spend $5 billion in El Salvador to support an elitist government maintaining policies “of, for, and by the rich” then maybe El Salvador was the model of how they felt a nation should be managed. Since then, each year, incrementally, America has become more like El Salvador.

Numerous tax cuts through the decades have benefited primarily the rich, leaving programs unfunded which traditionally helped America’s most vulnerable citizens. Virtually gone are the mental health institutions whose clients now wander the streets in confusion. Today, they end up in jail alongside criminals. Meanwhile, the number of billionaires in America has grown, from some 13 in 1980, to more than 300 today.

The disparity of wealth between America’s rich and poor is the largest in history, and is the largest of any other nation. Meanwhile, some 2.1 million people are incarcerated in the US, a higher percentage of our population than any other nation. The US military budget today is around $500 billion per year, about half of what the whole world spends on military preparedness or actions.

The Salvadoran government in the 1970s and 1980s was committed to maintaining a system which enforced the status quo of rich and poor. To this end, the government targeted organizers of popular organizations, or any organization working to improve the lives of the poor, and simply had them “disappeared” by death squads. The United States naturally denied any knowledge or complicity in this wholesale slaughter of tens of thousands of “liberals” in El Salvador, but it is not possible that US leadership was unaware of what was going on.

Would the US government knowingly do such things?

A year and a half ago, it was reported in some of our news media that US government officials concerned that the war in Iraq was going badly were considering a “Salvador Option” in Iraq. Not only was this an admission that US leaders had known all along about the assassination campaigns in El Salvador, it also revealed that the plan was being dusted off to be implemented again, in Iraq.

And, indeed, just a week ago, it was reported that United Nations human rights observers were expressing concern about the rising numbers of “extrajudicial killings” in Iraq, and evidence that many such corpses displayed evidence of torture before death. Is it possible that the US and its Iraqi collaborators are implementing the “Salvador Option” in Iraq already?

In 1988, the FCC policy was repealed which mandated equal time for a “fair response” if someone felt they had been unfairly characterized in the media or a news broadcast was simply erroneous. Some of us remember calling a radio or TV station and requesting time to reply to some outrageous news story about an issue or person. Because that policy was repealed, there is no legal recourse to today’s right-wing “shock jocks” who broadcast misinformation, disinformation, lies and calumny 24 hours a day on the 1500 or so radio stations of Clear Channel Communications or the Fox News Network.

Part of today’s challenge is communicating to our fellow Americans that there is no longer reliable information available through much of the corporate-controlled “news media.” TV and radio news “anchors” often realize that their job is not to investigate or challenge the stories placed before them, but simply to participate in broadcasting “news lite” which ignores information challenging to US policy, or which just distracts people from issues affecting their lives.

The two women — Malka Drucker and Gay Block — who produced the remarkable “Rescuers” exhibit now on display in Oklahoma City as part of the Holocaust Exhibition — free and open every day through October 23rd, at the “Untitled Artspace” at 1 NE 3rd St. — made a telling point about the Holocaust during the Nazi regime. They said that everyone in Europe fell into one of four categories: 1) perpetrators, 2) victims, 3) rescuers, and 4) bystanders.

Each of us is challenged today to define ourselves in regard to issues of justice and compassion in the world affecting all six billion people on the planet … and Nature too. Whatever issue calls most clearly to you, I pray that you may find energy, meaning and value in engagement, and resist with all your spirit the temptation to remain simply a bystander.

The world desperately needs every one of us now: artists, poets, musicians, chefs, carpenters, mothers, bankers, speakers, lobbyists, politicians and political activists.

As the late Archbishop Oscar Romero said before he was assassinated in El Salvador in 1980, “Everyone can do something.” Romero’s life and words have much to teach us today. I invite you to read the Romero retrospective on page 6.