Against the Current, No. 24, January/February 1990
interviews Marc Cooper
Marc Cooper, a journalist with many years’ experience in El Salvador and a producer of several documentaries on the struggle there was interviewed by Susan Weissman on the “Midweek” program on KPFK-FM, the Pactfica radio station in Los Angeles. The program aired November 30, 1989, two weeks after the murder of six Jesuit priests and two women at the rectory of Central American University in San Salvador. Weissman is an editor of this magazine and a broadcaster at KPFA. This interview was edited and excerpted by ATC.
Marc Cooper. The offensive (by the revolutionary forces in El Salvador) is a definite new phase in the conflict, for two reasons. First, this civil conflict, as we sometimes call it —but what we’re really dealing with in El Salvador is a revolution, much more than a civil war — is now going to express itself in military terms. The possibility for expression in political, if by that we mean non-military, terms is virtually non-existent. Of course, if we understand war to be an extension of politics, then we’re looking at the logical conclusion of a political conflict.
Second, in a strict military sense, we see the rather dramatic shattering of all the whistling in the dark that the U.S. administration and the Salvadoran government have been doing over the past five years, ever since the election of Jose Napoleon Duarte in 1984.
The popular perception put forward by the administration and largely echoed by the media was that democracy was in place, the social conditions for revolution were attenuated if not extirpated, and the FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front) was a spent and declining force.
In fact, the guerrillas have said for years that they were readjusting their tactics, preparing for a major counteroffensive. That was pooh-poohed. But this is what has now been dropped in a very hot fashion into the laps of the Bush administration. Today, James Baker (Secretary of State) says the major obstacle to better relations with the USSR, as Bush goes to the Malta summit, is El Salvador! So this situation that was supposed to be “under control” has now unraveled very quickly.
Susan Weissman: I want to go track over the history of our intervention. The United States has put in $5 billion, which could have developed the country if it hadn’t gone to support a military. But we just go over this unfolding revolution, as you’ve called it; by 1981 the repression had crushed the revolution in the cities. Another significance of the new offensive is the re-emergence of that urban movement, as well as in the countryside.
MC: In 1979, at the time of the Nicaraguan revolution, El Salvador was on the brink of revolution. Having seen Nicaragua move out of the U.S. orbit, the State Department decided it was time to head it off. It has used all means necessary in the past ten years to head off a revolution, putting its finger in the dike.
It did this, first, by giving aid to a military engaged in a wholesale slaughter. This created a raucous debate on Capitol Hill. It then shifted, escalating military aid while putting in effect a two-track policy to put in place at least a facade of democracy.
What’s transpired over the years is that the actual revolutionary force confronted by the U.S. hasn’t relented, and the U.S. project of building a moderate government has come full circle, so that the people in power supported by the U.S. today are the far-right ARENA (Republican Nationalist Alliance) party. But having said that, I point out that the military in El Salvador has always held the power behind the scenes.
The military is more comfortable today with the presidency of Cristiani (of ARENA) than it was with Duarte (of the Christian Democrats); that doesn’t mean they are willing to cede power to civilians. They might be willing to let Cristiani in on some of the decisions that are made, or allow him a little more margin than Duarte had, but it’s absolutely clear that the most extreme elements in the military hold power.
SW: Reagan’s policy pulled off a tremendous coup by making it appear that civilians held power.
MC: The debate has been the same over the past ten years. It reminds me of the game we used to play in school called Mad-libs, where you use the same formula and just fill in the names, in the following way:
In 1979-80 there was military government. The U.S. line was, we are supporting the moderate military against the extreme right-wing military. That didn’t work because the whole military was butchering everybody.
Then there was a civilian-military junta. We were supporting the civilian-military junta against the right-wing forces in the military. The murders continued.
Then we put Duarte in power. We were now supporting the democratic Duarte trying to bring the military under control. Then, as U.S. military aid escalated, we were supporting Duarte and the “professional” military, trying to bring the unprofessional military into tow.
Finally this year when Cristiani took power, we were supporting Cristiani and the “good” ARENA against the “bad” d’Aubuisson ARENA.
But if we look at the killing of the Jesuit priests two weeks ago, while I have no idea who made the actual decision to kill those priests, I know as sure as I’m sitting here that they were killed by the military. Now the question is: What about Cristiani?
I’m sure Cristiani didn’t order the killing of the priests. That’s not because Cristiani is more moderate – he’s a rich playboy, squash champion, owns sugar plantations and a pharmaceutical company, all the money he needs, who in his forties decided voluntarily to become the symbol of the most tainted political organization in the western hemisphere, the ARENA party, which is undoubtedly a creation of the most elite oligarchical forces in El Salvador, not “linked to” but an integral part of the death squad machinery.
Cristiani doesn’t have a moral problem being involved with death squads. But as a politician he knows it will be very difficult for him to maintain the kinds of relations he would like with the U.S. Congress if he goes around blowing out the brains of Jesuit priests. Yet his military, that is ideologically allied with him, doesn’t feel it even necessary to check in with him about that, because they know they have absolute power.
What we really see today is that, while the FMLN offensive has been in the planning for months and years, it comes now because the Cristiani government way before November 11 had effectively shut down the political space in El Salvador. The mass organizations, trade unions, religious and community organizations were already underground. It became extremely dangerous if not impossible to carry out any dissident activity.
Of course, the bombing of the union (FENASTRAS) headquarters by pro-government forces October 31 was really the final straw. (Ten unionists including FENASTRAS director Febe Elizabeth Velasquez were killed, and dozens wounded, in that attack—ed.)
SW: I want to get more deeply into the question of the FMLN and of church-state relations, and why the government is so concerned in El Salvador about church and human rights workers. You started to get into the nature of ARENA as the party of the oligarchy, whereas in most advanced societies the ruling class seems to be grouped around Christian Democratic types of parties, which provide for the most stability.
MC: Very succinctly, for 50 years the landed oligarchy, which owned the major coffee and cotton export industries, maintained a semi-feudal military dictatorship. The security forces and the army were rent-a-cop services, much as feudal overlords might control their own army detachments, in the face of continuing peasant uprisings.
With U.S. intervention the balance shifted. In the U.S. quest to form a moderate government, it had to favor the Christian Democrats, but the bulk of U.S. aid went to the military. Now, the real interests that run El Salvador today aren’t the cotton and coffee oligarchy, but the United States of America through its agencies, which are precisely the military. The Salvadoran military that used to be at the behest of the oligarchical families, is now at the behest of the U.S., and the oligarchical parties are now the auxiliary of the military, as a political facade.
SW: This is a new phenomenon. Usually the army is the body of armed men that protect the ruling class. You’re telling me that the ruling class is subordinate, that the country is a client of the United States.
MC: Depending on how you calculate, the U.S. contributes 55% to 75% of the budget of El Salvador. if you want to use phrases like “satellite state” and other such familiar terms, well, the only other country that received more than 50% of its total budget from the United States was South Vietnam.
Without the presence of the United States, El Salvador in its current state collapses. The army needs, for public relations purposes, a political facade. Earlier this year! held a lengthy interview with Col Orlando Cepeda, who is not formerly with the San Francisco Giants He was the chief of military intelligence and is currently Vice-minister of Defense.
Cepeda told me very clearly: the largest political party in El Salvador is the Army. We are the largest, most cohesive, most rational, most functional, indispensable force and the ultimate guarantor of the institutional system. And he is absolutely correct.
SW: Again you’ve mentioned South Vietnam. That brings up: is this a Tet Offensive (the assault in South Vietnamese cities by the National Liberation Front in 1968—ed.)? And why does the military take it out on the church and the human rights movement?
MC: As to what we are seeing militarily, it’s dangerous to make comparisons to other countries. Whether or not this is a Tet Offensive, I will make this daring statement: What we are seeing in El Salvador today is the last phase of the war.
That means—if one can ask, is this the “final offensive”?—I would say, yes, this is the beginning of a phase of war that the FMLN has been planning for three years, which las a journalist could easily document, of which they have spoken freely, which could easily be documented by those who bothered to do so, as many reporters don’t it is now being implemented more or less as they said they would.
Does this mean the Salvadoran government is about to fall? That’s the next question. Nobody knows. All we know is that there cannot be a “superior” (higher) phase of war than the present one.
My information—it maybe partial or incorrect—is that the FMLN has still not deployed its special assault forces, which are trained to overrun military garrisons. It’s certainly also a political decision, not a technological one, not yet to deploy surface-to-air missiles.
Apart from what may or may not have come into El Salvador in the past couple of weeks in these planes that fall from the sky, SAMs are readily available for sale in Central America, to individuals let alone to guerilla groups. If the FMLN doesn’t have them, it does have access to them and hasn’t yet decided to use them.
The reason for that is that the FMLN doesn’t know what lies on the other side of that (step). if you deploy surface-to-air missiles and begin shooting down U.S.-supplied planes of the Salvadoran government, are there U.S. Marines on the other side of that? Are there Guatemalan or Honduran troops?
So I would say, not that every ounce of military muscle the FMLN has is now being exerted, but that this is the last push. Last pushes can last a year, they can last two years, or three years. And they can win or they can fail.
The other question that I know has arisen here is whether the FMLN wants to overthrow the government or to negotiate a settlement….
SW: Let me interrupt for a minute. As you stated, it’s been said that this offensive was to flex muscle in order to move toward negotiations, because a stalemate exists—which doesn’t square with the idea clan unfolding revolution in which you seize the arsenals, arm the peopie and so on. You’ve had long discussions with the FMLN, and so you are particularly qualified to address the question of what their political program is—and what are they doing this for?
MC: I have to back into that answer, because the question of negotiations or military defeat of the government is linked to that (the FMLN’s program). I want to say that whether the FMLN wants to negotiate a settlement, or to defeat the government militarily, you have to go through the same process Things aren’t easy to judge—I believe nobody, including the FMLN themselves, can sit here and say yes they can, or no they can’t, overthrow the Salvadoran government.
I think the FMLN believes that given the balance of forces in the world today and the U.S. track record in the hemisphere, it’s in the interests of the FMLN to force a negotiation. Because if there are negotiations —as in Zimbabwe or Namibia, even in Vietnam to a degree—- then the potential for having to face the U.S. directly in the field, the day after the victory, is reduced.
If this government is overthrown, is the Bush administration going to sit back and accept that? But if there’s an acceptance of negotiations you’re looking at a different situation.
The real insanity, or should I say the surrealistic aspect of the current situation is how the Bush government is praising the transformation in Eastern Europe, while pointing to the government of Nicaragua and the Salvadoran rebels as the last Stailnist holdouts.
(After a gap in the tape of the broadcast, the discussion continues with questions phoned in by listeners, with Marc Cooper’s responses, excerpts from which are given here. The first response is to a question about the arrested U.S. church worker Jennifer Casolo, charged with hiding arms for the FMLN in San Salvador–ed.)
MC: Unlike Marlin Fitzwater and the White House, I would say that Jenifer Casolo’s guilt or innocence ought to be determined by a court, not by statements from the White House. I would be surprised to learn that she was involved in smuggling guns to the Salvadoran guerrillas.
There is clearly a concerted campaign by the Salvadoran government right now, against not only the Catholic Church but other church organizations in the country.
SW: The question, of course, is why?
MC: You have a political leadership in El Salvador that is a little bit out of control, and has been for eight or nine years, and now feels mortally threatened. The pressure is really on the Salvadoran government.
There are people in El Salvador, staid and sober observers, and I’m not saying I agree with them, who are telling me this week (end of November—ed.) that they don’t believe the Salvadoran government can last till the end of the year. I don’t know if that’s true or not— but it’s the first time people have said that the government may not be here in thirty days.
There’s a hatred, ideological hatred of the poor. The poor are immediately suspect, and those who work with the poor, like the churches, immediately become criminalized in a place like El Salvador. That our government tolerates another government that’s perhaps complicit in the murder of six Jesuits is bad enough — there’s at least an element of doubt, because the so-called smoking gun hasn’t been found. But the declaration made by the man in charge of the investigation, who sent a letter to the Archbishop of San Salvador saying basically that the priests had better clear out because the safety of those who ideologically support revolution cannot be guaranteed, is flabbergasting.
If this had happened in Poland, the CBS Evening News would be anchored from Warsaw.
SW: Gorbachev is visiting the Pope today. Maybe they’ll discuss this issue.
A Listener: Are you familiar with what the FMLN wants to bring to the negotiating table?
MC: The FMLN’s proposals have been radically altered over the past year. They are quite minimal, not even asking for the removal of the government or dismantling the army, or even a merger of the guerilla army with the standing army, as was the case in Zimbabwe or to an extent in Namibia.
What they say is that we, the FMLN, are willing to participate in the political process as an unarmed political party, if you democratize the current system, reduce the size of the army, and bring to justice the leaders of the death squads.
Those are their minimum negotiating points At this point the question becomes: Is the FMLN sincere? I know that question is raised and I want to bring it up here. Is it bringing to the table demands that cannot or will not be met by the Salvadoran government?
I don’t speak for the FMLN by any means; however, I will answer the question by saying that the answer is no — and yes.
I think that the demands brought to the table by the Salvadoran guerrillas are impossible to be met by the government. But that doesn’t mean the FMLN is negotiating in bad faith It means they have brought forth the minimum possible demands that preclude surrender, and the government will not accept even those.
Can the FMLN call for negotiations while believing it must continue to fight? Of course Guerilla armies have one that throughout history. But that’s a problem for the Salvadoran government and the U.S., more than for the FMLN. The demands don’t even call for restructuring the regime, only for what is normal in any country.
SW: The reality is that the war, after all, is a contest for power.
MC: Yes, but phenomenally, the FMLN has dropped even the demand for power sharing. And I think the reason for that —although I haven’t learned this or been told it as a reporter, I’m speculating—is that they know the Salvadoran government isn’t going to accept anything.
A Listener: Did you speak to many people in the countryside who voted for the ARENA party? How do they feel about being under a death sentence from the FMLN for voting for ARENA?
MC: Most people in the countryside are scared to death on voting day, because if they don’t vote they will be marked as guerrillas and liable to be killed by the security forces.
I will refer to a documentary I produced, “Our Forgotten war,” available through PBS, whereon camera we interviewed a whole line of people in a town called San Fernando, who are voting for ARENA. They have no idea who the candidate is, they have no idea what the party stands for, they only know they are voting for ARENA because that’s who the military says they had better vote for.
The Salvadoran guerrillas have assassinated around a dozen mayors, mostly from the ARENA party. They have done that because they think the mayors are part of a counter-insurgency program. You may accept that or not, you may find that highly immoral or not, but it’s a war. (Listener: That’s not the way you win the hearts and souls of the people.) I reject your notion that voters in El Salvador are threatened by the guerrillas. There is no evidence for that.
As to whether they alienate their constituency by targeting the mayors of the Salvadoran government – that’s a good question, and I think they probably don’t win any popular support for that.
A Listener: What happened to the witness of the murders of the Jesuits who was flown to Miami?
MC: My understanding is that she is in the federal witness protection program of the U.S. government I don’t know how that will play out Her testimony before Judge Zamora was released yesterday, and clearly singled Out the Salvadoran military, possibly troops from the First infantry Brigade in San Salvador, as the perpetrators. Judge Zamora himself says he thinks it’s logical that it’s the military behind the crime.
There’s an Associated Press report that I saw today, which documents another massacre two days after the killing of the priests, in which seven civilians were lined up against a wall in the Cuzcatincingo neighborhood of San Salvador and executed in cold blood by the military. These weren’t Jesuits and didn’t have a lot of friends in the universities and Congress, so they may not get a lot of publicity.
The report I saw was a chilling, documented reconstruction of the execution of these people who absolutely were not involved in guerilla activity. They were on their way to work. So I don’t have much hope that there’s going to be any real prosecution of these crimes in general. But when the U.S. Congress reconvenes, I suspect that the Cristiani government (if it’s still in power) is going to have to produce someone to prosecute for the Jesuits’ murder.
A Listener: What about foreign aid to El Salvador from other sources besides the United States?
MC: It’s hard to document. When the guerrillas took the Sheraton Hotel about ten days ago, they found not only American military advisors but also a Guatemalan and a Chilean advisor. There’s also a record in an excellent program produced earlier this year by Andrew and Leslie Cockburn for PBS, documenting the penetration of Israeli aid into Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
I will say that the Salvadoran government at this moment is in a very tenuous position. What hasn’t gotten a lot of press in the last couple of days and will go unnoticed except by real students of the area, is that the Guatemalan government —theoretically an ally of El Salvador—denounced the Salvadoran government, and ARENA and d’Aubuisson in particular, for allegedly funneling arms to the extreme right wing in Guatemala, bent on overthrowing the already conservative government in Guatemala! So there is bad blood right now between the Salvadoran and Guatemalan governments.
A Listener: Given that there isn’t Russia to be our so-called enemy anymore, do you think we will inevitably wind up in a Vietnam-type war (in Central America)?
MC: The answer is a qualified no, primarily because Central America isn’t Vietnam, it has its own characteristics. The kind of intense war that involved three million troops being rotated in and out, I don’t see that. It’s just not the same territory.
However, I think it would be foolish to rule out the use of U.S. military force in El Salvador. I see no compelling reason why it wouldn’t be used. In fact, U.S. military force would be used much more quickly in El Salvador than in Nicaragua, because there’s much greater Congressional consensus around El Salvador.
And I think the U.S. has painted itself into an extremely dangerous policy corner. It’s very dangerous that on the eve of the Malta summit, rhetoric reaches such a level that James Baker declares El Salvador to be the main stumbling block in East-West relations.
That means to me one thing: that the State Department is in a policy panic on El Salvador. They have literally left themselves no answer except to blame the Russians.
So it’s a situation that could be a very convenient diversion for the Bush government, if Gorbachev continues with the kind of international initiatives he’s been taking. The extreme irony is that after forty years of the U.S. calling for the liberation of the captive nations of Eastern Europe, they have now been liberated—by the Soviet Union, not by Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party. That’s not to praise the Soviet Union, it’s just the way history has worked out.
The point here is that by canonizing the Salvadoran government and satanizing or criminalizing the Salvadoran opposition, the U.S. is on the verge of creating a self-fulfilling prophecy. If they have declared it a mortal sin and a tragedy for the Salvadoran opposition to win, the U.S. will not be able to save face and enter a humane relationship with a post-revolutionary government in El Salvador.
© 2020 Against the Current
January-February 1990, ATC 24