Saving El Salvador

Author: Michael O. Garvey '74

El Salvador received its unique name when a 16th century conquistador — whether piously or ironically — associated a remote and disappointing Spanish colony with the Savior, the Light that comes into the world whose darkness cannot overcome It.

Not that the darkness hasn’t tried. Dictatorships and death squads have governed the country for most of its history, and 80,000 people were killed there in ghastly fighting between a U.S.-sponsored army and leftist rebels in the 1980s. Since peace accords were reached 10 years ago, the disbanded belligerents have eyed each other warily as political parties — ARENA on the right and the FMLN on the left. In the wake of the war, a hurricane in 1998, and a couple of earthquakes last year, El Salvador, already the smallest and most densely populated country of Latin America, has also become the poorest and most violent. A third of the people who live there want to leave, and no one blames them.

Eyes that opened on a wet and overcast Northern Indiana morning adjust reluctantly to the glare of a tropical afternoon, and on the road to San Salvador from the airport, human figures are at first indistinguishable from the landscape they later seem to overwhelm. Then auburn faces and vigilant glances begin to flash along the roadside. A young woman in a cobalt blue dress gracefully balances a plastic bag of mangoes on her left shoulder and with her right hand proffers a sample to the oncoming traffic. A grotesquely foreshortened man, whose legs have been neatly sheared off at the knees (undoubtedly by a land mine) and fitted with prosthetic leather caps, looks up to speak with a pot-bellied little boy standing on a crate. On a hammock in front of a ramshackle shelter, a little girl braids an old woman’s white hair as both of them laugh at something being said by another woman who leans out from the dark interior into the sunlight.

Beyond the shanties flanking the road, the corrugated roofs of recently constructed maquilas, or factories, are visible. These foreign-owned businesses began to proliferate soon after the war, providing thousands of low-wage jobs to desperate Salvadorans and millions of low-priced garments to bargain hunters in wealthy countries. El Salvador is itself a bargain for foreign manufacturers. Pitifully few jobs are available in this country, and a famished workforce cannot be an overly discriminating one. Despite the all-but-immeasurable unemployment rate, nearly everyone along the road is keeping busy. When they are not vending something — fruit, sweets, flowers or small appliances — men of all ages stoop beneath or push along massive loads of firewood. Women young and old balance voluminous plastic urns of water or bundles of laundry on their heads. Running water and electricity are scarce; firewood must be gathered and hauled to wherever meals are cooked; and water must be carried to wherever people slake their thirst and try to keep clean. It is time-consuming to be poor.

In early April, during the first week after Easter, it seemed that any commercial operation substantial enough to require a lock and key was also guarded by a well-armed sentry. On the outskirts of the posh Escalon neighborhood of San Salvador, the door of the Novo Apart Hotel was opened for entering guests by a polite man with a shotgun slung on his shoulder. Grocery shoppers at the Super Selecto market entered its bright, air-conditioned and lavishly stocked interior through a narrow doorway attended by a man holding an assault rifle. In Mr. Donut, a cashier casually removed a holstered revolver from atop a stack of newspapers when a customer asked to buy one. In the yellow pages of the phone book, 120 private security firms were listed, nearly all of them offering the services of professional gunmen.

One such firm has been retained by the Club Campestre, a golf course-wrapped retreat on an Escalon hilltop, where Jorge Zablah ’59 gave a dinner party the Wednesday after Easter. Guests were discreetly, but carefully, scrutinized and identified before entering the grounds, and the precautionary security brought to mind the two kidnappings — fortunately resolved without harm to the victims — the Zablah family has endured in recent years. The prepossessing Zablah, a gentle bear of a man, avoided discussion of such things. Among his guests, most of them fellow Notre Dame graduates, he preferred to talk about his affectionate memories of college days.

While no less hardworking than the poorest campesino, Zablah enjoys a degree of material success that has eluded most of his countrymen: He is the chief executive officer of Bon Apetit S.A., a manufacturer of fruit beverages; of Tasasa, the Salvadoran distributor of Philip Morris, Kraft, General Food and Nabisco products; and of Compana Mundial de Seguros, an insurance company. He also is founder and chairman of the board of FUSADES (the Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development), a Salvadoran nongovernmental agency headquartered in a gleaming white high-rise that he proudly pointed out from the club verandah.

Zablah seemed reluctant to engage in the genial table chat about contemporary Salvadoran politics. While his reticence was undoubtedly due to a naturally private disposition, it also reflected his conviction that ideology is a luxury his country can ill afford. Zablah summarized his own ideology, if that is the proper word for an ingenuous worldview, during a presentation to undergraduate students in the Mendoza College of Business last fall. “As Catholics, we believe that all things were made by God and entrusted to human beings,” he said, “and we have a fiduciary obligation to use them responsibly and ethically.” Accordingly, the conscientious practice of business requires an attentiveness to justice, human rights and the common good. “It is clear in the Gospels,” he concluded, “that God will ultimately ask each one of us, what did we do with all the things He gave us — how did we use them?”

Economic needs

At his dinner party Zablah did advance one political opinion: that the Salvadoran government should devote its entire budget for at least two years to economic programs directed toward the poorest sector of the population, enacting a sort of indigenous Marshall Plan. To a North American suburbanite, this seemed a humane and commonsensical suggestion, but it sounded oddly radical in this poor country at this sumptuous table around which smiling mestizo waiters hovered obligingly with bottles of good French wine.

A welcome anomaly in a neuralgic political environment, Zablah is able to elicit respect and even affection from an often contentious range of people. One stoutly anti-capitalist academic recalled, after meeting him, George Orwell’s grudging praise for Gandhi: “Compared with the other leading figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!” But the widespread approval of this good-natured man does not so easily accrue to FUSADES, the organization of which he is the founding chairman and which he regards as indispensable to the just and prosperous country he envisions. The foundation was established in 1983 as a think tank promoting “economic and social progress of all Salvadorans, through sustainable development, in a system of democracy and individual liberties.” FUSADES also administers and sponsors a variety of development projects, from bridge construction to the establishment of rudimentary health clinics. Student interns have been sent from Notre Dame’s Center for Social Concerns and the Kellogg Institute for International Studies to work in some of these projects.

Some critics argue that the foundation is reprehensibly in thrall to the “neoliberals,” those capitalist ideologues who seem to have deified unregulated international markets. They see FUSADES as a corporate deception that projects a benevolent image of humane economic growth while consolidating the power of a wealthy business class, coddling rapacious multinational corporations and exploiting El Salvador’s desperately poor majority. One such critic is J. Matthew Ashley, associate professor of theology at Notre Dame, who teaches a course titled “Church and Society in El Salvador” and visits the country frequently. “Whatever else it does,” says Ashley, “FUSADES certainly pushes the agro-industrial elite’s view, which is the same neoliberalism that Latin American bishops, even Pope John Paul’s conservative appointees, have condemned over and over again.”

As an FMLN commander during the war, Roberto Gonzalez opposed the agro-industrial elite’s views even more strongly than the bishops did. When the peace accords transformed the guerrilla army into a political party, and he was elected mayor of the hilltop town of Santiago de Maria in the Usulutan province, Gonzalez continued to do so politically. Even before the war, which was fought ferociously in the province; before Hurricane Mitch, in whose path it lay; before the two earthquakes; and before mud slides became a routine rainy season phenomenon, Usulutan was among El Salvador’s poorest regions.

“I must say, FUSADES has been quite a help to us here,” Gonzalez said one hot afternoon shortly after Easter. He was showing some visitors around his dusty town, whose population has swollen by a third, to nearly 30,000 people, as the calamities of the last decade have driven terrified refugees from the lowlands to the questionable security of higher ground. Roughly half the town was demolished in the earthquakes and mud slides last year. Here, in these battered mountains, the foundation has assisted in the coordination and funding of disaster relief and reconstruction. Gonzalez and his guests toured one rapidly expanding housing project, arranged like stair steps ascending the slope of Tecapa Volcano.

The tour threaded several rows of gray, cinderblock units roofed with sheets of corrugated steel through whose alleyways trickled rivulets of wastewater milky with soap and sewage. The mortar in many of the walls was still damp and cool to the touch, even late in the tropical dry season and in a year of drought. The neighborhood’s water was sparingly supplied by a communal cistern uphill from where the visitors had paused to listen as the mayor described the plight of his constituents. One of them, a pretty, intensely attentive little girl in a filthy but bright yellow dress, sat on an overturned washtub next to the cistern, cradling a white puppy in her lap and staring at Gonzalez and his visitors. “Here in Santiago, we’re grateful for anything at all. We can use all the help we can get,” the mayor said. As if on cue, the little girl, no more than 5 years old, began to nod vigorously, her eyes wide.

Last year’s tremors cracked the San Vicente Volcano, about 40 miles northwest of Santiago de Maria, dislodging a few cubic miles of rock, earth, mud and forest and entombing the campesino families whose misfortune it was to have built makeshift homes on its unstable slope. Late Thursday afternoon following Easter, David Antonio, a civil engineer at FUSADES, pointed out the white, chalky gash that remained glaringly visible on the mountainside above the road into El Chile. “To know how many were killed, you’d need to know how many lived up there to begin with,” he said ruefully. Large-scale death is not unprecedented in the province of San Vicente, around whose eponymous volcano two armies spent the years of the civil war chasing each other in a swirl of carnage.

New medical clinic

El Chile is a rural community where FUSADES is assisting in the construction of a medical clinic. Antonio, a lean and meticulously polite man, was in charge of the project and clearly proud of it. So were the mayor, the local landowner who had donated the land and a few dozen of the villagers who had built the place. They were all arranged in a stiffly formal tableau on the front steps of the compact, blue stucco structure, and they seemed to have been waiting there for some time when their guests arrived for a prearranged meeting.

During the meeting, numerous organizations and agencies, including USAID, were gratefully acknowledged by the mayor, but the landowner, a shyly smiling man named Iglesias, mentioned that he had been reluctant to participate until he learned that FUSADES was a principle contributor to the project. The brick walls surrounding his plantation house were visible from the clinic’s porch, and it was easy to imagine how these, now charmingly decorated by a red-flowered vine, might once have served as fortifications. Still, the people gathered on the porch, most of them, certainly, tenants or employees of Iglesias, seemed no more deferential to him than to each other, and all seemed genuinely eager to show visitors around the place and to marvel at it themselves — the brand new interior where the midwives would soon help with birthing; the small room where a pharmacy would soon dispense a few medicines; the large cistern outside, which would soon be continually replenished by water pumped from a nearby spring; and the row of new latrines.

Antonio and several of the villagers embarked on an enthusiastic but arcane discussion of plumbing, excavation and structural stress. All were anxious to plan for the official opening of the new facility later in the month. Three japing little boys tumbled all over each other, charging from room to room and showing off for a visitor. An old woman, perhaps their grandmother, gently cuffed and chided them, breaking up the horseplay and smiling in gracious embarrassment with ancient snaggle teeth. Projects like this one amount to little more than a benevolent drop in a monstrous bucket of poverty and injustice. But whatever the neoliberals were up to, it was fine to be in El Chile that afternoon, hearing the laughter of children and the scolding of grandmothers — hearing the drop splash.

Late one afternoon that same week after Easter, in La Jolla, a rural village not far from El Chile, a wide place in the road between San Vicente and nowhere, Dora Vasquez served some visitors a feast — fried chicken, soup with rice, a towering stack of fresh thick corn tortillas and several cans of soda chilled in an ice chest. Vasquez’s house, which doubles as La Jolla’s rudimentary convenience store, is, to put it mildly, a rustic setting. A squealing piglet foraged among the guests’ feet for crumbs on the dirt floor beneath the table, and a disoriented, crowing rooster had the freedom of the place. Senora Vasquez presided regally at her luncheon, introducing a stream of curious neighbors, dandling a bashful 2-year-old nephew on her lap and allowing his grumpily displaced older sister to braid, unbraid and rebraid her hair.

Although not a Notre Dame graduate, Dora Vasquez is surely the only resident of the province of San Vicente who can count the University’s president, Rev. Edward A. Malloy, CSC, among her acquaintances. A commemorative photograph of their meeting, embellished with Father Malloy’s signature, is proudly displayed among a potpourri of family pictures on the wall of the steel-roofed shack from which she sells soft drinks, candy and small necessities to the people of the neighborhood. Most of them, like her, are veterans of the FMLN who have returned to the homes from which the war had displaced them.

Friends at Notre Dame brought Vasquez to campus 14 years ago. During her visit she spoke movingly about the 1980s civil war and the plight of her country at a luncheon in the Center for Social Concerns and at Masses in several residence halls.

In those days, Vasquez lived, or survived, among the war refugees of Santa Cruz, a besieged Usulutan village whose inhabitants had to walk a mile and a half down a valley slope every morning to a tributary of the Rio Lempa to bathe and launder and to carry back drinking water. Vasquez, gifted with the same guileless religious faith as Jorge Zablah, has also had that faith tested in her country’s fire. As a teenager, she fled massacres in San Vicente and taught catechism to Catholics who were persecuted by a militaristic government. Joining the guerrillas, she served as a combatant for a time before her superiors decided that her intelligence and strength of character would be useful in the political and intelligence activities of the FMLN. Although her service reportedly was always exemplary, her allegiance was never unconditional. She often risked her life by defying the more arbitrary and ruthless directives of the revolutionary movement’s military wing. During the war her husband was executed by the FMLN, ostensibly for dereliction of duty but almost certainly because of the grudge a local commander bore against her.

Faith flourishes

Vasquez’s life has become somewhat more tolerable since those days. True, she and her six children had to sleep under plastic tarpaulins for several weeks last year in the aftermath of the earthquakes, but they now occupy a rebuilt and roomier shelter. They now need walk only a quarter of a mile for potable water, and there is a place to bathe and launder in the river a few hundred yards down the valley slope from the house. They now have the use of three small parcels of land — one of which Vasquez and her brother own, two others of which they rent — a couple of acres altogether, for subsistence farming. These, in addition to whatever she makes in the store, added to whatever stipend she receives from the FMLN party, for which she still works as a community organizer, constitute her living

Vasquez knew little of FUSADES, but when she heard about the new clinic in nearby El Chile, she said, as if echoing the mayor of Santiago de Maria, “We certainly need any medical help we can get.” Swaying in one of the several hammocks strung from the support posts of her house, she recalled an earlier time, during the war, when she had been staying in a similar house, swaying in similar hammocks in Santa Cruz. A 3-month old baby had kept the house awake all one night with a nasty cough. It was an unremarkable respiratory ailment, the sort of thing a parent in South Bend would take care of with a five-minute drive to the drugstore, the sort of thing that might now be taken care of more easily in El Chile. But the baby in Santa Cruz had died a few weeks later. “We sure could have used a clinic then,” Vasquez said. Like Jorge Zablah and Roberto Gonzalez, she seems chary of ideological claims.

On the morning of the Sunday following Easter, Mass was celebrated in the pavilion church of the Parroquia Santa Cruz, in a poor neighborhood of San Salvador. Pasted in red block aluminum foil letters on the white wall behind the altar were the words “Este es el dia del triunfo del Senor. Aleluya” (This is the day of victory for Our Lord). The morning sun glanced off the foil sharply, and made the words hard to look at. It seemed forgivable to squint slightly at a proclamation of the Lord’s victory among these careworn members of this parish named for the Cross in a land named for the Victim who hung there. The Mass readings concerned a failed and murdered man who startled his despairing friends by looming suddenly among them, alive and afire with an unprecedented and incendiary peace. At Mass in the Escalon neighborhood, Jorge Zablah doubtless listened to the same story, as did Dora Vasquez, either in the earthquake-damaged cathedral at San Vicente or at La Jolla, where she arranges regular eucharistic visits. Abundance of anything is unusual in El Salvador, but there has never been a shortage of Christian worship, whether in the omnipresent Catholic churches or in the small but increasingly numerous house, roadside and storefront churches of the Protestant sects. Once, in Usulutan, a guerrilla showed a visitor the stock of his assault rifle, on which he had lovingly and elaborately engraved a depiction of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Faith is among the things that are able to flourish in this harsh place.

Another sort of worship took place that Sunday after Easter as cooking fires were being kindled on hearths within the shacks along the Pan American Highway and Gene Palumbo drove a battered jeep west from San Vicente toward the capital. A Brooklyn native, Palumbo is a freelance journalist who has lived and worked in El Salvador for nearly two decades, witnessing and absorbing enough to become, as one of his colleagues puts it, “more Salvadoran than the Salvadorans.” In agreeably directionless conversation with his passenger, Palumbo acknowledged his love for the works of Simone Weil and particularly for a passage in her Spiritual Autobiography, in which she recounts a mystical encounter with Christ. The passage had so seized him when he first read it 40 years ago that it had never left him, and he recalled it as effortlessly as if it were the Creed he had recited earlier that day:

“One can never wrestle enough with God if one does so out of pure regard for the truth. Christ likes us to prefer truth to Him because before being Christ, He is truth. If one turns aside from Him to go toward the truth, one will not go far before falling into his arms.”

The defiant blaze of the sunset, the headlights that had just begun to slice the tropical gloom, and the radiant embers of the shanty fires all seemed to illumine and confirm the joy suffusing Palumbo’s face as he recited Weil’s evocation of the enigmatic Savior for whom this tormented country was named.

It was a splendid, unsettling light.

Michael Garvey is an assistant director of public relations at Notre Dame.