Salvador's suffering may at last be over

WASHINGTON — Washington-IN MY little book of the names of contacts in El Salvador, an old, worn page still lists "Padre Visarte, 14 Jardines de Guadalupe, telephone 233-359." Ah yes, I think now, I still remember Father Visarte, one of that early group of Spanish Jesuits who selectively moved into the country in the 1960s.

I think of him -- and them -- with passion and with sadness. In 1965, and '66, and '68 and '69, I would hail a taxi and hightail it over to the "Jesuit house." In that simple and spartan little spot, we would talk for hours about how to bring justice to El Salvador.


These Jesuits were far from Marxists, despite what the murderous far right would in the next years come to say. They wanted a kind of Christian reform that soon bordered on revolution, and they thought they would achieve it through a Christian awakening. But they prepared the ground for the Marxists to hijack the social revolution.

Probably no one who was not there in those days can quite realize that, despite the injustice in the social and economic spheres, the country was thriving. Industrialization was moving so rapidly that Salvador was widely referred to as the "little Taiwan" of Central America. There was a tremendous sense of something being born there in those years; and then, so suddenly, it all died.


It died in 1972, the day that the big, burly, devout Christian, Jose Napoleon Duarte, won the presidential election -- and was nearly killed by the old right's military and sent into exile. At that moment, when the military took over the country, the Marxist guerrilemorable day in 1978, for instance, I sat with the great Archbishop Oscar Romero. A simple, square-faced man of Indian blood, Romero had a spiritual anger born not of theory (as was much of the Jesuits') but of the harsh realities of Salvadoran life. I was somewhat stunned as I sat and talked with him that day because there was an aura of radiance about the man.

Romero was, however, meticulous about not confusing the Christian revolution and the Marxist. "When I came back from Rome in May," he told me that day, sitting there so nobly in his white robes. "I found that there were bombs in the cathedral." The Catholic "popular" groups had been taken over by the Marxists.

"They have radicalized," he summed up. "They want the church to support everything, not only justice but all their strategies."

El Salvador had seemed like such a simple country: an upscale "banana republic" of 4 million poor, hard-working, mestizo men and women! And yet, from those years on, some of the most complicated thinking about revolution, about Christianity, about Marxism, wove its complex web in that small land, as men and women struggled and fought over how best to liberate the poor and downtrodden.

After Archbishop Romero was murdered in 1979, while saying Mass in his private chapel, the violence became unspeakable, as if some evil had been loosed across the land. The rightist military, backed by many of the wealthy landowners, massacred anyone, Christian or Marxist, who seemed even remotely a threat.

Every morning, new bodies lay by the waysides of this doomed land. With support from Cuba, from Marxist Nicaragua and from the Soviet Union, the Marxists carved out whole areas of Salvador into "free zones." The "little Taiwan" had become a little hell-on-Earth.

It was at this point, after a reformist junta led by the returned "Napo" Duarte took over the country in 1979, that the United States entered the fray. The U.S. poured money, officers and military training into the country, but the horrors seemed without end.

Even though American policy was basically to reform the old Salvadoran military and bring a centrist democratic government to power, that was not what seemed to be happening. Instead, throughout the Reagan administration the example of "El Salvador" seemed to critics to be America cynically backing the old order.


As if there was not enough suffering in Salvador, the country suffered a horrible earthquake. Then three years ago, President Duarte, just as his administration was beginning to make long-needed reforms, became afflicted with cancer.

I was the last journalist to interview Duarte before his death, and all the pathos of his country seemed contained in his deterioration. "In another time and place, I could have done much more," he ruminated with me at one point, then just a skeleton of his husky self. "But with the war, and then the earthquake . . . I did everything I could."

And yet, this week it finally all . . . ended. The Marxist guerrillas and President Alfredo Cristiani agreed late on New Year's Eve to end the war, with a complicated package of promises from each side -- and with an even more complex interweaving of personalities than those I saw in those early years.

The Marxists by now were actually praising the American intervention. "There is an effort by the North Americans to change the character of the security forces and armies in Latin America, which are barrels of rotten apples," rebel military commander Jorge Melendez was quoted as saying.

As for President Cristiani, a modest, pleasant, soft-spoken man who came up through the far-right Arena party, he too was an apple that had fallen far from the old tree. In the last three years, he quietly backed away from the murderous old right in his party and embraced the center, just as the Marxists, with no more support from abroad, also moved toward the center.

When I had a lengthy interview with Cristiani in San Salvador in November, he said at one point, with that engagingly boyish grin of his: "I was never geared toward politics; I never set out to be a politician. I tell you, it was the most unexpected development in my whole life when I was elected president!" What a vast difference, I thought, from the old hard-liners in Salvador, with their grandiose visions of absolute power!


Seventy-five thousand people lay dead because of this horrible war, but at last and at least there is now a way out. As with the end of dictatorship and the beginnings of modernization in Spain and Portugal, in Salvador, too, the right defeated the left -- and now both are free to move toward the center.

American policy, with all of its pitfalls and failures, finally did work to create a democratic center, reform the military, and bring the guerrillas, who constitute some of the most talented young people in the country, into a reformed mainstream again.

Georgie Anne Geyer, a syndicated columnist, writes on international affairs.