Mike Phipps reviews For the love of the struggle: Memoirs from El Salvador, by Andrés (Drew) McKinley, published by Daraja
At the end of the 1970s, Andrés McKinley, a young American, found himself in El Salvador living and working with peasants in a mountainous ‘free fire’ zone that was bombed and strafed daily by US-supplied aircraft. He would stay a further 40 years in the country. This memoir explains why.
Born in 1945, McKinley grew up in an era of profound social change, which, like many of his generation, greatly affected him. Opposed to the Vietnam War, after leaving university, he joined the Peace Corps and spent four years teaching school in a small jungle village in north eastern Liberia, one of the poorest countries in the world. He taught in the mornings and on most afternoons went, accompanied by his students, into the jungle where the roles were abruptly reversed and he became the learner.
“Food was only come by through planting, fishing or hunting and for this the tribe still depended on bows and arrows, machetes, spears and other rudimentary instruments. While seasonal rains brought an abundance of food, dry season could bring starvation… It was during this period each year that many families in the interior of Liberia succumbed to the humiliating practice of consuming their own domestic cats and dogs. And, on more than one occasion, I joined them.”
Returning home, he experienced profound culture shock. He was overwhelmed by the wealth and glitter and the exaggerated displays of nationalism. Worse: “Millions of American dollars that could have helped eradicate poverty in countries like Liberia, or in the United States itself, were still being consumed by a useless war in Southeast Asia that would eventually claim the lives of over two million Vietnamese and 58,000 American soldiers drawn from the ranks of the underprivileged classes.”
By the early 1970s, he was working with poor African-American and Hispanic families in the ghettos of North Philadelphia in a low-paid job aimed at convincing community residents about the benefits of preventive healthcare. It drew him into a masters degree in Health and Hospital Administration at the University of Florida and from there to a position as Program Assistant with Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in Guatemala.
None of his experiences had really prepared him for what came next. Indigenous Guatemalans faced deep poverty, high unemployment, rampant malnutrition, poor housing and inadequate healthcare. A reformist government in the early 1950s had been overthrown by a US-backed coup, installing a military dictatorship that endured until the early 1980s.
At the time of his arrival, popular protests, and the organisations that mounted them, were being systematically targeted by right-wing death squads and government security forces. In the highlands, the first massacres of indigenous people, which would characterise the Reagan era, were taking place.
McKinley worked with highland Mayan communities, financing the construction of schools and housing. To minimize paternalism in these efforts, villagers were encouraged to self-organise, which attracted repression in the form of army-sponsored assassinations. In one area, a local committee trying to build a market had to be reconstituted three times, following the murder of its members, before the project finally had to be abandoned.
Priests in the Catholic Church, accused by the government of supporting guerrilla movements, were also assassinated. During 1981 alone, 3,000 farmers were massacred by the Guatemalan army, which went on to wipe out over 440 villages of indigenous people, killing over 100,000 people.
When the author himself learned that his name had been passed to military intelligence agents and armed men had come looking for him, he was obliged to sleep with a gun under his pillow. With most of his friends dead or in exile, he was finally pulled out – only to find CRS chiefs in the US aggressively pro-State Department and unwilling to believe what was happening on the ground. Drawn partly by the political upheaval in Central America and a growing attachment to a local woman who would later become his wife, he decided to relocate to El Salvador.
It was a similar situation: “Government repression was rampant as the army battled an increasingly organized and radicalized civilian population pushed to the limits by decades of electoral fraud, military rule, and massive poverty.”
The civil conflict was framed by the US through the prism of the Cold War. Between 1981 and 1992, billions of dollars of US military aid were spent in the systematic slaughter of over 250,000 innocent Central Americans across the isthmus. In El Salvador, landless farmers and social activists were all labelled communist terrorists. Right wing death squads kidnapped, mutilated, tortured and murdered their targets, with the collaboration of Salvadorean state officials. The highest profile victim was Archbishop Oscar Romero, assassinated while celebrating Mass in May 1980.
Two months later the army’s operations in rural areas led to major atrocities. In one village, soldiers shot or caused to drown 500 unarmed civilians. At the end of the year, four US nuns were stopped on the road by national guardsmen, raped and murdered. A year later, soldiers entered a village and the following day interrogated, tortured and then killed all of its inhabitants: men, women and children alike. They then marched on surrounding villages, killing all civilians in their path. Over 800 were massacred in this operation.
It was in this volatile environment that the author took a job with French humanitarian agency Médecins du Monde to design and implement a humanitarian aid program for the victims of the war. With financial help from the European Union, he began building a centre for displaced persons, later called Betania, in a small community of subsistence farmers. The work was physically hard and dangerous: McKinley laboured alongside elderly men, machete in hand.
“In the evenings, we would sit together in the darkness on the open hillsides in Betania, exhausted from the day’s labor, and gaze into the heavens at the endless explosion of stars above us. As trust grew, these sessions became filled with horrifying tales of death squads, of ‘disappeared’ relatives, of villages burned to the ground, of young children thrown in the air by crazed soldiers and caught at bayonet point, and of pregnant women slit open to kill their unborn babies before they could grow up to be ‘communists’.”
The army visited Betania frequently and McKinley believes that only his nationality and the project’s EU backing ensured their safety. By 1983, “consumed by the desire to end the suffering of a people I had come to deeply love,” he decided to join the guerrilla struggle.
El Salvador’s guerrilla activity had begun in the late 1970s in response to the state-sanctioned killing of priests and villagers. By 1983, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) had launched a major offensive against the death squads, controlled one third of the countryside and established democratically elected municipal governments to build a new social and economic order.
The FMLN drew considerable support and intelligence from local communities. Many of their fighters were young, poor rural dwellers, male and female, who knew the terrain well. The author, in contrast, was severely stretched by the days on end without proper food, the 17 hour marches, with frequent falls, much bruising, and repeated dysentery. More menacing was the increased use of aerial bombardment of rural areas by government forces, which dropped 500-pound bombs on settlements, killing scores of people. The author himself survived an aerial machine gun attack.
On another occasion, he was part of a guerrilla column that was first on the scene after a major massacre of villagers by government forces. Women and children had been herded into a house and gunned down in cold blood. McKinley managed to get film of the atrocity back to the capital, where the US embassy was issuing denials that any massacre had taken place.
It would take five years and six billion dollars before the US government would be forced to recognise the failure of their own policies. Meanwhile not a single El Salvadorean officer faced justice in a military known to be guilty of the deaths of over 75,000 innocent civilians.
In 1984, the FMLN presented the first of many proposals for a negotiated end to the war. It called for the formation of a provisional government in which no single political force would dominate and made proposals that were remarkably similar to the Peace Accords finally signed eight years later.
McKinley now worked as Central American Field Representative with a US Quaker organization committed to global peace. But he continued his clandestine visits to the guerrilla front on several occasions, despite serious illness – at one stage he nearly lost a leg to gangrene. In 1984, he was again called on to document a massacre of 64 civilians, half of whom were women and children, the youngest a month old.
In 1986, thousands of families driven from their villages by indiscriminate government bombing began to return, despite the war. This changed forever the dynamic of the war, “transforming the role of the civilian population from that of frightened victims in endless flight to staunch human rights advocates.” The author notes, “The repopulated communities from the camps in Honduras brought lessons of self-government, democracy and citizen participation, along with job skills, literacy, new levels of self-esteem, social cohesion and a development model that instilled hope for a better life.”
By now, international public opinion was making US policy in the region more difficult to sustain. I was in Nicaragua in 1986, the year the US Congress cut off funding to the murderous ‘contra’ terrorists, who would periodically cross the border into the country – they had no basis of support within – and murder farming families. Denied legal funding, these activities continued, thanks to the unlawful diversion of money made by illegal US arms sales to Iran –the ‘Iran-contras scandal’ that mired the end of the Reagan presidency.
McKinley writes of Nicaragua: “Without ever formally declaring war on the new regime, the United States Government spent millions of dollars… in an attempt to overthrow it. CIA operatives mined the country’s ports in an effort to curtail trade and aid from Europe and elsewhere while the Contra army, based in Honduras, attacked rural agricultural cooperatives established by the Nicaraguan government, and systematically assassinated young volunteers who were teaching literacy and health in the most remote areas of the country.”
Meanwhile the war in El Salvador intensified. As the FMLN began to occupy major towns throughout the country, the military responded by bombing urban communities and unleashing another massive wave of repression against civic leaders, academics and clergy. In one night alone, an army patrol entered the campus of the Central American University and assassinated six Jesuit priests, including the university dean, and several others.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, however, the US’s justification for war-mongering in the region was evaporating. With US military aid drying up, the El Salvador government was forced to take peace talks seriously. The 1992 Peace Accords ended twelve years of civil war, demilitarising society and establishing political pluralism. A Truth Commission was set up to investigate grave human rights violations.
But the economic pillar of the Accords proposed a model for reconstruction favoured by the International Monetary Fund – privatisations, cuts in government spending on social programmes and other measures that would fuel inequality – and environmental degradation.
El Salvador is the most densely populated country in the western hemisphere and has the second worst levels of environmental deterioration in the Americas. Its prime problem, the unregulated overexploitation of water, has been exacerbated by transnational mining interests. Civil society organisations waged a 17-year, ultimately successful, battle against these interests, whose supporters sometimes resorted to the assassination of activists in pursuit of their ends.
This book is a remarkable account of all these struggles – and all the more poignant as it was written while the author was being treated for terminal cancer. But it’s an important testament of a horrific time, whose effects are still felt by the people involved.
As the author notes, “With the signing of peace and the approach of a new century, El Salvador gradually slipped off the map. The issue of poverty was too complex, and the solutions too elusive, to attract the international audience that had once been so mindful of the war.”
As for the FMLN, it became a legal political party in 1992 and won the presidency in 2009. Yet, “two terms in office brought little improvement to the lives of the poor in El Salvador. Those who placed their trust and risked their lives in the struggles for change of the 1980s observed in horror as the FMLN leadership gradually distanced itself from the party’s historical base of support. And they became increasingly embittered as the FMLN squandered its political capital trying to convince the world that it could play by the rules of bourgeois democracy and western capitalism while the revolutionary project, built on social justice, national sovereignty, equity and sustainable development, was left behind in the dust.”
It’s a scathing assessment of an organisation the author was prepared to risk his life for, but it’s not unjust. Over 50% of El Salvador’s population are in poverty, with many families surviving on less than a dollar a day. Sky-high unemployment has helped fuel gang violence, making the country one of the most dangerous places in the hemisphere. The result has been mass migration: nearly one-fifth of the country’s population now reside in the US. It’s a lifeline for those in poverty back home.
McKinley, however, stayed, in love with the country and its humble-spirited yet combative people. His story deserves the widest possible audience.
Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/info/iraqfocus. His book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.
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