Spanish for Vietnam

On El Salvador

Muriel Hasbun, Todos los santos III / All the Saints III from the series Santos y sombras / Saints and Shadows. 1993, selenium/sepia gelatin silver print. Courtesy of the artist and RoFa Projects.

Carolyn Forché. What You Have Heard Is True. Penguin Press, 2019.
Steve Striffler. Solidarity: Latin America and the US Left in the Era of Human Rights. Pluto Press, 2019.

In the 1980s, a country the size of Massachusetts, located some one thousand miles south of the Texas border, took on an outsize role in the foreign policy of the world’s dominant superpower. Jeane Kirkpatrick, a member of Ronald Reagan’s National Security Council, had identified Central America as “the most important place in the world for the United States today,” and after the Sandinistas’ success in overthrowing the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, much US attention was focused on keeping socialist insurgency from spreading northward. That meant El Salvador.

By the opening years of the Reagan Administration, El Salvador was receiving more US aid than any other country besides Egypt, Israel, and Turkey. The White House’s obsession with propping up a right-wing Salvadoran government as it battled with leftist rebels did not go unnoticed. David Bonior, a Democratic member of Congress who represented a veteran-heavy blue-collar district in the Detroit suburbs, reported alarm among voters at the escalating intervention. “The primary concern of my constituency is the economy,” he stated, “but close behind is this [El Salvador] issue. A lot of people are worried about their kids fighting a guerrilla war.”

At a time when viral quips were still transmitted via car bumpers instead of tweets, a popular sticker read, El Salvador is Spanish for Vietnam.

As in Southeast Asia, US intervention in Central America exacted a horrifying human cost. Even as the Reagan Administration strove to report “progress” on human rights in order to justify each new cycle of aid, dispatches from the country reported a stream of abduction, torture, and killing at the hands of state-sponsored death squads. The poet Carolyn Forché, an early witness to what was transpiring in the name of the crusade against communism, wrote in one of her most famous poems of being treated to dinner at the home of a notorious colonel, where she had been received because she was an American. After small talk and a dinner of lamb, green mangoes, and wine served by a maid, her host abruptly pushed himself from the table and left the room. Forché writes:

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