Salvador by Joan Didion - review by Antony Beevor

Antony Beevor

Official Delusion



Chatto & Windus 108pp £6.95

Novelists who set off to commentate on a foreign conflict put their literary reputation at risk. They are tempted to believe that some superior power of insight will more than make up for their lack of local experience and raise them above the status of war tourist. Nobody did more to make the genre suspect than Hemingway in the Spanish Civil War.

Joan Didion’s Salvador is a very deceptive book. To begin with her superficial knowledge of the country is as disappointing as her attempts at journalistic analysis. There are even a number of stylistic horrors ranging from split infinitive to ‘couple in a dating situation’ and President Magana ‘drinking cup after Limoges cup of black coffee’. But then suddenly it becomes clear that Joan Didion recognised her own limitations and managed to turn them to great advantage. The core of this book is more about the self-deception in which, once again, the US Government has become enmeshed, than about Salvador itself. And the image game is a subject which she can tackle with admirable skill.

This recognition came about on June 19th 1982. During the course of the previous evening she had dinner with the grandson of General Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, the director responsible for the matanza of 1932 in which up to 30,000 Indian peasants were slaughtered. Back at the hotel Camino Real she sees members of the local élite watching the Senorita El Salvador competition on television. Then shortly after midnight an earthquake takes place. The only building to suffer serious damage is the American Embassy. Its sophisticated anti-earthquake construction with sliding Teflon pads had been rendered useless by the rigidity of armour plate and sandbags. ‘On this evening,’ she says having perceived many elements in The Autumn of’the Patriarch, ‘I began to see Gabriel García Marquez in a new light, as a social realist.’ From that moment she concentrates on appearances and mentality rather than her previous attempts which could promise no more than a rare ‘glimpse of the impenetrable interior’.

Although the origins of US involvement in Meso-America are beyond the scope of her book (the best analysis by far comes in Jenny Pearce’s Under the Eagle from the Latin American Bureau), Joan Didion adds useful insights. The most basic is that to make money out of other countries and people while bending over backwards to appear philanthropic must produce either moral rupture or self-deception. In El Salvador US geopolitical interests are greater than economic interests, as was the case in Vietnam. The point is not that El Salvador will become another Vietnam – the Guatemalan civil war is much more likely to attract outright intervention – but that the Vietnam mentality is resurgent in Washington.

The US Government has forgotten nothing and learnt nothing. Only its jargon has changed in an attempt to avoid the negative memories of armed intervention. Even that great liberal at home, Franklin D Roosevelt. established a ‘Good Neighbour’ policy towards the region and then made the more memorable remark about one dictator that ‘he may be a sonofabitch, but he’s our sonofabitch’. Near the Intercontinental hotel in Managua stand the Ozymandias remains of a huge concrete monument which the grateful Somoza dynasty raised to their promoter.

Continual double-speak, like propaganda, will eventually convince the source more than the audience. The Russians deluded themselves about the Czechs. The US Government continues to delude itself in Latin America. There will always be opportunistic minorities ready to welcome the big brother power and assure him that the real people, the good people, are in fact truly grateful. In El Salvador casualties inflicted by the guerrillas are ‘terrorist victims’ while those inflicted by the death squads are ‘illegal killings’. Both tallies go back to Washington each week in a summary known as ‘the grimgram’. But at least this time the US military staff has learnt not to compile body-counts of guerrilla casualties, because even without the women and children slaughtered in army sweeps, their figures would still show that the rebels had been wiped out at least twice over.

Ronald Reagan despises the semantic pussy-footing of State Department language in which Our Backyard had become Our-frontier-to-the-south. In his view Salvador was ‘now located in our front yard’. He was also unafraid of those Vietnam echoes when, with the phrase ‘we’re the last domino’, he tried to play the spectre of the US’s soft underbelly populated with suspect Chicanos.

With such double-speak remarks from New Right theorists as ‘the chances for democracy as we know it (in El Salvador) are going to be closed out’ by Cuban-supported rebels, we see that their perception of events is remarkably Hispanic in the way they confuse cause and effect. Ferdinand VII solemnly declared (shortly before dying of gout): ‘Spain is a bottle and I am the cork. And when the cork is no longer there, the champagne gushes over’. Jeanne Kirkpatrick, the US ambassador at the UN and the leading exponent of support for the ‘moderately repressive autocratic’ régimes, has said: ‘the problem confronting El Salvador is Thomas Hobbes’ problem: how to establish order where there is none’.

Inevitably, this strategy of dealing with almost any power group (the Mafia in the case of Cuba), providing it is resolutely anti-Communist, forces them to ignore the origins of the disorder. In El Salvador, the clearest and most important example of the contradiction in their ‘defence of freedom and property’ concerns the ownership of land. In 1881 communal land tenure was abolished. This meant that the peasants’ land was literally stolen by members of the ruling elite and turned into coffee plantations. Some of the peasants were allowed smallholdings on a sharecrop basis in return for unpaid work. Then in the 1960’s and 1970’s even these colonos were dispossessed when their plots were seized to increase the acreage available for sugar cane and cotton. In 1961 the landless peasants represented 12% of the rural population. By 1980 the proportion had risen to about 65%. By then some 200 families, in particular the famous Fourteen Families, owned 60% of the land and controlled over 90% of the country’s trade. Proudhon’s aphorism ‘property is theft’ could hardly fail to strike a responsive chord in such circumstances.

The US Government realised that without agrarian reform, the guerrillas would have an endless supply of recruits. Its pragmatic rather than moral view was summed up by one of their officials: ‘there’s no-one more conservative than a small farmer. We’re going to breed capitalists like rabbits.’ But the Land-to-the-Tiller programme, lifted ominously from the official plan of Operation Phoenix in Vietnam, led to the army installing peasants on large estates as per Decree 207, then killing large numbers of them at the behest of the expropriated owners to whom senior officers were inextricably linked. The US AID director soon had to admit that the agrarian reform plan had failed as such, but then added that it had perhaps worked in the most important way because the peasants had ‘not become more radicalized’.

Joan Didion’s description of American officials makes one think of product managers obsessed with producing short term sales boosts for their brand before promotion to a new appointment. Even the less cynical cannot admit the truth and have to maintain appearances in their reports back to head office. And the local distribution agents who do well are those who join in the gringos’ game.

It is for this reason that General Josè’s Guillermo García has lasted so long despite strong dislike within the army. He banned the para-military terror group ORDEN (set up in 1968 in a CIA designed programme and commanded by his own mentor General Medrano) because the US Government needed to show somehow that human rights were improving in order to obtain more military aid from Congress. ‘The minister of defense has ordered that all violations of citizens’ rights be stopped immediately,’ they declared. But as the former US ambassador Robert White testified, the security forces continue to be the main killers of Salvadorans. The city of San Salvador meanwhile remains a Mad Max world in which the arrival of men in dark glasses and Lacoste shirts driving Cherokee pick-up trucks with tinted windows usually signifies that the order supported by Jeanne Kirkpatrick so far away is cruising for a kill.

In other fields as well, the image game has required US officials to go through almost Stalinistic contortions when trying to present progress. The lonely Christian Democrat, José Napoleon Duarte, was strongly backed as figurehead of the junta. He could be portrayed as a man of the centre because there were others to the right such as Major Roberto D’Abuisson, who was described by White as a ‘pathological killer’ and the originator of Archbishop Romero’s assassination. But then in the US backed elections (in which a failure to vote could mean an unofficial death sentence because identity cards were stamped) D’Abuisson’s ARENA party won. US officials immediately had to shred all the nasty things previously said about him in their bid to show Duarte’s moderation. They only just managed to prevent him becoming president by offering an improved arms deal. Luckily he ‘played ball’. Ambassador Deane Hinton said: ‘we stopped that one on the one yard line’. Another figurehead was found in Magana, who said to Joan Didion:

I’m supposed to be the commander-in-chief, so if I ask him [an army officer], he should tell me. But he might say he’s not going to tell me, then I would have to arrest him. So I don’t ask.

Carolyn Forché’s most effective poem about El Salvador in The Country Between Us is ‘The Colonel’. It describes an evening with a right-wing family. The atmosphere she succeeds in evoking unsettles the reader even more than her brilliantly simple descriptions of peasants mourning butchered relatives. The reason for this imbalance may well be due to the intervention of what Joan Didion calls a ‘certain protective numbness’ when faced with the gruesome end product of violence. Hidden menace stimulates a reader’s imagination more. Yet in Joan Didion’s book, the most disappointing passage is her dinner with the dictator’s grandson. ‘This was the first time in my life,’ she explains, ‘that I had been in the presence of obvious “material” and felt no professional exhilaration at all, only personal dread’. Her best sketch is lunch with Deane Hinton in the Embassy garden.

The English sheep dog and the crystal and the American eagle together had on me a certain anaesthetic effect, temporarily deadening that receptivity to the sinister that effects everyone in Salvador, and I experienced for a moment the official American delusion.

Carolyn Forché obviously knows the country best having lived there for several years working as a journalist, as well as writing poetry about the suffering of her friends. She must possess remarkable courage. Joan Didion evidently has a self-honesty which would never allow her to follow the Hemingway formula of superficial with a country. Because of their differences the two books complement each other with great effect.

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