US House of Representatives Speech (1983)

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee

I come before you today an angry man determined to do everything in my power to see to it that this country does not repeat the tragic blunder of Vietnam in El Salvador.

Millions of Americans are confused and frustrated by the avalanche of self-justification that pours out of the halls of this Administration every day and it is in their interests that this, the most manifestly representative legislative body in the nation, must act. Act now, and act decisively.

The ideals of liberty, justice, self-determination and free expression upon which this country is based simply do not square with the continued support of a brutal, repressive regime that is waging war on its own people.

The self-delusion and hysteria that coats the rhetoric from the White House is appalling, and terrifying when one considers the power at their fingertips.

The President's recent speech and the statements of Ambassador Kirkpatrick make me wonder if we traveled to the same country. Then when I think about it I realize that in a very real sense we did not. I wish we had. I wish they would allow themselves to go and see the people and the country I saw.

As the American spokesperson for Concern America, an international refugee aid and development organization, I travel the country speaking to groups of young people about sharing their talents and abilities in places in the Third World where there are refugee emergencies. And they come because they believe in what American says it stands for.

Last spring I visited some of our volunteers in the camps for Salvadoran refugees in Honduras. What I found there came as a shock. Although the needs of the refugees are being met as far as medical, nutritional and educational assistance is concerned, they live in a state of constant anxiety and agitation resulting from the malevolent attitude and overt hostility of their reluctant hosts, the Honduran military.

The refugees tell of having suffered horribly at the hands of their own army in El Salvador, of torture and rape, families murdered and brutalized because they were suspected of being “subversives” or in league with the guerillas. This terror continued until they finally fled, hoping to find a safe haven across the border, and yet there they find themselves even now cowering behind the tenuous shield of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, regarded as “subversives” by yet another army.

And it doesn't end there. The Honduran Army not only despises the refugee, it extends this hostile regard to anyone willing to treat him in a humane manner. The international volunteers, including the American kids I urged to go there, are dealt with as if they are enemies because they have the audacity to minister to the needs of these people in pain, these so-called “subversives,” whose only crime is being poor and who happen to be mostly women and children.

Even the religious community is not exempt from this treatment. An American Catholic priest who has worked with the poor in Honduras for years said to me, “They think we're Communists, you know. Anyone who says the poor deserve to be treated with dignity is considered a Communist.” This particular priest broke the news of the Rio Lempa massacre, where hundreds of fleeing refugees were slaughtered by the Salvador Army. He says of it, “when you see helicopters (American helicopters, by the way) dropping bombs and machine-gunning unarmed women, children and old people trying to scramble to safety across a river, it isn't hard to figure out which side you're on.” At another time he said, “The wellspring of the Salvadoran revolution isn't Communism, it's poverty.”

Perhaps Vice President Bush, who is quoted in Newsweek as saying that he just doesn't understand how “leftist” Catholic priests can reconcile their faith with “Marxist ideas and tactics,” should take the time to talk to Father Gallagher and discover how the sloppy use of charged political terms can do harm to courageous people.

After I returned home from Honduras one of our volunteers, an American nurse, was kidnapped by Honduran soldiers. The Guatemalan doctor she was with was murdered while she was sexually abused and, perhaps because she was an American, released. We brought her back to the U.S. and I, along with others from Concern America, came here to Washington to express our outrage at this treatment of an American citizen at the hands of an allied, U.S. equipped force.

With Assistant Secretary Enders at the State Department we brought up the treatment of the refugees by the Honduran military. He said the reason was, and I quote, “They are the families and friends of the guerillas.”

Gentlemen, if women and children are our enemies, who are our friends?

Six weeks ago I traveled to El Salvador with a group of American citizens to get a better view of the situation there. Political rhetoric and the controversy around certification had so distorted the facts of the situation that the trip, sponsored by the Commission on U.S. – Central American Relations, seemed an important thing to do. In El Salvador we met and interviewed military leaders, including Generals Garcia and Vides-Casanova, and foot soldiers, political leaders such as President Magana and Foreign Minister Chavez Menna, and peasants working in the field. We spoke to businessmen and labor leaders, members of human rights commissions – both officially recognized and not – Archbishop Rivera y Damas, educators, professionals, ex-President Duarte, members of Arena, U.S. Embassy personnel, both civilian and military, and more refugees. Always the refugees.

We were one of the first American delegations to be allowed into the prisons to speak to political prisoners.

And we saw, inadvertently, one of the infamous death squads that roam the streets with impunity, terrorizing the population.

We spoke to more people of differing viewpoints and opened ourselves to more experiences in that time, it was reported, than most of the U.S. Embassy staff has in their entire tour.

Be that as it may, we returned to this country unanimous in the belief that the Reagan Administration's certification to Congress of an improvement in the human rights climate, in the land reform program and in the attempt to gain significant control over the military, is a lie. We called for an immediate cutoff of all military aid, and support for dialogue that includes all factions of the society.

In the interests of time I will attach a copy of the statement of the delegation to this document and sum up here with a few independent observations of which I would like you to be aware.

1) Displaced people in camps in San Salvador don't qualify as refugees because they remain inside their own borders. Without U.N. assistance they live in camps supported by either the Catholic Church or the Green Cross. These organizations do the best they can, but again contend with overt hostility of the military toward their charges who are clearly refugees in every accepted sense of the word: refugees from terror.

These people tell stories virtually identical to those I heard in the Honduran camps. Torture. Rape. Homes bombed and machine-gunned, destroyed. Families persecuted or murdered. In not one instance was this activity blamed on the guerillas. Always, “the Army,” “the Guardia Nacional,” or “the men in uniform.” When asked why these things happened, they said, “because we are poor,” “because we are Christians,” or “because they say we are guerillas.”

There are starving children in those camps. The people there are living testaments to their government's policies, and by extension ours. And even in the camps they are not safe. One man told me of a bullet having been fired into the compound the day before, by one of the guards. The same guard hid from me when I tried to take his picture.

The Green Cross people say they get very little support from their government. The food they had for the refugees was sent in from Europe.

2) In the prisons we spoke to professionals, teachers and a few of the fifteen union leaders who had been arrested last October. Only seven of them remain alive. All of those with whom we spoke told of having been tortured routinely, systematically. The scars are hideously visible. None had formal charges filed. Of the 700 political prisoners in Mariona Prison, 560 had been there more than six months without charges filed and without access to a lawyer. This is in direct contravention of Decree 507 of the State of Siege Law of the Salvadoran Government. Through some perversion of the language this is seen as an “improvement” in the human rights situation because these people have not yet been murdered.

3) Campesinos picking cotton in the field who say they do not support the guerillas tell of fearing the government's military aircraft that fly over because “sometimes they make mistakes” and their people die.

4) A 17-year-old soldier told me of being taken by force from his village and shanghaied into uniform. The Church openly decries this practice. And officers speak of troops without the will to fight.

5) The Reagan Administration speaks of “drawing the line against international Communist subversion” and that policy is parroted by Generals Garcia and Vides-Casanova, but when pressed as to indiscriminate attacks on non-combatants, Vides-Casanova erupts into a vitriolic diatribe against America's racist history and threatens physical harm to the questioner.

6) The official explanation to which we are endlessly treated for the ongoing disappearances, tortures and murders is that they are the work of “maverick, out of control elements,” and that there is currently a campaign to rectify the problem, but “it is very difficult.” This simply does not square with facts that are easily obvious to the objective eye.

Both victims and witnesses have testified countless times of “heavily armed men in civilian clothes” (in our own experience some wearing partial military uniforms) who take people off the streets, out of their homes or places of work. The litany becomes painfully familiar in a short time. In instances wherein the victim turns up alive the story continues; taken to a secret detention center, tortured for hours, days, or weeks and then turned over to the official security forces or the Army. The links are clear and direct. The connections are evident to anyone who goes and sees for himself.

If it is “difficult” to put a stop to these practices it is because they are an integral part of the very system our tax dollars continue to prop up.

7) The election of March 28, 1982, is roundly denounced on all sides, including by many who held out great hopes at the time, as a disappointment, a sham and a charade. We were told of coercion, threats of reprisals against anyone who did not vote, ID cards being checked by the military after the election to see if anyone did not take part in this “democratic” process.

8) A group of educators and professionals spoke with great dignity of their hopes for their country. They asked that their names and conversations not be recorded out of fear for their lives. They evidenced great sophistication regarding political machinations, both in the U.S. and their country. One said, “It is a source of great embarrassment to us that decisions made for political reasons in Washington have a greater affect on our country than anything that happens in Morazan, Chalatenengo or San Salvador.

They said that 98% of the guerillas know nothing of Marxism and the 2% who have read it don't understand it.

They say that everyone knows that “certification is a joke” because it has no teeth and the Reagan Administration is on record as committed to continuing aid.

They say current American policy is backward. It should be to show the carrot and use the stick. Instead it is to show the stick and feed the carrot.

9) Archbishop Rivera y Damas favors dialogue with the guerillas and has offered to act as facilitator. The labor unionists, human rights people, peasant unions, professionals and educators, political prisoners, refugees, even business men who expressed hatred for the FDR/FMLN said we must support some form of dialogue and an end to the killing.

10) Standing in the shadow of the building housing the Archbishop's office I spoke to a group of people who had come to the Independent Human Rights Commission to seek information on the fate of their “disappeared” loved ones. As we spoke, a sound built up slowly behind us and suddenly they all broke and ran to hide beneath a tree or in some bushes, terror-stricken in the middle of the capital city of their own country as a helicopter – an American-made helicopter – flew slowly over. I was ashamed. I am shamed now by the memory.

An 18-year-old boy came for help in seeking his father who had been taken by one of the death squads the day before. One of the human rights people asks during the questioning if the father had been active in union work. The boy hesitates, then says that five years before his father had been president of a local of the postal workers union but that “we never talk about it around the house.” Struck by that I ask for clarification and he repeats, “we never talk about it because one of my friends might be an ear.” A spy.

One of the women told us of her family having been “disappeared” and showed us the scars of her own mutilation at the hands of the National Guard for having had the temerity to ask about them. She had been raped, had had one breast hacked off and had been shot. This woman begged us in tears to “Tell Ronald Reagan he is making our children orphans. Tell him to send us bread, not bullets.”

Even the most illiterate peasants in the country know our policies are not working down there. Why is it our learned leaders can't figure that out? We are making anti-Americanism a self-fulfilling prophecy.

11) And finally, an Embassy staff member, in discussing the effect our delegation had in the city, said, “You people represent the moral voice. We represent the geo-political voice.”

My question to him is my question to you. How can we hope to maintain the honor and integrity of our nation and put forth a coherent and rational policy if we separate the moral and geo-political voices?

Thank you.

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