The reporter who got it right

Jonathan Steele

  • Weakness and Deceit: US Policy and El Salvador by Raymond Bonner
    Hamish Hamilton, 408 pp, £13.95, February 1985, ISBN 0 241 11392 X

On 14 January 1981 the pack of Western journalists in San Salvador ‘scurried across town to the Presidential Palace’, as Raymond Bonner puts it in this important book. Alerted that the United States Ambassador, Robert White, would make a significant statement, they crowded round the entrance. ‘I believe reports that a group of approximately a hundred men landed from Nicaragua about 4 p.m. yesterday,’ Mr White told them as he emerged from a meeting with the ruling junta. ‘This changes the nature of the insurgency movement here, and makes it clear that it is dependent on outside sources ... We cannot stand idly by and watch the guerrillas receive outside assistance.’ The Ambassador’s statement was the first ‘indication’ of outside support for the Salvadorean guerrillas, and it received enormous play on US television and on the front pages of American newspapers.

But doubts quickly began to gnaw at reporters in El Salvador, Mr Bonner goes on. When a few of them began to investigate the story, they discovered this ‘indication’ of outside support for the guerrillas was in fact a lie. Mr White revealed that his source for the sensational allegation was President Duarte. Mr Duarte said: ‘Our information comes from the American Ambassador.’ Afterwards another American diplomat in El Salvador said that the boat landing was staged, while the US Ambassador in Nicaragua, Lawrence Pezzullo, much later described it as ‘fictional’. How often has this sequence of events been repeated in El Salvador: outrageous American Administration claims, faithful and unquestioning reporting of these, subsequent doubts and digging by a handful of journalists, and, much later, exposure of the original claims as lies.

Mr Bonner was the New York Times’s reporter in El Salvador between 1980 and 1982, but his book is not a conventional journalist’s diary or collection of clippings rewritten between hard covers. It arose, after he had returned to the United States, from what he calls his quest to understand what had led to the extensive US involvement in such a tiny country. It is based on interviews with past and present US diplomats and on government documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. As such, it is primarily about American policy, secondly about American journalism and only in a subsidiary way about El Salvador. Bonner’s tone is typical of American liberal journalism, for the most part bland and emotionally uninvolved, yet breaking out at rare moments into anguished indignation over some new act of US Government hypocrisy. ‘Is our conduct morally justifiable in terms of the values the United States was founded to represent?’ he asks.

The remarkable thing is that he poses this question, not at the beginning of his book, but at the end – almost as though he still does not understand the devastating catalogue of US Government incompetence, ignorance and iniquity which he himself has compiled. But perhaps Mr Bonner’s fresh-faced innocence is appropriate, for although he points out how reporters, including himself, were often used by the Embassy, White House or State Department, he is rarely as angry about the journalists as about the officials who manipulated them. He is well enough aware that the issue in El Salvador is not reality as such, but how that reality is perceived: the United States is not just conducting a political, economic and military war, but a propaganda war as well. But he seems less exercised than he might be about the degree to which journalists accept the US Government line. A lie reported as fact on the front page of the New York Times affects public opinion. The same lie exposed years later by anonymous officials reminiscing, or thanks to a Freedom of Information suit, is mainly of interest to historians. For every exposé which Mr Bonner and the handful of other industrious reporters make there are countless tendentious stories which are never challenged. Beside the cascade of one-sided and inaccurate reports, based on untrue data or false premises, the honest and probing accounts are no better than a trickle. Meanwhile, the policy juggernaut rolls on.

Nor can one exonerate journalists by blaming the competitive rush to publish or the difficulty of quickly checking facts asserted by highly-placed and quotable officials. All too often the inaccuracies arise because journalists share the same narrow, ignorant assumptions as the policy-makers. The much-vaunted adversary relationship between press and government officials breaks down when both groups are taken out of their natural habitat and parachuted into a tiny, foreign country of which they know little. They then become allies in misunderstanding and disinformation. The prime case was the 1982 Election in El Salvador, which Mr Bonner rightly calls a ‘well-placed investment’ by the Reagan Administration. Long queues of voters waiting in the broiling sunshine or trudging for miles on country roads produced a powerful image of eager, sturdy democracy, which almost every American reporter and TV commentator fell for. In fact, the turn-out was barely half as high as the Administration claimed: an analysis by researchers at the University of Central America was later to make this clear (the queues were largely caused by the low number of polling stations).

Maybe journalists should not be blamed too harshly for accepting the official figures, though they could have been more sceptical. The turn-out was not checkable at the time. More important was the way they handled two other issues. The first was the boycott by the FDR/FMLN, i.e. the guerrilla groups and their political allies. This was a known fact but one rarely mentioned, unlike the boycott of the Nicaraguan elections by Washington’s allies, which was stressed in almost every US newspaper article about the Nicaraguan poll, as a factor which was said to undermine its legitimacy. The second was the question why Salvadoreans went to the poll. The answer was knowable – indeed it stared out at anyone who witnessed the poll. But few journalists bothered to put the question. Was it really just hunger for democracy which made people push and shove frantically to get to the front of the voting line, like refugees in a camp when a relief lorry arrives? And why did the mood turn close to panic as the time for shutting the polling places drew near? Reporters who chose to speak to voters found a large number who were not queuing primarily to receive a ballot paper but to have their identity cards stamped. They were not worried about guerrilla reprisals if they did vote, but about army, police or death-squad reprisals if they did not. That was the predominant fear in El Salvador on election day, but the number of newspaper stories which reported it was minimal. After all, who ever worries about not voting in Iowa, and what’s the danger for abstainers in Massachusetts?

If journalistic ignorance can partly be explained by the short time most reporters spent in El Salvador, ignorance on the part of officials is less easily condoned. The US Government has a reporting and fact-finding apparatus a hundred times greater than that of the New York Times. Yet what emerges from Mr Bonner’s account is the mindless neglect of crucial detail. Richard Feinberg, a former member of the policy-planning staff at the State Department in the Carter years, described the analysis of El Salvador’s political Left as nothing more than ‘labelling’. ‘The amount known about the leftist leaders was very little,’ he is quoted as saying. ‘It usually consisted of “He was recruited when he was in high school, and, you know, he’s a hard-line Marxist-Leninist, and he’s in this faction, but used to be in that faction.” ’

Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, Christian Socialists, Communists, Trotskyists – they all went through the meatgrinder to emerge, undifferentiated, as people whom both the Carter and Reagan Administrations tried to keep out of power. Washington was acting for the most part with the aim of building up a political centre, yet was unwilling or unable to see that many of those it labelled as left-wingers were really part of the Centre. By the same token, it labelled as centrists people who were really on the right.

This point comes out clearly in Mr Bonner’s fascinating section on the October 1979 coup, which is his most detailed and useful contribution on Salvadorean politics. The key issue in El Salvador has long been, and still is, whether a coalition can be built and maintained in power which is able to confront and reduce the alliance between right-wing military officers and the economic oligarchy. How you label that new coalition is irrelevant. Whether it is purely civilian or a military-civilian partnership does not matter. But the coalition must be, in the broadest sense, reformist, and it must be bold, since the forces ranged against change are prepared to massacre their opponents in the most bestial and sickening way, as the corpses of thousands of death-squad victims bear witness.

Mr Bonner shows how the original military-civilian junta which overthrew the reactionary President Romero in October 1979 was weakened even before it took power. Lieutenant-Colonel René Francisco Guerra y Guerra, the brains behind the coup, was replaced by a more conservative and corrupt officer, Colonel Jaime Abdul Gutierrez. Without consulting the other junta members, Gutierrez then appointed as Minister of Defence another crony, Guillermo Garcia. Between them these two men, along with two other conservatives, the vice-minister of defence and the commander of the National Guard, were to subvert any hope of reform.

Nevertheless, for a time there was a façade of change. The junta, which included Ramon Mayorga Quiros, the independent rector of the Catholic University, Guillermo Ungo, a leading Social Democrat, and Mario Antonio Andino, a businessman, outlined a programme of reform. Peasants and workers would have the right to organise; ORDEN, the paramilitary security force operating in the countryside, would be abolished; national wealth was to be redistributed, and the large estates would be broken up. The fate of the ‘disappeared’ would be investigated. But senior army officers resisted and in January 1980 Ungo, Mayorga and Andino resigned. Now it was the turn of the Christian Democrats to try their hand at joining the ‘Revolutionary Governing Junta’, which had already shown that it was hardly revolutionary and not much of a government, since the Army still ruled. Two Christian Democrats and another independent took the three civilian places on the junta. Before they joined, they insisted that Garcia be removed as minister of defence. But once they were in power, the Army reneged, and the Christian Democrats failed to walk out: ‘a pattern,’ Mr Bonner points out, ‘that was repeated frequently in the next three years.’

By March 1980 the situation had deteriorated, as the Army and its right-wing backers launched an unauthorised war against all organisations of the Left and Centre, from peasant organisations to trade unions to political parties, including the Christian Democrats. In the first three months of 1980 900 civilians were murdered by Government forces, according to the Church. At the end of March the Christian Democrats split. One of their members resigned from the junta, only to be replaced by the leader of the party’s right-wing faction, José Napoleon Duarte. The new government, Junta III, was no more effective than its predecessors, and as 1980 wore on, the death squads were more active than ever.

Recent Salvadorean history cannot be understood without reference to this vital period between October 1979 and 1980, and Mr Bonner is right to stress it. The Reagan Administration later tried to rewrite history, by claiming that ‘in early 1980 the leftist participants abandoned this junta to join the extreme left in a situation of mounting civil strife.’ Once again, that obfuscating use of the word ‘leftists’, and a blurred analysis of the violence, which by all independent accounts was coming almost entirely from the right.

In its private analysis, released under the Freedom of Information Act, the Administration knew that Duarte was not a centrist, but was siding with the conservative military. Publicly, they described him as a plucky man in the middle. Privately, they spoke of trying to win a military victory as the guerrillas, now supported by the disappointed reformists who had backed the October coup, gained in strength. Publicly, they claimed they wanted a political solution.

And so it goes on. In 1985, after two flawed and unrepresentative elections in 1982 and 1984, the issues have not changed and the polarisation remains. Mr Duarte is back in government, in alliance with and at the sufferance of the Army. His belated acceptance last October of the FDR/FMLN’s long-standing offer of a political dialogue and negotiations for a common platform of reform has been undercut by the far Right. On, too, goes the propaganda war. President Duarte, we are told by a new generation of journalists, is a centrist. It is he, not the guerrillas, who supports dialogue rather than violence.

How much longer can this murderous nonsense continue? The main lesson of Mr Bonner’s book is surely that a little awareness of history is worth more than a graduate degree at a school of journalism. Mr Bonner’s on-the-job training in El Salvador at least enabled him to ask the right questions at the end of his time. But by then much damage had been done. False reports had been sent. Wrong assumptions had been parroted day after day. And for every Bonner there were and are scores of reporters who never get it right. Perhaps if Mr Bonner’s book were put on a compulsory reading list for new correspondents in Central America before they start operating, it might have some efect. But one tends to doubt it.