Teresa* showed me a picture of herself in a book about the Salvadoran civil war. It shows a group of guerrillas, seated at a table, their faces concealed behind bandanas. How do you know it’s you, I asked. “Because I was there; I remember my compañeros,” she says. Looking carefully, I recognize her eyebrows.
She stood before my class, a diminutive, vivid figure who looked much younger than her 54 years. Thirty years ago, she was a guerrilla in El Salvador’s civil war. She lost her husband, a guerrilla leader, when a shell tore off his shoulder and part of his face; a brother was killed; and a sister was disappeared. Another sister was kidnapped, gang raped and tortured; she won asylum in Canada but the scars of war did not fade; she now lives in an institution for the mentally ill. All of them were casualties in a war that killed 75,000 of her countrymen and -women. Her voice thickened with emotion as she recounted the losses in her life.
While my students were touched by her losses and her passion, a few were particularly stricken. One young man spoke of his parents’ escape from Liberia during their civil war. They never speak of the horrors they endured or who they left behind. He said that hearing Teresa tell her story, he understood for the first time the sorrow in his mother’s eyes. Still another sent me a note thanking me for bringing her to the class.
A student of mixed Dominican and Salvadoran parentage had a similar reaction. His mother came here during the civil war; she will not speak of her ordeal. Yet another student, a Cambodian, talked with Teresa for a long time after class ended, about his parents’ flight from Cambodia after the terrible secret bombing by the United States. These things have never been mentioned in his history classes before, he said. It was as if the whole world was keeping a secret.
Reviewing her talk a few days later, one young woman asked about Teresa’s anger towards the United States for having funded the dictatorship that killed so many of El Salvador’s people. It was so “over the top,” she said; was she exaggerating? If you were born and have lived your whole life in this country, you might think so.
United Statesians live in a kind of bubble and feel very put-upon when we incur the resentments of the world. Do we deserve this anger? Does the United States really do things like that? After all, people brave all sorts of terrible trials to come into our country illegally; if we were so bad, would people be dying to come in here?
There are two different issues here: One is U.S. foreign policy and its execution; and the other is the image of wealth and prosperity that we project to the world.
Most of us barely are aware of what happens within the halls of Congress unless it affects our lives directly. The debates about health care momentarily raise our consciousness but most of our compatriots cannot name their U.S. Senator or Member of Congress. Only a tiny percentage has ever written a letter to any national official for any reason. Congress goes about its business largely undisturbed by citizens’ protests except when the media have whipped them into frenzy over an issue and when they do, it’s over an issue that is close to home.
Even though we may be unaware of it, Congress passes hundreds of bills in a session on many foreign issues, some of which offer nothing benevolent to the world. For example, we have been following the coup in Honduras. Did you know that last year we appropriated $44 million in aid, and an estimated $47million in FY2009 to Honduras? $47 million to the fourth-poorest country in the western hemisphere? What is the money being used for?
We have 725 military installations outside the US territory. How do they stay in operation? Congress appropriates funds. What are they doing? Good question. The C.I.A. has operations all over the world, and it has a history of funding covert wars and all sorts of military dictatorships. During the second half of the twentieth century, it was involved in coups and military actions all over Latin America. How were they funded? From your taxes and mine; in most cast cases, secretly. What would happen if they appropriated all those funds to our schools, or for universal health care?
We participated in the coups in Guatemala (1954) and Chile (1973), among many others; and funded a Contra war against the Sandinista government in Nicaragua during the 1980s. When Congress did not appropriate the amount that President Ronald Reagan wanted, he bypassed Congress and obtained arms in an illegal scheme called the Iran-Contra Affair. He then apologized sweetly and was not impeached as he should have been for it.
How many billions of our tax dollars go to military, C.I.A., and illegal foreign activities? There’s no way to know but the people against whom these forces are directed feel the effects, and a rich vein of hatred against the United States is the result. It is the reason that you sometimes hear foreigners distinguish between our government and our people. The secrecy is the reason that most Americans do not understand why people hate us. But ignorance and inattention play a role as well.
So why are all those foreigners trying to immigrate to the United States? In Mexico, half of the population lives in poverty and one-fifth live in extreme poverty. According to an IPS (Inter Press Service News Agency) report, “Nearly half of the country's indigenous people have earth floors in their homes, and nine out of 10 have no separate kitchen areas, while 40 percent of indigenous households have no clean water.”
El Salvador has the fifth-lowest per capita income in Latin America and suffers from extreme environmental degradation and water pollution, in part, because of the defoliation of its landscape during the civil war.
Why do you think they want to come here?
*not her real name.