Darkness seeps through Didion’s exquisite short story of El Salvador’s woes during the 1980s and the twilight of the Cold War era. Salvador starts with a quote from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and as Didion’s story drives on, there is a familiar brutality etched in the narrative similar to that found in the 19th century Congo under the colonial occupation of Belgium. The consequences of Reaganite America are ever present in El Salvador, yet the superpowers’ powerlessness to bend the country to its will stands out in Didion’s Salvador. El Salvador exists in Didion’s mind as an outpost on outskirts of a colonial empire. The United States’ here believes in symbols and appearances, no matter the cost even as guerrillas and government soldiers ripped each other to pieces, and mutilated and murdered the innocent civilians caught in the cross-fire.
Elections and democracy were, in President Reagan’s mind and his allies in Central America, to be the remedy to the threat of communism across Latin America. In the American embassy, Didion coins this as the “American Delusion” where Colonel Wagenstein dine on eagle spangled plates and drink red wine from crystal glasses as peasant boys with nothing but a gun and a cross around their neck die in the piping hot dust and jungles of El Salvador.
The Americans for all their power, hide away in the embassy designed to withstand prolonged siege. Their cars are unmarked and those who craft policy for El Salvador are tucked away from the horrors of the civil war. For those touched by the conflict, American and Irish priests, aid workers, journalists covering the conflict and Dean Hinton, who was Ronald Reagan’s envoy (and who would eventually speak out against El Salvador’s far-right death squads), the bloodshed of El Salvador left a deep sickness. ‘The situation in El Salvador was bad, terrible, squalid beyond anyone’s power to to understand it without experiencing it,’ Hinton reflected darkly.
The land reforms and elections, or the necessity of framing of them as successful, were an ‘aesthetic’ to the cruel landscape on the frontiers of El Salvador. In truth, and in a terrible foreshadowing to the Iraq War, the United States did not understand the country, nor the consequences of its actions in intervening in El Salvador’s politics. The contrast between the grandiose narrative of Ronald Reagan’s speeches and the bureaucratic language of the policymakers to the subtleties and double meanings of El Salvador’s language is marked and stressed by the author.
Left or right meant little to the few families and oligarchs that wielded power in El Salvador. What mattered was how to manipulate the American narrative to their own benefit, to provide symbols of progress to the Reagan administration while slaughtering, pacifying and disappearing students, families, journalists and activists to their own ends. Washington would turn a blind eye to dictatorship and trafficking so long as the mirage held firm, that El Salvador was a beacon of American democracy in a region awash with Communists. The truth in any war-zone, particularly a civil war as terrible as that in El Salvador, became a tool of war, interpreted by each faction in its different ways.
Even numbers of the dead, those turning up to elections were inflated or reduced at a whim by El Salvador’s warring parties. The earthquake in Salvador, which damaged the American embassy, appears an omen. As Reagan’s policies crumbled and produced catastrophe across the tiny country, smaller then California, so to did the embassy, an American symbol of power by nature, a subtle message from the natural environment of El Salvador that it could not and would bend not bend to foreign ideology and exported capitalism. Symbols and appearances mean little in this mysterious country, it was only a new tool of pure power in the oligarchy’s realpolitik. Life was short and harsh, and American idealism, democracy and capitalism almost seems naively out of place. Beyond Washington, and the Oval Office, life is ugly. The crusading spirit of democracy and the American Dream rot and break easily as the bodies do in the jungles of El Salvador, and shrinks in the terror of Didion’s alien land. Those who choose see the country’s mechanisms of terror are changed forever. The unwilling remain in their a Platonian cave represented by their embassies and government buildings, building a country on paper which will never exist. America’s El Salvador is a mirage.
With 20,000 dead between 2014 and 2017 (and counting) in El-Salvador’s drug wars and gang violence, it seems Trump’s America has learnt little. President Trump’s broad-brush bluster and xenophobic tirades against migrants, much like Reagan’s Cold War rhetoric, ignore the short-lived and nightmarish reality facing innocent men, women and children living, fleeing and being deported to de-facto war-zones created by Mexican, Guatemalan, Colombian, Honduran and El Salvadorian gangs and paramilitary narcos. More tragically, the U.S government and the American public has yet to come to terms with the costs of the civil wars which took place in Central America in the 1980s and 1990s, and conflicts which have savaged Colombia and Mexico.
Far from solving the United States’ migrant crisis, the drug war, and Central America’s refugee crisis, Bush, Trump and Obama’s policies on deportation, the ‘War on Drugs’, and immigration have enflamed them, with little attention paid to the consequences for individuals and nations to the south. The “American Delusion” continues in El Salvador.
Terror permeates Didion’s El Salvador. She is afraid, those around her are afraid, and do their best to distract themselves from death dwelling in the shadows and darkness where vigilantes and soldiers disappear and butcher hundreds of young men and women, and dump their corpses in the streets and hills of the country.
The land of El Salvador feels empty, chilly and frosty, abandoned and in twilight. The people have become cold because of war, and even mothers eyes are glazed over as they look through pictures of the dead discovered in body dumps. The country’s beauty occasionally, briefly shines through, only to be suffocated by the war and the refugees suffering. El Salvador swallowed up America, as its lands digested the dead in their thousands.
Short, bitter-sweet and stylish, Salvador seeps into your skin. Didion’s El Salvador is shrouded in mystery and terror. The writing is haunting and beautiful, detailed and concise, and a damning indictment of American policymaking in Central America, and a subtle critique of neo-colonialism and superpower politics in general. The contrasting narratives of American Cold War policymaking, and the sickness consuming El Salvador during its civil war are engrossing.