Tom, who worked for the NGO that arranged our trip, was inclined to lecture. “Feeling guilty is a waste of time,” he said when one of us brought up how many of our tax dollars—more than a million a day at the height of the war—had gone to arming murderers. “Concentrate on learning what these people need now. Lots of Salvadorans say they’re worse off now than before the war.”
So far we hadn’t encountered many Salvadorans. But people Margaret knew well waited for us in the country, in Comunidad Octavio Ortiz. Meanwhile . . . to the embassy!
Apparently it’s possible, while touring a foreign country, to visit the U.S. ambassador and grill him or her about U.S. policy—as long as you make an appointment well in advance. The seven of us dressed up and climbed into the van—60-something Margaret and 20-something Tom, our leaders, Greta and Richard, our married couple, Will (from the plane) and Peter, both repeat visitors, and I.
Richard was already worried that we wouldn’t make it from the guesthouse to the embassy by 9:30. Yet while the rest of us were staring out the windows of the van—I was fast becoming obsessed by the number of starving dogs running wild through the neighborhoods—Tom asked our new driver, Faustino, to take a quick detour through a part of town where the rich lived.
San Salvador was a dense city of mostly shabby one- and two-story dwellings. On our detour Tom pointed to red-tile and stucco McMansions on acres of hilly ground enclosed by high walls, with armed guards pacing in front. “Quite a difference, right?” he said, looking back at us from the front passenger seat.
Richard was lost in reviewing the list of questions we’d prepared for the ambassador. When the van slowed to gawking speed, he looked up and said, “Are we even on the way to the embassy?” He checked his watch. “We’re going to be late!”
“Take it easy,” Tom said. “We’ll get there.”
We arrived at 9:32. Richard jumped out of the van and loped to the front gate. Turning toward Margaret and me, Tom mimicked Richard: “Are we even on the way to the embassy? Like, fuck, Richard, shut up.”
Margaret stared at her feet.
After opening our bags and showing our passports, we met Ambassador Rose Likins in an empty room. She sat in a big, comfortable chair; Mark Silverman, country director of USAID (the Agency for International Development) and a former Peace Corps volunteer, sat next to her; and we petitioners occupied folding chairs laid out opposite them in a semicircle.
We worked our way down the list of questions Tom had helped us formulate, asking about factories built by foreign investors where trade unionists were threatened, the police force’s record of rape, the absence of potable water and basic health care in the campo.
Likins, about 40 then, a practiced smile on her face, told us what “an exceptionally challenging year” it had been. Two earthquakes, affecting two-thirds of the department of Usulatan (where COO was), had left 25% of the population there homeless. The U.S. had provided a great deal of money for both temporary and permanent housing. (She nodded at Silverman.) Like the new governments in Honduras and Nicaragua, El Salvador was finding “constructive ways of looking at things rather than dwelling on the past.”
We pressed Likins about CAFTA, the pending extension of NAFTA to Central America. The Peace Accords had promised to extend participation in decision-making to popular organizations, but this wasn’t happening. While CAFTA was being fast-tracked through the U.S. Congress, many Salvadorans opposed it.
“The Peace Accords were never meant to address economic issues, only to establish democratic processes,” Likins said. “Trade agreements are government to government.”
So it went. Our little group was talking about providing for a country we’d helped to level. (Those earthquakes had nothing on us.) Ambassador Likins and hard-working Silverman were talking about making the country fit for investment.
The educational value of spending a morning being humored by one's ambassador—that can’t be overestimated.