Tuesday, February 16, 2021

COLD WAR MARTYRS

 Latin America has forced a redefinition of who is a martyr. The definition matters — for spiritual, political, and historical reasons. This is the first of a series. It begins with a photo of a flier I found pasted on a wall in rural El Salvador in 2015, thirty-five years after the murder of these women, a sign of veneration.

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The first time I ventured into the countryside of El Salvador in 1983 was to visit the graves of Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, two of the four American churchwomen beaten, raped, and murdered by members of the U.S.-backed Salvadoran military.

Their assassinations forty years ago, commemorated recently in prayer services, webinars, and zoomed gatherings around the world, has come to stand for the thousands who gave themselves for faith in a better future for the poor of Central America during the liberation wars of the last century. HERE IS A STORY I RECENTLY WROTE ABOUT THESE WOMEN , about why people think they matter today, and whether they should be called “saints.”


Friday, February 12, 2021

Biden's New Family Reunification Task Force - Hard Lessons from History


 It’s not even past…

            During the U.S.-backed wars in Central America, I met parents whose children were whisked off by U.S.-backed militaries, never to be seen by their families again. President Biden’s new task force created to find parents of children taken at the border under Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, can learn lessons from those historic separations: Despite best intentions, the harm cannot be undone.  And beware of Central American governments, which have protected adoptions of children irregularly taken from their parents–- partner instead with highly motivated private groups.

On an autumn morning in 1985, Niris Menjivar, then 41, showed me the last place he had seen his daughter, Reina, 11, three weeks before.  “Do you think she will know she is not an orphan?” he asked. We were in territory held by leftist rebels, supported by peasant farmers like Menjivar who had long suffered at the hands of an abusive government, and were suffering even moreacutely from bombardment since Washington began supplyingair power to San Salvador. When local people feared a government military operation, they packed food and infants on their backs and fled to remote mountain corners on treks they called guindas.On the last guinda,returning with other men carrying water to where women and children sheltered, Menjivar said he watched helplessly from behind a boulder, unable to cry out without giving away the hiding place of neighbors as a military helicopter lifted off with his daughter, and soldiers captured others. 

            “Do you understand?” he asked, as if asking forgiveness.   

            “The torture is ongoing,” Adriana Portillo-Bartow of Chicago, a retired community services worker, told me recently. In 1980, Portillo-Bartow’s daughters Glenda, 9, and Rosaura, 10, and her 18-month old half-sister, Alma, were taken in a military raid from a house suspected as a hideout for rebels in Guatemala. She never saw them again.

            Portillo-Bartow has worked for Amnesty International, and testified in courts and to a truth commission about missing Guatemalan children. The Guatemala government targeted families thought to favor rebels “as a way to deter others,” she said. Trump used the “same logic, the same kind of sadistic policy planned to cause damage, punishment for coming to the United States.” 

At least 3000 children went missing during the war in El Salvador; five thousand went missing in Guatemala. Neither government pursued reunions. Those thattake place largely have been organized largely by private groups, such as one founded by a Jesuit priest in El Salvador, another by mental health advocates in Guatemala, more by organizations of the once-missing children – now adults – in the United States and Europe. 

In 2000, Luis Curruchich, then 48, sat in a wooden chair outside his house in Santa Anita Las Canoas, Guatemala, and told me he was still lamenting the loss of his daughter, Aura Marina, who had disappeared at age three during a 1980 army attack on his village. “She would be 23 now,” he said.

A Guatemalan Catholic Church report said missing children were taken to army bases before being given to soldiers and officers, or placed in orphanages or trafficked into adoptions; guerrillas took two adolescent boys to join their ranks. Americans adopted more than 30,000 Guatemalan children from those years until 2008, when a corrupt adoption system was closed down for reforms. In Honduras, a hotel clerk offered me an “adopting baby” rate as I checked in with my San Francisco-born 6-month old one day in 1987 – I found the place filled with foreigners waiting to adopt. An estimated 2,354 Salvadoran children were adopted into the United States during the war (1980-1992). Adoption also may be the destiny of the misplaced children of the border captures. A 2018 Associated Press investigation identified “holes” in the U.S. legal system that permitted granting legal custody to families caring for migrant children without notifying the children’s parents. Some were separated during the Obama administration which deported three million persons.

Gemma Givens, a founder of Next Generation, an association of Guatemalan adoptees in nineteen countries who are looking for their birth families (and sometimes find them), told me the children separated recently at the border will need “emotional support” if their parents are not found despite the task force’s efforts, and the, too, want to search some day.Immigration hardliners amenable to family separation remain working in the new administration. The cycle of Central American children torn from their parents seems endless.  “It has to stop,” Portillo-Bartow said.




White House image:

photo of Luis Curruchich by Nancy McGirr for the San Francisco Chronicle


Wednesday, January 20, 2021

On the First Day of the Rest of My Life: The Shot

  


In the first hour on the first day of availability of the COVID-19 vaccine, the line was already two blocks long.  We all had scheduled appointments, but nobody wanted to risk missing. I had spent four hours waiting on the phone when news of the shots had come, doing mindless tasks with the numbing recorded message on speaker; when the drone became a human voice -- "How may I help you?" -- my brain took a moment to shift gears and I answered so clumsily I almost cut off the call. "First available," I said.

 

On the scale of concern about getting COVID, from not concerned at all to very concerned, mark me terrified.  I did everything Dr. Fauci said, risked alienating some close friends, I am afraid, by nixing even socially distanced, open air walks (I took them alone, or with my husband). When special occasions arose, I passed food and gifts to my dear friend and neighbor of decades with a bucket and stick over the back fence.  I work from home, have a generous daughter and her partner who insist on shopping for us. These privileges have not made the year shorter.


 


 

"Let's keep our distance," I heard a man's voice saying as the vaccination queue moved. "Imagine getting infected in line for the shot."

 

In almost a year of lockdowns (I was an early adapter), I had worn only house slippers or walking shoes, only easy-fit boyfriend pants or gardening jeans and t-shirts, with a necklace for Zoom.  Today I put on nifty corduroy pants and my good Dansko clogs, a favorite cotton jacket last taken from its hanger in February 2020.  Waiting in the early San Francisco sun, I shifted my purse (Purse!) from left shoulder to right and reached into the jacket pocket to find the set of front door keys I had been looking for the last eleven months.

 

If it sounds as if this day felt monumental to me, it has.  Precautions remain, but the fear I've shared with millions of others has lifted. The shot itself happened so fast I didn't get a selfie. To make the next appointment -- "Your vaccine is here, you'll get your follow up," the attendant assured me, although I hadn’t asked – I was moved to six different chairs, had stickers taken on and off my shirt. "So sorry," apologized a nurse, "we're organizing this as we go."   A doctor who checked me out after the shot told me that when word came that the governor was making 60,000 doses of the vaccine available to the facility instead of the 10,000 they were expecting, people worked all night to set up tents. I noticed the big sales tag still hung from his swivel chair. There may be huge glitches in the national vaccine rollout, but just as they have since the beginning of the pandemic, front line medical workers are pulling out the stops to control this thing.


 

I was on the verge of tears as I made my way to the street.  So many have not survived. From social media, by email, I’ve felt the grief among those left behind. Even at a remove, the sadness has been overwhelming. Somehow I feel I have to work harder now at whatever I do, to use the new lease on life to the utmost. 





Thursday, January 7, 2021

The Last Two Weeks Begin with an Attempt on the End

   

Thoughts on Trump's Self-Coup Attempt, Colored by Latin America

Armed police take positions as mob assaults U.S. Congress


     President Trump tried something they would call an autogolpe, a self-coup, in the "banana republics" of Latin America  -- a despicable term used by arrogant Americans once unfamiliar with coups at home. I covered the region for more than three decades and saw such maneuvers up close.  The action means the chief of state forcibly eliminates the power of the legislative branch of the government so he (yes, generally a he) can rule alone, or with lackeys and lawmakers answerable only to him. 

    At a rally in front of the White House, Trump baptized followers as shock troops and sent them forth to assault the U.S. Capitol as Congress met to formally seal the results of Joe Biden's election. Like everyone else, I was glued to television, radio and the internet as the spectacle that rocked my country unfolded, as Trump's troops occupied the Congress, as hundreds of elected officials cowered in justifiable fear for their lives or stepped fast to secret locations. Late in the day, I re-ran the Trump rally online. The center seemed to be holding and I wanted to know what kind of talk would move thousands to violate the law, history, decency, the Constitution. And anyway, who could sleep? Researching a book I wrote on World War II in Latin America, I had spent countless hours watching and listening to videos and recordings of that era's fascists.  Trump's echo of those voices, and their distortion of history, was overwhelming, like a match on kindle.

    In an autogolpe I covered in Guatemala in 1993, the big question for hours was whether the military would back the president, or the Constitution. (The military was split, but under U.S. Embassy pressure, the key elements eventually stood against the president.) For hours in Washington during Trump's self-coup,  which side the armed authorities were taking wasn't clear either -- police sometimes seemed to facilitate the insurrectionists, or appear passive, and only after agonizing hours did a few authorities -- absent Trump -- find backbones and call in the National Guard. The casualties in Washington could have been worse. The White Supremacist Proud Boys leader had been arrested a couple of days earlier on the way into D.C., long guns and bumpstocks confiscated.  Two IEDs planted on Capitol grounds, the kind of weapon that has killed more than 2,000 GIs in Iraq and Afghanistan, were disarmed before they could explode.

The self-serving resignations of Trump's administration enablers has begun, but many remain, and even after the mayhem, more than half of the Republican members of Congress were willing to go along with delaying the formality of saying yes, Biden won. (Their moves lost.)  I have not been able to travel to work in Latin America since the COVID lockdown began, but the region's worst days in my memory feel close by. It is going to be a long two weeks.



Photos: Both, Wikimedia Commons
Police in Congress is a still from video shot by Congressman Dan Kildee, D-Flint