Thou comest, much wept for: such a breeze
Compell’d thy canvas, and my prayer
Was as the whisper of an air
To breathe thee over lonely seas.
I first met Bill Doherty in 1978 in the Domincian Republic, under circumstances he would rather forget. I was invited to a reception organized by Doherty’s American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD), which had hired me to design a rice marketing scheme for a peasant farmer union affiliated to the Dominican Labor Confederation. Doherty had arrived by Lear Jet in the company of all the AFL-CIO bigwigs — including “The Plumber” himself, George Meany — to witness the electoral victory of Doherty’s handpicked candidate, Rafael Tejada. The problem was, as Bill discovered only upon landing, Doherty’s candidate was going to lose. His Country Director had screwed up, and lost touch with the rank-and-file. Tejada was a corrupt blow hard, good at making speeches but a zero when it came to delivering to his members, and they all hated him. They were going to elect instead someone more left-leaning, who would be an anathema to Doherty and the AFL-CIO. In short, a major embarrassment.
All this was explained to me as Joe Campos, the guy who hired me, led me through the crowd to introduce me to Doherty. “Oh, hi, yeah, good to meet you!” His hand struck at mine like a barrucada at a silver lure, and then the big Irish-American turned back to his reaming of his Country Director.
Doherty was one of the most colorful human beings I have ever known. He was not content to be a witness to history, he had to make it. I will never forget the excitement of being called to “the bridge” (his office) in the middle of the wars going on in Central America during the 80s. It was like being admitted to a secret room where the fates of nations were being decided. He taught me much of what I know about politics. In 1983, at the height of the war, he asked me to take over the El Salvador program. I told him my only reservation was that I had met a woman I was in love with, and I didn’t think she would quit her job just to follow me to El Salvador. Doherty, a staunch Catholic, had the answer: “We’re going to hire your girlfriend, but you have to marry her.”
Sleep well, Bill.
With the controversy of Global Warming safely tucked away into its (warm) bed, we can return to topics I know something about.
I was in Managua yesterday, putting on a command performance before the Board Of Directors of the Nicaraguan Central Bank, who we hope will confer a Finance Company license on FINCA Nicaragua, so we can mobilize more resources, reach more clients and offer them a wider range of services.
In my youth, an audience like this would have sent me into paroxysms of anxiety, as when Eminem appeared on the stage for the first time:
The music, the moment, ya nevah let it go, yo
Ya got one shot, do not blow this opportunity
Comes once in a lifetime, yo
After which he repaired to the head and blew his guts out.
I wonder why I like both my parents’ (RIP) music and my kids’ at this stage in my life?
The composition of the Nicaraguan Central Bank board is interesting to say the least. All but one of the members used to wield an AK 47 against the Somoza dictatorship, which they overthrew in 1978. The head of the Superintendency of Banks (think Federal Reserve), who was also present at the meeting, is married to one of Somoza’s daughters.
I was in Asuncion, Paraguay, in 1979, when a hit squad ambushed Somoza’s armor-plated Mercedes. It was obviously a professional operation. A few blocks from Somoza’s mansion in an upscale Asuncion neighborhood, a gunman emerged from the right side of the road, drawing the attention of the driver and fire from Somoza’s bodyguard. The bazooka guy popped out from his cover on the left side, and fired a round which pried the roof off the Mercedes, decapitating Nicaragua’s former President.
From Asuncion, I went to Managua, just in time for the wild celebration. (I’m not asking you to make any connection here. Though my friends did; they were convinced I was involved in the operation)
Damn, I have a lot of stories! People are always telling me: “You should write a book.”
Wait a minute, I have! 63 days to Release Day!
Interesting that, after all the effort by the Reagan Administration, all the money, all the lives lost in the civil wars in Central America, we have today leftist governments in both Nicaragua and El Salvador, populated by former guerrillas. Not the result Ronnie had in mind. More interesting, they arrived via the ballot box. They didn’t shoot their way into power this time as they did in 1979. Eleven years later, over confident, they got booted out by Violeta Chamorro, only to return to power in 2006 after the conservative candidate, Aleman, discredited his party with his blatant corruption.
But here is the amazing part: in both El Salvador and Nicaragua, the right wing elements in those two countries are accepting this result peacefully.
Is Central America a hopeful portent for what might eventually occur in other regions in conflict, like the Middle East, if we are just patient enough? And if so, what lessons, if any, does the Central American Solution hold for that part of the world, in terms of a Path to Peace?
A recent Op Ed in the Washington Post had the temerity to suggest that, in the case of Egypt, we might be in a better position today to help steer that country in a healthier direction (for us) had we more openly supported the democratic, centrist elements in the population vs. “coddling” our Despot of the Day (and the past 30 years), Hosni Mubarak.
This reminds me of when I was on a tennis court with Ambassador Dean Hinton, in El Salvador, in 1983. We had just played an energetic doubles match, and Hinton wanted to vent his frustration with my boss, Wild Bill Doherty, Executive Director of the AFL CIO’s labor program in Latin America.
“A real bunch of amateurs,” Hinton growled, as we drank cerveza Suprema, post match. “That’s why you guys are,.” He brandished his racquet at me. “And you can tell Bill Doherty I said that!”
As with most great comebacks, I didn’t think of mine until a few days later: “Well, Dean, I guess when the professionals screw up, we turn to the amateurs for solutions.”
If you’ve been following this blog, I was referring to the sweeping land reform program my colleagues and I designed and thrust upon the shaky Revolutionary Junta, which, after implemented, created for them an overnight constituency of hundreds of thousands of peasant farmers and their families, and broke the momentum of the guerrillas seeking to overthrow them.
That political coup had only been possible thanks to my martyred boss, Mike Hammer, who had worked for years during the 60s and 70s supporting the Salvadoran peasant farmers, persuading them that they could achieve their aspirations through peaceful, democratic means, vs. joining the armed insurrection. This, in sharp contrast to the Conventional State Department Wisdom which held that we had to support right wing dictators as the only viable alternative to communist insurgencies.
In that board room of the Nicaraguan Central Bank, 33 years later, one thing was going through my head:
I mean, they came to power anyway, for Christ sake! The end result was the same!
Speaking of Sisyphaen undertakings. The morning of the meeting I noticed, in the Nicaraguan Prensa Libre, a photo of one of my old running buddies from the El Salvador days, Bill Brownfield, who has risen through the ranks to the point where he has a title rivaling that of Idi Amin: Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. Bill was next door in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, announcing that the State Department will spend $200 million fighting the war on drugs in Latin America. My CFO for Mexico recently told me that a “corner boy” in Mexico now pulls down an average of two large a day, or $60,000 a month.
Good luck with that one, Bill.
I can imagine a conversation between the Head of Narcotics in – take your pick – any given Central American Republic, and the top Drug Lord in the country:
Head of Narcotics (HON): Am I speaking with El Rey de Las Drogas?
Top Drug Lord (TDL): Who wants to know?
HON: Chepe, it’s me. La Cabeza Anti Droga de la Republica
TDL: Oh, oh oh. ‘Sup Dog? Hey, congrats, saw you’re gonna get a few million to fight the War on Drugs! Man, I’m scared now!
HON: Shut yo’ mouth. Got a proposition for you.
TDL: Lay it on me.
HON: Who’s your biggest competitor right now?
TDL: Dude named El Gordo. Wasted one of my homies the other day. Chopped his cabeza clean off. Set it up on the highway like a lane divider.
HON: Tell me about it. What happened to just a plain old .45 entre los ojos? What would it be worth to you if I, you know, made him disappear?
TDL: You could make that happen? (skeptical) Just how you gonna do that?”
HON: (laughing) With the millions I just got from this Brownfield cat, how you think!”
I wish I could say I made that up. It went down EXACTLY like that in Mexico.
Damn, it’s hard to stay on message! Diane, where are you! Diane!
We’ll pick this up – with another contest and valuable prizes! — over the weekend.
In the meantime, please weigh in, if so are so inclined, on this “Coddle the Dictator vs. Support Grassroots Democracy” trade off. And don’t tell me it’s a “false choice” – unless you think it really is.
I missed yesterday. I feel like a truant.
But I have a good excuse (no, Bruno, my chihuahua, didn’t eat it).
The Day Job is torquing up in anticipation of next week’s board meeting. Plus people are waking up from the break and cranking up their email factories. Help me, Cassius, or I sink!
Also, my publisher sent the latest draft of The Handbook for my last shot at edits. I’m about one fifth of the way through, and, I have to say, I still really like it. I know, I’m biased. But I’m also my own worst critic.
Not to short change you, some have asked about how the El Salvador story ended, whether the perps got punished etc. It took five years of an FBI investigation and relentless pressure from the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Embassy, but the two trigger men were eventually apprehended and imprisoned, although they were released under an amnesty law less than two years later. Captain Eduardo Avila was imprisoned three years later and released in December of 2005. Lopeze Sibrian died his hair red for his court appearance and it was enough to fool the witnesses and judge — along with a healthy bribe, of course.
I spent just a year, in El Salvador, 1983, but it was the fullest – and most dangerous — year of my life. I was determined to avenge my boss’ death by doing something I knew his murderers would hate more than anything: making the land reform a success. One of the biggest challenges I faced was that, while the Carter Embassy had supported our work on the land reform unequivocally, believing (correctly, in my view) that by enfranchising millions of poor people it would build popular support for the struggling Revolutionary Junta overnight, enabling them to defeat the communist guerrillas, the new Ambassador, recently appointed by Ronald Reagan, was less sympathetic. I was in El Salvador the night Reagan got elected, and you would have thought the guerrillas had been defeated, or that the Cold War has ended and we won. Everyone who had a weapon – and that was, well, everyone – stood outside in the streets, firing into the air in jubilation. It literally rained bullets all over San Salvador.
The right wingers believed Reagan would reverse all the stupid Human Rights initiatives of the Carter administration – which they believed had led to the fall of Somoza and the victory of the leftist Sandinistas in Nicaragua – and give them free reign to fight the war their way: by killing all the members of the “popular organizations”. The right wing defined a popular organization as a church, a school, a cooperative, or a union. They were all communists, or, at best, potential communists.
They weren’t far wrong about the attitude of the Reagan Embassy. I had, at best, a love-hate relationship with our Ambassador, Dean Hinton. We played tennis together, and he was cordial to me whenever a Congressional Delegation was in town and wanted to see how the land reform program was doing, but most of the time he thought we were misguided “amateurs”. I was tempted to tell him that it was because the professional diplomats in the State Department had got it wrong for five decades that we “amateurs” had to come in and save the situation.
I have a million other war stories from this period of my life – and, yes, they did result in a book; more on that later – but I need to relate one incident that I consider an important part of my legacy in that poor, tortured country.
But let’s leave that for next time.
I have kept diaries a few times during my life, mostly when I was very young, most of which have perished. These will not be missed. One I do wish I had back was one I kept during 1983, when I lived in El Salvador at the height of the civil war, working for the AFL-CIO’s labor program in El Salvador. I had a title nearly as long but not quite as grandiose as Idi Amin’s: Country Director of the American Institute for Free Labor Development’s Program in El Salvador. On paper, I was there to train Salvadoran labor leaders in the dark arts of organizing workers into unions, teaching them collective bargaining strategies
My real job description, never written, was to organize a number of Salvadoran trade unions from different sectors – the communication workers, construction workers, public employees, and, by far the largest, the peasant farmers – into a political force that supported the Revolutionary Junta, a group of Generals led by the once and current President, Napoleon Duarte, in whom the State Department had invested it’s hopes to stave off the fall of a third domino (after Nicaragua and Grenada) to the communists. But while Duarte tried to build a centrist political base of workers, peasant farmers and lower middle class professionals, a rogue cashiered Major named Roberto D’Abuisson was compiling lists of “potential subversives” within this same segment of society and proactively slaughtering them before they got any ideas about supporting the insurgency. Duarte initiated a number of economic reforms designed to weaken the stranglehold of “the fourteen families” who controlled most of the productive farm land and business monopolies in the country. The most controversial initiative, in which I played a large role, was the expropriation of thousands of acres of farmland from the 14 families and its redistribution to several hundred thousand landless peasant farmers.
If it sounds like dangerous work, it was. Two years earlier my boss, Mike Hammer, had been murdered along with the head of the Salvadoran Land Reform Agency, Rudolfo Viera, and a young Seattle lawyer about my age, Mark Pearlman, by a right wing Death Squad as they ate dinner at the San Salvador Sheraton Hotel. Hans Christ, one of the Salvadoran landlords who had his farm expropriated under the land reform program had recognized my boss and his colleagues as they entered the restaurant. Christ appealed to one of his friends, Lopez Sibrian, Deputy Chief of Intelligence in the Salvadoran National Guard, asking if he could take advantage of this golden opportunity to avenge himself upon the people who had forced him to sell his farm.
Two low ranking National Guardsmen were ordered to carry out the assassination, with weapons provided by Lopez Sibrian and an accomplice, Captain Eduardo Avila. Avila was one of D’Abuisson’s chief Death Squad operatives and played a key role in the assassination of Archbishop Romero, a crime nearly as audacious as the murder of four American nuns by members of the security forces several years earlier.
Unfortunately, Hammer had moved to a private dining room for more privacy, and this made the hit easier. The two Guardsmen, armed with sub machine guns which fired more than 15 rounds per second, burst in on them as they were finishing dinner and having coffee. Viera, who had already escaped several attempts on his life and always carried an Uzi, got the weapon as high as his chest before he was hit with a dozen bullets in the face. Pearlman was hit twice in the center of his chest and died instantly. Hammer was found lying at a locked exit door, American passport in hand, with two bullets in the back of his head.
That happened the night of January 3, 1981. Thirty years ago to the day.
Mike was a good man who deserves to be remembered.
 “His Excellency President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular.“