From the moment I opened this book, I knew it would be impossible for me to write a standard review of it. I couldn’t read about Joe Frazier’s memories without bumping into my own.
Joe, a correspondent for the Associated Press for 37 years who covered Central America from 1979 to 1986, and his wife Linda were dear friends of ours. Linda was a staffer on The Tico Times when she was killed in a terrorist bombing at La Penca, Nicaragua on May 30, 1984.
“Death was a part of daily life in Central America in the 1980s, and it hit us all in different ways,” Joe writes in his memoir. “Most of us lost friends and colleagues. Many of us were just numbed by the quantity of it, some of us had our lives immeasurably scarred and changed by it. Both were true of myself.”
Both were true of us, too. Life at The Tico Times would be divided forever after between Before La Penca and After La Penca.
When the war in Nicaragua began to heat up in the late ’70s, correspondents from all over began converging regularly on Costa Rica, and The Tico Times office was an obligatory stop. At any given time there were more visiting newspeople than our own staffers gathered in our small newsroom, comparing notes, catching up, checking out each other’s information.
Many of us also worked as stringers for foreign news organizations. We got to know everybody who was covering the region.
In the early ’80s, a number of the correspondents assigned to Central America decided to move to Costa Rica and use it as a base. Joe, Linda and their son Chris came here from Mexico. Joe commuted back and forth between San José and the war zones in the region.
His book focuses on El Salvador, at the time the center of desperate U.S. efforts to prevent another Nicaragua. With a masterful mix of straight reporting, colorful anecdotes and thoughtful reflection, Frazier seamlessly weaves the life (and too often, the deaths) of the correspondents chasing the story into the story itself – the unspeakable violence tearing the country and its people apart, its roots in El Salvador’s history, and the geopolitics that fueled it.
“The United States spent billions of dollars backing a string of governments trying to fend off a coalition of five ragtag rebel armies in the tiny country,” he writes. “At the peak of the fight only Israel and Egypt were getting more American military help. The Soviet bloc used the neighboring and newly leftist country of Nicaragua as a weapons conduit.
“More lives were lost in El Salvador during the conflict than were lost by the United States in Vietnam, and the U.S. population is 60 times greater than El Salvador’s.”
Frazier cites examples of the country’s infamously grotesque inequality, which spawned and perpetuated the insurgency, which in turn sparked the interest of the Eastern Bloc, escalated U.S. paranoia and brought in the Big Guns of the Cold War.
“When nearly all of a massively impoverished class has no way out of poverty, there is a class problem that will not fix itself peacefully,” he notes.
“It was the oldest joke in El Salvador, and perhaps the most repeated: the military and government were making guerrillas faster than they could kill them. The military and oligarchy somehow never quite figured it out.”
For its part, the United States, driven by dread that another country in its backyard would slip into communism, never quite figured out how to stop supporting a status quo ever more notorious for its human-rights atrocities.
“In El Salvador in the 1980s it wasn’t hard to wake up dead, or disappeared, as the saying went,” Frazier writes. “People who knew the wrong people or had the wrong enemies or were heard saying the wrong thing or were reported by a rival in love or business to have said the wrong thing or had the wrong job or stumped for a union could be dragged from bed in the small hours by death squads and shot. Often the family was awakened and forced to watch. Nobody was immune, not even priests.”
Nor journalists. Frazier’s name was on a “Death List” circulated by a rightist paramilitary group accusing most of the foreign correspondents in El Salvador of being “the main accomplices of Soviet, Cuban and Sandinista communism trying to take over the country” and sentencing them to death.
Covering El Salvador was particularly difficult because “All sides had one thing in common: they lied a great deal.”
“We gnawed through mountains of spin and did the best we could,” Frazier recalls. “There remained for a short time a 1950s-style naïveté that told us if the U.S. government was telling us something, it must be true.
“The facts on the ground quickly educated us otherwise.”
(At The Tico Times, we underwent a similar awakening in the ugly ’80s.)
Frazier pursued the story wherever he could: in the small towns where ordinary Salvadorans were being battered by both the guerrillas and the government; at the scenes of savage massacres; in remote rebel camps where Liberation Theology-minded priests were supporting the guerrillas; at the headquarters of Pro-Búsqueda, an agency working to reunite stolen children with their parents. He interviewed presidents, rebel leaders, U.S. officials, campesinos, archbishops. He witnessed incredible horrors. Embattled El Salvador comes vividly alive in every chapter, revealing a hellish, deeply tragic place where Realpolitik had become more important than human lives.
“Most of us spent our first year or so there writing stories that tried to make sense of it,” he recalls. “Gradually we realized it didn’t make any sense and began writing about that. When we thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did.”
On every page, Joe Frazier displays the essential qualities that make a great journalist: curiosity, humility and honesty. We’d witnessed the antics of a few of his more arrogant brethren, who showed up in Central America armed with political agendas, at both extremes of the spectrum, that they were determined to “prove” (pathetically, some are still at it). But the true pros, such as Joe, never claimed to know it all. They were there to find out.
Anybody who wants to be a journalist – or a better journalist – will benefit from Frazier’s shining example in this book.
Frazier revisited El Salvador in 2009 and 2012. He found a country that was no longer “at war with itself” but still very much divided – between those who want to forget the horrific past and those who believe it is vital to remember it.
He reviews the 1992 peace pact and the findings of its Truth Commission, plus the controversial amnesty that sought to undermine it. El Salvador today is still torn by gang violence, but the country’s war wounds are healing – and, many fear, are fading from public awareness.
“Now the country is deciding how much to tell the next generation, and how much to forget,” he writes.
“Today, young eyes widen at stories of what happened just down the street or one village over, and not so long ago,” he adds, noting that many survivors of the atrocities say they feel “a national amnesia is moving in.”
This worries Frazier, who clearly favors remembering: “Given the country’s past, the future is hard to predict and while the country is stable today, it isn’t known for that.”
In the last chapter, he re-lives his terrible loss of Linda and the aftermath of La Penca. By concluding his powerful, insightful memoir with the personal pain that all of us who were there would give anything to forget, Joe Frazier exhibits one more trait of a great journalist: courage.
“El Salvador Could Be Like That” is available for $17.96 in paperback and $9.99 in Kindle version at Amazon.com.
Photos from The Tico Times archives: