Necessary Illusions Copyright © 1989 by Noam Chomsky
Appendix IV Segment 19/23
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The lack of attention to public opinion in El Salvador provides interesting lessons about U.S. political culture and the societal function of the media. The United States has unleashed an enormous military and repressive apparatus in El Salvador and has poured huge sums of money into the country. If these efforts had even a remote relation to the needs and concerns of Salvadorans, then, quite obviously, their opinions would be front-page news in the U.S. media and the subject of extensive commentary. What we discover, however, is that there is not the slightest interest in their opinions. It would be misleading to say that the information is suppressed; rather, the irrelevance of the people subject to our will is as elementary as the rules of arithmetic; to consider what they think would be as absurd as to try to discover the attitudes of chickens or donkeys.

The conclusion is clear: U.S. planners, and the educated elites that comment and articulate positions on international affairs, care not a whit about the needs and concerns of the people of El Salvador. Their sole concern is the preservation of their own privilege and power. The rhetoric of "benevolence," "good intentions" that misfired, and so on, is mere deception, possibly comforting self-deception as well. The attitudes and opinions of Salvadorans are not only ignored, as of zero significance, but also happen to be diametrically opposed to those of their professed benefactors in Washington, New York, Cambridge, and elsewhere. This is a matter of no concern, not even a level of concern that would lead to attention to the facts. The disdain for subject peoples is merely a background fact, like the air we breathe.

New York Times correspondents regularly allege that polls are illegal in Nicaragua, citing no evidence and not reporting the statement of the respected Jesuit priest who is rector of UCA (which would normally be responsible for polling) that polls are permitted but that facilities are lacking; plausible, given the circumstances. The Interamerican report (see note 119) assumes that polls have been permitted since 1984, that the August 1987 accords further legitimize polls, and that "the present poll put that general understanding to the test." The poll was not reported in the Times. I noted little mention elsewhere, and that unreliable (see chapter 3, note 47).

Let us return to the fate of the Central American peace negotiations after the effective demolition of the Esquipulas Accord in January 1988. In subsequent discussion, the terms of the Accord are consistently understood in the Washington version, accepted under duress by Nicaragua: the expansive interpretation devised by Washington applies to Nicaragua alone. Thus, it is possible for news columns to assert that "other countries have done somewhat better" than Nicaragua in adhering to the accords with their requirement of "freedom for the press and opposition parties, an end to support for other countries' guerrillas and negotiations with Nicaragua's rebels," as the Boston Globe reported in August 1988; indeed, other countries cannot violate the accords, whatever the facts, under the conventions of government-media Newspeak.123

Putting aside the usual disregard for state terror in the "fledgling democracies" and Honduran support for the contras, the reference here to negotiations appears rather audacious; it was hardly a secret that Nicaragua alone had negotiated a cease-fire agreement. But one must understand the algorithm already described. When Nicaragua entered into cease-fire negotiations and reached an agreement with the contras, this "key issue" was dropped from the agenda as no longer serviceable.

It was also necessary to eliminate the inconvenient fact that El Salvador and Guatemala, in opposition to the near-unanimous will of the public,124 were refusing to negotiate with the indigenous guerrillas. The Times did not interrupt its daily lambasting of the Sandinistas in January 1988, the crucial month for dismantling the accords, to report that "According to [FDR leader Guillermo] Ungo, talks have not resumed, despite FMLN requests, because of pressure exerted on Duarte by the Reagan administration as well as from the country's security forces."125 A February 8 appeal for dialogue by Ungo was rejected by the government on grounds that it will "only dialogue with legally registered political parties"; this was reported prominently in the Mexican press, but not in the Times.126 The FMLN/FDR stated that this was Duarte's third rejection of renewed talks since November. Neither this nor Archbishop Rivera y Damas's homily hoping for a Duarte response appears to have been reported. Rather, the Washington Post editors, in a fanciful construction, condemned the guerrillas for having "rejected [Duarte's] overtures," which "went substantially beyond the obligations placed on him by the Central American peace plan." There was scant notice of subsequent rebel offers to negotiate, rejected by the government. Jeane Kirkpatrick went so far as to denounce the guerrillas for rejecting all of Duarte's "generous offers" for negotiations.127 Again, the facts turn into their opposite as they pass through the distorting prism of the media.

In Guatemala, the Bishops' conference called for renewed negotiations on January 29; the guerrillas accepted, the army refused, backed by President Cerezo. In late February, the rebels requested talks again, to be mediated by the Archbishop; the government refused. A rebel offer of negotiations in April, supported by President Arias, who offered his country as a site, was rejected by Cerezo, and a cease-fire proposal in June was dismissed by his government.128 All of this was unworthy of attention, on the principles already discussed.

The logic was explained further by George Shultz, in a letter objecting to a congressional proposal that the president be required to submit a report on Salvadoran government efforts to achieve a cease-fire before all aid can be released. Its sponsors argued that Congress would thereby be "making clear its support for a negotiated end" to the civil war in El Salvador. Shultz replied that "it is wholly inappropriate to try to pressure the elected government to negotiate or to make concessions to the guerrillas, which would not be acceptable to any democratic government." Since Nicaragua, unlike El Salvador, has not achieved democracy and lacks an elected government, it is quite proper to subject it to terror and economic warfare to pressure it to negotiate with U.S. proxies.129

A cease-fire was reached in Nicaragua on March 23, 1988; again, Nicaragua was alone in implementing an element of the accords.130 The agreement was at once undermined by congressional legislation, and the administration went still further, violating the legislation as well as the cease-fire agreement. The media went along, as discussed in the text. Further negotiations broke down in June as the contras, increasingly under hard-line leadership, followed the U.S. strategy to undermine them by constant demand escalation when agreement seemed near.

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123 Katherine Ellison, Knight-Ridder Service, BG, Aug. 1, 1988. Others understand that "Nicaragua has gone further in complying with the Arias peace plan than Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador," but Nicaragua's ties to the Soviet bloc provide "a reason, if not an excuse," for ignoring the fact, and recognition of it in no way influences continuing news coverage or opinion; editorial, NYT, March 11, 1988.

124 In El Salvador at least; in Guatemala, evidence is not available. Ellison's report is unusual in at least acknowledging that Guatemala "broke off talks" with the guerrillas.

125 COHA News and Analysis, Jan. 14, 1988. The FDR is the political group allied with the FMLN guerrillas.

126 Excelsior, Feb. 9; Central America Report, Feb. 26. There were brief notices in BG, Feb. 9, 11; CSM, Feb. 10, 1988.

127 El Sol, Feb. 22; editorial WP Weekly, March 28; AP, May 13; BG, May 14; Tad Szulc, LAT, May 22, 1988.

128 Central America Report, March 4, June 24; AP, Feb. 24, March 30, 1988.

129 Congressional Quarterly, June 25, 1988.

130 To be precise, we refer now to the revised accords, modified by the dictates of the U.S. government, and relayed by the media in conformity to these dictates.