Finding Echoes of Today’s Headlines in Central America’s Proxy Wars in the 1980s

Finding Echoes of Today’s Headlines in Central America’s Proxy Wars in the 1980s

The Cold War showdown between the United States and the Soviet Union was played out in the 1980s with deadly results in crowded cities and dusty hamlets in Central America. From leftist guerrilla insurgencies in El Salvador and Guatemala to the Contras fighting Nicaragua’s revolutionary Sandinista government, hundreds of thousands died and countless more fled to the United States.

Scott Wallace spent a good part of that era in Central America covering these proxy wars, whose effects are still being felt today in the debate over immigration, gangs and intervention in Venezuela. Yet for a region that is just a few hours away by plane, there has often been a great disconnect. Mr. Wallace, who developed a deep interest in Latin America during college, saw himself as someone who could perhaps become a bridge of sorts between north and south.

“We exercised this heavy hand in Latin America, yet we have no understanding of the people we are influencing,” said Mr. Wallace, who lived in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala at the time. “There was a certain cultural arrogance that needed to be addressed.”

A wide-ranging exhibit of Mr. Wallace’s photos from Central America, “In the Crosshairs: Dispatches from Central America, 1983-90,” is on display through March 15 at the University of Connecticut at Storrs, where Mr. Wallace is an associate professor of journalism.

Mr. Wallace, 64, had grown up with an interest in photography, thanks to his father’s collection of photo books. While at Yale, he took a year off to learn Spanish in Mexico, then go overland to Peru, where he worked on a literacy project in an indigenous community. When he returned to college, he “doubled down” on his studies of the language and the region.

His realization of the yawning gap between the realities of Central America’s conflicts and understanding its causes, spurred him to cover the region after getting his master’s degree at the University of Missouri. So, too, did memories of growing up in the 1960s, as the Vietnam War was broadcast into people’s homes on the nightly news.

“When it looked like there was going to be another Vietnam in El Salvador, I thought maybe I could be a journalist and try to influence people here,” said Mr. Wallace, who is also a contributing writer for National Geographic.

What he found when he arrived in San Salvador in 1983 was a country in the grip of a bloody conflict between rebel troops and a right-wing government that relied on terror and extrajudicial killings. Just two years earlier, an American-trained battalion had massacred hundreds of people at El Mozote, while in 1980 death squads assassinated Archbishop Oscar Romero — who was recently canonized — while he was celebrating Mass.

Like elsewhere in the region, the conflict was fueled by brutal social and economic inequality between the majority of the people and a small group of wealthy and influential elites with ties to the United States.

“Salvador was creepy, particularly the capital,” Mr. Wallace recalled. “You just had this sense there were very nasty people with malevolent intent lurking about in the shadows and you could be under surveillance. People were killed every night and dumped on the streets. And yet there was this part of Salvadoran society that was either in complete denial about it or didn’t care. It made for jarring circumstances.”

Finding the conflict in Salvador was easy enough, since the rebels were active in the city. But Mr. Wallace preferred driving to the countryside, bluffing his way past military checkpoints and making contact with the guerrillas.

“Covering the press conferences and embassy briefings in Salvador was so depressing,” he explained. “The capital was not a fun place to be. But the countryside was fascinating. It was incredibly beautiful, yet you had this guerrilla war unfolding on this beautiful landscape.”

The opposite dynamic was at play in Nicaragua, where Mr. Wallace lived from 1985 to 1988, as the Reagan administration funneled money and arms to Contra forces fighting the Sandinista revolutionaries who had toppled the dictator Anastasio Somoza. While in El Salvador the conflict could arrive at his doorstep, the encounters in Nicaragua were deep in the countryside, as well as in Honduras, where the Contras were based — even if Honduran officials tried to save face by denying their presence.

While the Sandinistas have endured, its political leadership — starting with the guerrilla leader turned president Daniel Ortega — has been condemned for being as authoritarian and corrupt as the dictator they ousted. There have been waves of oppression from the military as protests mount against the government.

“The seeds of this stuff were sown way back,” Mr. Wallace said. “Daniel Ortega clearly had the makings of a despot back then. Now he has had this chance to play out the fantasy of being a full-fledged dictator.”

United States foreign policy in the 1980s also set the stage for the flood of refugees seeking safe haven here, settling in large cities in Texas, Florida and California. Teenage refugees in Los Angeles soon found themselves in another set of cross hairs, this time from local street gangs. For those young people who joined the gangs and ran afoul of the law, the consequence was deportation to a country they barely knew. That, in turn, resulted in the explosive growth of gangs that have terrorized entire neighborhoods.

The deepening crisis in Venezuela has once again dredged up memories of United States intervention in Latin America, as President Nicolás Maduro faces challenges to his rule from Juan Guaidó, who declared himself interim president after contested elections in January. Supported by several other Latin American leaders, Mr. Guaidó met in Colombia this week with Vice President Mike Pence to discuss further steps to increase pressure on Mr. Maduro. The meeting drew a rebuke from the European Union, which cautioned against military intervention.

“I think history has shown in recent times that what comes after regime change is even worse,” Mr. Wallace said. “One of the things I want to do with this exhibit is to rescue the memory of an important time in our history and the history of Central America. The road from Vietnam to Baghdad went through Central America.”

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