El Salvador: Alternative media giving a voice to the voiceless

Issue 

The Salvadoran community media has always been different — alternative in the most hard-core sense of the word.

A strong alternative cultural tradition is represented in names that have become household words in this country, such as Roque Dalton, the tragic poet laureate of the Salvadoran revolution and Mariposa ("Butterfly"), the voice of Radio Venceremos during the guerrilla struggle.

There is also Torogozes de Morozan — a political band that played for the left-wing guerrilla fighters of the left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) during the civil war.

The FMLN led an armed struggle against the US-backed military dictatorship from 1980 until peace accords signed in 1992 that allowed for free elections. In March, FMLM candidate Mauricio Funes was elected president.

Radio Venceremos survived the civil war, and many from that time still lend their voices to the construction of a new, just and peaceful society.

El Salvador has a long history of rebellion and repression. In 1932, a peasant uprising was brutally put down, with more than 30,000 people indigenous peasants massacred. Its leader was Farabundo Marti, whose memory is honoured in the name of the party seeking to organise the oppressed to build a better El Salvador.

For the following 60 years, the military largely ran the country with US support. Out of fear of persecution, the indigenous people largely stopped speaking their language, Nahuatl.

The guerrilla movement inspired by Marti eventually fought the military — armed, funded and trained by the US — to a standstill. Seventeen years after the formal end of the armed struggle, the FMLN have come to power.

Opposition press

Throughout this history, alternative journalism survived. Diario Co-Latina is one such newspaper, once regarded as conservative, that emerged as a champion of opposition journalism.

Founded in the 1890s, in the last half-century it has changed its name three times, had its offices burned down twice and bombed once, and it has gone bankrupt twice.

It was taken over by a prominent Christian Democrat Party (PDC) member in the 1980s. As the PDC became increasingly beholden to the military, he tried to shut it down.

It survived largely through the support of its readers and the commitment of the print workers and journalists, who at times worked without pay to keep the paper solvent.

One worker on the paper, Emilia Pineda, described to me how workers kept it going over the hard years — often sleeping on the office's floor.

She still remembers the time during the civil war when government helicopters bombed the offices and destroyed the presses. Students from the mechanical engineering faculty of the National University came and repaired them. "They are still working to this day", she said.

"There was a time when we were only capable of bringing out one double-sided page. And people still bought it as a gesture of support."

I remember the paper from my visit to El Salvador in November 1989, during an offensive on San Salvador by the guerrillas. It was a limited edition and the country's only afternoon paper. You had to be quick, as it would sell out by 1pm.

People found it incredible that the paper was still coming out. This was the period when the military even killed six Jesuit monks for teaching a version of sociology regarded as "subversive".

The building where the paper was produced was known as "the house of death" — merely awaiting the what seemed the inevitable military reprisals. The mainstay of the staff were media students.

Diario Co-Latino is still a training ground for media students who reject the values of the commercial media.

One of the journalists I spoke to had just graduated, another was still studying part time. Both were passionate about the need for genuine independent journalism — independent of commercial values.

Radio Venceremos

Alternative media in El Salvador was not limited to the press. In a country with a low literacy rate, especially in the countryside, radio has played a crucial role.

Radio Venceremos ("We will overcome") was the harebrained idea of a starry-eyed Venezuelan idealist, known as Santiago, who had helped the neighbouring Nicaraguan Sandinista guerrillas set up a clandestine radio station during their successful armed struggle against another US-backed dictatorship.

After the 1979 Sandinista revolution, he moved to El Salvador to establish a similar project.

The radio station became an international media hub that reached not only the guerrillas and Salvadoran peasants, but the world. An associated paper, Venceremos, was distributed internationally in five languages.

Santiago is now the director of the Museum of the Word and Image. It is a beautiful space, with the first salon dedicated to Salvadoran poets. In a glass case opposite framed words, there are a set of six bloodstained white, coarsely woven overalls and straw hats — belonging to peasants massacred in 1932.

In a back room rests some of the original Radio Venceremos equipment. Interviewing Santiago, we laugh at the changes in technology. The digital recorder in my hands is a long way from the transmitter taken from an old fishing boat used by Radio Venceramos in the 1980s.

That transmitter evaded capture for more than 10 years. It was constantly moved, often broadcasting from underground bunkers.

It served as an unremitting challenge to the military — who became obsessed with tracking it down. They never succeeded.

Talking to Santiago, it was clear community radio was his heart and soul. So my first question was why, after surviving 10 years in the mountains, did Radio Venceremos ceased to function?

"Three years after the signing of the 1992 peace accords, it became obvious that there were two opposing goals within the station. I wanted to see a radio that gave a voice to marginalised sectors of the community ... the unions, the peasants, the community organisations.

"But there was also a group that had commercial goals. I broke with them."

Radio Venceremos sold its license to another organisation. Santiago explained that the role it played is now filled by a network of community and progressive Church-based radio stations.

I asked him how difficult it was to adjust to the conditions created by the peace accords after living in the mountains as a guerrilla for 12 years.

"In the beginning it was hard. Gradually we adapted.

"I feel content with what I am doing, working closely with indigenous communities, creating films, books, that are rescuing the memory of the struggle."

The museum is building an archive of video, sound, photographic and written material on El Salvador's popular struggle so this history is not lost. It works intimately with peasant and indigenous communities.

Asked if he had a message for the Australian people, Santiago was fulsome in his appreciation of the support that came from Australia's solidarity movement: "Greetings from El Salvador to all the community radios in Australia, and I am going to take this opportunity to say two things.

"Firstly, to say thank you for all the solidarity that came from Australia during our 11 years of struggle. In Australia, there were solidarity committees and sectors of the union movement who were at our side.

"Secondly, I want to take the opportunity to greet all the Salvadorans — I believe there are thousands of you living there in Australia. 'Saludos' from this country where we are creating new levels of hope and social change."

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