Whenever Eastern University professor-filmmaker Betsy Morgan discussed with classes her 1994 documentary, El Salvador: Portraits in a Revolution, at least one student, Jamie Moffett, had questions that couldn't yet be answered. In the years that followed, the questions grew in number and intensity.
Exactly how culpable were U.S. taxpayers for the drawn-out 12-year-long Salvadoran civil war?
What did all the U.S. money (more than $1 million per day during much of the war) funneled to El Salvador's right-wing military government buy the United States?
Who is ultimately responsible for the 72,000 Salvadoran civilians killed by their own army and for El Salvador's ongoing messy state of affairs?
Why did the 1992 peace accord between the Salvadoran government and rebels never bring the peace and prosperity it promised?
Today, in the mountainous and densely populated Central American nation that's no larger in size than Massachusetts, about one dozen civilians are killed every day. Most of the deaths are attributed to turf wars among drug gangs or clashes between labor unions and the encroaching interests of government and industry. Despite the election last year of a wildly popular "People's President," the former journalist and rebel supporter, Mauricio Funes, El Salvador remains a nation at war with itself.
This all explains how Moffett, now 33 and a veteran filmmaker based in Philadelphia near Eastern University, found himself in El Salvador directing a documentary, Return to El Salvador. It has cost him 14 months and $100,000. Questions still linger about U.S. culpability and intention, but Moffett has some answers. Most are disturbing.
Following an interview on Oprah Radio this Saturday from 1:45 p.m. (EST), the first seven minutes of Return to El Salvador, narrated by Emmy winning actor Martin Sheen, will be released online at www.ReturntoElSalvador.com. It can also be seen here. Derrick Ashong will interview Moffett on his The Derrick Ashong Experience show on Oprah Radio (XM channel 156 and Sirius channel 195). A live video stream of the interview can be seen on Oprah.com here.
Two years ago, Moffett's first feature-length documentary followed radical, vocal, young Christians living in partnership with the poor. The examples of their lives, as much as their protests, challenged stale church dogma and the American status quo. The Ordinary Radicals: A Conspiracy of Faith on the Margins of Empire inspired viewers to reassess their spiritual moorings and to question church authority.
In Return to El Salvador, Moffett and his crew at Jamie Moffett Media Design & Production, turn the camera on greed, drugs, capitalism and the tortured legacy of U.S. intervention in the affairs of others. The Salvadoran civil war began after decades of economic oppression had left its working class powerless against the policies of military leaders. When Salvadoran church leaders began to push for economic justice, a popular Jesuit priest, Father Rutilio Grande, was murdered. When Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero condemned the country's human rights violations, he was assassinated in 1980 by a shot to the heart during church mass. (In 1993, a UN report identified Romero's killer as Roberto D'Aubuisson, a Salvadoran army major trained at the U.S. Army's School of Americas in Fort Benning, Ga.)
An ensuing war between a well-armed Salvadoran military government and well-coordinated grassroots socialist rebels drew Washington's immediate attention. Fearing anything that appeared Marxist, U.S. administrations from Carter to Reagan funneled arms, support and American tax dollars to the Salvadoran government. Twelve years later, El Salvador was left with the same economic divide that had triggered the conflict. In addition, there were now tens of thousands of widows, orphans and more than 70,000 trained killers. The Salvadoran military would trim all but 10,000 of its soldiers, leaving tens of thousands unemployed and mostly unskilled. They would be valued primarily for one thing. Violence.
In Return to El Salvador this remnant of war is blamed for Salvadoran death squads, drug gangs and, in the United States, a rise in Central American street gangs. Early in Moffett's film, Robert E. White, the former U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador, gives a frank assessment of American intervention.
"The gangs are a direct result of the war," he says. "A whole generation of kids who had no education, whose parents couldn't make a living; they were street kids. The social cost to the Salvadorans of our intervention in the Salvadoran war is astronomical."
By the film's end, viewers see for themselves how the war endures long after "peace" was declared. Its legacy limps along in El Salvador's shattered lives and failed policies.