Film editor 1978-1983, foreign correspondent 1983-1984, senior editor 1984-1986, Washington correspondent 1986-1988
It was November 1983 and I was the Weekly’s first-ever Central American correspondent, sitting in the smoking section of a TACA airliner next to a slender 30-ish man, who introduced himself as a cultural attaché with the American Embassy. The whole time we talked, mostly about what little difference there was between good hotels and bad hotels in Honduras and which bartenders occasionally managed a passable martini, he never took off his sunglasses. They were the mirror aviator style, so sometimes I saw lightning flashes from the thunderstorm we were flying through reflected in his lenses. Suddenly, just after the announcement that we were approaching Toncontín, the plane went into a steep, corkscrew descent, otherwise known to veteran passengers as a typical approach to a small airport with a single, very short runway surrounded by mountains. Further complicated by up-and-downdrafts from the storm, luggage compartments popped open, baggage spilled out and an assortment of pocketbooks and handguns skittered along the floor under our seats. Finally landing the plane on the ground, the pilot casually welcomed us to his country. The passengers broke into sustained applause.
The cultural attaché had his hands full trying to figure out which weapon was his, so we never said goodbye. But later, after maybe six months or so, I would see him again. This time, he sat behind the wheel of a white SUV parked in front of an outdoor café on the outskirts of San Miguel, the third largest city in El Salvador.
By then, Central America and the U.S. military presence there had become something of a cliché. Despite the Sandinistas’ more or less successful revolution and the best efforts of the five different feuding FMLN (Faribundo Marti National Liberation Front) factions, the pathetic little countries that made up that part of the world had probably exhausted their possibilities a century ago, thanks to rapacious if tiny governing elites and a Catholic Church whose idea of justice for the pure and the suffering was to comfort the comfortable. President Ronald Reagan’s obsession with the supposed communist menace was the cherry on an already very sad cake. (It was also a fraud, of course, one in which massive amounts of U.S. taxpayer monies were used stupidly, criminally, in a last-ditch effort to revive that old-time imperial religion: better dead than red.) But by today’s Iraq standards, the body count was almost minimal.
More or less guilt-free, I’d passed the time in Tegucigalpa and San Salvador and Managua and points in-between frolicking with born-again Christian missionaries, freelance mercenaries, riverboat drummers, relief workers, Mennonite nurses, adoption brokers, earnest or bored bureaucrats, revolutionary academics, a Canadian national who ran what he called a “respectable” whorehouse named The Rose, and a balding, pot-bellied wholesale grocer from Georgia, who said he had raised enough money from anti-communist patriots in Macon to train an entire battalion of Salvadoran Army soldiers in the fine art of counterinsurgency conflict. The copy practically wrote itself.
So here was the cultural attaché again, with the same aviator sunglasses, hanging out in front of a café where American military trainers liked to sit around and bullshit American journalists. It was a short conversation. In fact, it wasn’t a conversation at all. Before abruptly driving off, the cultural attaché gave me a cool, level look.
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“Better get out of here now,” he warned nonchalantly, as if commenting on the weather, “all hell’s about to break loose.”
Which it did. An hour later the FMLN began bombarding the town. The first explosion knocked out the municipal power plant, the second killed or wounded an unknown number of teenage Salvadoran soldiers who’d refused to leave battalion headquarters, and the third sent me scurrying to the bar of the Hotel Fiesta, where a companion and I had thought it prudent to wait out the night rather than drive to the Honduran border. There, the mariachi band, unwilling to leave the relative safety of the hotel, played on. For hours, while management supplied endless shots of the local rum free of charge, we guests sang along to “Flores Negros” or “Historia de un Amor” and told one another outrageous lies in the hot, dark room. At some point, a couple of very tall, very drunk Americans sporting crewcuts introduced themselves as medical-supply salesmen, and I identified myself as Imelda Marcos. I think I remember that we danced a lot and I probably fell in love with one or both of them for five minutes. But I know for sure that as I wobbled off to bed at sunrise, I said to myself that I’d really had a great night.
Several years later, after I’d been dispatched to D.C. as the Weekly’s first-ever Capitol correspondent, I thought I saw the cultural attaché one more time. Outside a Senate hearing room, where Democrats who still had some spine, conducted hearings into Reagan’s illegal funding of the U.S. assault on Nicaragua’s revolutionary government, a guy wearing aviator mirror sunglasses spoke quietly to a group of men much younger than himself. His body language still communicated the perfect control he’d displayed while the TACA flight corkscrewed down to Toncontín. The younger men were visibly agitated, taking quick, jerky drags off their cigarettes and repeatedly glancing at their watches.
While I waited for the opportunity to say hello, I tried to think what made me want to speak to this man again. We were not friends, we’d shared nothing more than a short flight from one sad-sack Central America capital to another, and even our encounter in San Miguel was unremarkable. What we had in common, I finally realized, was the sense of entitlement and detachment rich, white people poking about in places they don’t belong always assume. Because I was struggling, intermittently, to lose both, I walked off. The Weekly needed me in the hearing room. Oliver North was about to lie his way through a final day of testimony.