By Andrea Scarpino
As protests and demands for revolution have swept the Middle East and North Africa, I have been revising a chapter on Carolyn Forché that will be published this fall in an anthology on artists as social critics. Forché is one of my heroes, a poet who traveled to El Salvador as the Salvadoran Civil War unfolded, and then wrote a groundbreaking collection, The Country Between Us, partly based on her experience. I read her books at least once a year. I’ve read them so many times I have different colored pens marking almost every page, different notes scrawled for the different occasions I’ve referenced or returned to her words. She writes about war, atrocity, loss, the very worst that one person will do to another. She writes about what happens after revolution.
The Salvadoran Civil War was complex, with many different factions fighting for control over the course of its thirteen years. It began in 1979 when a civil-military junta deposed President Carolos Humberto Romero in a bloodless coup. The deposed president had been ruthless; one of the reforms the new government made was disbanding the paramilitary death squad that had terrorized Salvadoran citizens. But as struggles for control intensified in the new government, the calls for reform that had led to the president’s deposing were subsumed by violence.
By 1992, when the Salvadoran Civil War officially ended, some 70,000 people had been killed. Many more were tortured, disappeared, made to suffer terribly. Remember, these deaths came after the bloodless coup, after the revolution that called for reform. So as I’ve read the news about Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, Bahrain, I’ve found myself increasingly dissatisfied with how these public protests and successful revolts are being portrayed on the news—as if once the dictator has been removed, everything will be okay, democracy will flow through the streets like liquid gold and every citizen will live in joy and peace.
Yes, of course, deposing dictators is important. And I have been awed by the strength of protesters across the world, the courage it takes to demand the government actually represent and respond to the needs of its citizens. I know protesters suffer terribly as a result of their actions—they lose their jobs, their families are targeted for reprisals, they are attacked and beaten and raped, starved, denied medical care. But I worry that the real struggle comes after the revolution, after CNN cameras have left. When there is still the possibility of civil war, of terrible violence, of 70,000 deaths. When the rest of the world has stopped paying attention.
I know the job of the news is to sell news, and long, complicated struggles to rebuild a country under an entirely new government don’t retain our interest. But when thinking about Tunisia, Egypt, even the upheaval happening in Wisconsin, I’ve been thinking about El Salvador, thinking about how democracy isn’t always the gift we in the US think it to be. That revolution comes with a very expensive price. As Forché writes in “Because One is Always Forgotten,”
The heart is the toughest part of the body.
Tenderness is in the hands.
Poet and essayist Andrea Scarpino is a frequent contributor to POTB. You can visit her at http://www.andreascarpino.com