For several moments after 100 guests of the New England Circle viewed excerpts from "Witness to War" - the documentary about human rights activist Dr. Charlie Clements, who served as a pilot in Vietnam and later as a rural doctor in El Salvador - the audience sat in darkness.
It was a mishap, of course, a problem with the lights, but it provided a visual metaphor for much of what was discussed during the evening: infomration about the conflicts in Central America has been suppressed in this country, and in terms of understanding the effects of U.S. policies in that troubled corner of the world and elsewhere as well, much of the country remains, as it were, in the dark.
Clements, Director of Human Rights Education at the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee in Boston, was joined by actor and humanitarian activist Ed Asner in his discussion with the Circle. Both help found Pax Americas, a lobbying organization for peace in Central America. Together, they illuminated the evening with a string of startling facts and statistics.
Asner noted that the United States has the highest rate of homicides in the industrialized world, the highest rate of environmental pollution and one of the highest rates of infant mortality. A baby born in the shadow of the nation's capitol has less chance of survival in its first year of life, he said, "than in Trinidad or Tobago." Yet if president Reagan's proposed budget is passed, we will spend 500 million dollars every 10 days on defense. "Can you imagine what we could do with 500 million every 10 days?"
Clements also noted the importance of linking domestic realities to foreign policy, while also drawing on his personal experiences in El Salvador. He noted that Salvadorean army commanders boast that the region around Guazapa volcano, where Clements served as doctor to 10,000 civilians, is now pacified. "The only peace it knows is the peace of the dead, the 'disappeared,' and those that fled," he said, after the army carried out a six-month search-and-destroy mission that displaced all the civilians. Meanwhile, Congress has poured 2.5 billion dollars into El Salvador, and yet there is no solution in sight.
The evening drew impassioned responses from several Circle gusts, more often in the form of supporting statements than questions addressed to Asner and Clements.
Tensions grew at one point over a growing Democratic partnership in the debate, but several guests, including Massachusetts Attorney General, and former Congressman Jim Shannon, noted that the policies of the U.S. government in Central America have been supported by both Democrats and Republicans. Others pointed some blame at the lack of media attention, and the poor or nonexistent education about global politics in our schools.
by Leora Zeitlin (Director of Publications, Unitarian Universalist Service Committee)