"I get through to people right away now at the State Department," says El Salvador's man in Washington, Francisco Aquino. "Before it was," -- he pauses, considering his words -- "uphill to talk to them. You would call, and they were in a meeting. And then they were in a meeting all day. It took three or fours days to get through. Now, well, El Salvador has such priority."
In the taxi, the ambassador from El Salvador calculates he will have 45 minutes to talk to the high school students at the Quaker Center before he has to hop into another taxi for his appointment at the International Monetary Fund. He checks his watch. His white shirt is perfectly starched, cufflinks peeking out under the navy suit coat.
All of a sudden everyone wants to talk about El Salvador. From network news officials and visiting British MPs, to Georgetown University and Sen. Charles Percy -- all seek out Aquino. At the February joint session of Congress, where President Reagan spoke, Sen. Jesse Helms spied the ambassador and stopped for a chat.
Tem months ago, Aquino feels, few would have recognized him.
"Now, people come to see me," he says. "It's very nice. Before I would write a letter to a newspaper and it wouldn't even be acknowledged."
He raises his eyebrows. "If I had the money and the embassy people to support me, I could spend my days traveling around universities and talking about the situation as we see it."
He bolts from the taxi and heads for the Quaker Center.
El Salvador made the Johnny Carson monologue this week. "We have an exciting show for you tonight," Carson said. "A little later on, Bob Hope will be out here and plug his Christmas show from El Salvador." Applause greeted the line, Vietnam echoes and all.
"This tiny cuntry the size of Massachusetts" is the way some commentators have become fond of describing El Salvador. Newspaper headlines have charted the course of its brutal civil war. Archbishop Oscar Romero, champion of human rights, assassinated in March 1980; Three American nuns and one American layworker found dead in shallow roadside graves in December; El Salvador's private Human Rights Commission says that 13,194 people were killed by political violence; former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, Robert E. White, Testifies before a house subcommittee that the rightists were responsible for the majority of the deaths; Cuba and Nicaragua allegedly sent arms to Salvadoran leftist guerillas. The United States warns them to stop.
And now -- the arrival of military advisers in El Salvador. The resemblance to Vietnam has become a debating point with Democratic congressmen warning of danger and President Reagan telling Walter Cronkite it is unlikely U.S. combat troops will be committed to this small Central American country with its melancholy history of coups and counter-coups.
And for Aquino, talk of anything about El Salvador means that suddenly people are talking to him.
He likes that.
Inside the door of the Quaker Center, John Davison greets the ambassador. Upstairs are 35 high school juniors from the George School, outside of Philadelphia. The have spent three days in Washington, and Aquino is on the schedule somewhere between the talk from the CIA official and the visit to Common Cause.
"I think some of the students have some questions that are not, uh, impolite, but challenging," says Davison, chairman of the history department, young and bearded, in tweed jacket with khakis. "They've been reading the papers. . . "
"Well, if I can answer questions, fine," says Aquino, "If I can't, I can't."
"I'm happy you are interested in my country," he begins and launches into a travelogue description of El Salvador. " . . . smallest of five countries . . . magnificent beaches . . . wonderful climate -- tropical but mild . . . our major export is coffee . . . we also grow maize [corn] which is made into tortillas which everbody eats . . . "
He stands in back of a wooden chair, hands on the chair back, looking out at the faces. He is short, 61, neatly dressed, graying at the temples. His eyebrows form perpetual arches above light green eyes, giving a touch of dignity to his countenance at all times. He finishes naming the crops and sighs slightly. Time to move on to the hard stuff.
"For many years, everyone elected -- and some of the elections have not been fair -- has been a colonel or a general or something like that," he explains in a soft voice. "We have had a problem of unfair distribution of wealth. This is recognized by my government. We have a profund agrarain reform. There has been a big effort to redistribute land. Another important reform is the nationalization of the banks . . . "
Time to move on to the communists. "Because of the lack of justice in our social system in the past, there has been internal dissent from many directions. But the international communist movement has gotten hold and given the leftist guerrillas training. We in the government of El Salvodr have known about this for some time . . . "
Time for questions. What about all those peasants who go to farm their share of the land under the agrarian reform and get killed in the process, asks one student.
"It's absurdity to think the government would divide the land and then kill the peasants trying to get on it," he answers. "The guerrillas don't like land reform."
She persists. "But don't the right -- the people who are having their land taken away from them --"
He answers before she can finish. "I admit there are some executors on the right." He moves his hand on to the next raised hand.
What about the persecution of religious leaders?
"Not true," he says. "There have been some killings of priests who have generally been praying and orienting people in a political way. They are in politics. The constitution of my government says that church and state are separate."
Another question: How would you feel if the United States sent troops in?
"We would feel very bad about that. I think that would be a dreadful thing. We wouldn't like to be invaded by the Americans or the Russians or anyone else. If all armed shipments to El Salvador ceased today, we could handle our problem."
He looks at his watch. The session is over. The students applaud polietly. Davison escorts the ambassador downstairs and shakes his hand.
"Nice bunch of kids," Aquino says pleasantly, ever the diplomat. Defender of the Cause
He's trying his best to defend El Salvador these days, but it's not easy.
On his polished desk is a newspaper column on El Salvador, and he is angry about it. Indignant. Insulted.
"It is unbecoming," says Ambassador Aquino gravely, sitting in his leather chair, his gray suit well-cut, fat cigar comfortably clutched in his right hand. Behind him, the satiny white and blue folds of the Salvadoran flag hang from the flag stand.
He is perplexed at the story that pokes fun at El Salvador and its newly acquired position of would importance. "A country suffering as ours can't be made fun of," he says. "It's like hitting someone who's down in the gutter.
What's the use of this? It's like saying we are a banana republic." He shakes his head, frowning. "El Salvador has never produced bananas." Rights and Wrongs
He tries to be diplomatic. He will not tell you the governemt has an unblemished record, or that the military is without fault. "The army is very professional," he says, "but they've been too close to the government. That takes away their credibility."
But he doesn't think much of the left side of things. "The leftists are destroying everything," he says, frowning. "The buses, the bridges, the powerlines. They are destroying the things of the country."
And aren't the rightists killing people?
"Yeah, they're killing people," he says leaning forward at his desk trying to draw a distinction, "but not all those many."
He recoils slightly. "Well, I'm not defending them," he says soberly of the rightists. "They should be put to rest."
Said Laurence Birns of the liberal Council on Hemispheric Affairs, which monitors Latin America: "I think he is a noble man serving an ignoble government." English Dreamer
In his office Aquino sips coffee. "I am not rich," he says. "My father was a farmer in Izalco when I was born."
But he is no peasant. He attended the best private school. During Aquino's days in Catholic high school, the Jesuits wanted him. "They never got me," he says grinning. "I was never convinced. I had no vocation. They asked me continuously for about five years to enter the order. They would deny it now. They've changed. They're misguided. They should not be in politics. The only thing missing is the Holy Inquistion -- which we couldn't have in modern times."
He went to college iln El Salvador on scholarship and in 1941 came to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, again on scholarship, to study agricultural finance. He lived with a family in Chevy Chase who sat around in the evenings, peeling apples and teaching him English. "Three months after that, I started dreaming in English," he says, "and that's when I knew I had learned English."
After that, he went to Harvard for a master's degree in public policy. "I personally have never paid a cent for my education," he says.
Since then, he has been an economist, the minister of agriculture, and president of the Central Reserve Bank of El Salvador. He was a technical manager for the Inter-American Development Bank for two years before he became executive director of the United Nation's World Food Program in 1968.
In 1978, he took his hefty U.N. pension and invested it all in his very own band, a small one called the International Bank of El Salvador. Early last March, as part of the reforms, the government nationalized all the banks at the same time that they instituted their sweeping agrarian reform program. Aquino was out of a bank and out of his pension. Three weeks later he was appointed ambassador to the United States.
"Well, it makes me angry," he says of the takeover of the banks. "But what was I going to do? I can't join the extreme left or the extreme right over that." Who Killed the Archbishop?
He and his wife live in Potomac. ("I don't own my house," he says.) The children are grown up, well-educated, with good jobs.The youngest, Fernando, who is still in college, also composes music and plays guitar. His father has some tapes.
Aquino's friends are mainly Americans, some his neighbors, some former officials of the Inter-American Development Bank."It just worked out that way," he shrugs. For fun, he bowls.
He admired John F. Kennedy, whom Aquino met when he was head of the Central Bank of El Salvador. "We met and socialized quite a bit," Aquino says, pulling out a neat square of white handkerchief and smoothing it across his polished desk. "I admired his tremendous drive for democracy and social justice. People say to me, 'Why haven't you found out who killed Archbishop Romero?' I say to them, 'Well, we are poor, ignorant, and deprived of many intellectual things in my country. How about you finding out who killed President Kennedy?'"
He lights his cigar. "It would have been much better for Archbishop Romero and his people to have condemned the elite rather than gain the favor of the masses. These masses -- it's impossible to tell them how to reslove their problems through discussion. They are always anti-everything, not for something. Their education is not enough for that. The priests should have told the people in power to change. But there's no one to talk to now. All the rich people have left El Salvador."
In the 1979-1980 Annual Report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Right from the Organization of American States is the following statement about Archbishop Romero: "In his homily of March 23, 1980, he appealed to the Army, national guard and police, reminding them that they themselves were part of the people and that murder of peasants was contrary to human and divine law. He added that the Church was the defender of the rights of God and of human dignity and therefore could not remain silent in the face of such atrocities." Rumors
"Personally, Aquino is a good man, and he speaks good English," said one source who asked not to be named. "There is too much criticism of him in El Salvador. He is not a politician. He should have answered all those editorials in the paper about El Salvador.He should have had more contact with Congress."
The rumor circuit has it that Aquino may not be the ambassador from El Salvador for very long. "Before next month he may be gone," said the informed source.
Back in the embassy Aquino gives no hint of a shortened horizon. He wipes his desk with his handkerchief, straightens the papers into two neat piles and looks at his watch. Time for the next appointment.