While two sober-faced State Department agents stand watch in the carpeted hallway, Inez Duarte, the wife of El Salvador's President Jose Napoleon Duarte, sits on a nubby sofa in the ambassador's home and offers scenes of normal life in El Salvador.
"I never saw a body," she says. "Never. I have never seen a body in the streets when I go out."
She is read a newspaper report from the summer: ". . . not a day goes by without someone being ambushed at a traffic light . . . or gunned down by a passing car at the doorsteps of his own home . . ." Her smile fades to a look of fatigue, her mouth sets. "Sometimes the shooting by the death squads . . . so close in the back streets behind the luxury hotels . . . sends guests fleeing . . ." She leans back on the sofa, arms folded across her chest, vigorously shaking her head 'no.'
"I don't know," she says. "I can't say anything about that. Because I don't believe it. Your country has so many crimes. Here, it's awful -- the crime, the violence. That happens in all countries. We have crimes and they blame it all on the guerrillas and the army. There are simple crimes of people who hate each other or they stole something . . .
"I don't think it's a civil war," she says, hands clasped on her lap, sitting erect among the stitched pillows arrayed on the sofa, "because for me a civil war is where everybody goes to fight; but over there it's only our army fighting with the guerrillas. When you go to the city, you can't believe you're in the city that everybody says is in a civil war!" Her voice rises in amazement.
"Everybody goes to the movies, the younger ones go to dance in the discothe ques, everybody goes roller-skating," she says. "You go Sunday to the park and you see a lot of people -- mothers and fathers and children taking ice cream or hamburgers or whatever you want. And on Sunday the people go down to the beach. So our life," she says, arms outstretched, eyes intent, "is like your life. It's a normal life."
Inez Duarte is 53, born in El Salvador, demure but unflinching in the face of tough political questions. For instance: How could her Christian Democratic husband, tortured nine years ago by the military, now sit side-by-side with the military in the ruling junta? "I don't think they are the same ones," she says. "And you know, when you want to do something positive for your country, you have to make some sacrifices."
She has accompanied her husband on a private visit to the United States. He has met with President Reagan and business leaders here, hoping to win continued support for his government. She was scheduled to attend luncheons, visit a home for the blind, perhaps make a trip to the U.S. Naval Academy. She also went to Arlington Cemetery and visited the grave of John F. Kennedy. "I admire your President Kennedy," she says, smiling. "When he died, I cried."
As she sits in the den of the ambassador's home, a group of Salvadoran women, most of whom live here, chat in the living room, waiting to have tea with Inez Duarte.
Her country is marked by a failing economy and a civilian-military junta that her husband, a civilian, heads but has little power over, according to most accounts. It is also a country wracked by a bloody civil war that has left more than 10,000 dead -- by accounts of the U.S. embassy in El Salvador -- in two years.
Two weeks ago, someone fired shots through a window at Duarte's 29-year-old son, Alejandro, as he sat at his desk in a San Salvador office. He ducked and escaped injury. "I think it's a miracle," she says. "The bullets just passed him." She doesn't know who was responsible for the attempt on his life.
"We have to be normal," she says. "It's hard for a mother of six . People have to know how I feel as a mother, as a wife, as a woman. I have to work for my country. I have to support my country. We have eight grandchildren. It's very difficult, but I have faith in God. I believe in my husband, too. I know he's moving a big mountain." Her hands pantomime the shape. "It's hard to move that mountain."
Duarte moves into the dining room where Rina Rivas, the wife of Salvadoran Ambassador Ernesto Rivas, is hosting a tea. The women who have come are the wives of Salvadoran diplomats and businessmen. They are well-dressed, bilingual for the most part, articulate and earnest. They sit around a dining room table, covered with an immaculate, starched white tablecloth, set with silver and china. Over quiche, sandwiches, strawberry meringue and chocolate cake, they are game to take on the subject of violence in El Salvador, eager to dispel the notion that killing is the way of all life in El Salvador.
Bodies in the streets?
"You find one here, one there," says Rina Rivas.
"It's more in the countryside," says Alice Jimenez, the 26-year-old wife of Roberto Jimenez, the minister-counselor at the Salvadoran embassy.
"I have my family there," says Virginia Arrieta, whose husband, Ernesto, is the Salvadoran ambassador to the Organization for American States. "I am not afraid to go there. I don't know why newspapers won't make pictures of people working on the farms -- why they only make pictures of people killed in the streets. For example, you have a drug problem here, but you don't hear just about drugs."
"The guerrillas want the country destroyed," says Jimenez.
"When the guerrillas bomb the power plants, there's no electricity. Babies connected to oxygen tanks have died," says one.
And is there panic in the city?
"I was at a soccer game in August," says Rivas. "There were 50,000 people there. And nothing happened! Nothing happened! And 50,000 is a lot of people for us."
How does the 11 p.m.-to-dawn curfew affect peoples' lives?
"There are more babies," says Arrieta, eyes wide, voice deadpan. The table roars with laughter.
"No! No!" cries Jimenez. "It's a joke!"
After tea, the women kiss Inez Duarte and Rina Rivas goodbye. Duarte and a few who have stayed continue their conversation in the living room.
In San Salvador, her friends are the wives of the military men of the junta -- the wife of Col. Jose Guillermo Garcia, the minister of defense and the military strongman; the wife of Col. Jaime Gutierrez. "We are working together," says Duarte. "We have a committee of ladies. I am the president of this committee and Mrs. Gutierrez is the vice president, Mrs. Morales wife of Antonio Morales, a civilian junta member is the second vice president, and Mrs. Ovalos wife of Ramon Ovolos, another civilian is the third . . . Next week we're having a fashion show to get some money for our work." The committee helps the elderly, the poor, children, she explains.
"We help with the Red Cross too," she says. "I am not afraid to go out of the city. I go around to different parts of the country. I visit hospitals and everything." They always ask after her husband, she says. " 'How is Mr. Duarte? We are praying for him. Give him our best regards. Give him an embrace or a kiss or anything.' They always ask for him," she says.