In the stories of death and destitution from El Salvador, the villains are often described as "right-wing oligarchs." These are men, it is said, who owned all the land and oppressed the peasants, who pulled the strings behind the military dictatorships, and who now, operating out of Miami and Guatemala City, finance the death squads which litter the Salvadoran countryside with mutilated bodies.
But in the seaside condominiums and whitewashed houses of Miami to which they have fled, the wealthy Salvadorans see themselves far differently. Their farms have been confiscated at gunpoint in the name of land reform. Their banks and many of their businesses have been nationalized. Their mothers and sons have been kidnaped and some of them killed by leftist guerrillas.They are, they believe, as much victims of this brutal little war as are the impoverished peasants in refugee camps.
"We are not hiding," said Alfonso Salaverria, son of one of the largest landowners in El Salvador, and now a temporary resident of Miami. "We don't eat children. We're not savages. We are not oligarchs in the sense of exploiters. We developed our country, we penetrated its jungles and planted coffee. We are like the pioneers of the United States. We don't want unjust privileges. We just want our country to return to a democratic regime."
Some 150 to 300 families, the major portion of El Salvador's landed aristocracy, are residing in Miami. Only a two-hour plane hop from their homeland, this was once the place where they came to shop, to go to the doctor, to make business deals and vacation in second homes, like so many other well-to-do Latin Americans from Argentina to Venezuela.
Many of these Salvadorans went to military academies and prep schools in the United States, and then to Stanford, Columbia, the University of California. They see themselves as capitalists and freedom-lovers in the American tradition. Their heroes, they say, are Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford -- and now, Ronald Reagan.
Fourteen Salvadorans, including Salaverria and other leaders of a group they call the El Salvador Freedom Foundation, traveled to Washington for Reagan's inauguration. They went to a ball and watched the parade from the National Press Building office of their lobbyist, Ian MacKenzie, who made his reputation representing Nicaragua's late deposed president, Anastasio Somoza.
Members of the group, some 250 in number, have paid MacKenzie $7,500 a month to introduce them to such senators and Jesse A. Helms (R-N.C.) and help them rebut critical newspaper reports. Most recently, he has defended them against allegations by former ambassador Robert E. White that rich Miami-based Salvadorans are funding the death squads that have allegedly killed thousands of innocent peasants, as well as social activists in El Salvador.
The FBI is investigating White's charges, and the Salvadorans say they welcome the inquiry to clear their names. Meanwhile, they are not shy about expressing their anger.
"What I lost was more than dollars and cents," said Orlando do Sola, whose family's land, sugar and coffee mills were expropriated. "I lost my individual right to life, property and the pursuit of happiness."
No one has told their story, these wealthy Salvadorans complain, least of all the American press, mired in the rhetoric of geopolitics and stunned by the tortured corpses and hungry children of this conflict. But to listen to them speak is ito see El Salvador through the other end of the telescope. Whether or not their story tells the whole truth, it does add another dimension of human suffering to the tragedy of El Salvador.
It was a Saturday, Oct. 6, 1979, when a dozen guerrillas, members of the Popular Liberation Ront (FPL), broke into Luis Escalante's San Salvador home with iron bars. He was in pajamas. He rushed into the bedroom to fetch a pistol. The guerrillas fired at his legs. As he lay in a pool of blood, the guerrilla leader, a woman in fatigues and a beret, leaned over him. He lifted his pistol and fired point blank. She died instantly.
Escalante, one of the most powerful bankers in the country, was thrown into a van and given an injection that put him to sleep. When he awoke, he was lying on the floor of a room about six feet wide, his arms and legs bound. For 31 days his only food was an egg or a bowl of dry cereal every 24 hours. A doctor, disguised in a long robe, visited daily. The pain in Escalante's shattered and bleeding legs was horrible.
"You are a war criminal," the guerrillas told him.
Today, the guerrilla war chest fattened with his multimillion-dollar ransom, Escalante and his wife are exiles. In an interview in a Miami hotel, Escalante, in a navy blue suit and striped tie, rests his cane by his chair. Permanently crippled, he is a short, balding man with impeccable manners. He tells his story, but begs the interviewer to be discreet about certain details. He fears for his daughters, still in El Salvador. He won't have his picture taken.
Like many of the so-called oligarchs, Escalante describes himself as a self-made man. His father was a "humble lawyer," his mother, a descendant of Manuel Arce, first president of Central American, "a wealthy man who spent all his money on politics and died in poverty."
Escalante was a sickly child, and never finished high school, although he once spent nine months in the United States being treated for intestinal diseases, and attended San Francisco's High School of Commerce. i
At 18, Escalante began work in a bank and, in 20 years, rose to be managing director of the Banco Salvadorena, the country's oldest commercial bank. Then, with outside capital, he founded the Banco Agricola, which, he told a congressional subcommittee last year, "introduced the idea of making loans and services available to the rural and urban poor."
Escalante makes no apology for his wealth. "I came to banking with a great idealism," he said. "I always wanted to help the little people. I followed the philosophy of Amadeo P. Giannini. He was the son of Italian immigrants.He founded the Bank of America. Once I helped a young man who had worked in a bakery to start his won shop. It grew into a multimillion-dollar business. His name was Raul Molina. He is dead now, kidnaped by the guerrillas and killed."
The Banco Agricola had $12 million in capital and surplus. Last March it was seized by government soldiers. Escalante's 10 percent is gone, and "even the stockholders lost their investments without a penny of compensation," he said.
The United States supported the takeover of El Salvador's banks and large farms as a redistribution of wealth to correct social inequities and undercut popular support for the left. But as far as Escalante is concerned it is socialism. "The U.S. has a 200-year-old constitution," he said. "El Salvador had a constitution too. And it guaranteed the right to private property."
Behind an unmarked door in a deserted corner of the State Department, Robert White, ambassador to El Salvador until he was summarily fired by the new administration, sat behind a clutter of unanswered telephone messages. After 26 years in the foreign service, this man, beloved or despised throughout Latin America, was about to be unemployed. But he was going out fighting.
Two days earlier he had told a congressional committee that "right-wing death squads financed out of Miami and Guatemala City are responsible for the major portion of the killing in El Salvador," possibly some 5,000 deaths in the last year. It was an allegation that directly conflicted with the Reagan administration's policy of blaming the left for most of the violence.
Questioned by reporters after the hearing, White said he had twice requested that the FBI and Internal Revenue Service investigate the activities of the Miami Salvadorans. He quoted Salvadoran President Jose Napolean Duarte as saying that one Miami man had sent $2 million to the death squads. "I probably know who he is," White added, but declined to elaborate.
White said he had spoken to "businessmen who were threatened by the Salvadorans in Miami that unless they closed their businesses and left, they too could suffer unfortunate circumstances. The objective of the extreme right wing is to break the economy of El Salvador. A substantial number of the buildings that have been firebombed can be attributed to the right wing," White said.
In an interview at his office later, White was unable to describe any evidence of funds flowing out of Miami, or of any direct connection between Miami exiles and killings in El Salvador. He said he had never met the Miamians, but he knew how they operated.
"There are as many as 20 and a core of six or eight immensely wealthy men," White said. "For them, El Salvador was a money machine. These are cheap cosmopolites who educated their kids in Paris, London and New York and had apartments in all those places. El Salvador was the plantation where the darkies lived.
"There is no place in Latin America where the extremes of rich and poor were so obvious. These people owned the banks. They put up their factories a mile or two from their land, so they could profit from child labor. They exported their profits to Europe. Many of them saw the land reform coming and, they split up their holdings between cousins, aunts and nephews. Now they say the only remedy is to return to the past."
A few floors above, a State Department official with extensive knowledge of El Salvador asked that his name not be used -- the issue is too sensitive. oBut he said the power of the oligarch has been exaggerated.
"Historically, there was a joint venture between the oligarchy and the military, but in the 1970s that shifted in favor of the military," he said. "The security forces are doing the killings, but they don't have to be paid. The Miami group is not the stimulant, although they are funneling money in and are probably responsible for the big-time hits. The people in Miami are playing a minor role."
The wealthy Salvadorans call it "La Leyenda Negra" -- the Black Legend. As far as anyone can remember, it began with a Time magazine reporter who went to El Salvador in 1958 for the opening of a hotel and declared, in the course of his story, that 14 familes owned most of the country.
Focusing on "the disparity between the wealth of its 14 top families and the poverty of most of the rest of the 2,400,000 citizens," Time noted, "while naked babies play in filthy streets, well-dressed, U.S.-educated babes cavort in Thunderbirds."
Most Salvadorans, whether politically left or right, say "the 14" was a fabrication, based perhaps on the country's 14 provinces. Historians put the number of dominant families at about 100. Today a growing middle class has blurred social lines further. However, "the 14" still crops up in news coverage, and even Salvadorans have adopted the "catorce" as a conversational synonym for upper class.
Orlando de Sola, whose family was featured in the Time article, says the "Catorce" is nothing more than a "Marxist myth" designed, like the word "oligarch," to breed class hatred and prepare the way for a redistribution of wealth that he calls "robbery."
De Sola and his wife life in Brickell Place, a luxury condominium overlooking Biscayne Bay, where about 30 wealthy Salvadoran families have settled, partly because of its 24-hour guard service.
He left El Salvador in July, after his wife's mother was machine-gunned to death by guerrillas, after he grew tired of traveling everywhere in an armored vehicle with six bodyguards, after the government confiscated 80 percent of his family's property -- a sugar mill, two coffee mills and 8,000 acres owned by a score of relatives.
Darkly handsome and smartly dressed, De Sola, 36, is known as the hothead of the Freedom Foundation. "With my friends, I say with pride that I am a rightist," he said. "But to my enemies, right means repression, exploitation, return to the status quo -- and that is wrong. These are people who want a dictatorship of the proletariat."
In El Salvador, "We lived like millions of North Americans," said De Sola, who attended Woodside Priory school in California, and was graduated from Columbia University in 1968. "Most of what I learned, I learned in the United States -- Plato, Locke. . . . Our family's wealth created other wealth. To save money, you have to spend money. Savings creates investment, and that is the only way to achieve economic progress. There's concentration of wealth in El Salvador, and in Moscow too. Capitalism is based on concentration of wealth."
A founder of the anticommunist Broad National Front (FAN), De Sola accompanied Maj. Robert D'Aubuisson to Washington last July, although the U.S. government had accused D'Aubuisson of organizing death squads and trying to mount a right-wing coup. D'Aubuisson was deported shortly thereafter.
During the Washington trip, D'Aubuisson, who denies the charges, urged members of Congress to oppose land reform and uphold the constitution, de Sola said. Now, however, following D'Aubuisson's recent news conference call for a military coup, de Sola said he does not support him. "If one is going to overturn the government, one is not going to publicly announce it," he said.
De Sola adamantly denies that funds have been raised in Miami for assassinations.
"The day I need to kill someone, I wouldn't send someone else. I'd do it with my own hands," de Sola said in an interview in his apartment.
"White has committed a very grave slander," de Sola's wife, Claudia, said, reflecting the emotional outrage expressed by many Salvordans here. "If you have proof, show us. He has put us all in danger."
The truth of who is a victim and who is sponsoring more violence becomes confused, however, when one talks to an anonymous middle-class businessman, visiting briefly in the states from El Salvador. He calls himself "right of center," and his picture has appeared in a guerilla newspaper with a large "X" across his face.
Yet this businessman -- he begs that his name not be printed -- fears that he is as much a target of the extreme right as he is of the left. The extreme right, he says, is a small group of Miami exiles who call any Salvadoran businessman cooperting with the government a "vendepatria" (traitor).
Over the past few months, he said, businessmen who have chosen to remain in El Salvador have met with members of the Miami group to work out differences. One Salvadoran, he said, heard he was going to be killed. He flew to Miami to talk things over. After the talk, the Miamians said they would extend a pardon. The man thanked them, adding that he would return to El Salvador the next day.
"Wait three days," he was told. "It takes time to reverse the order."
On another occasion, the businessman said he personally was asked by a Miami Salvadoran: "You wouldn't like to see some of your people killed because of a misunderstanding?"
"You're not scaring me," he replied. "We will continue to pursue our business."
But he is scared.
"I had never used a gun in my life," he said, "but for the last few months I have had one on my lap wherever I drive. At stoplights, I grasp the gun. iYou have to be prepared. In El Salvador you get killed and nobody knows who did it. If I'm killed, people would think it was the left. But I have told (the Miamians) that 'people in Washington know you have made this threat' . . . I would like to leave El Salvador with my family, but I don't have the money."
Underlying the shooting war in El Salvador is a war of perceptions. Alfonso Salaverria, 36, hands out a shiny blue and white folder entitled "El Salvador Freedom Foundation." It includes articles from Barron's and Forbes, exerpts from Senate hearings and a pile of statistics to show that El Salvador may be a place of inequality, but compared with the rest of Latin America it isn't so bad. And comparisons can even be made with the United States.
"You can't say there is no oligarchy in your country," said Salaverria. "What about the directors of large corporations? . . . And if you go to Liberty City (Miami's ghetto) or rural Alabama, you see poverty too. You may not see the contrasts that you do in Mexico or El Salvador, but then, in the United States, you don't have 570 people per square mile."
Salvadorans point out tht their country, with an average birth rate of 3.5 percent over the last two decades, is the most densely populated nation in Latin America. If the United States were equally crowded, it would hold 2 billion people, instead of 220 million, with an unimaginable strain on social services, land and other resources.
One of the most frequently cited statistics on El Salvador is that less than 2 percent of the population owned about half the farmland. But if one measures inequality by income, a different picture emerges. According to the Economic Commission on Latin America, in El Salvador the top 5 percent of the population gets 33 percent of the income, compared with 33.4 percent in Latin America generally and 20 percent in the United States.
At the other end of the scale, the bottom 20 percent of the population gets 5.5 percent of the income in El Salvador, compared with 3.1 percent in Latin America and 4.6 percent in the United States.
The message behind the numbers, as the Miami Salvadorans see it, is, "Why pick on us?" They say their income was taxed at 60 percent, one of the highest rates in Latin America, and that the education and health budget of the country was comparable with that of the region.
However, while the wealth in El Salvador may not be as unevenly distributed as some people think, poverty there, or in any third-world country, is hard to compare with that in the United States. The per-capita income of a Salvadoran was $635 in 1978, compared with $8,612 here.
El Salvador's land reform, which began last year with strong support from the United States, is one of the most extensive undertaken in Latin America. In its first phase, 282 farms of more that 1,250 acres each -- some 20 percent of the farmland -- were confiscated and turned into state-owned collective farms.
Compensation in the form of low-interest bonds was promised, but has yet to be paid the former owners.In theory, the peasants eventually are to purchase the farms from the state. In the next phase of the reform, 13 percent of the land, owned by 6,000 to 7,000 people, is to pass into the hands of 150,000 sharecroppers.
In an interview in his Brickell Place condominium, Salaverria, a short, burly man with a moustache, characterized the land reform program as a "military invasion."
The reforms, Salaverria insists, are a mere "change of masters," since the peasants have not received title to the land.
De Sola said he went to school with peasants. "I felt out of place because I was the owner's son and I was light-skinned," he said. "But I found I could relate to them. I could play with them. Now I have a car and a TV and many things they don't have. That's no excuse for killing each other. Poverty is a human condition. It has been with us forever . . . I'd like those classmates to have homes and yachts in Miami, but that desire is no reason to steal. The way to help miserable people is not only with money but with a feeling of brotherhood."
De Sola would like to see the confiscated land returned to its previous owners. Salaverria, on the other hand, says, "We've gone too far to go back to the way things were . . . There was a bad distribution of the land . . . The reform is done.We must make sure it is not socialistic."
He suggests that, rather than stage collectives, corporations run by the peasants would be set up, using the expertise of previous owners.
"I believe in free enterprise, just like Reagan talked about in his campaign," Salverria said. "I have great hopes that Reagan will correct the huge errors of the previous administration. He will not let our country fall into the hands of internation communism."