Fort Worth RAYMOND BONNER was sitting in his hotel room in Fort Worth with the TV news on and the sound down. He was talking about his main preoccupation Central America when the television news flashed pictures of Secretary of State George Schultz and El Salvador’s President Josd Napoleon Duarte onto the screen. Instantly Bonner stopped the conversation and turned up the volume. He leaned forward intently. The news was that George Schultz had pronounced himself “delighted” that President Duarte had offered to meet with guerrilla leaders in El Salvador. To Schultz, Duarte’s initiative was one more opportunity to be effusive about the progress of democracy and good will in El Salvador. And in most newspapers and newscasts this second week of October, Duarte was looking like a bit of a hero the moderate Christian Democrat who could save El Salvador from communism and terror. In such a situation it is good to have Raymond Bonner on hand. Bonner, the former New York Times correspondent from Central America, broke major stories from El Salvador in his year and a half stint and, according to some colleagues, “set the pace” among foreign correspondents in the region. It was not a pace that was popular, however, among “the powers that be.” His reporting sometimes contradicted the U.S. State Department’s version of Central American reality. In August of 1982, the New York Times called Bonner home and reassigned him to domestic affairs. Bonner resigned from the Times this July and is now traveling the country speaking about Central America and his recently published book, Weakness and Deceit U. S. Policy and El Salvador. He was in Texas on October 10 to speak to students at the University of TexasArlington and Texas Christian University. In his hotel room before the TCU speech that evening, Bonner listened for nuances in the news. Duarte was reported to have held off telling the U.S. administration about his talks with the rebels because he was afraid the U.S. would try to impede it. Schultz’s enthusiastic response belied this. But, Bonner pointed out, the United States has for three years been an obstacle to talks between the Salvadoran government and the guerrillas. Bonner said he has “some reservations” about Duarte’s chances for substantial reform in El Salvador. “The problem is the military in Salvador. You have to understand that,” he said. And so far Duarte has not been able to control the army or to bring criminal action against the death squads, he said. “The military runs the country,” not Duarte, Bonner said. Bonner said that Duarte cannot control the country because “the military runs the country.” Bonner, who completed a visit to Central America before his present speaking tour, said there is evidence of another massacre in the Chalatenango province in El Salvador, but Duarte’s response was to say it never happened. It was exactly such preoccupations that got Bonner in trouble at the New York Times. Early in 1982 he traveled into guerrilla-held territory in El Salvador and visited a village where peasants told of a massacre carried out by “uniformed soldiers” in which as many as 900 people were killed. Such stories brought Bonner under attack by the right wing in America, including the Wall Street Journal, which devoted a long editorial to discrediting Bonner as “overly credulous.” Some of Bonner’s stories also came at inconvenient times for the Administration: As the State Department was hailing El Salvador’s elections in March of 1982, Bonner quoted sources saying the election totals had been inflated. Bonner declines to discuss the details of his recall by the Times from Central America. But he discounts the notion that the Reagan administration was seriously threatened by his reports. “The administration gets more than its fair shake,” he said. “To the extent the story isn’t told accurately it’s in favor of the administration.” He readily ticks off a list of reporters in Central America who are “tough, hard-hitting. fair.” But the power of the Administration to shape the news is often overwhelming. “The Administration can dictate the direction of a story,” he said. “And among editors there is sometimes a predisposition to believe what the government says.” Bonner has no simple explanation for inadequate U.S. press coverage of Central America he says it’s his toughest question. “I usually have answers to all the questions except that one.” So, instead, Bonner concentrates on the story he knows best. It is a story of a U.S. foreign policy marked by “hypocrisy and dual standards,” of “weakness and deceit.” “Somebody needs to remind Mr. Schultz,” Bonner said that evening to about 50 students at TCU “that there is a substantial difference between the guerrillas in El Salvador and the contras fighting to overthrow the Sandinista government.” The rebels in El Salvador are an indigenous army that has arisen out of “50 years of extreme poverty and bitter repression,” he said. “The contras arise out of a U.S. policy to overthrow the Nicaraguan government.” Bonner insisted that El Salvador and Nicaragua be judged by the same standards. Ronald Reagan, he said, has compared Nicaragua to a “totalitarian dungeon.” Yet Reagan holds El Salvador up as a burgeoning democracy. “Now walk through it with me,” Bonner said, beginning a detailed comparison of the two countries. Press censorship in Nicaragua should be criticized, he granted. There is no press censorship in El Salvador. But why? Because there is no opposition press in El Salvador. “The only newspapers left are stridently conservative,” he said. The Sandinistas are having “vicious battles” with the archbishop of Managua. Their disagreements with the church hierarchy have been widely reported, and Bonner believes they are “pernicious and self-defeating.” “But the Nicaraguan critical priests have fared far better than their counterparts in El Salvador.” The leading critic of the Salvadoran military, Archbishop Oscar Romero, he reminded the audience, had been shot down. “Scores if not hundreds of lay church leaders have been brutally killed in El Salvador,” Bonner said. Reporter non grata By Dave Denison 18 OCTOBER 26, 1984
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