Film Features Refugee's Story and U.S. Foreign Policy

With round-the-clock news reports about the U.S. war in Afghanistan as a backdrop, I recently sat down to watch a new documentary about a Salvadoran refugee named Maria Guardado.

The documentary debuts at the Havana Film Festival this week. Randy Vasquez, who wrote, produced and directed the film, met Guardado at a gathering of grassroots activists in Los Angeles in 1997. He said he was immediately impressed.

Guardado came to the United States in 1983 with the help of several church groups and a Canadian human rights organization. She had fled El Salvador three years earlier after being kidnapped, tortured and left for dead by military authorities.

For Vasquez, the chance meeting with Guardado marked his first foray into political activism. A successful television actor, Vasquez said he was looking for a break from Hollywood's glitz and an inspirational link to reality. "The Maria Guardado Story" gives us both.

The documentary fluidly melds Guardado's personal experiences -- the horrific as well as the triumphant -- with broader, critical questions about the sometimes unsavory alliances that result when U.S. policy is implemented abroad.

In El Salvador, for instance, U.S. military aid in the 1980s helped sustain a series of loathsome regimes that were responsible for the torture, murder and disappearance of thousands of that nation's citizens -- most of them civilians.

In an era sometimes referred to as "The Lost Decade," more than 200,000 people combined were killed in civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. A similar casualty rate in the United States would have left nearly 3 million dead -- or 50 times the number of American troops who died in Vietnam.

Survivors of Central America's wars, like Guardado, still bear the scars of the Cold War's legacy in the region. Many of them still live in fear. Guardado is one of those who is still fighting back.

In her adopted hometown of Los Angeles, Guardado, now 67, has become a mainstay of the city's progressive grassroots movements.

Despite having little formal education, her passionate involvement in El Salvador's opposition politics in the 1970s marked her as a target of that nation's repressive oligarchy.

In his documentary, Vasquez shows us the links and similarities between the struggles against repression in Central America and the grassroots efforts in the United States on behalf of immigrants, low-income wage earners, minorities and others.

Last year, Vasquez accompanied Guardado to El Salvador to mark the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. A harsh critic of the government's brutal regimes, Romero was gunned down on March 24, 1980 as he delivered mass to his parishioners.

It is during Guardado's visit to El Salvador that we hear the horrifying details of her capture and torture. Despite years of counseling to cope with her ordeal, Guardado is still visibly shaken by the telling of her story. In telling the story, she sighs and gulps for air -- as if being choked by her own words.

Guardado says she was kidnapped on January 12, 1980 by a group of 10 or 12 heavily armed men. Blindfolded and driven to an unknown location, she was offered 50,000 U.S. dollars to give up the names and addresses of her political accomplices. She refused.

Guardado describes how her captors subjected her to electric shocks by attaching wires to her breast and genitals. Over the course of the next two days, she was beaten and raped. Convinced that she had endured the worst of it, Guardado said she was thrown to the ground face first and a wooden stick was jammed into her rectum.

In her words: "At that moment, I felt that I had died."

One day after her kidnapping, Archbishop Romero took to the radio airwaves to plead for her release and the release of other political prisoners.

After a second day of torture at the orders of a man whom, based on his accent, she believed was an American, Guardado was dumped at the side of the road in her hometown of San Miguel. Friends helped her escape to Mexico, then the United States.

On its face "The Maria Guardado Story" is about the survival of one woman in the face of hideous injustice and her continuing struggle to help others face down their own oppressors. But the documentary also is a reminder of how the power of the world's "greatest democracy" is sometimes abused.

In Afghanistan, a U.S.-orchestrated, post-Taliban regime is taking shape. Our closest ally in that effort is the so-called Northern Alliance. And within its ranks can be found some of that country's greatest human rights violators.

As just as it may be to defeat the Taliban and the terrorist network it supported, Vasquez's documentary also reminds us of the inherent pitfalls of allying ourselves with those who simply happen to be the enemy of our enemy. Not to mention the hypocrisy of pursuing such a policy in the name of seeking justice.

James E. Garcia is editor and publisher of E-mail the writer at

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