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President in Exile


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"Guillermo who?"


"Guillermo Ungo who?"

Our conversation was beginning to sound like one of those obnoxious knock-knock jokes, but Linda Miller of the Midwest CISPES (Committee in Solidarity With the People of El Salvador) assured me that most journalists she had contacted about the Chicago appearance of the president in exile of the Salvadoran popular democratic movement drew the same blank.

Then why, I wondered, should I even consider missing Kate & Allie on the night of Allie's big decision about her boyfriend's marriage proposal? I mean here's an American woman in her late 30s who actually doesn't know whether she wants to marry this good-looking ex-professional football player turned sportscaster who's so madly in love with her he's already broadcast his feelings over the radio. Could Allie have forgotten those long, lonely sitcom seasons when all she had to look forward to on Saturday nights was Kate and the laundry basket? Now that's an important issue.

And I should miss this decisive moment in order to hear Guillermo Ungo Who speak--in Hyde Park, no less?

"No, I don't know who Guillermo Ungo is," a friend said petulantly, when I cornered him for a man-on-the-street comment. "But does he know who I am?"

"Guillermo Ungo? . . . Oh, don't test me on trivia," groaned another, who prides himself on his liberal political leanings.

Not only had no one heard of Ungo, but he was calling his lecture "Politics and Peace in El Salvador"--very dry, very unsexy, and anyway I have it from highly placed sources in the military-industrial complex that peace isn't scheduled there for at least another five to seven years.

So, OK I turned Kate & Allie on for five minutes. I'm one of the only people I know who doesn't have a VCR, and maybe this Guillermo Ungo thing would start a little bit late.

"But why hasn't she said yes? Why hasn't she said yes? Why hasn't she said yes?" cried Allie's poor, elderly mom, who was having an anxiety attack over her daughter's foolish indecision.

"I haven't said yes because I don't know if I want to be married again," Allie shouted right in front of her mother with such self-possessed outrage it gave me the strength to turn the television set off.

James Coatsworth, a University of Chicago professor of Latin American studies, was making some opening remarks I didn't quite catch as I wriggled out of my raincoat in a seat near the back of the large International House auditorium. The place was packed and more people streamed in as he talked, so that pretty soon people were sitting on the polished wood floor and leaning against the walls that were draped with flags of every stripe and color.

In the rows in front of me were quite a few Central Americans, some of them with babies wrapped in blankets or toddlers clutching tiny plastic toys. There were students, too, and a whole lot of other people who obviously don't obsess about staying home on Monday nights to watch television and who just as obviously know who Guillermo Ungo is.

"Know" is putting it mildly. The first time Coatsworth mentioned his name, they were on their feet, clapping and cheering. As the noise died down, a young Hispanic woman cried out in Spanish, in a hopeful, spirited voice, "End the repression. Salvador will win."

Given the audience's response, Coatsworth cut his introduction short. "I guess I don't need to tell you," he smiled, "that Guillermo Ungo, as the chief leader of El Salvador's social democratic party, was Duarte's running mate in 1972, in an election that was stolen by the military. That in the fall of 1979, he very briefly served as chief of state in a civilian-military junta, leaving it because the military didnt respect civil and human rights. That he is president of the FDR, a coalition of civilian political parties. And that he assumed that position after the FDR's first president was severely tortured and killed."

Then this short, benign-looking man came to the podium. In another context I might have mistaken him for a successful shopkeeper or restaurant owner. He stood there, closely flanked by two large Vietnam Vets Against War, and for about an hour talked and answered questions about his country, where tens of thousands of civilians have been tortured and killed. He focused on the recent Salvadoran elections that have tipped the balance of power away from Duarte's Christian Democrats toward the repressive, far-fight Arena party. Black Sunday, he called that election day. He offered many reasons why this happened, chief among them corruption and promises of reform that have been broken by the Christian Democrats.

The Reagan administration, he said, has spent more than $3 billion on El Salvador, at least 75 percent of that for the military--more than has ever been spent on the contras. But in the end, the people saw so little difference between the Reagan-supported "democracy" and the death-squad-ridden right wing, that they voted for a change and chose the latter.

"This," he declared triumphantly, grasping a shard of hope, "is a defeat for the Reagan administration and also for the Christian Democrats. It could lead to a split in Duarte's party and a possible opening for a political solution in El Salvador--if Washington will only cut off some of its military aid. One year ago, a political solution seemed an impossible dream, now it is a possibility."

There were two standing ovations before Coatsworth thanked Ungo and invited him to return soon--but he hoped Ungo would return as the restored and rightful leader of a democratic government in El Salvador who is on his way home after visiting President Jackson in Washington.

I left Hyde Park, having forgotten Kate & Allie, but eager to hear what the media say about Ungo, but there is nothing on the ten o'clock news. The next day and the day after that, I buy both papers. Nothing. Why do you suppose the Chicago media didnt cover Ungo's visit? I ask CISPES's Linda Miller.

Channel 26, the Spanish-language TV station, did a two-part feature, and Sondra Gair gave him 40 minutes on noontime NPR, she told me.

But the mainstream media?

"They don't know who Guillermo Ungo is. At the Tribune and Sun-Times we had a hard time getting past the secretaries."

Ultimately, Miller said, representatives of both papers' editorial boards did meet with him. Then she added, "A reporter sat in on the meeting at the Tribune, but she didn't ask any questions."

Why not?

"I don't know. Maybe she didnt have any."

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