Peter Paul & Mary: El Salvador

On today’s date of February 19 in 1981, the United States government released a report claiming an El Salvador insurgency came from aggression by communists. The report prompted the U.S. government under new President Ronald Reagan to begin to address the perceived threat. The U.S. then assisted the government of El Salvador against rebels by sending money and advisers to the country.

Through the 1980s, the U.S. government spent more and more money on El Salvador. Still, violence and instability continued in El Salvador, with many accusations of torture, kidnapping, and assassination on both sides.

Although Peter, Paul & Mary are best-known for the songs they recorded in the 1960s, they still made some excellent music later in their career. One of their late-career highlights is “El Salvador,” which they recorded in 1982 soon after the U.S. report and the escalations in that country.

In the song “El Salvador,” written by “Paul” — i.e., Noel Paul Stookey, the trio helped bring attention to the continuing atrocities in that country and the involvement of the U.S. government in the mess. Stookey and the other singers were surprised to sometimes hear booing when they sang the song, which later appeared on Songs of Conscience and Concern (1999). Here, Peter, Paul & Mary perform “El Salvador” at their 25th Anniversary Concert in 1986 — without any booing.

At the end of the song, the trio asked a question:

They’ll continue training troops in the USA,
And watch the nuns that got away,
And teach the military bands to play South of the Border,
And kill the people to set them free;
Who put this price on their liberty?
Don’t you think it’s time to leave
El Salvador?

In 1992, the United Nations and Costa Rica President Oscar Arias helped negotiate a deal between the warring parties in El Salvador. Although a U.N. commission condemned the U.S.’s involvement in Salvadoran military atrocities, then U.S. President George H.W. Bush claimed that the peace was a result of the U.S.’s long fight against communism El Salvador.

But today even the U.S. Department of State website recognizes the problems: “During the 12-year civil war, human rights violations by both the government security forces and left-wing guerillas were rampant.”

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