Beneath a wall poster proclaiming "No U.S. $$ for Death Squad Government in El Salvador," a national grass-roots group opposed to U.S. military aid to El Salvador's newly elected government founded a San Fernando Valley chapter in Van Nuys this week.
Neighbor to Neighbor, which claims 300 Valley members, drew about 100 residents to its organizational meeting at First Presbyterian Church on Monday. Its primary goal is to lobby Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Panorama City), who sits on both the House Foreign Affairs and Budget committees, to help lead the fight to cut off war-related funds to El Salvador.
"Howard Berman is the kind of elected official who, once moved, can be enormously effective," said Fred Ross Jr., Neighbor to Neighbor's executive director, after addressing the Van Nuys gathering. "He has a real sense of justice."
Berman, who says he was a congressional leader on war-torn El Salvador long before he heard from Neighbor to Neighbor, joined other liberal Democrats on Wednesday at a Washington news conference with Jose Mazariego. Mazariego is a prominent Salvadoran labor leader who was detained by the Salvadoran Treasury Police last week hours after he received a visa to visit the United States.
At the behest of New York City labor leaders, Berman said he had helped Mazariego obtain the visa. After Mazariego was abducted in an unmarked car, Berman led a group of representatives in contacting State Department officials, who demanded the labor leader's safety and release, Ross said. Even as Vice President Dan Quayle was meeting with Salvadoran government leaders, Mazariego was tortured and had not been charged with an offense, Berman said.
"Jose Mazariego's ordeal signals the need for a new approach to El Salvador," Berman said in a prepared statement Wednesday. "The Administration must press the Salvadoran government to pursue a negotiated political solution to the civil war and to guarantee the expression of political pluralism vital to the integrity of democratic government."
Berman said that the new Salvadoran government, headed by President Alfredo Cristiani, "is telling us that labor and other opposition groups will be harassed, that they will be threatened and that their leaders will be cruelly attacked."
Cristiani is a millionaire coffee grower who took over the presidency of the Nationalist Republican Alliance, or Arena party, in 1985 from Roberto d'Aubuisson, a former army major who has been linked to the activity of right-wing death squads. In a meeting with d'Aubuisson last week, Quayle emphasized the need for respect for human rights amid El Salvador's growing political violence.
Although Berman maintained that Neighbor to Neighbor has not influenced his actions, he said in a telephone interview that the group plays a useful role in educating Americans about the violence in El Salvador--which he pointedly said is perpetrated by left-wing guerrillas as well as by right-wing death squads.
"I don't disagree with Neighbor to Neighbor's goals," said Berman, who represents much of the East Valley. "To end the civil war, to get a negotiated settlement and to end some of the outrageous conduct that parts of that government have engaged in in recent years. The question is, what's the best way to do it?"
At this point, Berman said he does not support Neighbor to Neighbor's top legislative priority: passage of a bill sponsored by Rep. Robert W. Kastenmeier (D-Wis.) to end all American military involvement in El Salvador. The group has deluged Berman's office with 1,367 letters urging him to back the measure and has vowed to solicit more letter writers at shopping centers and supermarkets until the number hits 3,000.
"I don't believe the Kastenmeier bill is even within the realm of what anybody is talking about here," Berman said. "It would constitute abandonment instead of a change in focus."
He said a more pragmatic approach would make aid to El Salvador conditional on a negotiated settlement of the civil war and increased respect for human rights.
Neighbor to Neighbor was started in San Francisco in 1985. The next year it founded a lobbying office and a political action committee to support progressive political candidates.
The organization initially focused on opposing aid to the Nicaraguan Contras and backing candidates who advocated that position. Ross and Marshall Ganz, both veteran Democratic political organizers and campaign consultants, helped coordinate get-out-the-vote efforts for U.S. Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) in his 1986 reelection bid and Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) in a 1987 special election.