By Joanna Sperapani
Elm Staff Writer
On Feb. 28, the Rose O’Neill Literary House featured Dr. Christine J. Wade in a talk entitled “The Personal & the Political,” part of a post-election series that seeks to shine a light on the personal motivations that exist within the political realm. Dr. Wade brought both her sharp wit and her extensive knowledge of Latin America to the Tea and Talk, which covered a broad array of topics from punk music to interviewing the financiers of Salvadoran death squads.
Dr. Wade has been a professor of political science and international studies at Washington College since 2003, serves as the curator of the Louis L. Goldstein ’35 Program in Public Affairs, and is the faculty advisor for the Peace and Conflict Studies Concentration and Latin American Studies Concentration. Dr. Wade has published five books to date, and the talk examined her work in 2016’s “Captured Peace: Elites and Peacebuilding in El Salvador,” published by the Ohio University Press. The book focuses on the Salvadoran Civil War, which spanned from 1980 to 1992, and the devastating aftermath.
Dr. James Hall, associate professor of English and the director of the Literary House, led the talk and interviewed Dr. Wade.
“This was a season of events planned by my predecessor, Dr. Jehanne Dubrow, who, knowing that the election was coming up, wanted events after it that discussed the personal aspect of politics and writing,” he said.
Dr. Hall opened up the discussion by reading a poem from a future Literary House guest, poet and activist Carolyn Forché. He read from “The Colonel,” a piece Forché wrote after her intense meeting with a military official during her time in El Salvador in the tumultuous year of 1978. The poem highlights the brutality of war with the lines, “The colonel returned with a sack used to bring groceries home. / He spilled many human ears on the table. / They were like dried peach halves.”
After the introduction, the talk focused on both Dr. Wade’s experiences while conducting her research in El Salvador, as well as offering snapshots of her life and her lifelong interest in politics.
Dr. Wade said, “I’ve been interested in politics since I was about four. I’m not kidding; I was obsessed with news as a child; there’s an essay in my office that I wrote in elementary school called Reaganomics… I think that I’m innately drawn to the struggle of good. Even as a child, I was obsessed with issues of justice.”
Dr. Wade cited the punk movement as being one of the forces that drew her to learn about politics, particularly referencing “Sandinista!” by The Clash and Cheech and Chong’s “Wedding Album.”
“I’ve always thought that music and politics were very intertwined. I was drawn to the messages of justice and injustice, and also those that were anti-war,” she said.
Despite originally wanting to focus on Europe, Dr. Wade found that prior educational experience lead her to Latin America.
“I had taken a class in minority politics, and I was involved in a big project called Redraw Georgia, a redistricting program, which was designed to create black majority districts, and ultimately I went on to work for Cynthia McKinney on her first congressional campaign,” she said. “I liked the professor that offered minority politics very much, so I took whatever she was offering the next semester, and it happened to be Inter-American Foreign Policy. That’s where I got really excited; it harkened back to things I remember watching on the news in my youth, like U.S. policy in El Salvador and Nicaragua and Honduras. Everything sort of clicked for me there, in that accident of a class.”
When asked what it was like going to do field interviews in El Salvador the first time, Dr. Wade recounted how her first outside venture in the country landed her in the middle of a fire exchange while she was walking down the street.
“It did occur to me in early days that I might be in over my head a bit. I had a lot of naiveté; it took me a while to understand and mentally adapt to the context that I was working in… We’re talking about being the vehicle for telling stories, and I think in part that I succumbed to the idea that that was my role. That I wasn’t just an academic, that I was telling stories for people who did not have the access that I had,” she said.
The talk covered many of the injustices of the war, but also delved into persisting issues after the peace accords. Dr. Wade offered a critique of the amnesty law that, to this day, has prevented any prosecutions of the governments that committed human rights abuses, and delved into the continuing post-war entrenchment of economic elites.
“I think we hope that some of the innovations or institutional changes may lead to changes in political culture, but more often than not we see a lot of resistance on the part of elites… This is what we saw in El Salvador, that successive governments undermined the peace accords in lots of ways,” Dr. Wade said.
“I think if you talked to anyone, they would say the most important part of the peace accords was the reforms with the armed forces and putting the military under civilian control… But there were no substantive commitments to economic reforms… The elites took the economy off the table.”
Dr. Wade also recounted the important yet uncomfortable experience of listening to the stories of not just the victims, but also those who committed human rights abuses on a massive scale. She recalled a particular moment when one such individual surprisingly showed up at her office wanting to tell her his side of the story.
“It’s important to have those conversations, and it’s important to try to understand, not condone, but understand the psychology of repression and people who engage in it… You have to recognize in the moment what an immense opportunity it is, even if it turns your stomach. Then you figure out what to do with the information you got,” she said.
In closing, Dr. Wade pondered the uncertainty of prosecutions over the actions taken in the Civil War, and suggested that it seemed unlikely. “I don’t know how much of a priority it is to the Salvadoran government,” she said.
Finally, she examined the role that the U.S. has played in the Salvadoran conflict, and the lasting effect.
Dr. Wade said that we owe a large amount of debt to El Salvador as U.S. citizens.
“We’re responsible in large part for financing a regime that committed these atrocities, for looking the other way, for knowing they were happening, for failing to support peace processes, when we could have at times when it might have saved thousands of lives, and for returning Salvadoran migrants who came here during the war seeking asylum, which created this transnational gang phenomenon. The current murder rate is a direct result of these deportations and policies we’ve foisted upon the country,” she said.
Dr. Wade said that now, as the country is considering ramping up deportations, the U.S. is not considering the implications this has on El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala.
“I have been consumed with El Salvador since I was a college student, and part of it is because I really do feel a debt,” she said. “I am motivated in large part because I am an American citizen and I think I have a responsibility to talk about how our policies have played out in these places. To me, it’s not purely academic; when I write and talk about El Salvador, it’s activism for me. I think if we just look at it like a vacuum, and say, ‘Look at these people streaming over the border,’ and don’t recognize the role of U.S. policy in creating this situation, we’re just willfully ignorant.”