Longtime Associated Press reporter and author of the book El Salvador Could Be Like That Joseph B. Frazier will be returning to Nicaragua this week, a little more than 35 years after he first entered the country to cover the Somoza government as it crumbled under the Sandinista offensive. He will be in the area to talk about his book and his experiences in the region during the 1980s.
Frazier joined the AP in Oregon in 1972 and went to the foreign desk in New York from 1977-1979. After struggling to get posted even though he spoke French and Russian, he was advised that he needed to tackle Spanish, too. So he did.
In 1979 they sent him to Mexico City, where all of Central America’s AP reporters were stationed at the time. He was soon on a plane for Managua to cover the final weeks of the Sandinista revolution.
“I knew from nothing about that region before I landed in it except what I had picked up editing on the foreign desk,” Frazier said. “I think that was true of most of us who got poured into the region in those fast-moving times.”
The decade that followed was the Cold War at its hottest and more than a few journalists lost their lives. Soon after Somoza’s exit, Frazier found himself in a “particularly nasty ambush” that had him picking embedded glass and small pieces of shrapnel out of his chest for some time after.
When a death list – purportedly from a right-wing paramilitary death squad-type group that no one on the list was familiar with – was circulated in El Salvador, Frazier came in at #10. That they managed to misspell almost every name on the list at least gave them something to laugh about. That and people who weren’t on the death list felt jilted that they wouldn’t be able to wear the t-shirts that said “Death List – If you ain’t on it, you ain’t shit” that they had made up.
“The anarchy that followed the departure of Somoza in Nicaragua and the elections and ‘final offensives’ in El Salvador in the early 1980s were the worst, but death was everywhere and from day to day, we just never knew,” he said. “Most of us took the death list with a grain or two of salt, although it appeared at what may have been the nastiest time in the war, a time when it was all relative. It was also very conflictive and we were far from immune. The biggest losses of journalists came at about that time, in 1982. We clearly were targeted by some elements and the campaign of fear to keep us in line was especially intense from the right.”
Frazier stuck with the Associated Press until 2009 when he and more than 100 veterans were getting knocked out in a buyout. He spent the last of his shifts downloading about 500 stories he’d done for a possible book.
El Salvador Could Be Like That was published in 2013 and offers his first-hand account of his experiences in the region. Unlike so much literature on El Salvador in that era, Frazier manages to work in some lighter moments and the reader doesn’t (constantly) feel overwhelmed with the heaviness as with other popular books focused on the same period, such as Mark Danner’s The Massacre at El Mozote or Martha Doggett’s Death Foretold: The Jesuit Murders in El Salvador, which are unrelentingly dark – understandable considering how things unfolded in 1980s El Salvador. Death squads don’t offer much in the way of comic relief.
Still, there is no escaping the sadness in Frazier’s book. His tightest connection to Nicaragua is also by far the most heartbreaking. In 1984, his wife, Linda Frazier, was working for The Tico Times when she attended a press conference by then-Contra Edén Pastora. In what is remembered as the La Penca bombing that killed seven and injured 22, Linda was among three journalists who died after the bomb intended to kill Pastora was detonated.
“I was shell-shocked and devastated and stayed that way for some time, but somehow felt I could not bail on a story I had been following that intently for so long,” Frazier said. “The Costa Rica assignment was mostly travel, babysitting what then were three shooting wars in the region and I was never home. That was no longer possible as a newly-single parent with a 10-year-old son, so the AP agreed to move me up to El Salvador, which is where I spent most of my time anyway.”
Both Frazier and his son suffered greatly after Linda’s death and he was eventually transferred to Atlanta. He says the tragic incident gave him a perspective he hadn’t had prior, suddenly he shared in the same kind of loss that so many around him – and the subjects of countless stories he had written – had experienced.
“While still in the region I think I felt a kinship with the hundreds of thousands of people who had lost family and friends in that war, a feeling I never fully had before,” he said. “In my way I was then one of them instead of just a spectator. I do feel I tried even harder to reflect the impact of the war on the people who were caught up in it after that and tried to spend more time in the towns and villages of the worst areas of the country. I still think this is important and that maybe the media generally does too little of it. It is time-consuming and expensive and you can’t do it over the phone, but I think it is what matters most.”
He now says that he eventually came to take death and violence in stride and realized it no longer had the impact it should, that he was becoming hardened in ways he was not comfortable with.
“That change and the need to get competent help for my son were major factors in my temporary withdrawal from the region in 1986,” he said. “I returned to Mexico City in 1990 and stayed for eight years, travelling widely throughout South and Central America plus the Caribbean during that time.”
Today he lives in the small Oregon coastal town of Yachats. He says he has no immediate plans for another book, “but that could change.”
Joseph B. Frazier will be part of the Literature + Politics + Conversation event in Granada on Sun., Nov. 2 at La Hacienda. For more on the event go to http://luchalibrobooks.com/events/ and www.facebook.com/events/649707971810878/. For more on Frazier go to www.elsalvadorcouldbelikethat.com. Frazier, Kenneth E. Morris and Silvio Sirias will also be appearing at El Gato Negro on Sat., Nov. 1 and Búho Books in León on Tues., Nov. 4.