Mario Argueta bowed his head over a sheet of Braille and gently brushed his lips across the raised letters. With his Cuban teacher watching closely, the slight 21-year-old moved his mouth back and forth in patient repetition.
Argueta was learning to read. The former Salvadoran guerrilla fighter was blinded and lost both arms six years ago when the homemade grenade he was about to toss at government soldiers exploded prematurely.
Today, Argueta is one of 260 wounded combatants undergoing rehabilitation at Cuba's July 26th camp for members of the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front. Most of the Salvadoran war veterans are blind or amputee peasants, wounded in bomb attacks, army ambushes or--like Argueta--when their own rudimentary weapons turned against them.
Throughout the 11-year civil war, the Salvadoran government has accused Cuba of arming and training the leftist guerrillas--a charge the rebels and the Cuban government routinely deny. But the Cubans often have declared their "solidarity" with the guerrillas and point to the July 26th camp as one of the best examples of their support for such liberation movements.
The Salvadorans run the camp themselves, but the Cuban government provides food, facilities, teachers and medical care--from surgery to physical therapy. And although Cuba is undergoing its own economic crisis because of diminished Soviet backing and the collapse of the Communist Bloc in Eastern Europe, the government has made no move to cut back its support for the July 26th camp, according to a U.N. relief worker who visits the installation.
The Cubans also support a community of Chilean exiles who fled the regime of Gen. Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s, and school hundreds of Namibian, Mozambican and Nicaraguan students. But this is their only rehabilitation camp and possibly the only one of its kind in the world.
Jean-Francois Durieux, a representative in Mexico of the U.N. High Commission on Refugees, said he knows of no other camp for disabled rebels.
One of the most impressive features of the July 26th camp is its prosthetics workshop, set up with the technical and organizational help of the Los Angeles-based Medical Aid for El Salvador. Two years ago, Medical Aid began to train the Salvadorans in the basics of making their own artificial limbs.
"Many didn't know how to read and write, but little by little they learned to read and learned anatomy," said Mario Velasquez of Medical Aid.
At the time, the Salvadorans were using the Cubans' dated equipment from the Soviet Union. Because of the U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, Medical Aid is unable to provide economic assistance to the camp. So last year, a Frankfurt, Germany-based relief agency, Medico Internacional, donated $70,000 worth of machinery to make prosthetic legs and arms in the camp. In August, Medical Aid brought two professors from UCLA's Prosthetics Education Program for 10 days to teach the Salvadorans to cast and finish artificial arms and legs.
"I taught the course as a humanitarian gesture," said one of the teachers, who asked not to be identified. He also has taught courses in Mexico, the Soviet Union, Ethiopia and other countries, but fears reprisals from the U.S. government for helping Salvadorans in Cuba. "Once these guys become amputees, as far as I'm concerned they are disabled civilians," the American teacher said. "We are looking to the future. Sometime there will be peace in El Salvador and there will be a huge number of amputees on both sides. The other side (government soldiers) gets help . . . in El Salvador. Between the two efforts, the country should have a foundation in prosthetics," he added.
In El Salvador, government soldiers in wheelchairs are a common sight. The wounded veterans, many of whom lost limbs to rebel land mines, congregate in San Salvador's Cuscatlan Park, across from the military hospital. They are treated by the Armed Forces Center for Professional Rehabilitation, which receives aid from the U.S. government and American relief agencies, according to an army spokesman. The army's center provides artificial limbs and therapy as well as job training.
Many of the wounded guerrillas of July 26th want to go back to El Salvador as civilians, but they fear being killed. Last month, the former combatants sent a letter to President Alfredo Cristiani asking him to negotiate their safe return, but they have not yet received a response.
"In the letter, we tried to make the point that we have a right, as do all Salvadorans, to live in our country," said Arnulfo Ramirez, one of the nearly 200 wounded men who signed the letter.
The letter was sent through the U.N. refugee commission, which would help to resettle the former combatants if the government agrees to their repatriation.
The war wounded make no bones about where their sympathies lie. The Farabundo Marti flag flies over the camp alongside the Cuban and Salvadoran national flags. Their workshops are decorated with posters of guerrilla martyrs, and their school is named for a slain rebel leader, Comandante Ana Maria.
Several residents of the camp were among the 101 wounded fighters evacuated from remote camps in El Salvador in October, 1985, in a deal for the release of then-President Jose Napoleon Duarte's daughter. The rebels had kidnaped her six weeks before.
Others, like Mario Argueta, were among more than three dozen who were evacuated in February, 1987, in exchange for kidnaped Army Col. Omar Napoleon Avalos. Still others were allowed safe passage out of the country after they occupied San Salvador's Metropolitan Cathedral in October, 1989. And another batch said they made their way out of the country following the Farabundo Marti front's urban offensive in November, 1989.
At the July 26th camp--named for the date Cubans celebrate as the beginning of their revolution--the Salvadorans rise each morning at 6 and line up in military formation to sing their national anthem and hear a news summary put together from broadcasts on Havana Radio, France Radio, Netherlands Radio, the British Broadcasting Corp. and the U.S. government's Voice of America.
"The VOA puts out enemy dispatches, but we can decipher the information from them," said Ember Martinez, 26, one of the radio monitors.
During the day they study or work. The camp has 124 students under eight Cuban primary and seven secondary teachers. Many of the former combatants were illiterate when they arrived, having never finished more than a year or two of school before laboring in the fields with their families or joining the guerrillas in El Salvador.
In addition to the prosthetics shop, they have a wood shop to make furniture for the camp and a seven-machine tailor shop to sew their own clothes. They grow corn, beans and vegetables to help feed themselves.
They have built their own cinder-block dormitories and are finishing a new kitchen to house their first refrigerators.
Intensive medical care is provided by the Cuban government at Cuban hospitals. But follow-up care and routine medical treatments are done at the camp infirmary, which is staffed primarily by Salvadorans.
A few of the wounded rebels dream of returning to battle. "As soon as I get better I am going to reincorporate (into the rebel army)," said Orlando Flores, 31, who has spent the last 11 years at war.
Flores fought in the 1989 offensive, was captured by the army, bought his way out of jail and was shot in the arm a month later. Rebel doctors operated on him at a clandestine hospital in San Salvador before he made his way out of the country on a phony passport. Now, three weeks after a bone transplant in his left elbow, he was in pain, with metal pins sticking out of his arm.
Most of the residents, however, seem more concerned with learning new skills that will prepare them for a future as civilians. Students scanned their workbooks. Several of the blind practiced walking with white canes. Mario Argueta struggled with Braille, taking off his left shoe to read the letters with his big toe. He was having a hard time.
"I'm going to keep trying," Argueta said.