Twenty-five years ago, Oscar Arnulfo Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador, was martyred by a professional assassin while offering Mass in a hospital chapel. An investigation in 1993 by a truth commission sponsored by the United Nations determined that the killing was orchestrated by officers within El Salvador’s U.S.-funded military government. A prophetic defender of the rights of the poor, Romero had run afoul of the regime by consistently and publicly denouncing its perpetuation of injustice and repressive breaches of human rights. A few weeks before he died, Romero had written to President Jimmy Carter, beseeching him to cut off U.S. military aid to the Salvadoran government, because it is being used to repress our people. Nonetheless, U.S. aid would continue at an average rate of approximately $1 million a day, reaching a total of around $6 billion by 1991.
Romero is perhaps the most prominent of the many Catholic martyrs who arose in Latin America in the 1980’s. In El Salvador alone, the decade would see the widely reported killing of three American religious sisters and one lay missionary, the murder of six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter, and the disappearance of thousands of faithful, often poor, laypeople at the hands of the military and its surrogates.
To both American Catholics and Americans in general, the witness of these martyrs revealed the dark underbelly of the policies pursued by the United States in Latin America. As the region’s poor suffered extreme deprivation and inequality, the United States lent its support to their oppressors, backing the dirty wars, coups and human rights abuses of some of the world’s most repressive regimes. These sobering realities, to which people like Romero testified, cut through the popular American mythology of the cold war, in which the United States stood as a beneficent beacon of freedom in a world darkened by the threat of totalitarian Communism. It was not the Soviet Union that was on the scene in El Salvador, but the poor. For years, the United States supported a Salvadoran regime that threatened both those in need and those who ministered to them in the name of God.
As we mark the 25th anniversary of Romero’s martyrdom, it seems that many Americans have forgotten these hard lessons. In many circles, the history of the cold war has been subject to triumphalist revisionism, which recasts it as a purely noble and virtuous victory. The most bloody and ethically deficient U.S. interventions, including those in Central America and Vietnam, are today forgotten, justified or even celebrated.
Once again the United States has proclaimed a global war against a vaguely defined enemy, this time substituting terror for Communism. This war has taken the U.S. military to Afghanistan and Iraq, and indications from the Bush administration suggests that it may go even further. As before, after all pretexts have been laid aside, these actions are justified by invoking freedom.
How much have we forgotten? In January, Newsweek correspondents Michael Hirsh and John Barry reported discussions among high-level military officials about employing a policy termed the Salvador option to deal with the rapidly deteriorating situation in Iraq. The debate seemed to center around whether the United States should form and fund Central American-style paramilitary death squads to hunt down the insurgency and its perceived supporters.
While thus far the Salvador option seems to have been relegated simply to internal talk, a striking number of parallels exist between the military actions supported by the United States in El Salvador and current American policies in the war on terror. Foremost among them is the use of torture. The investigation into Abu Ghraib led by Maj. Gen. Anthony Taguba reported abuses including breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees...sodomizing a detainee with a chemical light and perhaps a broom stick...using military working dogs to frighten and intimidate detainees with threats of attack, and in one instance actually biting a detainee...forcing groups of male detainees to masturbate themselves while being photographed and videotaped.
The facts suggest that Abu Ghraib was not just an aberration. At least 37 detainees have died in U.S. custody in Iraq and Afghanistan. Accusations of prisoner abuse have surfaced all over both countries; under public pressure the U.S. military recently disclosed that it is investigating over 100 cases of abuse. Last month, two British soldiers were convicted of sexually humiliating prisoners in Southern Iraq in May 2003. Additionally, a recent investigation by Human Rights Watch found that torture and other ill treatment of detainees (including children) by Iraqi [police and intelligence] authorities have become routine and commonplace.
Instances of widespread torture have also been documented at the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. A report in November by the International Red Cross called the treatment of detainees at Guantánamo an intentional system of cruel, unusual and degrading treatment and a form of torture, which employed humiliating acts, solitary confinement, temperature extremes, [and] use of forced positions against prisoners, as well as some beatings. Also disturbing are reports of rendering prisoners to countries like Egypt or Syria, where curbs on interrogation practices are lax.
The parallels to El Salvador go beyond torture. As the Iraqi insurgency has become harder to control, the U.S. military has increasingly viewed all military-age males in Iraq as potential enemies. In the prelude to last November’s assault on Falluja, men judged to fit this broad profile were not permitted to leave the city. Nearly all of the estimated 10,500 detainees who now sit, mostly uncharged, in Iraq’s crowded prisons fit this demographic.
In the 1980’s the Salvadoran military viewed the poor agrarian population suspiciously as potential guerrilla sympathizers. This suspicion led to massive massacres of Salvadoran peasants, the best known being the slaughter in 1981 of over 700 adults and children in the village of El Mozote. There are no reports of slaughter on a comparable scale in Iraq; yet the presumption by American forces that whole populations are prospective enemies has almost certainly led to increased cases of collateral damage. One of the military’s first objectives upon attacking Falluja was to take over the city’s unarmed general hospitala clear violation of the protections granted to medical facilities by the Geneva Conventions. U.S. officials viewed the hospital as a center of propaganda, because it made known the number of civilian casualties it treated following each of the protracted strings of bombing raids by the United States on the city.
Last October, when challenged to explain the quagmire that was developing in Iraq during the nationally televised vice presidential debate, Vice President Dick Cheney harkened back to El Salvador. Twenty years ago we had a similar situation in El Salvador. We had a guerrilla insurgency [that] controlled roughly a third of the country, 75,000 people dead, and we held free elections. I was there as an observer on behalf of the Congress.... The terrorists would come in and shoot up polling places; as soon as they left, the voters would come back and get in line and would not be denied the right to vote, he said. And today El Salvador is a whale of a lot better because we held free elections. The power of that concept is enormous. And it will apply in Afghanistan, and it will apply as well in Iraq.
Yet as years of continuing abuses attest, the 1984 Salvadoran elections Cheney praises were little more than an attempt to provide window dressing for one of the world’s most repressive regimes, giving it a veil of fake democratic respectability. Many opposition leaders were already imprisoned, exiled or murdered, leaving them unable to mount much of an electoral campaign. Additionally, the terrorists who carried out the widespread killing cited by Cheney were not the guerrillas of the Frente Sandanista de Liberación Nacional (F.S.L.N.) whom he was trying to indict, but rather the country’s armed forces, whom he and his colleagues in the federal government were supporting and continued to support throughout the decade. The U.N. Truth Commission found that the Salvadoran military and its surrogates had perpetrated 85 percent of the country’s reported human rights abuses since 1980. Only 5 percent were attributed to the F.S.L.N., with the remainder deemed undeterminable.
We can only pray that the United States does not continue to approach the situations in Afghanistan and Iraq the same way it approached El Salvador in the past. Yet recent disturbing evidence suggests that our prayers are probably coming too late. Lofty rhetoric about freedom clouds the air. Luckily, the witness of martyrs to truth is eternal. Twenty-five years later, Americans have another opportunity to at last grasp the lessons taught by Archbishop Romero.