Published on Wednesday, April 26, 2006 by the Boston Globe
A Lesson Unlearned in El Salvador
by Derrick Z. Jackson
AS AUXILIARY bishop of San Salvador, Gregorio Rosa Chavez wonders if the United States learned anything from its murderous meddling in his nation. He remembers reading a magazine article shortly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, about how Americans surround themselves with information but much of it ''frivolous and superfluous." He said the article talked about how such shallow knowledge leads to US foreign policy being based on the moment, ''only looking at our navel as if the world ended at the border with Mexico."
Rosa Chavez wondered if the attacks would wake up the United States to look beyond the navel. He wondered if Americans would truly begin to ponder the question of ''Why do they hate us?" After the unprovoked invasion of Iraq under false pretenses in 2003, the answer was a terrible no.
''Pope John Paul called the war a 'defeat for humanity,' " Rosa Chavez said. ''The pope gave his condolences to the American people for Sept. 11. But we also needed to enter a new understanding that we are one world where we only have a future together if we get rid of barriers and walls. Preemptive war makes no sense . . . I worry the US will have to ask again, 'Why do they hate us?' "
Rosa Chavez was in Cambridge last week to receive the Romero Truth Award from Centro Presente, a Latino immigrant advocacy organization. The award is named for Oscar Arnulfo Romero, the Salvadoran archbishop who was assassinated in 1980, presumably by a right-wing death squad. The assassination was part of a 1980-1992 civil war between leftist guerrillas and a US-backed right-wing government that resulted in at least 75,000 deaths and thousands more disappeared.
Rosa Chavez said Iraq means that El Salvador is a lesson unlearned. The Reagan and first Bush administrations gave the Salvadoran government $6 billion in economic and military aid during the war. Rosa Chavez and the Catholic church condemned atrocities on both sides but was often threatened by the government because its pleas for human rights for peasants were seen as too far to the left.
No amount of killings mattered to anti-communist hard-liners in Washington, not even the murders of four Maryknoll nuns from the United States and six Jesuit priests. One such hard-liner was then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney. Intelligence documents released in 1993 indicated that Cheney opposed attempts by members of Congress to withhold military aid to El Salvador during that government's slothful investigation of the murder of the priests. In a 1989 appearance on ABC's ''This Week with David Brinkley," Cheney claimed there was ''no indication at all" that the Salvadoran government or the army were involved.
Documents and soldier confessions in the mid- and late-1990s showed that the killings of the priests and nuns were directly tied to the military, and the Reagan administration suppressed and overlooked intelligence on state-sponsored terror links. As late as 1990, US military officers were training well-to-do Salvadorans linked to death squads.
A decade later, Vice President Cheney turned that legacy upside down, trumping up discredited intelligence to invade Iraq. In the 2004 vice presidential debate, he had the nerve to use El Salvador as an example of what would happen in Afghanistan and Iraq. He boasted, ''we held free elections. I was there as an observer on behalf of the Congress. . . . And today El Salvador is a whale of a lot better because we held free elections."
This is after he refused to ''observe" how we sponsored so many of the 75,000 deaths over the 12 years of the Reagan and first Bush administrations.
Rosa Chavez, part of the religious vanguard that risked life for peace and elections, remembers a whale of a lot more than Cheney, enough to fear for the future of Iraq. He remembers US ambassadors denying witness protection and cruelly interrogating courageous people who came forward with information on the state-sponsored terror. ''It was really terrible because (US) politics were not based on values and human rights," he said. ''During the war, I had to receive many US delegations, and frequently I got the impression they really did not care about the people. It was painful.
''I would say the Salvadoran case is even worse than Iraq. In Iraq, the US sent its army. In the Salvadoran case, the arms came from outside, but the deaths are all Salvadorans."
© 2006 The Boston Globe