JOSEPH Towle recites the death toll from memory.
In El Salvador, 60,000 or 70,000. In Guatemala, 200,000. "Some of them, my
parishioners," the priest said.
And of course, some 40,000 to 50,000 in Nicaragua, the epicenter.
Towle spent a quarter-century as a missionary in Latin America, some of it
during the time when the United States closed its eyes to the murders of nuns
and priests and even bishops, and the rivers ran with blood. It was the policy
of the United States in the 1980s to support any government that lined up
against Communists and leftists of all stripes, even if those governments were
profoundly murderous. And especially if they helped the United States stage its
secret wars and sundry anti-Communist plots.
This they obligingly did, in return for the usual emoluments: dollars and
benign blindness toward such unpleasantness as mass graves and murdered clergy.
Towle is not obviously angry when he recalls this time. He has the gentle
way of a religious man.
He seems, more than anything, baffled by President George W. Bush's
decision to resurrect these ghosts by nominating to positions of rank and
prestige - and, yes, high honor - people who helped perpetrate the bloody
"I don't think they have much imagination," said Towle of the current
president and his men.
Democrats on Capitol Hill relish hearings on the nominations of Otto Reich,
nominated to be assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, and
John Negroponte to be United Nations ambassador. Each was present at the
creation - that is, they were posted in key diplomatic jobs and participated,
more or less, in that breathtakingly corrupt enterprise that was the
U.S.-backed war against Nicaragua's leftist government. The bill of particulars
reads like a Graham Greene novel. The Democrats will doubtless serialize it.
More revealing, though, is the appointment of a man who will not be
required to raise his right hand and swear to tell the truth for the cameras.
Elliott Abrams, who was Oliver North's colleague and co-conspirator in the the
Reagan administration's illegal contra war, is back at the White House.
He works at the National Security Council, where his job is to promote
democracy and human rights worldwide. The appointment was made with a straight
The post does not require Senate approval. All it takes is a president
willing to appoint a convicted criminal and unrepentant liar to high public
The point is to perpetuate the myth that the whole Iran-contra scandal was
not scandalous at all but merely a partisan skirmish at the twilight of the
Cold War in which the forces of virtue - that is, the Reaganites - stood
against the nettlesome nagging of lefty Democrats.
In fact, the contra effort entangled the U.S. government with international
gun-runners, drug traffickers and money launderers. It involved illegal
activity on three continents. Abrams helped secretly raise money from rich and
friendly foreigners. He was a key figure in the cover-up, lying repeatedly to
He eventually satisfied felony charges with pleas to two misdemeanors and
was pardoned by the first President Bush just before he left office.
There are pardons, and there are pardons. The president this latest Bush
replaced is still under investigation even for pardons he refused to grant.
But the new president Bush is busy restoring honor and dignity to the White
House. The Restoration Administration has as its ethical premise that anything
done by the good men and women who it knows to be good men and women (that is,
loyal to the Bush family) obviously have unquestionable credentials and
"The best person for the job," is how several Bush spokesmen described the
president's reason for restoring Abrams.
In truth, the return of the rogues is a sharp stick in the eye of everyone
- political opponents, foreign diplomats, scholars, even nuns and priests - who
saw the Central America of the 1980s and discerned neither moral triumph nor
political success. It is an attempt to rewrite history. Like all such conceits,
it eventually will fail.
Copyright © Newsday, Inc.