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Published on Wednesday, November 8, 2000 in the San Francisco Chronicle
Righting the Wrongs of U.S. Policy in El Salvador
by Carolyn Patty Blum
WE HAVE a notoriously checkered history with El Salvador, and last week we had the chance to bring justice and right past wrongs, but failed.

First, a federal jury in Florida found that two Salvadoran generals, Jose Garcia, former minister of defense, and Eugenio Vides-Casanova, former director of the national guard, were not liable for the 1980 murders of four American churchwomen. Second, Congress failed to support immigration legislation that would grant Salvadorans and Guatemalans legal parity with the more favored refugees from Cuba and Nicaragua.

The verdict in the case against the generals came in a lawsuit filed by the families of the four American churchwomen under the Torture Victim Protection Act. One of the most important pieces of human rights legislation ever passed in the United States, this law allows for a federal court to hear a case against a military commander for failing to properly control troops engaged in torture and assassination.

Although the verdict in the generals' case was disappointing and surprising, the lawsuit did serve two important purposes: The generals were forced to appear in a U.S. court and, for the first time, answer for their crimes, and the truth of what really occurred in El Salvador began to be fully aired.

During more than three weeks of testimony, the jury heard about the horrors of the civil war years in El Salvador: the grotesque torture chambers in the national guard headquarters; the mass murders of women and children at El Mozote; the assassination of the beloved Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero; the collaboration between security forces and civilian-clothed death squads; the brazen murders of the leaders of the opposition, and the rape and murders of the four American churchwomen by five national guardsmen.

They learned of a systematic policy of elimination of political opponents. They learned that the Salvadoran justice system refused to investigate the involvement of military officers in these or any other crimes. In fact, throughout the war, the only cases that were ever brought to justice were the ones the United States insisted the Salvadorans pursue. Their military rulers could hardly afford to defy admonitions from a government that was financing the dirty Salvadoran war with billions of dollars in aid.

When the generals testified, their dissembling was palpable. They offered the same hollow excuses we have come to expect from dictators and their military cohorts. They said that they did not really know the extent of the abuses and blamed them on the left, even though a comprehensive United Nations report found that the majority of abuses were carried out by security forces under their command. They showed films, glorifying themselves and their devotion to their country, that called to mind the propaganda arsenal of the Third Reich.

They said that, like their U.S. backers, they were more concerned about fighting a ``communist insurgency'' -- thus, excesses were to be expected. But they, like the Reagan state department, never understood that the insurgency in El Salvador was born of the gross inequalities of rich and poor and of many years of subjugation and repression. And so the courtroom, in the end, became a place where the terrain of the destructive U.S. policy of support for a repressive government, inevitably, was excavated.

Ironically, the same policy played itself out in the final days before the congressional recess. The Latino Immigrant Fairness Act, an amendment to one of the government spending bills, became a political hot potato. One of its provisions would have finally granted Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees the same immigration privileges as Nicaraguans and Cubans.

In the 1980s. as El Salvador was ripped apart by brutal and repressive policies, tens of thousands of its citizens were forced into exile. Many came here. But the U.S. Immigration Service systematically denied their claims for asylum. Less than 3 percent ever received asylum. Only because a lawsuit was filed accusing the U.S. government of discriminatory treatment of Salvadorans and Guatemalans, in violation of U.S. law, were these refugees allowed to remain in the United States.

Now, many years later, this group of refugees is still in limbo while Cuban and Nicaraguan refugees have long since become lawful permanent residents. Congress wasted an opportunity to rectify this injustice with the Latino Immigrant Fairness Act.

These squandered opportunities for righting the wrongs and affirming our county's commitment to justice can still be rectified. When Congress returns, President Clinton and congressional leaders have a chance to pass the Latino Immigrant Fairness Act. This law would be a final repudiation of a 20-year history of discrimination against Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees.

In May, the generals will return to court in Florida. This time, they will face Salvadoran survivors of torture.

These dramas about securing justice continue to play out. The final act has yet to be written.

Carolyn Patty Blum is the director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic at Boalt Hall Law School, UC Berkeley.

2000 San Francisco Chronicle


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