A Salvador Option for Iraq?


The designation of John Negroponte as the first director of national intelligence recalls the Central American wars of the 1980s, where he played a critical, if deeply controversial, role as U.S. ambassador to Honduras, 1981-85. Despite feigning amnesia while questioned, Negroponte implicitly participated in questionable events at the time, including bribes handed down from the embassy to high ranking military and government officials and ties between Honduran death squads and the witnessed massacres of dissidents in nearby El Salvador and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua.

For the neocons overseeing Washington’s occupation of Iraq, El Salvador was a significant success story which they hope to emulate. The recent exhumation of the phrase "Salvador Option" recalls for current and former ultra conservatives like then assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, Elliot Abrams, Otto Reich, Ollie North, Admiral Poindexter and Negroponte the glorious era when the feckless Jimmy Carter (who, of course, was overly concerned with human rights) was defeated by the Reagan-Bush ticket. In the aftermath of victory, the new administration committed itself to install freedom, democracy and free market economies throughout Central America. Given the congratulatory, if unmerited nature of the above beliefs, it’s hardly surprising that some Pentagon and White House officials are now talking openly about resurrecting the "Salvador Option" in Iraq-that is, to create "hit squads" composed of Kurdish and Shi’a paramilitaries to seek out and kill armed dissidents as well as non-violent sympathizers, just as the U.S. indirectly mobilized and financed death squads throughout Central America two decades ago.

A Grim Record

Although today’s El Salvador is hardly a beacon of democracy or a stirring showcase for neoliberal economics, the question for the administration’s ideologues remains how to recapture the central essence of that earlier alleged "success story" and put it to use in Iraq? In the 1980s, El Salvador was justifiably synonymous with the practice of state-sponsored terrorism directed against civilians considered a threat by the military-dominated regime. Though never defeating the leftist FMLN guerrillas, the military and its associated paramilitaries managed to preside over the slaughter of almost 75,000 of their countrymen. These included Archbishop Oscar Romero who was gunned down while celebrating mass. Other casualties of the right-wing hit squads included labor leaders, politicians, journalists, human rights activists, and healthcare personnel along with peasants and workers unwise enough to sympathize with the guerrillas or unlucky enough to live in their proximity.

By invoking the Salvadoran model today, U.S. officials give a winking admission to this country’s co-conspiring in the murders of hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans since the 1970s. In Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Uruguay, Chile and Argentina, waves of repression were tolerated, and even encouraged by Washington’s Cold War mentality, in the name of democracy. This process is found in today’s Colombia, which has experienced tens of thousands of politically-motivated killings since 1982. For the most part, these were committed by paramilitary groups closely allied with Bogota’s U.S.-funded and increasingly U.S.-trained forces in the so-called war on terror in that country.

President Bush, Reaganesque right down to the ranch, the death-squad foreign policy, and their corruption of the word "freedom," once again repeatedly invoked it in his inaugural and State of the Union addresses. Apparently the goal of the "Salvador Option" would be to establish "freedom" in Iraq which would be achieved through a campaign of murder and repression against suspected although not proven Saddam loyalists. An important yet conveniently overlooked aspect of this possible plan is that along with the violent insurgents, legitimate Sunni dissenters seeking a role in a validated political process could be gunned down, targets of the "Option." Anyone familiar with the history of Latin America’s "dirty wars" might point out that death squads rarely limit themselves to sorting out the "bad apples;" their usual forte is cutting down the whole tree. As in El Salvador and other parts of Latin America, implementation of this "Option" in Iraq could easily lead to the disappearance of tens of thousands from their homes and communities and the marginalization of those too fearful to participate in their country’s political future.

We can sympathize with President Bush’s bosky illusions of turning the Iraqi quagmire into an oasis of freedom and democracy. If the President is looking back to that era when his father was Vice President and is persuaded to invoke the option of an El Salvador-style solution for pacifying Iraq, then some of his more candid advisors would do well to disenchant him over such a thankless tactic. If a vibrant democratic culture built on healthy civic institutions is what the White House wants for Iraq, perhaps it should resist resurrecting a pathological approach that once dominated the front pages throughout Latin America and could do so again in the Middle East.

W. JOHN GREEN, a Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs and a Visiting Associate Professor of History at the University of South Carolina.

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