Twenty-five years ago, on March 24, 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero was shot down while celebrating Mass in San Salvador. In the years before his murder, Romero had emerged as an outspoken defender of the Salvadoran poor, making him one of the best-known embodiments of the liberation theology that was infusing new life into the Catholic Church in Latin America in the ’70s and ’80s.
Today we would do well to remember Romero as an example of moral courage in a time of war. But his story is also significant because El Salvador has repeatedly been used by the current Bush administration as a parallel for the situation in Iraq.
During El Salvador’s long conflict, which stretched from the late 1970s to 1992, the country’s government and its paramilitary death squads murdered some 75,000 citizens. A 1993 U.N.-sponsored Truth Commission confirmed that these forces made a special point of attacking political dissidents, trade unionists, religious ministers, and human rights workers.
Romero was resolute in his response to this situation. He insisted on the need to "denounce the social structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery" of the people. When his priests were targeted as part of the official repression, Romero unflinchingly stated, "I am glad that they have murdered priests in this country, because it would be very sad if in a country where they are murdering the people so horrifically, there were no priests among the victims."
The day before he was killed, Romero made a "special appeal" in his Sunday sermon, in which he called upon soldiers to "[obey] your consciences rather than a sinful order." In words broadcast by radio across the country, he said, "I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression."
Romero’s pleas were directed not only at the Salvadoran army, but also at the United States.
Regrettably, the U.S. had a significant role in supporting the government responsible for rampant human rights abuses. Six weeks before his death, Romero wrote to President Jimmy Carter, warning that increased military aid would "undoubtedly sharpen the injustice and the repression inflicted on the organized people, whose struggle has often been for their most basic human rights." Carter, wary of being tagged with "another Nicaragua," ignored the plea.
Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush later sent hundreds of millions of dollars worth of armaments, aid, and advisers. When the Salvadoran regime put this support to murderous use, officials like Elliott Abrams built their careers by denying, obscuring, or minimizing the harrowing abuses. (Today, Abrams is the newly appointed deputy national security adviser to the current President Bush, responsible for coordinating the administration’s efforts to "advance democracy" abroad.)
All this might be relegated to the annals of Cold War history, except that, in past months, officials including Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld have held up El Salvador as a model of successful U.S. intervention, relevant to Iraq and Afghanistan. They cite the early 1980s Salvadoran elections the U.S. helped stage — neglecting to mention that these were farces in which voting was mandatory and opposition party members were targets for repression. Moreover, the atrocity-laden conflict continued for a decade afterward before peace accords were adopted. That’s hardly a desirable route when mapped onto the situation in Iraq.
More troubling still is what these references reveal about the understanding of the Cold War that now prevails in Washington and beyond. Romero’s martyrdom has done little to alter conservatives’ view that the Latin American "dirty wars" were a matter, in the words of The Weekly Standard, of "totalitarianism vs. democracy — the Soviet bloc vs. the Free World." Hawks lambaste anyone, from Romero to John Kerry, who dared link uprisings in Central America with "socioeconomic factors such as poverty."
As the Cold War itself is resurrected as a model for the "war on terror," El Salvador’s guerillas become "terrorists," and U.S. support for military governments is blanketed over with Bush’s rhetorical assertion that "from the day of our founding" America has pursued the "great objective of ending tyranny."
In remembering Romero, our challenge is to promote a new narrative of the Cold War that provides a realistic assessment of America’s past actions and asserts that a true commitment to freedom demands self-examination. Until our country comes to terms with its role in the history of El Salvador’s conflict, we will be condemned to accept a vision of U.S. infallibility that neither allows us to appreciate Archbishop Romero’s moral example, nor to ensure that events like those that led to his murder will never be repeated.
MARK ENGLER, an analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus, has previously worked with the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress in San José, Costa Rica. He can be reached via the web site http://www.democracyuprising.com.
Research assistance for this article provided by Jason Rowe.