Last month an apparently unremarkable series of reports about Pope Francis drifted through the international news carousel, attracting little attention from the national media — though it should have. They recorded the pontiff’s desire to expedite a deceased bishop’s journey toward prospective sainthood in accordance with the customs of the faith.
The cleric in question was Oscar Romero who, prior to his murder in 1980 by local death squads, held one of the most senior positions in the Catholic church of El Salvador. As some of the coverage mentioned in passing, he was killed not long after after havingwritten to President Carter, appealing to him to halt his support for repressive government forces that were tearing the country apart in their assault on mass movements that opposed their undemocratic rule. Carter never replied; Romero was shot at mass.
At that point in time, El Salvador was in the early stages of a civil war that would go on to cause untold misery in the small central American nation and claim tens of thousands of lives. As the violence raged throughout the ’80s, Washington increased the level of military aid it sent to the ruling authorities, overwhelmingly the main perpetrators of the many war crimes that occurred that decade, who put this generous assistance to efficient use murdering defenseless civilians across the country.
The U.S. government under Reagan went on to train, fund and arm the same government forces, dismissing accurate reports of massacres they had committed, as well as discouraging attempts to achieve a negotiated settlement between the warring sides.
Having helped to lengthen the conflict and having armed the most abusive party, a report commissioned by the speaker of the house eventually precipitated a UN-brokered accord which helped to end the fighting in the early 1990s, demonstrating that had there been the political will to do so, the U.S. could have helped to halt the bloodshed far earlier.
During the war there was modest coverage of the atrocities that took place, and relatively little focus on the trail that led to the White House. One of the few voices expressing an appropriate level of criticism, during and after this period, was the scholar and activist Noam Chomsky, who hasn’t relented in his efforts to try to bring attention to the issue.
I wrote to Chomsky to ask him for a statement on these events. He provided me with a long reply, from which I will quote an extended excerpt:
“By the 1980s, the plague of repression that had been spreading over Latin America struck Central America with full force. In El Salvador, the decade opened with the murder of Archbishop Oscar Romero…A few days before he had sent a letter to President Carter pleading with him to cut off aid to the murderous military junta, aid that “will surely increase injustice here and sharpen the repression that has been unleashed against the people’s organizations fighting to defend their most fundamental human rights.”
Aid soon flowed… One of the most murderous forces was the army’s Atlacatl battalion, which slaughtered thousands of peasants, labor and human rights activists, priests, and others who were in the way. The decade of horror ended in November 1989, when the Atlacatl battalion, fresh from renewed training at the John F. Kennedy school of counterinsurgency, was dispatched by the high command to assassinate six leading Latin American intellectuals, Jesuit priests, at their university dwelling, along with any witnesses, their housekeeper and her daughter. Archbishop Romero’s grim prognosis was more than fulfilled, in the neighboring countries as well. The horror is only deepened by the silence that has descended over it in the United States and the West generally.”
There’s little more to say, other than to state that while the events that took place in El Salvador during that period were utterly horrendous, they occurred in the context of several decades of regional tumult with easily identifiable causal links to U.S. foreign policy. When we broaden the picture in this way, the number of deaths linked to Washington potentially reach into the hundreds of thousands, spread across a broad collection of Latin American nations.
Daniel Kovalik, a human rights lawyer and Professor at the University of Pittsburgh, is among a small group of academics that have dedicated their time to write about the bitter legacy of these crimes. When I contacted him for comment, he told me that the U.S.’ “war on Latin America” really began in 1962 in response to the emergence of Liberation Theology, a Marxist-influenced school of thought within Catholicism which emphasized social justice and advocated peaceful activism designed to improve the lives of the poor.
American assaults on multiple societies below its southern border were “designed, in large part, to wipe out that movement” Kovalik suggested, recalling that “we know from its training manuals and training exercises as well, the [U.S.-run] School of the Americastrained Latin American military personnel to view community priests as suspect and to attack them accordingly.”
“The result was the murder of scores of Catholic priests, nuns and a number of Bishops from 1962 and continuing indeed to the present time,” he added.
As Kovalik indicated, the consequences of this war on Liberation Theology, and other popular movements associated with it within the continent can be seen today in societies that are still recovering from their brutal past. By contrast, a substantial portion of those in the United States that bear some responsibility for the horrors of that period remain comfortably unaccountable.
The fact of such injustice is a familiar story; Washington’s legacy of destruction in Latin America, sadly, is still news to many north of the Rio Grande.