Calling the faithful in a Salvadoran village ALAN POGUE LAS AMERICAS The Least We Can Do BY CALEB ROSSITER IN 1981, the brash and powerful Secretary of State Alexander Haig held up a map of Central America, pointed to the tiny coun try of El Salvador and declared: “This is where we are going to draw a line in the sand.” Translated, it meant: There will be no more halfstepping in U.S. foreign policy; unlike Vietnam, this one’s all or nothing. In 1989, military officers in El Salvador gunned down six Jesuit priests, bringing an end to Haig’s dream that El Salvador would somehow, through a long and bloody war in a tiny country most Americans had never heard of, remove forever the stigma called Vietnam. It was an attempt to wipe away old blood by spilling new, and many say thatit was doomed to fail. What happened in the years between Haig’s declaration and the murder of the priests is once again in the newspapers, though this time with a note of optimism. By December 31 \(in a process that was supnotorious army will be defanged, the rebels will disband, and the country will move out from the long and dark shadow of U.S. foreign policy. As is often the case, there’s a catch: This will happen only if both the Bush Administration and the Clinton transition team keep the pressure on. It seems like the least we can do. By defining El Salvador as a test case, Secretary Haig sealed its fate. Military victory was the only permissible outcome, and it would be sought by any means necessary. The army ran the country brutally and mercilessly, hiding behind the democratic facade of an elected government. Armed forces, equipped and paid for by U.S. foreign aid, grew from 10,000 to 60,000. Sympathy for the opposition got you killed. The vast majority of the 70,000 casualties during the 1980s were civilians whose only crime was sympathy for the rebels or lack of sympathy for the army. The leaders murdered ranged from religious figures to journalists, from union officials to human rights activists. They were killed openly, spectacularly, to send the message that nobody was safe from the army. “The corruption of the Salvadoran army was exceeded only by its brutality,” said Cindy Buhl, the legislative coordinator for the Central American Working Group, who became famous in Washington Caleb Rossiter, an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, directs the Project on Demilitarization and Democracy. He is writing a hook on U.S. intervention in Vietnam and El Salvador. during the 1980s for the tenacity with which she fought against U.S. policy. toward El Salvador. “To this very day,” she added, despite all the evidence to the contrary, “the Bush Administration still believes you can buy the good behavior of the Salvadoran army.” With both Salvadoran and U.S. officials secretly complying with the army’s abuses, El Salvador’s judicial system had a tough time bringing cases to court. In the few cases in which judges insisted on following up on military crimes, judges were attacked, and some were killed. By the time the rebels brought the war to a final boil with their urban offensive in 1989, no officer had ever been disciplined for human rights abuses under his command. The only case in which soldiers felt the sting of the courts involved the murder of four American churchwomen, a case on whose resolution Congress had conditioned $20 million of U.S. aid. Impunity led, quite naturally, to corruption, and corruption led to ever more blatant crimes. Top officers set up a kidnapping ring that passed off its work as that of the rebels, who had indeed used this tactic of seizing wealthy businesspeople for ransom to raise funds in the early years of the war. \(Of course, no amount of ransom could ever hope to balance the money pouring in from the perhaps the ideal of the United States as articulated in the Constitution, it nevertheless had a certain resonance for a government obsessed with winning the Cold War. For the first time in America’s history, America involved itself so heavily in another country that the amount of U.S. foreign aid going into a country actually exceeded the recipient country’s own total budget. But absolute power corrupts absolutely, and the Salvadoran army was so used to getting what it wanted from the United States, no matter what it did, that it finally overreached. The deaths of the six priests made their way into U.S. headlines. The high command tried to cover up its crime by blaming it on the rebels and when that didn’t wash they tried laying the blame on a few rogue “bad apples.” Again, no go. It was these murders which finally caught the attention of the American people, and the rest is history. Led by the unlikely combination of liberal Rep. Joe Moakley, D-Mass., and conservative Rep. John Murtha, D-Penn., Congress \(without support from the administraSalvadoran officers saw the handwriting on the wall, and peace was suddenly possible. Within a year, under the energetic leadership of the U.N. Secretary General’s special representative, Alvaro de Soto, the army and the rebels 10 DECEMBER 25, 1992
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