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Archbishop Oscar Romero: Thirty Years and Little Learned

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Thirty years ago, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was assassinated in the early evening at the tiny church, Divina Providencia. The day before he was killed, at the Cathedral of San Salvador, he had ended a sermon with words he directed at Salvadoran soldiers and police:

"I would like to make an appeal in a special way to the men of the army, to the police, to those in the barracks. Brothers, you are part of our own people. You kill your own campesino brothers and sisters. And before an order to kill that a man may give, the law of God must prevail that says: Thou shalt not kill! No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God. No one has to fulfill an immoral law. It is time to recover your consciences and to obey your consciences rather than the orders of sin. The church, defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, the dignity of the person, cannot remain silent before such abomination. We want the government to take seriously that reforms are worth nothing when they come about stained with so much blood. In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuously, I beg you, I ask you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!"

A single shot rang out and pierced Romero's heart. As he bled to death those around him believed they knew what forces in Salvadoran society were responsible for the crime. Church and human rights groups recognized the killing as the familiar work of right-wing death squads. The Washington Post and other U.S. news outlets reported that Romero's assassination might have been the work of "leftist" rebels.

Archbishop Romero had sent several letters to President Jimmy Carter pleading with him to stop all U.S. aid to what he considered a murderous regime. The day after Romero's funeral, which itself was marred by violence when armed men in plainclothes fired into a crowd of mourners, Carter approved an increase in "non-lethal" U.S. aid to the Salvadoran government, which included cargo trucks, radar, riot control gear, and night-vision tracking equipment. Three days before he left office, Carter lifted the ban on U.S. arms sales to El Salvador.

When President Ronald Reagan came to power he poured even larger amounts of arms and money into the Salvadoran civil war making El Salvador the single largest recipient of U.S. aid in Latin America. Military assistance went from $5.9 million in fiscal year 1980 to $35.5 million in 1981, and then to $82 million the following year. During this same period, economic aid to El Salvador went from $58.3 million in 1980 to $114 million in 1981, and then to $182.2 million in 1982. [Americas Watch]

In the U.S. Senate, North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, who was then the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, heaped high praise on Salvadoran Major Roberto D'Aubuisson and his men for being staunch allies in the fight against communism. Senator Helms's blandishments came despite evidence that suggested elements of D'Aubuisson's paramilitary organization were possibly responsible for murdering Romero. The career diplomat, Robert White, who was Carter's ambassador to El Salvador called D'Aubuisson and his armed supporters "pathological killers."

The killing in El Salvador escalated after Romero's death. In late 1981, when reports surfaced that the U.S.-backed "Atlacatl Battalion" of the Salvadoran Army massacred peasants near the village of El Mozote, both the Salvadoran government and the Reagan Administration denied it happened. The El Mozote massacre had left 767 men, women, and children dead.

Americas Watch, the nonprofit human rights organization that monitors Latin America, estimated that in El Salvador right-wing death squads tied to the government's security services were responsible for killing 30,000 people. And in 1991, a "truth commission" sponsored by the United Nations made clear that the Salvadoran military and the death squads were "one and the same."

In the United States, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) emerged in 1981 as an umbrella organization of peace activists, clergy, and other groups that worked with refugees who were fleeing the bloodshed and seeking asylum. Each year CISPES activists held candlelight vigils on the anniversary of Archbishop Romero's slaying. The first one took place on March 24, 1981.

And what did those who formulate United States foreign policy learn from the carnage in El Salvador? The same thing they should have learned from Vietnam: Whenever the United States sticks its nose into another country's civil war it only raises the level of death and destruction making the politics all the more intractable. And in the end it achieves very little other than what could have been worked out peacefully in the first place.

We recently heard that the "conservative" members of the Texas State Board of Education voted to erase Archbishop Oscar Romero from children's history textbooks, which is an ironic decision since their hero, Ronald Reagan, believed that Central America was the "front line" against the spread of Soviet communism in the Western Hemisphere.

Today, American drone aircraft are engaging in "targeted assassinations" in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere. More often than not these strikes result in the killing and maiming of innocent people, including women and children. On the one hand, Pentagon officials tell us the war in Afghanistan is about 85 percent political and only 15 percent military and that the only path to success is to win the hearts and minds of the people, to build schools and clinics, provide jobs and build infrastructure, and help improve the lives of regular people. While on the other hand, these same Pentagon officials tell us that the means to accomplish this noble and just end must include blowing away women and children with an endless barrage of drone attacks. They seem incapable of seeing, like in El Salvador in the 1980s, that escalating the violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan will do little to address the underlying social and political problems that produced the conflict in the first place.

Archbishop Oscar Romero gave his life trying to prevent a bloodbath in the country he loved. He tried to shield his people from the U.S.-backed repression, consistent with his mission as the top Catholic cleric in the country. Romero's liberation theology didn't arise from abstract ideological or canonical principles but was grounded in his seeing all around him the crushing poverty, hungry children, and innocent victims of class violence in El Salvador. Despite the actions of the mighty Texas Board of Education to erase his memory, Archbishop Romero will be long remembered as a friend of the oppressed, a champion of the poor, an advocate of peace, and a tribune for justice.