Issue Date: September 10, 2004
Holding ourselves accountable
Reconciliation can be difficult and dangerous work, as this weeks segment in our Latin America series shows. We can only presume it would be a bit easier if all of the participants in past injustices were forced to be part of the solution.
Unfortunately, in too many places in Latin America, the missing partner is the United States.
Somehow, U.S. complicity in the horrors that visited that region in the decades from the 1970s through the 1990s seems always to slip beneath the radar.
But the evidence keeps leaking out.
Sometimes it comes, as in the case of El Salvador and Guatemala, in the form of human rights reports from the Catholic church and the United Nations. While the reports have so far failed to make much of an impression on the national conscience, they are there for the record with detailed accounts of what was done.
Sometimes the evidence comes in the form of documents, like the transcript of a conversation former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had with Admiral César Augusto Guzzetti of Argentina, where the military was conducting what came to be known as the dirty war of the 1970s.
At a New York meeting in 1976, Kissinger told Guzzetti, I have an old-fashioned view that friends ought to be supported. What is not understood is that you have a civil war. We read about human rights, but not the context. The quicker you succeed, the better.
As Paul Jeffrey and Barbara Fraser report, Guzzetti returned home in a state of jubilation, convinced he did not have to worry about the U.S. objections to human rights violations. Between 9,000 and 30,000 people were executed or disappeared during the next two years.
Evidence is coming out at a trial in Fresno, Calif., that is drawing little national attention.
The trial will determine whether Alvaro Rafael Saravia, being tried in absentia, could be held liable for the killing of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980 as he celebrated Mass.
The U.S. District Court in Fresno had not rendered a decision by our press time, but according to Associated Press reports, testimony had been gathered claiming that Saravia, who is missing but last lived in Modesto, Calif., had arranged the details of the assassination. Saravia was chief of security at the time for Major Roberto DAubuisson, an extreme right figure in Salvadoran politics and widely believed to have directed that countrys infamous death squads.
DAubuisson, who died in 1992, had studied at the then School of the Americas, a U.S. military college in Fort Benning, Ga., and publicly criticized Romeros condemnation of government violence.
Previous investigations by human rights organizations have concluded that Saravia conspired to kill Romero. The current charges were brought by a Romero sibling, according to press reports, and were filed by the Center for Justice and Accountability.
According to testimony from Amado Garay, Saravias chauffeur, Garay drove the shooter to the door of the hospital chapel where Romero was saying Mass and then returned him, after he had killed Romero, to a house where Saravia was waiting and listening to news reports of Romeros death.
If recent history is any indicator, the trial will never enter the conversation of this campaign season, it will never be allowed to challenge us and the view we have of ourselves as a benign presence wanting only the best for others.
Why should this trial regarding an incident that happened 24 years ago be of any relevance today?
Because as this political campaign turns increasingly on who can be the most warriorlike, on who can be the most determined to stay the belligerent course, as we bellow to the heavens about holding perpetrators of violence accountable, someone ought to be able to hold us accountable, if only for the sake of our own credibility.
Some might suggest that such accountability is essential for sake of our national soul.
During that nightmare period in Latin American history, when tens of thousands of civilians across the region were either disappeared or murdered, many of them after being tortured, America was deeply familiar with what was going on. We knew. We knew what governments were planning; we knew the extent of the atrocities and human rights abuses; we knew about the thousands who had been trained in our military schools. We knew.
Some of those who knew the most have never been held accountable and continue to be rewarded with government positions. Elliott Abrams, disgraced during the Iran-contra scandal and previously assistant secretary of state for Central America in the Reagan administration, has been in decades-long denial about the human rights abuses that occurred during his tenure. In 2003, President Bush appointed him senior adviser on the Middle East.
John Negroponte, Reagans ambassador to Honduras, was described in a 2001 piece in the New York Review of Books, as a great fabulist during that period. He saw, or professed to see, a Honduras almost Scandinavian in its tranquility, a place where there were no murderous generals, no death squads, no political prisoners, no clandestine jails or cemeteries.
He was brought back into government from the private sector by President Bush, first as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, most recently as the ambassador to Iraq.
So we write about reconciliation in Latin America. We write about the difficulties governments and church groups and human rights organizations face as they confront the ugliness of the past with an eye toward the future.
We do that without adequately acknowledging, perhaps, the full disadvantage of trying to achieve reconciliation when so much of the story rests in the memories of men who have moved on, beyond those fields of torture and disappearance, to new, important roles. We also write knowing that so much of the story, the rest of the evidence, remains untold in thousands of pages filed away, somewhere, classified.
National Catholic Reporter, September 10, 2004
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