Over the ages, the United States has routinely intervened in Latin America, overthrowing left-wing governments and propping up right-wing dictators. President Obama pressed a reset button of sorts last month when he traveled to Cuba and Argentina. Now it’s time for him to visit a Latin America country that is geographically smallest but where Washington’s footprint is large and the stain of intervention perhaps greatest—El Salvador.
In Argentina, on the 40th anniversary of a military coup that ushered in that country’s “dirty war,” President Obama said it was time for the United States to reflect on its policies during those “dark days.” In the name of fighting communism, the Argentine government hunted down, tortured, and killed suspected leftists—sometimes throwing their bodies out of helicopters into the sea. “We’ve been slow to speak out for human rights and that was the case here,” Obama said.
That failure to speak out looks benign in contrast to the active role Washington played in the “dirty war” in El Salvador in the 1980s, which pitted a right-wing government against Marxist guerrillas. The United States sent military advisers to help the Salvadoran military fight its dirty war, as well as hundreds of millions of dollars in economic and military aid.
In Argentina, the security forces killed some 30,000 civilians. In El Salvador, more than 75,000 lost their lives during the civil war, which lasted from 1980 until the 1992 peace agreement. The guerrillas committed atrocities, but the United Nations Truth Commission, established as part of the accord, found that more than 85 percent of the killings, kidnappings, and torture had been the work of government forces, which included paramilitaries, death squads, and army units trained by the United States.
The United States went well beyond remaining largely silent in the face of human-rights abuses in El Salvador. The State Department and White House often sought to cover up the brutality, to protect the perpetrators of even the most heinous crimes.
In March of 1980, the much beloved and respected Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was murdered. A voice for the poor and repressed, Romero, in his final Sunday sermon, had issued a plea to the country’s military junta that rings through the ages: “In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.” The next day, he was cut down by a single bullet while he was saying a private mass. (In 2015, Pope Francis declared that Romero died a martyr, the final step before sainthood.)
Eight months after the assassination, a military informant gave the US embassy in El Salvador evidence that it had been plotted by Roberto D’Aubuisson, a charismatic and notorious right-wing leader. D’Aubuisson had presided over a meeting in which soldiers drew lots for the right to kill the archbishop, the informant said. While any number of right-wing death squads might have wanted to kill Romero, only a few, like D’Aubuisson’s, were “fanatical and daring” enough to actually do it, the CIA concluded in a report for the White House.