Dick Cheney’s El Salvador.
Published in In These Times.
We know that distortions abounded in the Vice President’s contribution to the Cheney-Edwards debate on Tuesday. But one moment that hasn’t received much attention is Dick Cheney’s revealing misuse of the 1980s civil war in El Salvador. Observers of Latin American affairs were shocked and awed when the Vice President cited the conflict as a parallel for the current predicament in Afghanistan:
“Twenty years ago we had a similar situation in El Salvador,” Cheney said. “We had a guerilla insurgency controlled roughly a third of the country, 75,000 people dead. And we held free elections. I was there as an observer on behalf of the Congress… And as the terrorists would come in and shoot up polling places as soon as they left, the voters would come back and get in line and would not be denied their right to vote. And today El Salvador is a [whole] of a lot better because we held free elections… And [that concept] will apply in Afghanistan. And it will apply as well in Iraq.”
The most relevant fact that the Vice President omits here is that the 75,000 people were killed not by the guerillas, but by the government that Cheney was supporting and its paramilitary death squads. The second most relevant fact is that the 1984 elections were widely recognized as a farce, with a long line of genuine opposition candidates already having been killed off and with the U.S. spending $10 million to manipulate the outcome. That this is the model for exporting democracy says a lot about what the neoconservatives have in store for us.
In truth, if El Salvador is a whole of a lot better off today, it is because the movement against the government continued. A UN Truth Commission, mandated as part of the country’s 1992 peace accords, affirmed a reality that the Reaganites steadfastly denied then and prefer to forget today. The Commission found the FMLN guerillas responsible for 5% of human rights violations and the Armed Forces responsible for 85%, with the remaining 10% undetermined.
The New York Times commented upon the release of the report:
“A United Nations Truth Commission now confirms what the Reagan Administration sought to cloud—that terrible crimes were perpetrated in freedom’s name by the armed forces of El Salvador… The report identifies a former Defense Minister as one of the senior officers who ordered the killing of six Jesuit priests in 1989. It names another Defense Minister as among those who tried to cover up the murder of four American churchwomen. It finds that Roberto D’Aubuisson, the right-wing politician and hero to Senator Jesse Helms, ordered the murder of Archbishop Romero.”
The Times’ columnist Anthony Lewis concluded: “[T]he United States spent $6 billion supporting a Salvadoran Government that was dominated by killers. We armed them, trained their soldiers and covered up their crimes.”
The landmark report of the UN Commission is available on-line.
While John Kerry is complicit in the invasion of Iraq, he made some important stands in the 1980s denouncing U.S. sponsorship of human rights abuses in both El Salvador and Nicaragua. The right wing’s continuing anger at these stances makes for interesting reading, as it mimics Cheney in drawing exactly the wrong lessons from Central American history.
A prime example: Hugh Hewitt’s recent defense of the bloody, illegal Contra War in The Weekly Standard. Hewitt claims that Senators Kerry and Harkin, by visiting Nicaragua in 1985, were “appeasing” Sandinista Daniel Ortega, whom he calls one of “America’s enemies.” The quotes from the time that Hewitt uses to evidence this supposedly damning charge in fact show someone with a considerably more lucid view of the region’s politics than those in power, then or now: “If you look back at the Gulf of Tonkin resolution,” Kerry said, “if you look back at the troops that were in Cambodia, the history of the body count, and the misinterpretation of the history of Vietnam itself, and look at how we are interpreting the struggle in Central America and examine the CIA involvement, the mining of the harbors, the effort to fund the Contras, there is a direct and unavoidable parallel between these two periods of our history.”
Even as the neocons continue to warp their meaning, the parallels continue. With Cheney holding up as exemplary the record of U.S. intervention in Central America, we can be sure that “crimes in freedom’s name” is a concept that will apply well into the future.
Research assistance for this article provided by Jason Rowe. Photo credit: Alison McKellar / Wikimedia Commons.