Who Is Learning from History?

1.

Oscar Romero’s Letter
San Salvador February 17, 1980

His Excellency
The President of the United States Mr. Jimmy Carter

Dear Mr. President:

In the last few days, news has appeared in the national press that worries me greatly. According to the reports, your government is studying the possibility of economic and military support and assistance to the present government junta.

Because you are a Christian and because you have shown that you want to defend human rights, I venture to set forth for you my pastoral point of view in regard to this news and to make a specific request of you.

I am very concerned by the news that the government of the United States is planning to further El Salvador’s arms race by sending military equipment and advisors to “train three Salvadoran battalions in logistics, communications, and intelligence.” If this information from the papers is correct, instead of favoring greater justice and peace in El Salvador, your government’s contribution will undoubtedly sharpen the injustice and the repression inflicted on the organized people, whose struggle has often been for respect for their most basic human rights.

The present government junta and, especially, the armed forces and security forces have unfortunately not demonstrated their capacity to resolve in practice the nation’s serious political and structural problems. For the most part, they have resorted to repressive violence, producing a total of deaths and injuries much greater than under the previous military regime, whose systematic violation of human rights was reported by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

The brutal form in which the security forces recently evicted and murdered the occupiers of the headquarters of the Christian Democratic Party, even though the junta and the party apparently did not authorize the operation, is an indication that the junta and the Christian Democrats do not govern the country, but that political power is in the hands of unscrupulous military officers who know only how to repress the people and favor the interests of the Salvadoran oligarchy.

If it is true that last November a “group of six Americans was in El Salvador…providing $200,000 in gas masks and flak jackets and teaching how to use them against demonstrators,” you ought to be informed that it is evident that since the security forces, with increased personal protection and efficiency, have even more violently repressed the people, using deadly weapons.

For this reason, given that as a Salvadoran and archbishop of the archdiocese of San Salvador, I have an obligation to see that faith and justice reign in my country, I ask you, if you truly want to defend human rights:

To forbid that military aid be given to the Salvadoran government;

To guarantee that your government will not intervene directly or indirectly, with military, economic, diplomatic, or other pressures, in determining the destiny of the Salvadoran people;
In these moments, we are living through a grave economic and political crisis in our country, but it is certain that increasingly the people are awakening and organizing and have begun to prepare themselves to manage and be responsible for the future of El Salvador, as the only ones capable of overcoming the crisis.

It would be unjust and deplorable for foreign powers to intervene and frustrate the Salvadoran people, to repress them and keep them from deciding autonomously the economic and political course that our nation should follow. It would be to violate a right that the Latin American bishops, meeting at Puebla, recognized publicly when we spoke of “the legitimate self-determination of our peoples, which allows them to organize according to their own spirit and the course of their history and to cooperate in a new international order” (Puebla, 505).

I hope that your religious sentiments and your feelings for the defense of human rights will move you to accept my petition, thus avoiding greater bloodshed in this suffering country.

Sincerely,

Oscar A. Romero Archbishop

 

2.

Jimmy Carter’s Statement, March 25, 1980

I strongly condemn the tragic assassination of Archbishop Oscar A. Romero of San Salvador yesterday. It is a shocking and unconscionable act.

Archbishop Romero spoke for the poor of El Salvador, where their voices had been ignored for too long. He spoke for change and for social justice, which his nation so desperately needs. Terrorism cannot silence the archbishop’s message of compassion. It cannot and should not intimidate those who seek social justice and democracy.

The United States trusts that the Government of El Salvador will move swiftly and effectively to bring the archbishop’s assassins to justice.

3.

From the National Security Archive
“Learn from History,” 31st Anniversary of the Assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero
Washington, D.C., March 23, 2011

Thirty one years ago tomorrow, El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was shot and killed by right-wing assassins seeking to silence his message of solidarity with the country’s poor and oppressed. The assassination shocked Salvadorans already reeling in early 1980 from attacks by security forces and government-backed death squads on a growing opposition movement. Romero’s murder further polarized the country and set the stage for the civil war that would rage for the next twelve years. In commemoration of the anniversary, the National Security Archive is posting a selection from our digital archive of 12 declassified U.S. documents that describe the months before his death, his assassination and funeral, as well as later revelations about those involved in his murder.

The documents are being posted as President Barack Obama leaves El Salvador, his final stop on a five-day trip to Latin America. Obama spent part of his time in the country with a visit to Monsignor Romero’s tomb last night. Although the United States funneled billions of dollars to the tiny country in support of the brutal army and security forces during a counterinsurgency war that left 75,000 civilians dead, the president made no reference to the U.S. role, seeking in his speeches instead to focus on immigration and security concerns. The day before his visit to Romero’s gravesite, Obama had told an audience in Chile that it was important that the United States and Latin America “learn from history, that we understand history, but that we not be trapped by history, because many challenges lie ahead.”

Just weeks before his murder, Archbishop Romero published an open letter to President Jimmy Carter in the Salvadoran press, asking the United States not to intervene in El Salvador’s fate by arming brutal security forces against a popular opposition movement. Romero warned that U.S. support would only “sharpen the injustice and repression against the organizations of the people which repeatedly have been struggling to gain respect for their fundamental human rights.” Despite his plea, President Carter moved to approve $5 million in military aid less than one year after the archbishop’s murder, as Carter was leaving office in January 1981.

 

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