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From Robert E. White

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To: Friends

Subject: My Visit to El Salvador

               When I received an invitation to participate in a
conference entitled “El Salvador: Fifteen Years after the Peace
Accords,” I decided to accept.  I had not returned to El Salvador since
I served as ambassador in 1980-81.  Therefore, I thought I would confine
my participation in the conference deliberations to remarks designed to
clarify the historical record of that dreadful time when death squads
roamed the country killing catechists, politicians, priests, labor union
leaders, anyone working to avoid full-scale civil war and begin a
process of healing and reconciliation.

               The conference was held at the University of Central
America on March 24^th , the 27^th anniversary of the assassination of
Archbishop Oscar Romero.

           As this story turns on the assassination of Romero, let me
recall for you the background: The United Nations special commission on
El Salvador examined the evidence and found that ex-major Roberto
D’Aubuisson planned and carried out the plot to kill Archbishop Romero.
A California court tried D’Aubuisson’s chief lieutenant Alvaro Saravia
and named D’Aubuisson as the intellectual author of Romero’s
assassination.  As president of El Salvador, Napoleon Duarte examined
the evidence and requested the extradition of Saravia from the United
States.  The extradition proceedings failed when, under pressure from
D’Aubuisson and ARENA (the right-wing party founded by D’Aubuisson), the
Supreme Court in effect established a statute of limitations on murder,
thereby making the eyewitness testimony of participants in the
Archbishop’s murder null and void.

My remarks emphasized the right of any nation—including the
United States and El Salvador—to know and understand its own history.  I
read names from death squad lists circulated in 1980.  Many on the list
had been killed, others had survived and contributed much to the public
life of El Salvador, several were in the audience.  I cited declassified
embassy telegrams throughout the 1980s identifying D’Aubuisson as a
death squad leader.  I pointed out that all the information I presented
was already in the public domain, but unaccountably had not been
published and discussed by the news media of El Salvador.

           At first there was an information blackout.  Then there were
a few straight news stories, then a few angry op-eds, a couple of
favorable comments and then the words of Archbishop Saenz, an Opus Dei
priest.  He characterized me as a “polarizing figure” and said I was “a
person of doubtful credentials and that one has to take into account
these characteristics of my personality before evaluating what I said.”

           Pretty lukewarm criticism by Salvadoran standards, but the
spectacle of a successor to Romero lining up with who want to honor his
killer sent shock waves throughout El Salvador.

           I was taken aback by the Archbishop’s comments.  He and I
have never met.  Except for a few articles analyzing Washington’s policy
towards Central America, I have not commented on events in El Salvador
since the Peace Accords fifteen years ago.  I have of course testified
in court on events that took place during my service as ambassador.
Perhaps the Archbishop is against fixing the blame for torture and
murder on former Salvadoran generals who fled their country after the
war to live in the United States.  He does hold the rank of brigadier
general in the Salvadoran military.

           In El Salvador, where so much power and wealth are
concentrated in the hands of so few, it takes an outsider to break this
curtain of silence.  Although criticism was expected, the attacks of
Archbishop Saenz were a surprise.  There were several excellent
editorials in the one independent newspaper and in the on-line journal
_El Faro_, which took the Opus Dei Archbishop to task for missing the
whole point and revealing his profound lack of understanding of the
pressures and legal maneuvering which saved D’Aubuisson from standing
trial for the murder of Monsignor Romero.

           Salvadorans live in a virtual information vacuum.  The
leaders of ARENA are also owners of the country.  Therefore, the forces
of change face overwhelming obstacles in getting their message out.

           I am grateful to Senators Chris Dodd and Pat Leahy and
Congressman Jim McGovern for their excellent letter to the Secretary on
this issue.  Prior to leaving, I obtained the enthusiastic consent of
Congressmen Charles Rangel and David Obey to express their shock,
outrage and disgust at the ARENA initiative to honor D’Aubuisson.  I
used the names of these influential figures publicly and privately to
make the point that ethical values are no longer absent from US foreign

           I am meeting with friends and allies both inside and outside
Central America to develop a strategy to help Salvadorans rescue their
nation from ARENA’s ambitions to rule the country in perpetuity.

Warm regards,

Bob White

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