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Truth and Fantasy

El Salvador
Human Rights
United States

A young guerilla cradles her automatic rifle a year before the end of El Salvador’s civil war in 1992. Photo: Martin Adler / Panos Pictures

Photo: Martin Adler / Panos Pictures

Jon Sobrino is one of the most respected public intellectuals in El Salvador. He is also a haunted man. A liberation theologian at the Jesuit University in San Salvador, he was travelling outside the country on the November evening in 1989 when a death squad raided the priests’ residence on campus. Because of the chance scheduling, Sobrino survived. Many of his closest companions – six professors, their cook and her daughter – were killed.

Massacres. Disappearances. Assassinations. Denial. For a dozen years El Salvador experienced a civil war in which atrocities like the murder of Sobrino’s fellow Jesuits were covered over by official propaganda. To end the deception, a UN-sponsored Truth Commission, charged with definitively retelling the war’s horrors, became a central component of the peace process that ended the conflict in 1992.

When the Commission released its final report, _From Madness to Hope: The Twelve-Year War in El Salvador_, in March 1993 its findings were stark. The Commission vindicated one of the competing versions of events in the war – one that held the Salvadoran armed forces and its paramilitary allies responsible for the vast majority of harrowing abuses. This was a reality already known to the victims and witnesses, the human rights investigators who exhumed bodies in order to document violations, and the wider population who lived in terror. Jon Sobrino claimed that the true author of the report was ‘the Salvadoran people’.

Recently, however, the truth of El Salvador’s past conflict has again been contested. This time it is not the army or the ruling élite who are attempting to rewrite the country’s history. It is the world’s sole remaining superpower.

While El Salvador has attempted to reconstruct a society based on the history presented by the Truth Commission, the Bush Administration – needing examples of successful US intervention to point to as models for Iraq and Afghanistan – has resurrected a different version of Salvadoran history. A dozen years after its publication, the Commission’s report, which might otherwise have been filed away in a Cold War historical archive, has again become a charged political document.

In the heat of the 2004 US election campaign, Vice-President Dick Cheney argued in his major televised debate that in the El Salvador of the early 1980s ‘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 lot better because we held free elections.’

The lesson he drew was that elections in Iraq and Afghanistan, while similarly fraught with violence, rested on a viable path to ‘liberation’. Others, like Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, showed that Cheney’s version of Central American history was not an anomaly but an established part of the neoconservative worldview. On a late-2004 trip to El Salvador, Rumsfeld gratefully acknowledged the Salvadoran army’s participation in the US-led ‘coalition of the willing’ in Iraq, praised the conservative ARENA Government (founded by death squad leader Roberto D’Aubuisson) and noted that the country ‘understands well the human struggle for liberty and democracy’.

Rumsfeld and Cheney’s perverse reading of history challenge the very premise of the Truth Commission. Ignoring the report’s findings, the Bush Administration resurrects an earlier, ideological rendering of the conflict which, like a photographic negative, transposes light and dark.

Some 75,000 people were indeed killed in El Salvador. But the Truth Commission found that Government military units, paramilitary groups and death squads were responsible for 85 per cent of human rights abuses. Rebel FMLN forces were charged with 5 per cent, while the remaining 10 per cent were ‘undetermined’. The elections that Cheney supervised – where voting was mandatory and dissent perilous – sought to cover the regime with a veneer of democratic respectability. Yet the killing continued through the rest of the decade.

Just days after the Truth Commission report was released, ARENA rushed an amnesty law through the country’s Legislative Assembly pardoning those responsible for abuses.

In the US, Congress commissioned an investigation to determine how the Truth Commission’s report corresponded with the State Department’s interpretation of events in the country during the 1980s. Despite evidence of massive deception no perjury charges, reprimands or official apologies were issued. A decade later, many of the architects of US intervention in El Salvador would receive promotions. (Elliott Abrams, a key public apologist of the Reagan Administration’s Central American foreign policy and a convicted Iran-Contra criminal, was recently appointed to serve as Deputy National Security Adviser, responsible for ‘advancing democracy’ abroad.)

These things, to be sure, are evidence that power is its own truth.

Yet, as witnesses to history, the Salvadoran people have made a statement that stands as an indictment. Their report holds forth an assertion that journalists and public figures regularly show themselves unable or unwilling to muster. It says that the Bush Administration’s statements portraying the Salvadoran conflict as a record of benevolent intervention are not legitimate interpretations of the Central American history. Rather, they are lies. •

• The El Salvador Truth Commission documented human rights abuses from 1980-91.

• The Commission received direct testimony from 2,000 Salvadorans on human rights cases involving a total of 7,312 victims.

• It examined 15 cases of extra-judicial assassination and disappearance, 4 massacres attributed to government forces, 5 cases of murder attributed to death squads, 8 cases of murder and kidnapping ascribed to the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN).

• The Commission named the names of over 40 military officers and 11 members of the FMLN responsible for ordering, carrying out, or covering up abuses.

• The Commission’s conclusion: Salvadoran armed forces and death squads bore the main responsibility for the murder, disappearance and torture of Salvadoran civilians.

• This was the first time since the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials following World War Two that non-nationals investigated past episodes of violence in a sovereign country.

Mark Engler, a writer based in New York City, can be reached at www.DemocracyUprising.com

New Internationalist issue 385 magazine cover This article is from the December 2005 issue of New Internationalist.
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