Pope Francis vs. American imperialism: Catholicism, death squads, and the martyrdom of Óscar Romero

Later this month, the Pope will beatify Óscar Romero, who was murdered by an American-trained death squad in 1980

Published May 12, 2015 4:10PM (EDT)

  (AP/Alessandra Tarantino)
(AP/Alessandra Tarantino)

Pope Francis is soon to beatify the late Monseñor Óscar Romero, the archbishop of El Salvador who was assassinated in 1980 by a right-wing, pro-capitalist death squad. Unlike others whom Francis has already consecrated, the Blessed (and, sooner than later, Saint) Romero will be a holy figure whose killers still walk the earth.

If a saint is a sanctified man of God, what do we call the killers of a saint? Is theirs an especial evil? I’m no theologian, but it seems that to kill a saint is in excess of mere man’s law. The Catholic Catechism exhaustively extols the sanctity of saints, saying that Christ’s “holiness shines in the saints.” How then do we describe a powerful organization that trains and gives sanction to the killers of saints? Even the Vatican says that Romero “was shot by a right-wing death squad,” which, as  everyone who understands recent Salvadoran history knows, was trained in the United States.

During the Cold War, the Georgia-based School of the Americas (now called WHISC) trained tens of thousands of Central American soldiers for right-wing governments and insurgencies in order to neutralize leftist influence in countries like Nicaragua, Honduras, and Romero’s El Salvador, where civil wars in the 1970s and '80s pitted U.S.-trained rightists against socialists and leftists who opposed their countries being used as a plantation in service of a Washington-backed elite.

A UN truth commission in 1993 would find that two-thirds of the right-wing soldiers in El Salvador’s horrific civil war were U.S.-trained, many of them to operate the “death squads” that became a feature of Central America while Washington played with a heavy hand to direct the region’s politics and economics.

Bishop Romero was a thorn in the side of Washington, preaching liberation theology in defense of the poor and becoming known as the “Voice of the Voiceless.” Increasingly worried about Washington’s meddling in El Salvador’s burgeoning war between rightists and leftists, Romero wrote a letter to President Jimmy Carter in 1980, calling out the United States’ support for the murderous right-wing forces who “repress the people and favor the interests of the Salvadoran oligarchy.”

He continued, condemning Washington’s major role in the creation of an armed, brutal capitalist elite:

“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.’”

Five weeks later, Romero was assassinated by a U.S.-trained death squad while delivering mass at a small hospital chapel. No smoking-gun evidence exists pinning the hit on Washington, but the assassination was the hallmark of U.S. strategy during that time. In a 1984 report for The Progressive magazine, journalist Allan Nairn interviewed “dozens of current and former Salvadoran officers, civilians, and official American sources” and found “a pattern of sustained US participation in building and managing the Salvadoran security apparatus that relies on Death Squad assassinations as its principle means of enforcement.”

Ten years later, late Catholic priest William Callahan spoke to the National Catholic Reporter after the UN Truth Commission report brought much more to light, concurring that “[i]t is clear that from the earliest days the U.S. government knew exactly what was going on, especially through the Reagan era, and didn’t care what it was as long as their policy objectives were being achieved.”

Did the Carter White House order the hit? There’s no way to know. But everyone knows where the killers’ training came from. Everyone knows that they were U.S. military proxies. Even the Vatican’s own news agency, in its announcement of Romero’s upcoming canonization, named his killers as “a right-wing death squad,” (read: U.S.-trained death squad) and the National Catholic Reporter points out that the alleged triggerman was a known graduate of the School of the Americas. The United Nations, meanwhile, names two of the alleged assassin squad members as graduates.

Guardian writer George Monbiot uses President George W. Bush’s logic, that which animated much of the “War on Terror,” to assign blame to Washington for School of the Americas soldiers’ atrocities. On the first day of the invasion of Afghanistan, Bush announced, “If any government sponsors the outlaws and killers of innocents, they have become outlaws and murderers themselves.” The Iraq invasion two years later would also rely on Dick Cheney and others’ claim that Iraq was harboring terrorists. It’s fairly easy to argue that harboring terrorists is a lesser crime than training them, supplying them and guiding them with intel. The UN’s International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled in 1986 that the Reagan administration used terrorism against that country’s socialist government, including planting mines in a civilian, commercial harbor.

Washington’s culpability in the assassination of Saint Romero doesn’t necessarily depend on an explicit order to carry out the hit. The general directive is enough: These were Washington’s guys doing what Washington needed in the region to maintain capitalist control. Romero is only one of the more than 75,000 who died in El Salvador during the period when the “fragmentation of any opposition or dissident movement by means of arbitrary arrests, murders and selective and indiscriminate disappearances of leaders became common practice” of Washington-backed soldiers, according to the UN Truth Commission’s report. The report continues: "Organized terrorism, in the form of the so-called "death squads", became the most aberrant manifestation of the escalation of violence...The murder of Monsignor Romero exemplified the limitless, devastating power of these groups.”

It’s doubtful that El Salvador would be “one of the largest suppliers of clothing to the United States,” with untold thousands of wage slaves sewing our underwear for a dollar an hour if the socialists and Saint Romero had been allowed to design their country how they saw fit. People don’t tend to vote for wage slavery. As in places like Haiti, El Salvador and elsewhere in Central America and the Caribbean, corporate free trade zones tend to be imposed by Washington and compliant domestic governments at the behest of their corporate friends. The 41 percent of Salvadorans living in poverty can be seen as victims, too, of the death squads’ quashing of socialist resistance to Washington’s wishes.

But Pope Francis I has now made the most famous victim a saint. The “Voice of the Voiceless” now has the ear of God. "I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me, I shall rise again in the Salvadoran people," said Romero shortly before his death. And now, in a way, he has risen again.

By Matthew Pulver

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

American Imperialism Catholicism Foreign Policy Pope Francis Religion The Cold War