Thirty years ago, on March 24, 1980, a marksman shot and killed Archbishop Oscar Romero as he said Mass in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd in San Salvador. As established by investigative commissions of the United Nations and the Organization of American States, the assassination of Romero had been planned and directed by ex-Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, a former chief of Salvadoran military intelligence and a talented political demagogue. He was the symbolic founder of ARENA, the right-wing party that, with the help of the United States, controlled the government of El Salvador from 1989 until 2009.

The social order of El Salvador had traditionally rested on a tripod of the rich, the military, and the church. The rich ran the country. They controlled it through the military, and the role of the church was to counsel the poor to accept their lot and to wait for their reward in the next life.

Then, in 1968, in Medellín, Colombia, the bishops of Latin America adopted a “preferential option for the poor.” Pope Paul VI summarized Medellín when he said, “The poor have the right not only to share in the fruits of the society, but in the direction of that society.”

By 1977, Archbishop Romero had become the most controversial leader in the history of El Salvador. Each Sunday from his pulpit in the cathedral he denounced examples of repression by the Salvadoran security forces and called for the rule of law and a more just society. His words were heard not only by those inside the cathedral, but throughout Central America. You could walk down any street in the poor barrios and villages and never miss a word of Romero’s sermon. Every radio in every casita would be tuned to Romero’s homily.

In 1979, I was serving as ambassador to Paraguay. I made it a practice to meet with the democratic opposition and publicly defended those who called for an end to the abuses of dictatorship. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance told Congressional leaders he approved of my use of President Jimmy Carter’s human-rights policy to distance the United States from the repressive regime of General Alfredo Stroessner.

Secretary Vance soon pulled me out of Paraguay and had me named ambassador to El Salvador. By choosing me for the post, Vance reaffirmed his conviction that El Salvador could not be saved from revolution by abandoning democratic values and human rights.

It was the 1979 overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua that had focused the Carter administration on El Salvador. Critics accused the president of abandoning the pro-American Somoza and of losing Nicaragua to communism. Although these charges were wildly exaggerated, the harsh anti-Washington rhetoric of the Sandinistas and the influx of Cuban advisors in Nicaragua lent a certain plausibility to the accusations.

El Salvador, virtually next door to Nicaragua, was now irrevocably part of the Cold War. Hard-liners in the Department of Defense and the CIA argued that the Carter policy of human rights had to be subordinated to a military buildup if El Salvador was not to fall under the control of Marxist revolutionaries. On the other side, State Department officials warned that there was no military solution to the Salvadoran crisis, that it had been repression by the armed forces that had helped create the insurgency, and that a political solution was still possible.

Out of this debate came proposals to combine an American-backed, large-scale counterinsurgency effort with a far-reaching program of economic and social reform. This formula proved persuasive to Carter, who wanted to save his human-rights policy but also needed to demonstrate a determination not to lose El Salvador.

Shortly before my scheduled departure for San Salvador, a National Security Council meeting on El Salvador discussed the role of Archbishop Romero. Several spoke of his alleged anti-American sermons, his politicizing of religion, and his incitement to rebellion. The chief White House official present recommended I make a brief stopover in Rome to try to persuade the Vatican to pressure Romero to stop making bad matters worse. Not for the first time, I marveled at Washington decision-makers’ lack of understanding about the new role of the church in Latin America, their ignorance of the unrelenting persecution of priests, nuns, and lay workers by the Salvadoran military and the already strained relations between the Vatican of Pope John Paul II and Romero.

I had read Romero’s sermons and, while they were certainly combative, they accurately reflected the cruel reality of a lawless country where the poor had given up hope that any moderate government would risk challenging entrenched power. All the people’s trust resided in “Monsignor Romero,” who each Sunday spoke truth to power and inspired millions to believe that change was possible.

As gracefully as I could, I buried the idea of a trip to Rome to complain about Romero. Any hope I had of success in El Salvador depended on the goodwill of the popular archbishop.

In early 1980, the day after my arrival in El Salvador, I requested a meeting with Romero. It was quickly granted. The archbishop received me at the Convent of the Good Shepherd. He was accompanied by a young Jesuit priest, Francisco Estrada. I was immediately impressed with Romero’s simplicity, candor, and integrity. He also showed flashes of humor, although they were tinged with a certain fatalism, a conviction that his enemies would never cease plotting to kill him.

Early in the conversation, Romero, with the hint of a smile, said he had long looked forward to meeting an American ambassador. Here Romero was making a not-so-subtle point. Although he had been archbishop since 1977, no American diplomat had ever called on him. So it was not only the military and the economic elites that ostracized the archbishop, but the American government as well.

I decided that I would never have a better opening. I told the archbishop that the president’s chief foreign-policy advisor had sent me to El Salvador because both he and I knew that regimes that require tanks and guns for use against their own people are in danger, precisely because they have become the corrupt enforcers of an unjust society. I said I understood that the Salvadoran people had valid cause for revolution, but that I hoped a peaceful solution might be found.

Romero looked at me skeptically. I went on to say that the United States government, like the Catholic Church in El Salvador, was not a monolith; that there were, admittedly, tensions and divisions within the embassy but (while I would always listen to dissenting opinions) I was the president’s representative and, subject to instructions from Washington, I would decide policy issues.

Romero did not take offense at my reference to divisions in the Salvadoran church. It was an open secret that four of El Salvador’s bishops were in open disagreement with their archbishop. It was also well known that various officials of the embassy interpreted the policy of the United States in different ways. I would quickly put a stop to this by publicly defining our policy on controversial issues, such as land reform, and by demanding the transfer of the CIA station chief.

To bring the discussion to its crucial point, I told the archbishop that it would be most useful for me, and I hoped for him, if we could exchange information and concerns on a more-or-less regular basis. I said I was prepared to name an officer in whom I had complete trust to meet with his representative to maintain communication and avoid misunderstandings.

My objective here was straightforward. It was quite possible that by working with various political leaders I could help bring about an improved governing coalition committed to radical reform. Yet given the sorry record of the United States in El Salvador, what popular credibility would such a government have? The best course open to me was to convince Romero of my good faith by providing him with weekly situation reports. Over time, I hoped, a working relationship could emerge.

Romero had to take several factors into account before coming to a decision. To cooperate, however gingerly, with the United States could hurt his reputation among those fighting to overturn the established order. On the other hand, the prospect of cooperation between him and the embassy would change the political balance of power in El Salvador and put the oligarchy and the army on the defensive.

After a few moments’ thought, Romero thanked me for the trust and confidence I had placed in him and said he would like to establish a channel of communication with the embassy.

I was pleased, but aware that this was an agreement in principle and that concrete steps were needed to make the channel of communication a reality. Before I could follow up on this breakthrough, the archbishop began to speak of his letter to President Carter asking him to prohibit “all military assistance to the Salvadoran government.”

I had feared the subject would come up. I told Romero that the president and the Congress had already approved the $5.7 million aid package and there was nothing I could do to change that. I could only promise that in the future I would apply human-rights conditions strictly to keep military aid to a minimum.

Romero did not hide his disappointment. Yet, he agreed to meet again in order to work out a mechanism to establish the channel of communication. There was never to be a second meeting. Before it could take place, the assassin’s bullet struck down Romero.

It has taken thirty years for El Salvador to learn that the assassination of a beloved archbishop cannot go unremarked and unpunished. Public atonement has begun. In his inaugural address last year, the new president, Mauricio Funes, dedicated his administration to the memory of Monsignor Romero. This is a long-delayed but vital step in reclaiming the history of El Salvador and beginning the reconciliation of its people.

Related: Reviving the Truth, Making It Heard, by Msgr. Ricardo Urioste

Robert E. White, a former United States ambassador to El Salvador and Paraguay, is president of the Center for International Policy.
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Published in the 2010-03-26 issue: View Contents
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