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Last Updated:4/3/00
Robert White, president, Center for International Policy, on National Public Radio, March 24, 2000
NPR Morning Edition, 3-24-00 Remembering Monsenor Romero

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the death of Monsenor Oscar Romero, Archbishop of San Salvador and a prophet of extraordinary vision and devotion to the Salvadoran people. Shortly after I took over my duties as American Ambassador, my wife and I attended mass in the stark unfinished cathedral. Msgr Romero took note of our presence and read a letter from then Secretary of State Cyrus Vance pledging that "the United States will not intervene in the internal affairs of El Salvador." Romero added, perhaps for my benefit, "We hope that events will speak more strongly than the words."

One week later, Romero alarmed and angry at the rising death toll of innocent civilians, spoke from the altar directly to the men of the Salvadoran armed forces. "Brothers, you are part of our people. You are killing your own brothers and sister." His voice took on force and conviction: "I beg you, I implore you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression."

Those who monopolized wealth and power in El Salvador would no longer tolerate a prelate who spoke out in favor or dialogue, negotiation and a fresh start towards a just society. The next day Monsenor Romero was brought down by an assassin's bullet while saying mass at the Convent of the Good Shepherd.

Never in the history of Latin America has a country or group of countries suffered such concentrated death and destruction as the United States, through its proxy armies in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Honduras, inflicted on Central America during the 1980s. More than 150,000 civilians followed Msgr Romero to the grave. More than two million terrorized people fled to the United States and entered as illegal immigrants. And it was the American trained military units, such as the Atlacatl Battalion that compiled the worst human rights records, wiping out entire villages and then denying their responsibility with the help of U.S. officials. In the end, the bloody, divisive twelve year pursuit of military victory in El Salvador proved fruitless and the United States had to settle for a treaty brokered by the United Nations that granted the revolutionaries many of their demands.

The civil war in Colombia has raged for over forty years, the product of the failure of successive governments to provide minimal standards of equity, stability and justice for the Colombian people. As in El Salvador, the Colombian civil war is more about massacres of civilians and selective assassinations than armed confrontation. Yet the Clinton administration wants to send 63 armed helicopters to spearhead a military campaign to drive the Colombian revolutionaries out of southern Colombia.

History constantly presents old problems in new disguises. Archbishop Romero insisted that military aid and military advisors would only "aggravate the repression and injustice." We did not heed this wise counsel in El Salvador. Let us not make the same mistake in Colombia.

Robert E. White, a former ambassador to El Salvador and Paraguay, is president of the Center for International Policy in Washington.

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