Whitewashing Imperialism

When the media erases the crimes of US imperialism, they make future atrocities more likely.

Victims of the Mozote Massacre. Susan Meiselas / Wikimedia Commons

In the final weeks of summer, a minor news item shed light on a corner of the recent past largely forgotten by those north of the Rio Grande. “Beatification of Oscar Romero ‘unblocked’ by Pope Francis” read the headline, referring to the martyred Salvadoran bishop whose path to sainthood had previously been obstructed by a Vatican wary of the late prelate’s political influence.

Romero, as the piece explains, was “one of the heroes of the liberation theology movement in Latin America”; his criticism of atrocities committed by the US-backed Salvadoran armed forces precipitated his assassination at mass in March 1980.

Shortly before his killing, Romero wrote to President Carter pleading him to end military aid to the ruling junta, predicting that such support would “surely increase injustice here and sharpen the repression that has been unleashed against the people’s organizations fighting to defend their most fundamental human rights.”

Carter declined to directly reply, while Romero’s murder would prevent him from seeing his bitter prophecy not only fulfilled, but exceeded: El Salvador soon descended into outright civil war, a conflict that lasted for another twelve years, displacing over a million people and claiming the lives of 75,000, most of them killed by the regime.

Romero was memorialized by the Carter government as one who “spoke for the poor . . . and for social justice which his nation so desperately needs,” whose “message of compassion” was silenced by “terrorism,” a tool of coercion that “cannot and should not intimidate those who seek social justice.” Washington’s own attempts to silence the hugely popular cleric, its decision to ignore his pleas and its material assistance to the killers went unmentioned, of course.

On reaching the White House in 1981, Ronald Reagan escalated American support for the regime’s program of state terrorism, going so far as to train, arm, and fund elite death squads that committed some of the worst atrocities in modern Latin American history. As the violence intensified, the US tried to undermine any negotiated settlement to the conflict, thereby ensuring further civilian slaughter. Reagan’s hawks were intent on securing an absolute military victory for their allies.

During the same period, American-sponsored violence elsewhere in the region contributed to an aggregate death toll that reached into the hundreds of thousands, hastening a forgotten genocide in Guatemala, and leaving a legacy of social wreckage that is yet to disappear.

Despite the horrors inflicted on Central America, this sordid episode has been followed by widespread public amnesia, largely due to media negligence. By quickly forgetting the past, the organs of popular consciousness have helped shield the former president and his fellow war criminals from meaningful accountability, and in the process have made it easier for Washington to recycle its lethal imperial tactics.

Romero, an erstwhile conservative, was hardly the only adherent of liberation theology to experience repression. Both the US and the Vatican (up until Francis) were extremely wary of the doctrine and sought to reduce its influence in the impoverished subcontinent; for its part, Washington deployed tactics that would lead to the killing of these rebel clerics.

As prominent British writer Paul Vallely observed recently in an op-ed memorializing Romero in the New York Times, the “CIA created a special unit that informed on hundreds of radical priests and nuns” associated with the movement, “many of whom became victims of the region’s military dictatorships.”

At the School of Americas, a now-renamed Department of Defense institute located in Fort Benning, Georgia, the United States trained a who’s who of Latin American human-rights abusers, including notorious figures like Efrain Rios Montt — architect of the Guatemalan genocide — and El Salvador’s fascist paramilitary leader, Roberto D’Aubuisson. The institute, human rights lawyer Daniel Kovalik told me, “trained Latin American military personnel to view community priests as suspect and to attack them accordingly.”

Of course, it wasn’t just dissident priests who were murdered. Prime targets for the Salvadoran army were labor organizers, rights activists, indigenous peasant communities, and an assortment of others associated with the Left. The rebels were harder to kill, so their suspected supporters were kidnapped, executed, massacred, tortured, or bombed from the air.

One of the most grotesque outcomes of Washington’s flow of financial, diplomatic and intelligence-based support was the 1981 Mozote massacre, in which one of the kill squads created and run with Washington’s help slaughtered up to a thousand civilians.

The first child to be murdered was, according to the New York Times, “tossed in the air and bayoneted”; girls as young as ten were raped and executed along with hundreds of women, while the men were systematically interrogated, tortured, and killed. One of the few survivors was Rufina Amaya, who, while hiding beside a tree, was powerless to do anything but listen as her children called out for her as they were killed, then burned and buried. “God saved me because he needed someone to tell the story of what happened,” she would later tell journalists.

When news of the Mozote massacre reached America, government spokespeople issued mendacious denials and launched a smear campaign against the two journalists who visited the site of the carnage.

Washington was generously assisted in this enterprise by a high-profile editorial in the Wall Street Journal, criticisms of the writers’ work in Time magazine, and vicious attacks from the conservative news monitor Accuracy in Media. This denialist crusade was finally silenced after the victims were disinterred from the earth and identified by forensic experts; the accounts of journalists who visited the area were later fully vindicated by a United Nations-sponsored Truth Commission.

At the time, however, thanks in no small part to such dedicated PR support, the death squad implicated in the massacre had free reign to commit further atrocities, including the killing of the dissident priests mentioned above. Few mainstream press outlets at the time ran critical op-eds or editorials outlining the level of devastation caused by these operations.

Such analyses have also been in short supply since, regardless of the benefits of hindsight. The period hasn’t entered the category of great unforgettable blunders that become never-to-be-repeated “lessons of history” — even though it should have provoked profound anger and sustained national introspection.

Such amnesia does not occur in a vacuum; rather, it is the product of structural pressures within the media industry, the causes of which have been the subject of libraries of scholarship. In short, the editorial criteria for selecting content is driven by market imperatives rather than the public interest. Owing to the primacy of such considerations, stories deemed to have a low marketability value — or some related demerit — are relegated to the sidelines.

In practice, this often means whitewashing or ignoring the crimes of American imperialism. Examples abound: who remembers the near-genocidal crimes against humanity that occurred in Bangladesh, East Timor, or southeastern Turkey, all of which occurred with enabling Western/US complicity?

Closer to home, who would think that since the 1960s, when a wave of US-backed crackdowns on the Left began, “the number of political prisoners, torture victims, and executions of nonviolent dissenters in Latin America vastly exceeded that of the Soviet Union and its East European satellites?”

The limited public outcry in the US over Reagan’s dirty wars in Central America, aided by press equivocation or quiescence, helped ensure a legacy of death and social disintegration would be left in their wake. However, the damage did not end there; the silence has enabled atrocities in places like Iraq, using the same models. When US officials introduced the “Salvadoran option” during the Iraq War, it predictably resulted in a cornucopia of atrocities.

When George W. Bush took office, a number of familiar figures from the Reagan-Bush Sr years were returned to the apogee of US politics — Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Eliot Abrams.

One of the lesser-known of these Reaganites was John Negroponte, who during the first “war on terror” facilitated American-sponsored contra terrorism out of Honduras into Nicaragua, and during the second ascended from UN envoy to US Ambassador to Iraq.

During Negroponte’s time in Baghdad, another veteran of the Reagan-era “dirty wars” was active in the Iraqi theater: James Steele. Steele, like Negroponte, was heavily involved in the massive rights abuses visited on civilians in Central America by Washington-backed militias; his role was to train counter-insurgent teams in El Salvador, including some of the death squads who committed horrendous massacres throughout the civil war. A former Enron executive, he was selected by Wolfowitz and, overseeing the gathering of intelligence by Iraqi kill units, reported directly to Rumsfeld.

Steele was also heavily involved with the notorious Shia-dominated “Wolf Brigade,” which generally targeted Sunni insurgents, often kidnapping and torturing them. Their activities (following the disastrous effects of the executive orders issued by Paul Bremer, yet another former Reaganite and Negroponte’s predecessor as de facto proconsul) contributed heavily to the escalating sectarian slaughter in Iraq’s civil war.

It is out of this morass that groups like the so-called “Islamic State” have emerged. Perhaps if the precedents were better known by the public, some of the worst outcomes of the war could have been avoided.

In Colombia, there are shades of El Salvador. The country is the chief recipient of US military aid in the hemisphere, and has experienced an epidemic of targeted killings of trade unionists over the past few decades. The perpetrators are mostly paramilitaries with substantial links to the Colombian army, a fact even recognized by the US.

While the paramilitaries were officially disbanded in the 2000s, their activities continue, with connections to the military, locally powerful multinationals, and senior politicians coming to light in recent years. Yet aid from Washington has not ceased, and dissident priests are still being targeted.

One person who has struggled for decades to increase awareness of these matters is Noam Chomsky, the famous dissident and emeritus professor of linguistics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He had this to say about the US’s lethal involvement in the region:

Some of the consequences of Reagan’s terrorist wars are right on the front pages today: the flight of children from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. But not Nicaragua, the one country that had an army to defend the population from Reagan’s terrorist forces. In the other countries, the terrorist forces were the state security forces armed and trained by Washington. El Salvador is finally beginning to recover from the onslaught, but it will be a long and hard path. And to our shame, without our help, even regrets for what we have done.

Given its record in the subcontinent, it should go without saying that the United States’s self-professed commitment to human rights cannot be taken seriously, absent a sea change. From the time of the Monroe Doctrine, the US has arrogated to itself the power to dictate the affairs of Latin American countries. In the ensuing two centuries, its imperial ambitions have only increased. Throughout, the media has generally played the role of implicit accomplice, by turns a stenographer and bowdlerizer.

Without movements from below, the whitewashing and atrocities will only continue.