BY PAUL ELISH:
For this week’s post, I have been thinking extensively about two issues of historical memory in the Americas that I’m inclined to believe are connected. Recently in El Salvador, a succession of headlines have captured the media, documenting the archbishop’s closing of Tutela Legal, a Church-affiliated legal office founded in the 1970s that supports victims of human rights violations. The office has helped El Salvador come to terms with its troubled history and especially its civil war. While reading about this controversy, I have also reconsidered the U.S.’s “School of the Americas,” a program at Fort Benning in Georgia that once trained Latin American soldiers and officers in “anti-communist” and counterinsurgency tactics during the Cold War. The school, since renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, essentially continues in existence and plays host to similar programs.
Part of the reason the controversy in El Salvador is so interesting is because the current Salvadoran archbishop’s public relations outreach is pretty absurdly, mesmerizingly bad. I remember first learning about Archbishop José Luis Escobar Alas when visiting San Salvador and looking at the Metropolitan Cathedral, whose façade was once graced by a mural of tiles designed by El Salvador’s most famed artist, Fernando Llort. Archbishop Alas opened a veritable Pandora’s box of criticism when, in 2011, he made the unilateral, unannounced, and mystifyingly unjustified decision to have the tiles not only removed, but destroyed. In light of the recent events surrounding Tutela Legal, the periodic emergence of Armageddon-level public relations meltdowns seems to be turning into a permanent part of his archbishopship.
Explanations for the abrupt closure of Tutela Legal on October 1 have been abstruse, focusing on the fact the war has been over long enough to make the organization unnecessary (which is far from true) and on alleged “irregularities” in the operations of the office. But one has to harbor suspicions: the closure comes just as the Salvadoran Supreme Court has announced its openness to challenges against the constitutionality of the amnesty law that, after the civil war, protected perpetrators of violence from prosecution. In other words, coordinators of mass violence that killed 60,000 people over the course of the war are finally threatened with being brought to justice, especially with all of Tutela Legal’s useful archives on hand, so long as Tutela Legal isn’t closed or inaccessible. I do not completely understand what the specific motive of the Church would be to try to shield various people from the reversal of amnesty, but I do think the changes in amnesty are likely to have something to do with the recent closure.
I could talk more about the maelstrom in El Salvador, but I would actually like to bring this post back to the home front, and specifically to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. What brings the school to mind in this situation is that it represents some form of the inverse of the Tutela Legal scandal. Whereas Alas is refusing to keep Tutela Legal open, we in the United States are refusing to close one of our most powerful, and sinister, exporters from the Cold War. Since the School was founded in 1946, its graduates have included many who have gone on to basically steamroll over the general populace of their respective countries. The School’s notable alumni include a number of Latin American dictators, as well as other figures like El Salvador’s death-squad-leading Roberto d’Aubuisson, one of those people you literally pray was a sociopath just to continue to have faith in humanity. In short, it was representative of the role of the U.S. in violence and human rights abuses in the Western Hemisphere in the latter half of the twentieth century.
What is interesting is that, just as the closure of Tutela Legal has elicited an explosion of controversy, the steady continuation of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation’s operation has been fairly uneventful. (Note: I should clarify it has been uneventful aside from the work of the Maryknoll-founded “School of the Americas Watch,” which has campaigned for its closure for decades, has successfully introduced some human rights issues into the School’s curriculum, and whose annual vigil-protest at Fort Benning I would like to attend in the future). I would say this contrast is analogous to the Cold War pattern that saw Central America and other parts of Latin America aflame with often U.S.-backed counterattacks against leftist advances, while at the same time these developments were out of sight, and mostly out of mind, in the United States. For the Western Hemisphere, the U.S. was one of the few places where the Cold War was actually “cold.” Even today, it is more difficult to understand the implications of quietly changing the name of the School of the Americas and allowing it to continue operating than it is to understand what it means to close Tutela Legal. It is easy to brush aside a historical narrative was largely set beyond one’s borders, regardless of one’s degree of involvement. The ability to brush aside such a significant part of U.S. history strikes me as especially dangerous, but also strikes me as so natural in a country that can pull a lot of strings internationally without seeing that many consequences at home.
Ultimately, it is worth our time and energy to pay attention to events in El Salvador surrounding Tutela Legal. However, I am confident that the blatant issues involved with the closure of Tutela Legal, along with the spirit of justice the Salvadoran people bring to the issues of their history, will resolve the office closure one way or another. As for the closure of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, I have a feeling we are going to be seeking it for quite a while longer.
Paul Elish ’15 is in Saybrook College. As a Notebook blogger, Paul covers Latin American politics and culture, both regionally and in New Haven. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.