The release this week of a United Nations report on human rights abuses in El Salvador has resurrected the decade-long debate over U.S. aid to that country and prompted Democratic calls for a thorough investigation of American involvement in one of Central America’s bloodiest civil wars.
Outraged by the findings of the U.N.-appointed Commission on Truth, several prominent Democrats already are calling for declassification of State Department and CIA files on El Salvador to help determine whether the Ronald Reagan and George Bush administrations concealed evidence from Congress about widespread human rights abuses by the Salvadoran military.
“What we need now is a Truth Commission report on our own government,” said Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass.), a longtime critic of U.S. policies toward El Salvador. “We must determine just what they knew and when they knew it.”
Rep. Robert G. Torricelli (D-N.J.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Western Hemisphere subcommittee, already has ordered his staff to review past congressional testimony by Administration officials to see if grounds exist for possible perjury charges.
“Ten years ago, this Congress established a process whereby President Reagan would certify that improvements were being made in human rights . . . to continue military aid to El Salvador,” an angry Torricelli told a subcommittee hearing on the U.N. report earlier this week. “It is now abundantly clear that Ronald Reagan made those certifications not only in blatant disregard of the truth, but in defiance of it.”
The report released Monday confirms the complicity of senior Salvadoran military officers in civilian massacres and political assassinations during the 1980s. It condemns the governments of El Salvador and the United States for their complicity in, promotion of or at least tolerance of activities by right-wing death squads.
The report does not directly allege that either the Reagan or the Bush administration sought to conceal the facts to win congressional approval of the $6 billion in aid that the United States funneled into El Salvador during the 1980s.
But testifying before Torricelli’s subcommittee, the three commission members--former Colombian President Belisario Betancur, Venezuelan lawmaker Reinaldo Figueredo Planchart and Washington University Prof. Thomas Buergenthal--said that U.S. officials certainly were in a position to have known the truth about some of the more publicized human rights abuses. Instead, they chose to look the other way, the members said.
With the Salvadoran civil war over and a delicate process of national reconciliation under way, few Democrats who crossed swords with the Reagan and Bush administrations over military aid to El Salvador apparently share Torricelli’s zeal about pursuing a full accounting. But their reactions to the commission’s findings all echoed his anger.
“It simply verifies what a number of us knew all through the ‘80s, namely that our own government was lying like hell to us,” said Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that approves foreign aid. The report proves that the Reagan Administration was willing to “lie . . . and . . . certify to anything . . . to get the money it wanted,” he added.
But Obey also said he thinks the “controversy has largely run its course” and that he sees little purpose in “designing a straitjacket for Bill Clinton. . . .”
Republicans have not disputed the findings of the report, although they are expected to protest any Democratic attempts to use it to embarrass the Bush or Reagan administration. House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.) said that Democrats will have to “consider carefully what steps we take,” but he added that the Democratic leadership is determined to follow up and will meet early next week to “weigh our options.”
One possible course of action that appears to be gaining support would be to ask the Clinton Administration to declassify at least those CIA and State Department documents that pertain to such widely publicized atrocities as the slayings of three American Catholic nuns and a female religious worker by Salvadoran soldiers in 1980, and the army massacre of 200 civilians in the town of El Mozote in 1981.
The Reagan Administration maintained at the time that there was no evidence that the El Mozote massacre had occurred. But the massacre was confirmed last year, when the skeletons of women and children were unearthed. Torricelli said that releasing the documents should prove whether the Reagan Administration’s public statements “were at variance with the knowledge it had at the time.”
Another option supported by Moakley and Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) would be to grant future aid to El Salvador only if the government there complies with the U.N. commission’s recommendations.
U.S. aid to El Salvador currently includes about $200 million in economic and development assistance and $11 million in military aid that was frozen by Clinton last month after the United Nations said that the government had failed to abide by a pledge to purge the armed forces of human rights abusers.