When will we learn from Romero?

Oscar Romero was gunned down while saying Mass 31 years ago today, an anniversary commemorated by President Barack Obama.

Obama concluded his Latin American trip in El Salvador, visiting and lighting a candle at Romero’s tomb on Tuesday evening. The visit was made along with President Mauricio Funes of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), the political party formed from the guerillas that fought the U.S.-backed right-wing government in the country’s civil war. (More on Funes and Obama from the Christian Science Monitor).

While some called it a “truly extraordinary gesture” according to The Nation, Obama made no words of apology for the United States’ role in Romero’s murder. And while actions speak louder than words, the School of the Americas Watch points out that he has no intention of closing the SOA/WHINSEC, where Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, who ordered Romero’s assassination, and other Latin American military personnel were trained in torture. (Edit: Manuals that “advocated torture, extortion, blackmail and the targeting of civilian populations,” released by the Pentagon in 1996, were used in 1980s at the SOA.) 

WHINSEC, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, continues to train more than 1,000 soldiers from Latin America each year, SOAW reports, despite having “graduated more than 600 known human rights abusers and 11 dictators, including the leaders of the 2009 military coup in Honduras.” SOAW reminds us that Honduras’ political situation, a forgotten story, has yet to be resolved. Still, in this time of budget cuts, we can’t seem to let go of an institution that continues to impact our neighbors’ political stability.

Meanwhile, Libya has overshadowed the president’s Latin America trip. What lessons can we learn from all this?

Obama said the experience in the Americas can give hope to people in the Arab world. “As two nations who have struggled over many generations to perfect our own democracies, the United States and Brazil know that the future of the Arab World will be determined by its people,” he said, according to the AP, while in Brazil to discuss economic and trade issues. Brazil, interestingly, is becoming an economic powerhouse in a large part due to its protectionist trade policies, while Mexico and Central America haven’t seem to benefit from free trade agreements with the United States (read more on trade in the Americas).

What links the Arab world and Latin America is that United States foreign policy and military aid repeatedly have been on the wrong side of the equation—not on the side of the people—in both places. In addition to training Latin American dictators, the U.S. has both trained military personnel and sold weapons to Libya. With protesters being hit with “made in the U.S.A.” tear gas canisters and with $1.3 billion in military aid going to Egypt annually, it’s not surprising that Egyptian youth groups declined an invitation to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on her visit there last week.  

In El Salvador Obama pledged $200 million for regional security, while the U.S. is donating $10 million to fight child labor. And in Washington, we continue to fight over cuts to humanitarian aid to other countries.

“We know that different nations take different paths to realize its promise, and that no one nation should impose its will on another,” Obama said in Brazil. “But we also know that there are certain aspirations shared by all human beings: We seek to be free and to be heard. We yearn to live without fear or discrimination; to choose how we are governed and to shape our own destiny. These are not American or Brazilian ideas. They are not Western ideas. They are universal rights, and we must support them everywhere.”

I imagine Romero would agree with this statement, if only U.S. foreign policy and aid also reflected it.