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Lessons Learned in El Salvador
by the Hon. James P. McGovern

I became acquainted with El Salvador during a violent time. Yet amidst the turmoil, I met and became close to some of the most incredible people I have ever known. I met humble villagers whose commitment to justice and mercy would move any heart, as well as the six Jesuit priests whose murders in 1989 I helped investigate and whose story is highlighted in ENEMIES OF WAR.

The United States did not cause the war in El Salvador. But our policy did help prolong a war that cost tens of thousands of innocent lives. Had we used our influence earlier to promote a negotiated settlement, many might have survived. We in the United States need to acknowledge that fact. In particular, our leaders need to acknowledge that fact.

"people first" graffiti
© Mike Oso

School of the Americas
Latin American soldiers receive training at the Defense Institute for Hemispheric Security Cooperation (formerly the U.S. Army School of the Americas) in Fort Benning, Georgia, U.S.A.
There was an arrogance about U.S. policy that rationalized, explained away and even condoned a level of violence against the Salvadoran people that would have been intolerable if perpetrated against our own citizens.

The lessons of El Salvador still resonate today. How should we treat refugees fleeing war and violence, especially when the U.S. is a major partner in those wars? Should we be involved in counter-insurgency wars? Should we give aid to militaries that are engaged in gross violations of human rights or in league with paramilitary death squads? How do we support peace agreements once they've been successfully negotiated? Whether in Colombia or East Timor or the Balkans, the lessons of El Salvador are still relevant.

We must also change the culture of secrecy and denial that exists within our military and intelligence institutions. I have worked with the families of the four American churchwomen who were murdered by the Salvadoran military in 1980, urging our government to release all relevant documents. Whether in Chile, El Salvador or some future conflict, we need to be sure that the historical record is complete. Reaching that goal requires full disclosure.

Another lesson is how quickly we abandon countries once peace is achieved. The U.S. invested $6 billion in economic and military aid in the Salvadoran war. Today, we can barely muster $30 million for development projects. Each year, thousands of Salvadorans emigrate to the United States legally and illegally because we have failed over the past five years to invest in El Salvador's rural and economic development.

Over a decade ago, the Salvadoran Jesuits taught me that a life committed to social justice, to protecting human rights, to seeking the truth is a life filled with meaning and purpose. I hope my life will be such a life. And if it is, it will be due to my long association with the people of El Salvador.

James McGovern is currently U.S. Representative for the 3rd Congressional District of Massachusetts. He was formerly an aide to Congressmen Joe Moakley, whom he accompanied to El Salvador during the Congress investigation of the Jesuit priest murderers.


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