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As Obama Completes First Latin America Tour, Anniversary of Slain Salvadoran Archbishop Romero Evokes Legacy of U.S.-Backed Crimes

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President Obama has returned from his first trip to Central and South America since taking office. Obama faced protests in Brazil, Chile and El Salvador as he sought to boost regional trade and improve security ties. In El Salvador, hundreds of demonstrators called for Obama to renegotiate or dismiss the Central American Free Trade Agreement, which has devastated El Salvador’s agricultural sector. Obama was also confronted with the legacy of U.S.-backed repression in Chile and El Salvador. Today marks the 31st anniversary of the slaying of Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero, who was killed by members of a U.S.-backed death squad. We speak with investigative journalist Allan Nairn, who has reported extensively from Latin America since the 1980s. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: President Obama has returned from his first trip to South America. The focus of the tour was on boosting trade and improving security. The trip was marked by mass protests as he stopped in Brazil, Chile and El Salvador. Outside the United States consulate in Rio, several hundred protesters were met by rubber bullets, pepper spray and tear gas. In El Salvador, hundreds of demonstrators called for Obama to renegotiate or dismiss the Central American Free Trade Agreement, known as CAFTA. They say the deal has failed to increase imports as promised, instead decreasing exports and destroying El Salvador’s agricultural sector. Many farmers have been forced to move to the city, where there are no jobs, so they sell goods on the streets.

During his time in El Salvador, President Obama paid a symbolic visit to the tomb of Archbishop Óscar Romero, who was shot through the heart during a mass 31 years ago today, March 24th, 1980. His assassination was ordered by Salvadoran military officer Roberto d’Aubuisson, a graduate of the U.S.-run School of the Americas.

AMY GOODMAN: Part of Obama’s tour also addressed the United States history of supporting brutal Latin American dictatorships. During a press conference in Chile, the first question a Chilean reporter asked President Obama was about the “open wounds of the dictatorship of General Pinochet.”

REPORTER: [translated] President Obama, you have emphasized and highlighted the economic management of Chile, the leadership in the region — those were your words — and even the successful transitioning to democracy in the difficult years of the 1990s. However, in Chile, President Obama, there are some open wounds of the dictatorship of General Pinochet. In that sense, leaders, political leaders, leaders of the world of human rights, and even members of parliament, the son of murdered Orlando Letelier, the foreign minister, have said that many of these wounds have to do with the United States. I ask you: our justices investigating cases of Allende and the death of Eduardo Frei Montalva; in that new speech that you will announce, do you include that the U.S. is willing to collaborate with those judicial investigations, even that the United States is willing to ask for forgiveness for what it did during those difficult years in the 1970s in Chile?

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Well, on the specific question of how we can work with the Chilean government, any requests that are made by Chile to obtain more information about the past is something that we will certainly consider, and we would like to cooperate. I think it’s very important for all of us to know our history. And obviously, the history of relations between the United States and Latin America have at times been extremely rocky and have at times been difficult. I think it’s important, though, for us, even as we understand our history and gain clarity about our history, that we’re not trapped by our history. And the fact of the matter is, is that over the last two decades we’ve seen extraordinary progress here in Chile, and that has not been impeded by the United States, but in fact has been fully supported by the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: To discuss President Obama’s trip to South America, we’re joined by investigative journalist Allan Nairn. In the ’80s, he reported extensively on the death squads in El Salvador and what was happening in Latin America.

Your response to what President Obama said in Chile?

ALLAN NAIRN: Well, there’s no change in U.S. policy. Obama visited the tomb of Archbishop Romero in Salvador, but the U.S. is like the killer who shoots his victim and then brings flowers to the funeral. It’s appropriate for a killer to ask forgiveness, as the Chilean journalist was saying, but that’s the last stage. That’s after the killer has been taken off the streets, tried and jailed. Chile has done that. Those who perpetrated the U.S.-backed coup in Chile in '73 and killed more — tortured and killed more than 3,000 civilian activists, the leading survivors have been put on trial and jailed by the Chilean government. General Contreras, for example, the old head DINA, the secret police, is serving a sentence of 289 years. Chile has done that. The U.S. — the U.S. has not. So, it's up to — it’s up to people to enforce that, because the U.S. is still acting in a lawless manner all over the world. And El Salvador is a good example, because it’s quite parallel to what the U.S. is doing today.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And the President’s choice of El Salvador, among all the Central American countries that he could have gone to, your sense of why they decided to choose that particular country to visit and its significance in terms of the history of Central America?

ALLAN NAIRN: Well, you know, there are probably various factors. El Salvador, their currency is the U.S. dollar. It’s the most integrated with the U.S. economy. Salvadoran sweatshops supply the U.S. markets. Funes, the president of El Salvador, backed the U.S. in their support for the coup in Honduras.

But I think the most significant thing is Archbishop Romero himself. There were four key facts about the Archbishop. In 1980, in February, the Archbishop wrote to then-President Carter asking him to stop supporting the Salvadoran military. Romero was attacking the U.S. support for this military, which had, at that time, for two decades, been helping the Salvadoran National Police, National Guard, Treasury Police and army to assassinate local activists. On March 23rd, Romero gave a sermon in which he attacked the chain of command. He told Salvadoran troops to disobey their superiors and refrain from killing civilians. The next day —

AMY GOODMAN: Allan, just one —

ALLAN NAIRN: The next day, he was assassinated. He was shot in the heart.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to actually go to the film Romero, where Archbishop Romero was played by Raul Julia, because he reenacted that moment, that speech he gave the day before Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero was assassinated. This was an excerpt of Romero’s speech.

ARCHBISHOP ÓSCAR ROMERO: [played by Raul Julia] I’d like to make an appeal in a special way to the men in the army. Brothers, each one of you is one of us. We are the same people. The farmers and peasants that you kill are your own brothers and sisters. When you hear the words of a man telling you to kill, think instead in the words of God: “Thou shalt not kill!” No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. In His name, and in the name of our tormented people who have suffered so much and whose laments cry out to heaven, I implore you, I beg you, I order you, stop the repression!

AMY GOODMAN: That was the speech that Archbishop Óscar Romero gave March 23rd, 1980. He was assassinated the next day by — Allan Nairn, by who?

ALLAN NAIRN: Well, he was assassinated by the forces of Major d’Aubuisson, a political offshoot of the Salvadoran death squads, which were created and backed by the U.S., as I documented extensively years ago. At his funeral, six days later, 250,000 Salvadorans turned out. Snipers on the roofs fired into the crowd, killed 42 people — an amazingly precise parallel to what happened last Friday in Yemen.

As the Yemeni people were turning out against the U.S.-backed regime there, snipers on the roofs killed perhaps 52 people. We don’t yet know whether those Yemeni snipers were U.S.-trained, but we do know that the Green Berets are there training that armed force and the U.S. itself is sending missiles into Yemen. In Iraq, the U.S. adopted what they call the Salvador Option: backing the Interior Ministry death squads, which from ’04 to ’07 killed thousands. So, what the U.S. did in El Salvador is being reproduced today, and Obama is carrying it on.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And we have only a few seconds, but the role of the drug trade and drugs throughout Latin America in the Obama initiative here?

ALLAN NAIRN: Well, today, Central America and Mexico are being devastated by another kind of terror, that which grows out of the drug trade. In Mexico, more than 15,000 dead just last year from the violence coming out of that. A group of conservative former presidents of Brazil, Chile and Mexico called for a fundamental change in policy, including consideration of medicalization —

AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds.

ALLAN NAIRN: — of hard drugs and legalization. The U.S. doesn’t even think about that. We think — we laugh at Charlie Sheen. We give him millions. That’s what’s now devastating Mexico and Central America. The U.S. isn’t even serious about it.

AMY GOODMAN: Allan Nairn, investigative journalist, thank you very much for being with us.

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