Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is facing new scrutiny over revelations he founded the private equity firm Bain Capital with investments from Central American elites linked to death squads in El Salvador. After initially struggling to find investors, Romney traveled to Miami in 1983 to win pledges of $9 million, 40 percent of Bain’s start-up money. Some investors had extensive ties to the death squads responsible for the vast majority of the tens of thousands of deaths in El Salvador during the 1980s. We’re joined by Huffington Post reporter Ryan Grim, who connects the dots in his latest story, "Mitt Romney Started Bain Capital with Money from Families Tied to Death Squads." "There’s no possible way that anybody in 1984 could check out these families — which is the term that [Romney’s campaign] use, these families — and come away convinced that this money was clean," Grim says. [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We begin today with new scrutiny Republican candidate Mitt Romney is facing about his record at the private equity firm Bain Capital. The latest controversy surrounding Bain concerns how Romney helped found the company with investments from Central American elites linked to death squads in El Salvador.
After initially struggling to find investors, Romney traveled to Miami in 1983 to win pledges of $9 million, 40 percent of Bain’s start-up money. Some investors had extensive ties to the death squads responsible for the vast majority of the tens of thousands of deaths in El Salvador during the '80s. The investors include the Salaverria family, [whom] former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, Robert White, has previously accused of directly funding the Salvadoran paramilitaries. In his memoir, former Bain executive Harry Strachan writes Romney pushed aside his own misgivings about the investors to accept their backing. Strachan writes, quote, "These Latin American friends have loyally rolled over investments in succeeding funds, actively participated in Bain Capital's May investor meetings, and are still today one of the largest investor groups in Bain Capital."
Well, for more, we’re joined by Ryan Grim in Washington, D.C., bureau chief for The Huffington Post. He’s connecting the dots in the latest story headlined "Mitt Romney Started Bain Capital with Money from Families Tied to Death Squads."
Ryan, welcome to Democracy Now!
RYAN GRIM: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: If you could, carefully lay out the story, and set the stage in El Salvador in the early ’80s, what was happening there, the carnage.
RYAN GRIM: Sure. So, in 1980, there was a—there was land reform instituted by the El Salvadoran government that started to parcel up some of the farms, some of the coffee plantations and the other land holdings of the elite, and they also nationalized the international coffee trade. So, they didn’t nationalize the industry, but just the foreign export of it. And so, the oligarchs responded with a vicious and a brutal campaign that included death squads and, in the first year or two, killed something like 35,000 people and, over the course of a decade, killed about 70,000 people. The U.N. has since calculated that about 85 percent of the killing was done by these right-wing death squads, so this is not one of those dirty wars where both sides were equally culpable.
And the leader of this movement, Roberto D’Aubuisson, was very public about his support of death squads and that death squads were an important part of what they were doing. He would actually say that the purpose of the death squads was ultimately to diminish violence, because if you could go into a village and go into a couple houses and kill everyone in there, then it would send a message to the rest of the village that they shouldn’t join the revolution, and therefore there would be less of an uprising, and then the death squads would not have to kill everyone. So that—I mean, that was the kind of macabre logic that lasted for, you know, slightly more than a decade in El Salvador.
AMY GOODMAN: One of the most well-known victims of the death squads of the military of El Salvador was Archbishop Óscar Romero, known as "the voice of the voiceless." He was a prominent advocate for the poor, a leading critic of the U.S.-backed Salvadoran military government. He was killed by members of a U.S.-backed death squad while delivering mass at a hospital chapel. I want to play an excerpt from the film Romero, which stars Raúl Juliá, who played Archbishop Romero.
ARCHBISHOP ÓSCAR ROMERO: [played by Raúl Juliá] 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’s a clip from the film Romero of Raúl Juliá, who played Salvadoran Archbishop Óscar Romero. Óscar Romero was gunned down March 24th, 1980. Ryan Grim, talk about how he died and the connection to your story.
RYAN GRIM: Sure. He was assassinated the day after the clip that you played, shot through the heart while delivering mass. And we since know, conclusively, that his assassination was ordered by Roberto D’Aubuisson. D’Aubuisson, 18 months later, would found the ARENA party, which was basically at the time a vehicle for these death squads. There was really no separation between ARENA and death squads. ARENA is still around. It has become more of a conventional Latin American right-wing party, but for its first several years, it was, quite simply, the political organization which was managing the death squads. And so, Mitt Romney, in this context, knew very well what was happening in El Salvador. The U.S. ambassador, Tom White, who you mentioned, had—
AMY GOODMAN: Robert White.
RYAN GRIM: Robert White—had publicly accused six Salvadorans living in Miami of financing, two of them Salaverrias. So, when it was suggested to him by Harry Strachan that he go down to Miami to raise money from the exiles there, he actually said to Strachan, "Make sure that these people are not—you know, are not connected to right-wing death squads." So, it’s very clear that he knew the context and he knew—you know, he knew what was going on at the time. But he was having a seriously hard time raising capital for his new enterprise, Bain Capital, and his boss, Bill Bain, told him that he couldn’t use any of the investors or clients of Bain & Company, which was the very successful consulting firm, because if Bain Capital failed, he didn’t want it to take everything else down with it. It’s been reported in a number of places that he failed to raise capital from traditional sources in the U.S. And so, given that, he flew to Miami and, in mid-’84, just he went directly to a bank and met with a number of these families who were involved with death squads and accepted what at the time was a huge amount of money. It amounted to 40 percent of the outside capital that he was able to raise for that initial fund. And as Harry Strachan said, they continued to roll over their investments and, you know, certainly are worth tens and tens of millions of dollars in Bain Capital now.
AMY GOODMAN: Just reading from your piece, Ryan Grim, when Romney returned to Miami in 2007 to launch another venture that needed funding, his first presidential campaign, Romney said, quote, "I owe a great deal to Americans of Latin American descent. ... When I was starting my business, I came to Miami to find partners that would believe in me and that would finance my enterprise. My partners were Ricardo Poma, Miguel Dueñas, Pancho Soler, Frank Kardonski, and Diego Ribadeneira." Can you talk about these men, like Poma, and their relation to the death squads in El Salvador?
RYAN GRIM: Sure. Well, the Poma family was one of the—you know, one of the top families in El Salvador, and they were very tightly intertwined with ARENA. There’s no question about that. The Salaverrias, you know, which we mentioned earlier, two of them were specifically named by White as specifically financing death squads. The De Solas are another family that originally invested in Bain. We know that at least four members of the De Sola family invested in Bain. We only know the names of two of them. Now, there is one man named Orlando de Sola, who the Romney campaign, and nobody else, denies was a leader of the death squad movement. There’s no question about that. What the Romney campaign has relied on is that they say Orlando de Sola was a black sheep of the De Sola family. He wasn’t—you know, and the fact that he was running death squads should not besmirch the four De Sola investors, even though they won’t tell us who two of those four were. However, what we found is that one of the two named De Sola investors—his name is Francisco de Sola—was connected in 1990 to the assassination of two left-wing activists.
Now, there was a meeting held in Guatemala that Chris Dodd, the former senator from Connecticut, moderated. He was trying to strike a peace deal between ARENA and the FMLN. And shortly after that meeting, two of the activists who had met with him were assassinated. The Guatemalan government, citing its intelligence sources, concluded that the assassinations were committed by Orlando de Sola, Roberto D’Aubuisson and Francisco de Sola. Now, Francisco de Sola is still alive, and his assistant confirmed to us that he was one of those three people who was accused of these murders. Now, he denied it at the time, and he denies it today, but just the fact that the Guatemalan intelligence services would lump him together with Orlando de Sola and Roberto D’Abuisson, who are, you know, just known as the—basically the two leaders of the death squad movement at the time, dramatically undermines the notion that the people involved with Bain are somehow deeply disconnected or that there’s some bright line between the people involved in Bain and the people who were funding and operating the death squads.
AMY GOODMAN: And, Ryan Grim, Mitt Romney’s response to your investigation and to these allegations?
RYAN GRIM: What they did is they sent me a paragraph of an article from the Salt Lake Tribune in 1999 that read, "As was Bain’s policy with any big investor, they had the families checked out as diligently as possible. They uncovered no unsavory links to drugs or other criminal activity." Now, that’s simply impossible to believe. These families were certainly connected to death squads.
Now, Romney told the Boston Globe in 1994 something along the lines of, "We checked out the individual investors and made sure there were no, quote, 'obvious' signs of criminal activity. We didn’t check out their in-laws and their cousins." So, those are two inconsistent levels of diligence that Romney is claiming to two separate papers. But if you take the one at the Tribune, which is the article that was sent to me by the Romney campaign, that’s simply unbelievable. There’s no possible way that anybody in 1984 could check out these families—which is the term they use, these families—and come away convinced that this money was clean.
AMY GOODMAN: You quote Robert White saying, "The Salaverria family [were] very well-known." Now, Robert White was the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador. "The Salaverria family [were] very well-known as backers of D’Aubuisson. These guys were big-money contributors. ... They were total backers of D’Aubuisson and the extremist solution, including death squads." And I wanted to read an excerpt from Greg Grandin’s book, Empire’s Workshop. He’s a professor of Latin American history at New York University. He writes, "The problem was that the military groups had very little popular support due in large part to the fact that they were 'preternaturally violent.' According to Reagan’s own ambassador, Robert White, their solution to the crisis was apocalyptic: the country must be 'destroyed totally, the economy must be wrecked, unemployment must be massive,' and a 'cleansing' of some '3 or 4 or 500,000 people' must be carried out," he says. And he his quoting Robert White. Ryan Grim?
RYAN GRIM: Sure. And I spoke also with the Sergio Bendixen, who is a pollster who did a lot of work in the country in the '80s for Univision and is now—coincidentally, he became a pollster for Hillary Clinton, and he's now working with the Obama campaign. He knew D’Aubuisson, and he knew lot of the people who were involved with these death squads, and he would—and he said that—and this is what I’ve heard from other people that are, you know, familiar with the Miami exile community, that this is not something that they would hide. Like you said, they were persuaded that they were freedom fighters, that they were on the side of justice, and that if it meant that you had to kill, you know, tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of people, those were evil people who were supported by Castro who wanted to bring about tyranny, etc., etc., and so everything that they were doing was justified by that.
And Mitt Romney even hinted at that in his 2007 talk to the Miami crowd, when he came down to raise money for his campaign. He said, you know, "Not only did these people invest in me, but they taught me a lot. And what they taught me is that these guerrillas were horrible, and they kidnapped one of their brothers and killed him, and they tortured" — Miguel Dueñas, he mentions — "They kidnapped and tortured Miguel Dueñas." And so—and there’s no question that atrocities were certainly committed by both sides, but you can see in that quote that Romney is partly buying into this notion that the violence was justified. And he would not be at all be alone in the Republican Party at that time, or the Democratic Party. As you said, these death squads had the backing of the United States government.
AMY GOODMAN: You know, we’re talking about, as you said, tens of thousands of people. And, in 1989, the government bestowed—the Salvadoran government bestowed the—well, this was in 2009, but remembering 20 years ago the killing of the six Jesuit priests in 1989, and then there was the killing of the four American nuns, all of these part of the casualties of, as you said, the Salvadoran military and paramilitary overwhelmingly doing the killing. Now, interestingly, we started with Óscar Romero’s death, March 24th, 1980, killed by the right-wing death squads in Salvador. President Obama visited Honduras—visited El Salvador and went to the grave of Archbishop Óscar Romero.
RYAN GRIM: And that was an acknowledgment that what the United States and its allies in El Salvador did in the 1980s was wrong. That was—it wasn’t exactly, but it was, you know, tantamount to an apology for all of the death and destruction that was brought about in the name of anti-communism. You know, Archbishop Romero is now known as one of the great heroes and martyrs of the 20th century.
Now, at the same time that we’re talking about Romney’s association here, we ought to mention that the current occupant of the White House has—you know, operates drones that kill people on a fairly regular basis. So, you know, there is—you know, there’s, unfortunately, still no shortage of killing around the globe.
AMY GOODMAN: And interestingly, the question will be, will the Obama administration make something of this initial Bain investment capital? And will the Romney administration—and will the Romney campaign raise the issue of President Obama and his kill list and the operating of drones that are killing many in Yemen, in Pakistan, etc.?
RYAN GRIM: Right. It will be interesting to see. And if the Obama campaign does do anything with it, I would expect that it would be—it would be done in the Latino community to help drive support for Obama there, because, you know, as you said, there are thousands and thousands and thousands of refugees who are here today because of the violence from there, and, you know, when they find out that the oligarchs who were funding that violence also helped get Romney’s Bain Capital off the ground, that could influence the way they vote.
AMY GOODMAN: Are these families still donating to Romney’s current presidential campaign as they did to his first effort?
RYAN GRIM: I didn’t find any of them doing so. And Romney had a strange use of the phrase when he went down to Latin America. He called them Americans of Latin American descent. I don’t know that they have become Americans in the sense of the United States of America. And if they haven’t gotten U.S. citizenship, then they can’t donate directly to U.S. presidential campaigns. So, I searched the few names that we do know, and they didn’t come up as donors to his presidential campaign. But, as Harry Strachan said, they have become—they continue to be significant investors in Bain Capital. And throughout the ’80s and ’90s, Bain Capital made just absolutely extraordinary returns, something like 88 percent annual return over two decades, which is just an absolutely astounding amount of money. And if you apply that to a $9 million initial investment, you get an absolute fortune.
AMY GOODMAN: Ryan Grim, I want to thank you for being with us, Washington, D.C., bureau chief for The Huffington Post. His latest story, "Mitt Romney Started Bain Capital with Money from Families Tied to Death Squads." We’ll link to it at Democracy Now! This is Democracy Now! Next up, we’re going to the Syria-Turkish border. Stay with us.