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The US Never Stopped Training and Arming Brutal Latin American Regimes

What used to be counterinsurgency training is now disguised as counter-narcotics training, but it’s just as brutal.

Salvadoran military members train for their upcoming deployment to support Operation Iraqi Freedom, January 18, 2008. The brutal suppression of peasants and the indigenous populations continues in Latin America, condoned by the United States, more than 35 years after four US nuns were murdered in El Salvador by government forces. (Photo: John Asselin / Flickr)

Salvadoran military members train for their upcoming deployment to support Operation Iraqi Freedom, January 18, 2008. The brutal suppression of peasants and the indigenous populations continues in Latin America, condoned by the United States, more than 35 years after four US nuns were murdered in El Salvador by government forces.Salvadoran military members train for their upcoming deployment to support Operation Iraqi Freedom, January 18, 2008. The brutal suppression of peasants and the indigenous populations continues in Latin America, condoned by the United States, more than 35 years after four US nuns were murdered in El Salvador by government forces. (Photo: John Asselin / Flickr)

The following is a Truthout interview with Eileen Markey, author of A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura.

Mark Karlin: On the night of December 2, 1980, four women from the United States, including three nuns, were murdered in El Salvador. One of them is the subject of your book, Sister Maura Clarke. What happened that evening?

Eileen Markey: The country was particularly tense. The leaders of the FDR [Revolutionary Democratic Front], the political opposition, had been murdered a few days earlier and supporters were flying into San Salvador from around the world to attend their funeral the next day. The government feared the funeral would launch a long-expected insurrection. The left feared the funeral would be attacked by the military and mourners killed. Jean Donovan and Dorothy Kazel met Maura and Ita, who had been at a weeklong meeting in Nicaragua, at the airport. As their van exited the airport they were stopped at a checkpoint erected by the National Guard, under the direction of sub-sergeant Luis Antonio Colindres Aleman. The National Guard unit was looking specifically for them.

Their work rescuing campesinos from the vicious counterinsurgency campaign of the Salvadoran military — bringing food, clothing and medical supplies to people fleeing that repression and their documentation of human rights abuses — had attracted the attention of the highest levels of the Salvadoran military. A few weeks earlier, Col. Jose Guillermo Garcia, minister of defense, had denounced Maura and Ita at a meeting of civilian staff, accusing them of collaboration with the guerrillas of the FMLN. That night of December 2, the four women were brought to a nearby military base and then a few hours later campesinos along a remote rural road heard gunshots and the sound of a van racing down the dirt road. In the morning, a farmer walking his milking cow noticed their bodies dumped by the side of the road. The killings were of a piece with more than 8,000 murders of civilians by the military forces and aligned death squads that first bloody year of the Salvadoran Civil War. The killing of the churchwomen, as they came to be called, was huge news in the US because these were four US citizens killed by a US ally. But their assassination was of a piece with what was visited upon so many Salvadoran social activists, dissenters and perceived subversives. The women had united with the suffering and the struggle of Salvadorans and so they died like Salvadorans.

Eileen Markey. (Photo: Adi Talwar)Eileen Markey. (Photo: Adi Talwar)The churchwomen murders strengthened already extant opposition to US policy in Central America and made a lot of people in the US more conscious of our role there. The women become symbols: of US Cold War perfidiousness, of commitment to justice, of Christian sacrifice. We only know these women as dead. Sometimes I think we like dead women, holy victims, better than living, breathing and complex women. I wanted to understand how Maura got there, who she was before she was a symbol. So I set out asking who was this woman when she lived and how did she get to this brutal end at the edge of the Cold War.

Was there US government or military involvement with these assassinations?

Not in any direct way, no. No one picked up a phone in Washington and said “go get the nuns.” But in fostering an atmosphere of impunity that continues to this day in El Salvador, yes, absolutely. In being more committed to staving off a leftist victory than to democracy or human rights, yes. In continuing in 1980 to support a government that had by then spent several years systematically wiping out dissent, yes. In offering bogus human rights training to people we were simultaneously tutoring in the counterinsurgency techniques we’d developed a decade earlier in Vietnam, yes the US is implicated. And both the minister of defense at the time of the killing and the sergeant who actually led the assassination squad had been trained at the School of the Americas. In this regard the US is implicated in all the murders, not just these four. Now, if we want to talk about cover-up, or especially an unwillingness to fully investigate up the chain of command to implicate the minister of defense or other leaders with whom US military advisors were working very closely, yes, there’s plenty to say there.

But I think it’s also worth remembering that the US didn’t invent greed or a grossly stratified society in El Salvador. Maybe we can pin that on the conquistadors. I think the US has rivers of blood on its hands in Central America and elsewhere, but it’s worth remembering that it’s not like without the US the Salvadoran elite were going to be humanitarians and New Dealers. I think there’s something too US-centric, chauvinistic almost, about focusing exclusively on US perfidiousness. Maura walked into a Salvadoran story, one that had been going for 500 years.

You chose to focus your book leading up to this atrocity by providing a personal and spiritual biography of Maura Clarke, born in Far Rockaway, New York. How did you come to the decision to view her killing as “radical faith” confronting entrenched power?

I knew her religion and her interpretation of her religion both defined how she lived her life and led to her death, but I didn’t exactly know how until I was deep into the book. Her radical faith was the notion that everyone mattered, that no one was expendable, that no one’s existence could be deducted from some global balance sheet. The idea that everyone counts is a really radical and dangerous notion. It topples the status quo. If the farm laborers organizing to own the land they work or the slum dwellers demanding a fair price of water matter, we’re compelled to dismantle the system that keeps them poor and suffering. And because of who Maura was personally, sociologically, her own psychology formed by her family experience and her ethnic history, the time she lived in, all that led her down this long path to doing the kind of work that got her killed.

Everything about Maura was based on relationships. She had this preternatural ability to notice, to establish a link, to recognize … the God in you. You do that in a world that worships power and money and this is not a surprising fate. One of the points I try to make in the book is that Maura and the other women aren’t unique. We know them or we remember them because they were white, but Maura’s lifelong mission was to connect with people. As Salvadorans say, she became Salvadoran, she shared their suffering. That’s the story the book tells.

Sister Maura was in the Maryknoll order. What happened to the church in the ’60s and thereafter that resulted in liberation theology?

In the early ’60s, the pope at the time convened a major series of meetings with church leadership and theologians from around the world called the Second Vatican Council. A variety of changes in church practice, policy and thinking emerged from these meetings. The ones that were easiest to notice were celebrating Mass in the language of the people, not Latin, the priest turning to face the congregation and most nuns coming out of their habits and into regular clothes.

But there were many deeper and more substantial changes that impacted Maura’s work and laid the seeds for liberation theology. One of these was an instruction that priests and nuns were supposed to live much more closely and in community with the people they served, not off in convents. Another was “the universal call to holiness” — a teaching that said every Catholic, not just priests and nuns, [was] meant to be holy, to grow and understand their faith beyond and apply it in the real world. This required adult education, making sure adults had a grasp of Catholicism beyond the understanding they’d developed as children.

So in Latin America and elsewhere this new teaching was implemented in small groups studying the Bible and studying Catholic doctrine and making sense of it in the modern world. In Latin America this led to priests and nuns working much more closely with poor people and — crucially — listening to their experiences and their bottom-up interpretations of the faith. Maura and many others used Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” methodologies to do this teaching/learning. It was radicalizing.

The experiences of the poorest and most dispossessed people informed the thinking of theologians and bishops who were implementing these Vatican II reforms. Liberation theology grew out of that and out of a close reading of the Gospel that notices Jesus is constantly talking about toppling unjust power and liberating the oppressed. Liberation theology said that God isn’t outside human experience, that in fact God/Jesus suffers when God’s people suffer. The experience of religious people in those post-Vatican II years applying the new teachings led them to a conviction that what’s important is not pining for heaven but instead building the society of justice Jesus spoke about now, in this place.

This is happening in a mid-20th-century Latin America where Marxism is the dominant intellectual discourse and in societies that were experiencing tremendous dislocation, rapid urbanization, environmental crises and military dictatorship.

Everything happens in a context. As a young woman, Maura made vows to love and serve God. But her idea of where God was, in the rituals or in the street, shifted over time. She started out in Nicaragua in 1959 as a traditional missionary school teacher. But she evolved into an organizer, a critic of authority, someone willing to take tremendous risks to defend the humanity of others. In El Salvador she documented human rights abuses, hid people marked for death and delivered food and medicine to encampments of people on the run from the Salvadoran military’s relentless, unsparing counter-insurgency campaign.

For Maura it was rooted in the story of Christianity, in this idea that the power of the universe, the thing you think about when you gaze at the stars, cared so much for humanity that it took on a human body and lived as a poor person under occupation, a thorn in the side of both religious and political authorities, and was executed for it. There were tremendous implications to this belief. For Maura and so many people in the movements she was part of, God was getting his teeth kicked in with farm laborers and slum dwellers. Maura had vowed to be of service, to follow God. So she did, deeper and deeper into horror and brutality — but also into the hope and power of poor people coming together to demand better.

Sister Maura radiated a tremendous faith. You make this almost palpable, and her eventual commitment to building a church among the poor and dispossessed leads to her death. Were you affected by her “radical faith”?

Yeah, of course. I think what’s important is what that faith was about. Maybe it would be better explained as conviction. I think sometimes in the US we talk about faith as some sort of magical thinking, and obviously doomed magical thinking: like, I have faith that God is going to save me and I’ll be safe from this war/illness/car accident because I have faith. But Maura didn’t believe that at all. She was under no illusions that because she prayed or because she directed her energy toward union with the divine that she wasn’t going to suffer. The incredible innovation in liberation theology was the idea that God suffers too. So she radiated faith, but this meant — people who knew her told me — that she radiated a sense of concern for others, an attentiveness, a conviction that God wanted better for God’s people, who are everyone. I try to emulate the attention she paid to people. And learning how her thinking on what was church and what the Body of Christ meant informs my own understanding of these things.

Does US foreign policy in some nations in Central America appear to be reverting back to the US aiding oppressive governments, their militaries and paramilitary forces?

I’m not sure we ever stopped. The US has always supported regimes that are good for US business and US military interests. I’m much more comfortable talking about the particulars of the 1970s, but I don’t think there has ever been a period when our policies were led by anything else, from the establishment of the Monroe Doctrine on. On the other hand, it’s difficult to speak of a totally monolithic US policy. Just as in 1980 you had the US military folks and CIA working closely with the Salvadoran right at the same time as you had State Department liberals like Ambassador White trying to establish a middle way and actually caring about human rights, you’ve got the same thing today.

Generals Garcia and Vides Casanova, former Salvadoran Defense minister and head of the National Guard respectively, were deported from their retirement in Florida because the US government deported them. There are US government folks working on transitional justice and rule of law and war crimes now, but there’s at the same time the usual national security state ideology that is so much stronger than Maura ever could have imagined. Currently, in much of Latin America, there is the ongoing police and counter-narcotics training that really moved seamlessly from the counter-insurgency training that killed Maura and so many Salvadorans.

That’s what the School of the Americas does these days. And there is support obviously for the right in Venezuela and for the 2009 coup in Honduras. But there’s also the capture of parties that were once left and have become more amenable to the neoliberal order. Ortega is hardly leading a Marxist state — certainly not one recognizable to Maura’s Sandinista friends. And the FMLN in El Salvador employs tactics in fighting gangs that a lot of human rights people say are mirrors of what they survived — and so many didn’t survive — in the ’70s and ’80s.

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