For my final post, I’ll return to the core purpose of our delegation: Persuading Salvadoran government entities to help us close the School of the Americas by refusing to send members of their military to Fort Benning.
In addition to meeting with the Legislative Assembly’s Human Rights Commission, which I wrote about earlier, delegation members visited the military High Command and all of the candidates in next February’s presidential election (one of whom is the current vice president of the republic).
Elías Antonio Saca González –more commonly known as Tony Saca–was president of El Salvador (2004-2009), but before that a radio personality who built a small media empire.
At headquarters for that empire, factotums ushered us into The Ultimate Conference Room, it’s dark paneled walls covered in plaques and photos of Saca with various presidents, prime ministers, and sheiks. One one wall hung an enormous photograph of Saca in full presidential regalia.
The vast glass conference table could seat 12 on a side in high-backed, black leather, executive swivel chairs, with more chairs against the walls. While we waited, a server brought us water or coffee along with trays of cookies and Health Valley granola bars.
I will say this: Saca knows how to work a room. When he entered, he shook hands with each of us, but I couldn’t help noticing that his brown eyes were dull.
Saca seated himself at the head of the table and assumed a practiced listening posture as Lisa and Roy explained the reason for our visit.
I typed copious notes as he spoke–everyone had earpieces through which we heard simultaneous translation–and afterwards was left with the impression of having heard a lot yet very little.
His response to our requests re. the SOA: “I understood that the school was closed. Any Salvadoran military office going to the SOA is going there for professional training, with the new mindset of democracy. I don’t know what they teach or if anyone [from El Salvador] is there. President Obama must resolve this matter.”
He seemed to think that since the military was now under civilian control, there was no problem with having officers trained at the SOA, though he also seemed to suggest that when he was president again, his administration could review the country’s participation in the SOA.
I decided to score this as .5 for SOA; .5 for SOA Watch.
Since the ARENA party candidate had broken his foot, the vice presidential candidate, René Portillo Cuadra, met with us. The conference room at the ARENA office was no match for Tony Saca’s,* but central casting appeared to have conjured this candidate: He was handsome, photogenic, and oozed sincerity.
Portillo remains a puzzle. He had been attached to the FMLN; now he is running with the conservatives. He took great pains to explain that he is an attorney–his J.D. earned in Barcelona, he let us know–not a professional politician.
Portillo talked a good line about human rights and when asked, said that in his administration, El Salvador would send no troops to conflict zones (a handful of Salvadoran troops are now in Iraq), but then maintained that Salvadoran soldiers occupying Haiti were there for humanitarian aid (they’re actually armed members of a U.N. occupying force). When asked if he supported the 1993 amnesty law that has provided cover for many human rights abusers, he said only that ARENA would support a national dialog to establish a consensus on the matter. “We have to analyze this as an administration.”
He was similarly vague about El Salvador’s relationship with the SOA. “Under law, we can investigate an individual if he is involved in criminal act or human rights abuse. But I have no way of knowing if an SOA participant is criminal or if SOA grads have committed crimes.”
Well, they have–and are.
Chalk one up for the SOA.
The entire delegation could not attend our two other appointments so we designated small groups to be our representatives.
We sent the veterans in our delegation to meet with the military High Command. I was told that they politely listened to our emissaries, but clearly did not agree with our position and said so. They want a professionally trained officer corps and they believe sending soldiers to Ft. Benning is one way to accomplish that.
That they met with us at all was a coup (of the right kind), but SOA gets the win.
Vice President Salvador Sanchez Ceren is the third presidential candidate. I’m told that his conference room in the Presidential Palace wasn’t as grand as Tony Saca’s either, but Ceren was described to me as warm and gracious, even grandfatherly.
Unlike the current president, Carlos Mauricio Funes Cartagena, Ceren was an FMLN commandante during the civil war. Ceren is said to be much more in line with FMLN ideals than Funes.
Regarding the SOA, Ceren was definitely on the same page as we were and stated that under his administration, Salvadoran soldiers would no longer attend the SOA.
SOA Watch: 1
[Photo is from Ceren’s Facebook page]
As you can see, much depends upon the outcome of next year’s presidential election. Father Roy visited El Salvador three years ago and we may have to return, either to hold the FMLN to its promises, persuade Tony Saca that a decision re. the SOA is not just Mr. Obama’s, or to chip away at ARENA’s infatuation with military power.
Even so, we left believing great progress was made.
*The ARENA food was better, however. Portillo rushed off after our meeting, but waiters handed us fruit drinks as we emerged from the conference room, then brought us small croissant sandwiches with an elegant chocolate crepe dessert. I felt some guilt as I ate food provided by an entity I neither liked nor trusted, and swear it did not influence my opinion. It was awfully good though.