My Turn

Opinion: Recognize past actions cause current displacement of people

By Enriqueta Vasquez, San Cristóbal
Posted 2/7/19

They say, "What goes around, comes around ... I wonder." As one considers the masses of people who have left everything to walk hundreds of miles in order to cross our borders, you have to wonder. …

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My Turn

Opinion: Recognize past actions cause current displacement of people


They say, "What goes around, comes around ... I wonder." As one considers the masses of people who have left everything to walk hundreds of miles in order to cross our borders, you have to wonder. What are they running from, why are they leaving everything behind? I recently read one of Eduardo Galeano's books, "Upside Down," to refresh my mind as to some of the events in Latin America that would instigate this kind of mass movement.

I recalled having heard of the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia, and we wondered what goes on without letting the citizenry know. On Sept. 20, 1996, the U.S. Defense Department made a public confession.

There was little coverage by the media. On that day the highest military authorities acknowledged that from 1982-1991 they had made "a mistake" when they trained Latin American military officers in the art of threat, extortion, torture, kidnapping and murder at the School of the Americas and at the Southern Command in Panama.

The "mistake" lasted a decade, but they didn't say how many Latin American officers received the "mistaken" training or what the consequence of this training caused. Still, the Pentagon's classes for dictators, torturer and criminal has been denounced a thousand times in the past half century. These Latin American students become dictators or public executioners, leaving terror and a permanent bloodstain south of the U.S.'s now proposed "wall."

Most of the people who have walked to our southern border are from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. At one time when Honduras tried to rid itself of treacherous rulers, the United States secretly armed the contras and the revolution turned out to be a lost cause for the people and the justice they sought.

In El Salvador a few examples from an endless list, nearly all the officers responsible for the assassinations of the archbishop Monsignore Óscar Arnulfo Romero y Galdámez and four U.S. nuns were graduates of the School of the Americas. So were those who carried out the murder of six Jesuit priests riddled with bullets in 1989.

In Guatemala, Bishop Juan Gerardi led a task force to expose the terror in Guatemala. Through the testimonies of thousands of voices collected throughout the country, the bishop and his colleagues gathered 40 years of isolated memories of pain and terror: 150,000 Guatemalans dead, 50,000 disappeared, 1,000,000 displaced refugees, 200,000 orphans, 40,000 widows. Nine out of 10 victims were unarmed civilians. Most of them Indians. In nine out of 10 cases, the responsibility lay with the army and its paramilitary bands.

The church released the report on Thursday, April 1998. Two days later, Bishop Gerardi was dead, his skull beaten in with a chunk of concrete.

In 1995 it was revealed that a Guatemalan colonel accused of two crimes had for many years been on the CIA payroll. He was charged with the murder of a U.S. citizen and husband of a U.S. citizen while ignoring the thousands upon thousands of crimes committed by the military dictatorships the U.S. imposed and removed in Guatemala since 1954 when the CIA with the approval of President Eisenhower overthrew the democratic government of Jacobo Árbrenz.

The Pentagon has refused to collect author's royalties on the training manuals it finally acknowledged as its own. The confession ought to have been a big story, but few heard it and fewer yet were angered. The greatest power, model of democracy acknowledged that its military nurseries had been growing specialist in the violation of human rights.

In 1996 the Pentagon promised to correct the "mistake." In 1998, a total of 22 culprits were found guilty and sentenced to six month in jail plus fines. They had committed the atrocity of sneaking into Fort Benning to hold a funeral procession in memory of the victims of the School of the Americas.

In 1978, while Argentina's soccer team hosted the World Cup, the country's military dictatorship was busy throwing prisoners into the ocean alive. Former Argentine naval officer Adolfo Scilingo's conscience bothered him and the captain told his superiors he couldn't sleep without pills or drink. Finally, at the beginning of 1995 he made a public confession. He had thrown 30 people into the sea and over the course of two years the Argentine navy had thrown between 1,500 and 2,000 political prisoners to the sharks.

When Scilingo was imprisoned, it was not for having murdered 30 people, but for passing a bad check.

Have we welcomed immigrants in the past? Yes, when hundreds and thousands left Cuba in boats to get to Miami, even the U.S. Coast Guard helped them make it to our shores. This country welcomed them, helped them get settled and even gave them monthly allotments to settle down. Those immigrants have been welcomed and absorbed into society.

Latin American democracies have been robbed of democratic foundations and we have played a role in their downfall. Only justice can give them a solid base from which to stand up as democracies and build their own. As we look at the history of these countries and our involvement in their downfall it seems we have an obligation to these people who want to come to this country. We should help them become part of the economy and let them settle in peace as upstanding citizens. After all, this is a country of immigrants.

Perhaps we need to recognize past actions that caused the displacement of so many people and instead of building a very expensive wall in an effort to erase the past, we should make an effort to create peaceful coexistence on this continent.

Enriqueta Vasquez lives in San Cristóbal, New Mexico.


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