If all goes as planned, and in a serendipitous coincidence in timing, President Obama will be in San Salvador next week and will visit the shrine to slain Archbishop Oscar Romero just one day before the 31st anniversary of his murder.
The White House announced a few hours ago that Obama would make the symbolic visit on the morning of March 23.
Here is the part of a press briefing today when Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes talked about Obama's visit to the Romero tomb:
“The last day, Wednesday before we come back, the President will have an opportunity to tour the National Cathedral in San Salvador and, at the National Cathedral, to pay respects at the tomb of Father Oscar Romero, who, of course, is a hero to many people in the Americas. Then following that he will have a chance to tour -- to visit some Mayan ruins before returning to the United States.”
As Rhodes said, Romero is a hero to many, and the most prominent victim of the death squads during El Salvador’s dark era leading into its 12-year civil war.
I just got off the phone a few minutes ago with El Salvador’s ambassador to the United States, Francisco Altschul, and before I could get some questions in edgewise he was already speaking about the Romero visit. Here’s what he said:
“President (Mauricio) Funes has called Monsignor Romero the spiritual guide of the nation, and truly for Salvadorans Monsignor Romero is a symbol of human rights, peace, justice and reconciliation. So for this, we are very satisfied.”
Altschul said Obama would visit a shrine to Romero at the main cathedral of San Salvador, not far from the chapel where assailants gunned him down while he said Mass on March 24, 1980. The man who masterminded the killing was Maj. Roberto d’Aubuisson, known to many as “Death Squad Bobby.” D’Aubuisson was a graduate of the School of the Americas, the Pentagon-operated school in Georgia where many military coup plotters, henchmen and human rights violators from around Latin America got their training.
D’Aubuisson is long dead, and El Salvador emerged from civil war with peace accords in 1992. I hadn’t been back to the country for more than 15 years when I traveled there last week in preparation for Obama's visit. I couldn’t help but be impressed to see reconciliation efforts by onetime guerrillas and the spectrum of civil society.
Given the U.S. role in supporting governments where death squads flourished as a deadly political tool, the Obama visit to Msgr. Romero's tomb is certainly filled with symbolism.
But the ghosts of the civil war continue to haunt El Salvador's relations with the United States. Funes, a former television anchor, is not a member of the former rebel movement but several ex-rebel chiefs occupy seats in his Cabinet. Washington accuses one of them, Manuel Melgar, of a well-publicized crime against U.S. citizens. Click here to read my story about Melgar, his alleged role in a 1985 commando attack, and the hoops that U.S. diplomats jump through to avoid dealing with him.