Pope Francis Takes a Step to Heal Cold War Wounds

You won’t be hearing much about this story in the media today. But for anyone in this country who is aware of the liberal foreign policy struggles of the 1980’s, it is a fitting tribute for Memorial Day weekend.

SAN SALVADOR — Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to convene in a central plaza here on Saturday to celebrate the beatification of Archbishop Oscar Romero, 35 years after he was shot in the heart while saying Mass.

Romero, a towering and polarizing figure in Salvadoran history, was chosen by Pope Francis earlier this year to be beatified, the last step before sainthood. It is the first time a Salvadoran has received this religious honor. After years in which the process was stalled, Francis’s decision was a “surprise and a thrill for everyone,” said Simeon Reyes, a spokesman for the Catholic church in El Salvador…

Romero’s death was a watershed moment in El Salvador, a murder that helped propel the country into civil war. He was shot on March 24, 1980, while celebrating Mass in a church at the hospice for cancer patients where he lived. A “truth commission” set up after the war concluded that former army Maj. Roberto D’Aubuisson, a suspected right-wing death squad leader, ordered the killing, but he denied involvement and was never tried. He was the founder of the conservative ARENA party, which governed El Salvador until 2009 and now is in opposition…

The decision to beatify Romero suggests that Pope Francis, an Argentine well-acquainted with military repression in his home country during the “dirty war” of the 1970s and ’80s, found Romero’s saintly cause compelling, regardless of the concerns of his political opponents. But the progress of the case also signifies that the Cold War wounds are gradually healing. Today, a former Marxist guerrilla commander, Salvador Sanchez Ceren, is president of El Salvador.

Many people in the United States finally woke up to what was happening in El Salvador about 9 months after Bishop Romero was assassinated when the military death squads raped and murdered four American nuns who were working with the poor in that country.

As we did all over Central and South America, the United States supported the military dictatorships that carried out these kinds of assassinations.

The United States was heavily involved in wars in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s in what Reagan described as an effort to stem Soviet influence in the hemisphere. The United States spent more than $4 billion on economic and military aid during El Salvador’s civil war, in which more than 75,000 people were killed, many of them civilians caught in the crossfire.

That is why I still mark this moment when President Obama visited the tomb of Bishop Oscar Romero during his trip to El Salvador in March 2011 as one of the most moving of his presidency.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.