What Is Truth?


Princeton, New Jersey. -- The report of the U.N. Commission on the Truth in El Salvador is meant to be a forward-looking document: a necessary condition for pursuing the pacification, reconciliation and reform process set in motion by the peace agreements signed in January 1992. But the report is, necessarily, about the past: about the war that racked that small country for a decade.

The commission blames the guerrillas for the murder of 11 mayors, as well as for a series of assassinations carried out by the rebels in the capital.

But that doesn't begin to compare with the blame placed at the feet of the Salvadoran armed forces for the murder of priests, nuns, human-rights workers and ordinary citizens, including nearly 200 women and children massacred in the village of El Mozote in 1980. That atrocity, made public by U.S. journalists Raymond Bonner and Alma Guillermoprieto, has been steadfastly denied ever since, even when 140 skeletons, mostly of children, were exhumed there last year.

The Truth Commission tells a terrible tale, but not just of who was responsible for what during the long war. The report also confirms what many have long thought: that without the war, without the creation of a rebel army that was able to fight the government (backed by $6 billion in U.S. aid) to a draw, the possibility of transforming El Salvador was virtually nil.

For a time, the war made things worse: It justified murder and repression, polarized society and destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans, not least the nearly half a million forced to leave their country. But if the commission is right in concluding that the climate of violence, impunity and reckless disrespect for human life was a fixture of Salvadoran governance before, the war is not to blame for the horrors; if anything, the horrors led to the war.

The war finally made accountability possible; now the authorities cannot dismiss the truth, nor can they avoid their responsibility. No one should escape punishment and accounting -- not the FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front), which was not able to avoid reproducing many of the vices of the society it was attempting to transform; not the army and the civilian right wing, which bear the brunt of the blame; not the United States -- "the owner of the circus," as the late Guillermo Ungo, one of the few unblemished members of the Salvadoran elite, liked to say -- which bankrolled the nightmare.

The rebel commanders named in the report are conducting themselves correctly so far in accepting the commission's findings and not demanding amnesty for themselves, though they may well end up receiving it. But it is important to note that they represent only one of the five groups under the FMLN umbrella; the other four groups, which, according to the U.N. peace agreements, represented three-fourths of the FMLN's armed force, were not cited.

There is no valid reason for whitewashing the military or moderating the impact of the report. The armed forces' only pretext for not proceeding with the called-for punishment is the threat of a coup -- what euphemistically has been called the risk of instability. But the danger is not real. For the first time, the bluff of outright blackmail can be called: Without U.S. assistance, military takeovers in small Latin American nations have no future.

Finally, the Truth Commission's findings vindicate the human-rights activists, solidarity and sanctuary organizers, liberals of all stripes and journalists who for a decade challenged the Reagan and Bush administrations' Salvadoran policy. That leaves one major player who has yet to answer.

The end of the Cold War has brought forth an outpouring of information, soul-searching and recrimination on the losing side. The winning side is, logically, spared the most searing cleansing process, but there is no reason for everything to be forgotten and dismissed.

In the name of the struggle against communism, successive governments in Washington knew of, supported and carried out a good number of despicable acts around the world. Some of these should be investigated, and if not punished -- the legal implications are questionable -- at least held to account either for complicity or for ignorance.

El Salvador is a good place to start: Who in Washington knew what, when did they know it, what did they do about it? These are some of the questions left hanging about the truth in El Salvador.

Jorge G. Castaneda, a professor of political science at the National University of Mexico, is a visiting professor at Princeton University this year. He wrote this commentary for the Los Angeles Times.


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