Pope Francis has declared Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was murdered while celebrating Mass in 1980, a martyr. Like much of what Francis has done and said since ascending the papal throne, the decision could anger American conservatives. After all, a number of prominent Reaganites and religious leaders in the U.S. embraced the man responsible for Romero's death.
In 1979, moderate military officers overthrew El Salvador’s strongarm ruler Carlos Humberto Romero. The archbishop was initially supportive of the government before realizing that the military’s abuses and the persecution of the poor would not cease. Seen as a hero within Latin America’s liberation theology movement, which sought to align the Church with the poor and oppressed, Romero grew concerned after reading reports that the U.S. was planning to send support to the Salvadoran military. He wrote a letter to President Jimmy Carter urging him to not intervene, arguing that U.S. aid, “rather than favoring greater justice and peace in El Salvador, will make injustice and repression against the organization of the people, who have been struggling for the respect of their most fundamental rights, even more acute.”
Romero was assassinated the following month. One week after his killing, the U.S. approved $5.7 million in emergency military aid, just as El Salvador’s bloody twelve-year civil war was getting underway.
The U.S. embassy had evidence that Roberto D’Aubuisson, an anti-Communist former army major whom Reaganites considered a Cold War ally, was behind the killing. The embassy handed this intelligence over the CIA, which kept it buried so that Congress would continue providing military aid to the El Salvadoran and Guatemalan governments. A U.N.-sponsored truth commission found in 1993 that D’Aubuisson “gave the order to assassinate the Archbishop and gave precise instructions to members of his security service, acting as a 'death squad,' to organize and supervise the assassination.”
It was eventually revealed by The New York Times that the Reagan administration knew more about the Salvadoran regime’s complicity and participation in atrocities than it had led Congress to believe. Soon after the truth commission published its findings, the Times reported that the “Reagan Administration withheld its own evidence of Mr. D'Aubuisson’s death squad activities from members of Congress who argued that Washington should have no dealings with terrorists.”
Suspicion that D'Aubuisson was involved in Romero's death didn't stop U.S. officials and other conservatives from praising him.
After D'Aubuisson entered politics in 1982, then-U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador Deane R. Hinton called D’Aubuisson a “fine young Democrat,” later declaring him “an intelligent man” and a “dynamic leader.” Senator Jesse Helms was an unabashed supporter, suggesting that D’Aubuission’s credentials as “free enterprise man” who was “deeply religious” were more important than accusations that he murdered civilians. Elliott Abrams, then assistant secretary of state for Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs, told a congressional committee that the former army major was not an extremist because one would have to be “involved in murder” to earn that designation.
Members of the Religious Right also offered their support to D’Aubuisson in the 1980s. Pat Robertson claimed to have gone to dinner with D’Aubuisson, calling him a “very nice fellow.” D’Aubuisson was honored at a 1984 dinner at the Capitol Hill Club by a number of conservative groups, including the Moral Majority, the National Pro-Life Action Committee, and The Washington Times. He was presented a plaque for his “continuing efforts for freedom.” On another visit to Washington, D’Aubuisson was chaperoned around the city by Young Americans for Freedom.
One notable voice of dissent during this period was Robert E. White, the U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador from 1980-1981, who passed away last month. While serving as ambassador, he denounced the Salvadoran government and right-wing death squads, famously calling D’Aubuisson a “pathological killer.” White was dismissed from his post, but that didn't quiet him: In 1984, he accused the Reagan administration of attempting to cover up D’Aubuisson’s involvement in Romero’s murder.