Ex-envoy testifies of generals' abuses
ELINOR J. BRECHER
A completion of duty.
That's what Robert White, U.S. ambassador to El Salvador during
administration's last year, called his mission as he testified Thursday in the civil
trial of two former Salvadoran security-forces chiefs. They are accused of
complicity in the rapes and murders of four American churchwomen in 1980.
It was White's duty to warn State Department officials about the
excesses and abuses, as he did in lengthy cables shown to a Palm Beach
County federal jury. Those cables discussed ``the daily total of dead, many
among them teenagers bearing marks of brutal torture.''
It was his duty to assure Washington that communists couldn't
Salvadoran government, despite U.S. obsessions to the contrary -- again, the
subject of cables offered as evidence.
And it was his duty to remain civil with Gen. José Guillermo
defense minister, and Gen. Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova, former national
guard director, even as ``They knew perfectly well that I knew the military ran
most of the death squads, but they just insisted it was not so,'' White said.
As El Salvador devolved into bloodshed and chaos, it was as if
they all were Alice
in Wonderland characters, testified White, 74.
``Short of calling [the generals] liars, which would have broken
the relationship, it
was impossible to break through the veneer because they didn't want to bring the
death squads under control. I tried to keep it on a civilized plane, but it did test
you, because they knew I was not stupid, and I had access to information.''
The women's families hope White will help bring the generals to
justice, through a
suit organized by the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. The lawsuit alleges
that García and Vides Casanova knew about or failed to stop the murders, and
failed to investigate or punish the killers.
It seeks monetary damages from García, 67, and Vides Casanova,
62, under the
1992 Torture Victim Protection Act.
Bob Montgomery, attorney for the plaintiffs, asked White to interpret
dispatches, in which his fears and frustrations with the military mount almost
daily, even as he strains to believe that a peaceful outcome remains possible.
``Probably the most serious threat to a moderate solution would
assassination, whether by the ultra-left or by the ultra-right, of Archbishop [Oscar]
Romero, the most important political figure in El Salvador and a symbol of a better
life to the poor,'' he wrote.
Romero was gunned down March 24, 1980.
White was among the first to hear that the women had vanished
Dec. 2 near the
San Salvador airport, and was on the scene when peasants dug up their bodies in
a rural area the next day.
In a video news clip, White is heard to tell the locals: ``I think
you should get a
judge and people should stand guard over this thing while I go get on the phone to
García and raise holy hell.''
Days later he cabled that he couldn't find out which military
unit might have done
``The idea that the security forces authorities do not know and/or
could not find
out what detachment was stationed at a definite point outside the airport strains
credulity to the breaking point.''
Two of the women -- Sister Maura Clarke and Catholic lay worker
Jean Donovan --
had stayed with White and his wife, Maryanne, the night before they died, along
with the Rev. Paul Schindler, who's expected to testify later in the trial.
Robert White is due back on the stand Monday.
White said that while none of the church workers paid much attention
to a sign
tacked on their parish house in Chalatenango in November, warning that all inside
were communists and would die, they did fear the soldiers in the area. That fear
grew after a military helicopter ``tracked'' them.
He said that after they disappeared, García asked if Clarke,
Donovan and Sisters
Ita Ford and Dorothy Kazel were wearing habits.
This worried him, White said, because they weren't. He had seen
military training film that portrayed ``good nuns'' in habits and ``bad nuns'' --
sympathetic to the peasants -- in blouses and slacks.
The women died a few weeks after Ronald Reagan defeated Carter
in the 1980
presidential election. Almost immediately, White said outside the courtroom,
``emissaries'' purporting to be advance-team members of the Reagan
administration arrived in El Salvador.
White said the emissaries apparently assured the generals they
would be free to
pursue their agenda ``with impunity.'' That agenda, White said, included terrorizing
and slaughtering not just left-wing guerrillas, but anyone else who opposed the
military or the interests of the country's ruling ``14-family'' oligarchy.
``I expected to be replaced and reassigned,'' White told the court.
career ambassadors stay over a lengthy period [in a new administration], but my
resignation was accepted immediately.''
White suggested during a break that his testimony was a way to
help close that
violent chapter in history.
``It's very important that this case be finished -- that the military
in other countries
understand that this country [the United States] isn't a refuge for killers.''
García lives in Plantation; Vides Casanova is in Palm Coast
north of Daytona