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When Reaganites Backed D'Aubuisson, They Unleashed a Political Assassin : El Salvador: Washington's right was so pleased with the politician's anti-communism it was willing to overlook his abuse of human rights.

March 01, 1992|Jefferson Morley | Jefferson Morley is former associate editor of the New Republic and Washington editor of the Nation

The New Right's fondness for D'Aubuisson soon became incorporated into U.S. foreign policy. When D'Aubuisson did well in El Salvador's legislative elections in March, 1982, U.S. Ambassador Deane R. Hinton described him as "a fine young Democrat." Shortly thereafter, one U.S. intelligence agency purged its D'Aubuisson biography of allegations that he was involved in death squads and the assassination of Romero. Elliott Abrams, the assistant secretary of state for human rights, told a congressional committee that D'Aubuisson should not be considered an extremist. And what did one have to do to quality as an extremist, asked one congressman? "You'd have to be involved in murder," Abrams explained.

It was at least arguable that U.S. policy-makers had to deal with D'Aubuisson, whose macho style and financial backers made him El Salvador's most popular politician. But conservative activists went much farther by celebrating D'Aubuisson's upstanding character. In May, 1982, conservative columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak praised D'Aubuisson for leading a "crusade for democratic capitalism." In January, 1983, right-wing political activist Paul M. Weyrich and the leaders of the Moral Majority sent a public letter of support to D'Aubuisson.

It wasn't until late 1983, that D'Aubuisson went too far. He alienated his funders in the Salvadoran oligarchy by leaving his wife and taking up with his high-school sweetheart. D'Aubuisson's supporters in Washington recoiled, not because he had tortured, raped and murdered, but because his death squad, a Maximiliano Hernandez brigade, threatened to kill a local labor leader funded by the U.S. government. Rep. Jack F. Kemp and other conservative leaders told D'Aubuisson privately that the death-squad killings had become a "public relations problem." The Reagan Administration finally turned on D'Aubuisson during the 1984 Salvadoran presidential election, directing the CIA to fund his opponent.

D'Aubuisson responded in characteristic fashion: He plotted to fire-bomb the car of U.S. Ambassador Thomas R. Pickering. Even the disclosure of this plot, in May, 1984, did not prevent D'Aubuisson from obtaining a visa to visit the United States a month later. Then, in December, 1984, D'Aubuisson attended a closed-door banquet on Capitol Hill, where he was honored by 120 conservatives as a "freedom fighter." Among the organizations paying their respects were the Washington Legal Foundation, the Gun Owners of America and the National Pro-Life Political Action Committee.

That was the high point of D'Aubuisson's career in U.S. politics. After that, evidence of his bloody deeds was too overwhelming even to meet the capacious standards of Helms and the Moral Majority. To ensure continued U.S. aid to the Salvadoran government, D'Aubuisson had to bow out of the public arena.

On the eve of the peace settlement in January, D'Aubuisson's lifelong foes in the guerrilla movement said his impending death "seems to be an act of divine justice in this moment of national reconciliation." Three weeks later, when cancer claimed the man who had killed so many, D'Aubuisson's former friends in Washington were silent. Thus atrocity is followed by amnesia.

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