In December 1983, then-U.S. Vice President George H.W. Bush slipped away on a little-known trip to Latin America to try to salvage Washington's agreement to fund a bloody Cold War fight against left-wing rebels in El Salvador as a surge in death squad activity threatened to derail its ability to continue supporting the military regime, newly declassified U.S. intelligence documented have revealed.
In a series of memoranda addressed to Bush detailing the goals of the trip to El Salvador, staffers of then-President Ronald Reagan explained that the vice president would be tasked with communicating a "carrot and stick" approach to the military government in El Salvador, at the time immersed in a brutal Washington-backed civil war against communist guerrilla forces.
Reagan's administration was at the time growing uncomfortable with exposure of the Salvadoran military's widespread human rights abuses, such as death squad murders of missionaries and civilians as well as cases of U.S. citizens being killed in the country. The grave human rights situation threatened to put Washington's support for the military government and its Cold War counterinsurgency strategy in "serious jeopardy," the documents state.
"Your primary objective is to impress the Salvadoran leadership with the need for specific changes in human rights, military, and political conduct," then-Secretary of State George P. Shultz wrote in a Dec. 5, 1983, memo to Bush.
The president took the decision to send Bush because he was in danger of losing support for military aid to El Salvador since his opponents in Congress considered the military intervention in the region unnecessary. And the human rights situation was increasingly sparking alarm.
Bush's goal in El Salvador was to urge military authorities to end the murders and human rights abuses and allow fully free and democratic elections to go forward to avoid Washington potentially being forced to cut off military aid to the country on human rights grounds. Commitments to reform on human rights would allow the U.S. officials to stoke confidence in Congress to give the green light to continue funding the Salvadoran army's battle against left-wing Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front rebels, aligned with Cuba and the Soviet Union.
According to the document, U.S. officials told El Salvador's military government to have death squad members "sent out of the country" so as to not negatively impact the U.S.' ability to fund war. Top Bush advisors Don Gregg and Philip Hughes wrote to the vice president in a Dec. 6, 1983 memo that "unfortunately" Salvadoran officials had not complied with the demand. At the time, Reagan aides reported that death squads had "re-emerged from its dormancy" in recent months.
Reagan knew that even a grain of rice could tip the balance and he did not want to lose a single ally in his Cold War battle against international communism.
Bush's objective was also to encourage Salvadoran officials to adhere to the upcoming presidential election schedule and communicate an understanding of U.S. impartiality regarding the candidates.
"If we can work with the Salvadoran government on the twin problems of death squads and military performance, these developments can help us weather the current cycle of greater guerrilla initiative," Gregg and Hughes wrote to Bush. "We may then be set to capitalize on the March 25, 1984 presidential elections which will probably boil down to a two-way race between Napoleon Duarte and Roberto d'Aubuisson, with the former expected to win at this point."
Duarte and D'Aubuisson were both allies of Washington. The latter was a soldier, extreme right-wing politician and death-squad leader. Months ahead of the election, U.S. officials reported Duarte was expected to win, which he did. His years in office oversaw numerous human rights abuses and massacres of the civilian population by security forces and the death squads.
The infamous leader died of cancer in 1990 at a Washington, D.C., hospital. It has been confirmed that he served as a CIA asset in his country during the civil war, which did not end until January 1992, after up to 80,000 people were killed and another 8,000 people disappeared.
The details of Washington's attempt to smooth over the issue of death squad terror in El Salvador were revealed in documents released earlier this week in a batch of declassified U.S. intelligence files related to the U.S.-backed South American counterinsurgency program Operation Condor. More files on the 1970s and 1980s campaign that aimed to stabilize dictatorships while cracking down on political dissidents in the region are set to be released next year.