By Ralph De La Cruz
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
This week, in a Florida courthouse, the two competing faces of our Latin American policy — political convenience vs. moral principles — go on trial.
In an immigration court in Orlando, the United States government will hold deportation hearings for Gen. Eugenio Vides Casanova. Most deportation hearings take two to three hours. This one is expected to last a week, and place former American ambassadors on the witness stand.
Vides Casanova was the iron-fisted director of the National Guard in El Salvador beginning in 1979, and then became the country’s defense minister in 1984. That happened to coincide nicely with the terms of President Ronald Reagan and Col. Oliver “Iran-Contra” North, as well as our Cold War obsession with communism.
It was also the time of Salvadoran death squads and victims such as assassinated Archbishop Oscar Romero and Catholic churchwomen Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan, who were raped and killed by a death squad.
It was a time when moral ambivalence dovetailed with the United States’ anti-communist interests in Central America. Director Oliver Stone famously illustrated the hypocrisy and violence — including the savage murder of the three nuns and the lay worker — in a thinly-veiled, fictionalized version of events, his 1986 film Salvador.
Vides Casanova was one of the villains of that era. In 1983, a State Department report found that Vides Casanova was “aware of, and for a time acquiesced in, the coverup” of the atrocities committed against the three nuns and the missionary. A subsequent United Nations Truth Commission report on El Salvador also found that Vides Casanova was aware of the rape and murders of the women and took part in a cover-up.
Meanwhile, he received two Legion of Merit medals from the U.S. government.
As The Washington Post’s 2003 story pointed out, “In a letter accompanying one of two U.S. Legion of Merit awards, Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger congratulates Vides Casanova for ‘broad institutional reform of the Salvadoran Armed forces’ and ‘high professional and ethical standards.’ ”
In 1989, Vides Casanova retired, received a U.S. Visa and moved to the community of Palm Coast in Miami-Dade County.
He and his predecessor as defense minister have faced two lawsuits — one from the family of the four Catholic women and another from three victims of torture. They were not found liable in the trial of the raped and murdered Catholic women, but were hit with a $54.6 million judgment in favor of the torture victims. He has paid $300,000 of the judgment.
Now, in the first case a special human rights office within the Department of Homeland Security has taken against a top foreign military leader, the U.S. government that once hung medals around Vides Casanova’s neck will try to have him deported.
And help resurrect our national conscience.