Dark Shadows and New Hope: Taiwan and El Salvador

Dark Shadows and New Hope: Taiwan and El Salvador
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'Taiwan's questionable role in Salvadoran politics is not limited to this dark period of the country's modern history.'

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The single shot from a rifle that hit Archbishop Oscar Romero straight in the heart as he was preparing communion at San Salvador's Church of the Divine Providence on the evening of March 24, 1980, was to send shockwaves through El Salvador and the world. Even in a country where murder had become a way of life, this was considered a singularly wicked act.

Few Salvadorans were in doubt as to the identity of the killers. Major Robert D'Aubuisson, a military intelligence chief, widely perceived as the godfather of the Salvadoran death squads, had publicly railed anyone perceived as supporting left-wing guerrillas in Salvador's civil war. Romero and like-minded liberation theologists were at the top of his hit list.

In the month leading up to Romero's death, the radio transmitter that Romero used to broadcast his weekly sermons was blown up. These sermons, which spotlighted the murder, torture and human rights violations that were engulfing the nation, were about the only source of news on what was really happening for most of El Salvador's rural poor.

D'Aubuisson was also fond of using broadcasts to get his point across, and the exhortations to violence in his television appearances were even more prescriptive than Romero's calls to the contrary. He had a habit of mentioning names of alleged Marxist and those he named had a habit of dying soon after. Most of these charges were preposterous fabrications. Two months before Romero's assassination, D'Aubuisson had denounced Attorney General Mario Zamora, a Christian Democrat, as a Communist agent. After Zamora responded with a libel suit, he was confronted by a masked gunman at a private residence, dragged into a bathroom and shot in the head.

As Romero continued his sermons against the death squad atrocities, D'Aubuisson made no bones about who would be next. “You still have time to change his ways,” he warned the priest in another television appearance.Yet Romero refused to be cowed. The day before the fateful mass, he addressed a group of trusted subordinates, as was his habit each week. Romero announced his attention to specifically call on members of the armed forces to disobey commands that went against their moral duty to eschew violence. His fellow priests protested that this would be a provocation too far for the rightists. Romero went ahead with his homily and paid with his life.

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Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen stands with El Salvador's Foreign Minister Hugo Martinez after her arrival at the Oscar Arnulfo Romero International Airport in San Luis Talpa, El Salvador January 12, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

Like many of the rightist death-squad figures in Central America's bloody civil wars, Major Robert D'Aubuisson was a graduate of the infamous School of the Americas, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation.

Yet it was the training that he received at Fu Hsing Kang College in Taipei's Beitou District that he spoke of most fondly. Calling his political warfare course there “the best class I ever studied,” he was particularly effusive about the instruction on how to transform a military organization into a political party. “Those lessons were what I applied when [...] we started organizing civic groups,” he said. It was on the back of this training that D'Aubuisson cofounded the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA), which dominated the political landscape in El Salvador for over 20 years.

While it seems most of what was taught at Fu Hsing Kang was indeed geared toward moving away from violence toward political propaganda and indoctrination, there have been claims that psychological terror and torture were also on the agenda. Some alumni of the program have all but confirmed this. Pressed on this issue, one official of Taiwan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs replied, “Let's not talk about torture. Let's call it information collection.”

Taiwan's questionable role in Salvadoran politics is not limited to this dark period of the country's modern history. In 2014, a scandal surfaced in El Salvador where former president Francisco Flores faced charges of misappropriating more than US$15 million in “donations” and loans from Taiwan between 2001 and 2004. Some of the money had been intended for distribution among victims of a devastating earthquake in 2001 that killed almost a thousand people and left thousands more homeless. Flores, an ARENA politician who had praised D'Aubuisson, died of a cerebral hemorrhage in February 2016 with the charges still pending.

On Friday, Jan. 13, Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) met El Salvador President Salvador Sánchez Ceren to reaffirm Taiwan's diplomatic solidarity with the Central American nation. As a former guerrilla commander in the Farabundo Marti Liberation Front, which is now the ruling party, Sánchez Ceren fought against Taipei-backed rightists such as D'Aubuisson. Still, like most leaders in the region, he will understand that the old Cold War allegiances no longer apply, and his primary concern will be to maximize the benefits to his struggling nation.

Critics will speak of a return to the checkbook diplomacy of the Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) era, but well-targeted aid can certainly help make a difference in this struggling nation. In addition to technical assistance in agriculture, more recently Taiwan has brought its technological know-how to bear. Late last month, a two-year project to enhance El Salvador's geographic information systems capabilities came to a conclusion.

This GIS technology and training is of great practical value in a country that has no effective land management and planning strategy, and will also assist the authorities in the mitigation of natural disasters. It is through hands-on, quantifiable projects such as this that Taiwan can make a difference and underline its status as an invaluable partner.

Since the dawn of the post-civil war era, El Salvador has been ravaged by violent crime. In 2015, the country posted figures if 104 murders per 100,000 people – the highest rate of any nation in the world not in open war. As Tsai arrived in El Salvador on Thursday, El Salvador experienced its first day without a murder in two years.

Let's be clear: El Salvador has a gargantuan task ahead of it in getting back on its feet. By playing a part in that process, Taiwan can contribute toward a positive future for its partner while showing itself to be a force for progress on the international stage.

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Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen signs the visitor book at the Mons. Oscar Arnulfo Romero's grave at the National Cathedral in San Salvador, El Salvador January 13, 2017. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

Editor: Edward White

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