Another Reflection on 40th Anniversary of Oscar Romero’s Assassination

Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero (now Saint Romero) has been a personal saint for this Protestant (Presbyterian) since 1989, and I was blessed to be able to attend the 20th and 30th anniversary commemorations of his 1980 brutal assassination and lament I was unable to attend the 40th anniversary this March 24th.[1]

A moving reflection on the 40th anniversary has been provided by Carlos Colorado, the author of Eminem Doctrin, a blog about Romero’s teachings, and Super Martyrio, a blog advocating since 2006 for Romero’s canonization that in fact happened in 2018.[2] Here is what Colorado said.

“In March 2000 I was in El Salvador for what was then the 20th anniversary of Archbishop Oscar Romero’s assassination. . . . At a reception in a trendy boarding house in western San Salvador, I brashly suggested to the guests that Romero could become El Salvador’s Socrates—who was forced to drink poison by fervid Athenians, but was later embraced by the city as its most quintessential son. It fell to the late, legendary NCR [National Catholic Reporter] correspondent Gary MacEóin to let me down gently, explaining that the entrenched hostility toward Romero from the powerful meant that he would be persona non grata to the political establishment indefinitely.”

“Of course, MacEóin was right about the elites; Romero is ‘not a saint of their devotion’—as the Salvadoran expression goes—to this day. But many things were already changing by the year 2000 and many more things have changed since, to make Romero’s remarkable rehabilitation possible. While Romero’s memory was suppressed in El Salvador during the 80s and 90s, it was kept alive abroad with glowing biographies and film portrayals, including Oliver Stone’s ‘Salvador’ (1986) and the modest indie pic “Romero” (1989).[3] In 1990, the church opened its sainthood investigation, but it seemed as if, for the rest of the decade, that project was shelved.”

“While Romero’s sainthood file gathered dust at the Vatican, on the streets his image was ascendant, with larger and larger commemorations of his March 24 anniversary each year, not only in San Salvador, but also in London and Rome. Things began to change in official circles in El Salvador in 2004, when Tony Saca, who had been an altar boy for Romero, was elected president. Although a member of the party founded by the man thought to have ordered Romero’s assassination, Saca petitioned Pope Benedict XVI to permit Romero’s sainthood cause to advance. But the real sea change came with the 2009 election of Mauricio Funes, the first left-wing president, who promised to make Romero the moral compass for his government. Funes named a new traffic artery after Romero, renamed the airport after Romero, and installed a heroic painting of Romero in the presidential mansion’s great hall.”

“Perhaps the largest transformation occurred in 2015, when Romero was beatified in El Salvador, showing the country how admired he was when hundreds of thousands turned out for the large-scale spectacle.[4] The church made a concerted effort then to educate the population about Romero. Many read his homilies and learned about his actions and actual views for the first time, often refuting what they had heard in official disinformation. There were many who actually believed Romero had materially assisted the guerrillas, supplying arms and openly espousing Marxist propaganda. The publicity campaign and educational effort that accompanied the beatification helped to blunt extreme views.”

“Ultimately, Gary MacEóin was right, though, that Salvadorans would not be ready to buy into Romero’s message. With all of the 40th anniversary commemorations, including an emblematic candlelit street procession, cancelled due to Coronavirus, this anniversary will be very reminiscent of the first ten years when Romero memorials were banned. This year, instead of public memorials, Romero devotees are being asked to light candles at home. Indeed, it appears that in El Salvador, Romero is “hidden in plain sight.” That is, he is everywhere: his name is at the airport, on the roadway artery, and his image is in the presidential state room and in street murals all over the country. But the current generation, including the new millennial president, find the most universal Salvadoran a stranger they do not know.”

“In a sense, the muted Romero commemoration will be the most faithful to the spirit of the man. Just when it seemed he was in danger of becoming “another little wooden saint” (as activists feared he would become), Romero is again associated with austerity, sacrifice and restraint. I suspect he would not want it any other way.”

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[1] Remembering Archbishop Oscar Romero (Now Saint Romero),dwkcommentaries.com (Mar. 24, 2020)   See also Remembering Oscar Romero in Film, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 15, 2011)(20th anniversary); list of posts in the “Oscar Romero” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: EL SALVADOR.

[2] Colorado, Muted 40th Romero anniversary recalls the early days, El Salvador Perspectives (Mar. 23, 2020).

[3]  See Remembering Oscar Romero in Film, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 14, 2011).

[4]  See Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero To Be Beatified on May 23, 2015, dwkcommentaries.com (Mar. 13, 2015); The Canonization of Oscar Romero, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 15, 2018).

 

Remembering Archbishop Oscar Romero (Now Saint Romero) 

As a result of being a pro bono asylum lawyer for Salvadorans, 1986-2001, I learned about the amazing work of Oscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador, and regarded him as my personal saint long before he was canonized by the Roman Catholic Church.[1]

I, therefore, was in El Salvador on March 24, 2000 to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Romero’s assassination and on March 24, 2010 for the 30th anniversary.[2]

I lament that I was not there this year for today’s 40th anniversary. But Tim Muth, the creator and operator of the wonderful blog, El Salvador Perspectives, has suggested we honor him today with the following passage from his homily of January 21, 1979:[3]

The present form of the world passes away,

and there remains only the joy of having used this world

to establish God’s rule here.

All pomp, all triumphs, all selfish capitalism,

all the false successes of life will pass

with the world’s form.

 

All of that passes away.

What does not pass away is love.

When one has turned money, property, work in one’s calling

into service of others,

then the joy of sharing

and the feeling that all are one’s family

does not pass away.

In the evening of life you will be judged on love.

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[1] See the list of posts in the “Oscar Romero” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: EL SALVADOR.

[2] These visits to El Salvador are discussed in Oscar Romero’s Tomb, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 10, 2011).

[3] 40th anniversary of Romero assassination calls for solidarity, El Salvador Perspectives (Mar. 24, 2020).

U.S. Sanctions 13 Former Salvadoran Military Officers for 1989 Murders of Jesuit Priests

On January 29, 2020, the U.S. State Department sanctioned 13 former Salvadoran military officers for the 1989 murders of the Jesuit priests.[1]

Ranging “in rank from general to private, [the following men] were involved in the planning and execution of the extrajudicial killings of six Jesuit priests and two others taking refuge at the Jesuit pastoral center on November 16, 1989 on the campus of Central American University in El Salvador:”  Juan Rafael Bustillo, Juan Orlando Zepeda, Inocente Orlando Montano Morales, Francisco Elena Fuentes, Guillermo Alfredo Benavides Moreno, Yusshy René Mendoza Vallecillos, José Ricardo Espinoza Guerra, Gonzalo Guevara Cerritos, Carlos Camilo Hernández Barahona, Oscar Mariano Amaya Grimaldi, Antonio Ramiro Avalos Vargas, Angel Pérez Vásquez, and José Alberto Sierra Ascencio.”

Under a U.S. statute, these individuals “and their immediate family members are ineligible for entry into the United States.”

The Department’s statement also said, “The United States condemns all human rights abuses that took place on both sides of the brutal civil war in El Salvador, including those committed by governmental and non-governmental parties.” The statement concluded:

  • “The United States supports the ongoing accountability, reconciliation, and peace efforts in El Salvador.  We value our ongoing working relationship with the Salvadoran Armed Forces, but will continue to use all available tools and authorities, as appropriate, to address human rights violations and abuses around the world no matter when they occurred or who perpetrated them.  Today’s actions underscore our support for human rights and our commitment to promoting accountability for perpetrators and encouraging reconciliation and a just and lasting peace.”

Comment

Even though the sanction is not that significant, it was appropriate for the U.S. to do this.

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[1] State Dep’t, Public Designation of Thirteen Former Salvadoran Military Officials Due to Involvement in Gross Violations of Human Rights (Jan. 29, 2020).

 

Request for U.S. Records in Salvadoran Trial Over 1981 El Mozote Massacre

On December 10-12,1981, during the Salvadoran Civil War, 978 men, women and children were massacred in the country’s northeastern village of El Mozote, the largest mass killing in Latin America’s modern history. Of those victims, 447 were age 12 and under while 4 were unborn infants in their mothers’ wombs.[1]

Eventually it had become clear that  “the Salvadoran military’s Atlacatl Battalion was responsible for the massacre. But details were vague. The commanders of the Battalion remained free. So do the former senior defense officials who allegedly issued orders to the battalion. In the 1990s, the country approved an amnesty that protected war criminals. That law was declared unconstitutional in 2016 by a Salvadoran court, thereby clearing the way for reopening a Salvadoran criminal trial over this massacre.

Early Stages of Salvadoran Trial Over the Massacre[2]

Since that year (2016) a Salvadoran court has been conducting a trial of 16 former Salvadoran military commanders, including a former minister of defense, over this massacre. They are charged with murder, torture, aggravated rape, forced disappearances, forced displacement, acts of terrorism, illegal detention, theft and damages. The evidence implicated the involvement of the Atlacatl Battalion, which had been U.S.-trained, in contradiction of the original Salvadoran and American accounts of the massacre.

U.S. Congressional Decision To Help Salvadoran Trial[3]

In 2019 in establishing the annual budget for international aid, the Congress directed the U.S. Government to cooperate with El Salvador’s investigation of the El Mozote massacre in the following language:

  • “The [House] Committee [on Appropriations] directs the Secretary of State to work with the relevant federal departments and agencies to, as appropriate, assist the judicial authorities of El Salvador in the investigation and prosecution of those responsible for the El Mozote massacre. [This includes] the identification of and provision of related documents, correspondence, reproductions of Salvadoran documents, and other similar materials from January 1981 to January 1983.”
  • The Senate version stated, “The Secretary of State… shall encourage the Salvadoran Armed Forces to cooperate with prosecutors and investigators, including providing access to archival documents.” The bill also included a mandate for the Department of State to update its report on the current status of the Salvadoran trial.

In response to the Senate’s direction, the State Department on February 5, 2020, sent a letter to the Vice Chairman of the Senate Committee, Senator Patrick Leahy, with a report on the Salvadoran government’s cooperation with the court’s investigation.[4]

Recent Developments in Salvadoran Case[5]

In January 2020, a retired Salvadoran air force general, Juan Rafael Bustillo, testified in the trial that that the Atlacatl Battalion had carried out the massacre, which was the first time a Salvadoran military official had admitted such responsibility. He said he had not taken part in this event, but that it had been conducted on orders by Colonel Domingo Monterrosa, the commander of that Battalion who died in a 1984 helicopter accident.

After that testimony, the Salvadoran judge, Jorge Guzman Urquilla, concluded that the court did not have an important set of evidence: “U.S. documents that might shed light on how the massacre was planned and executed.”

 Salvadoran Judge’s Letter to U.S.Government[6]

As a result, the judge on January 27, 2020, sent a letter to  U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo with copies to Defense Secretary Mark Esper, the Director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) Robert P. Ashley, Jr. and CIA Director Gina Haspel. The judge’s letter requested “at minimum, any document in the possession of the Department of Defense, the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and other defense or intelligence agencies” relating to the El Mazote massacre. The letter stated the following:

  • “I recognize and am thankful for Congress’ initiative in asking the State Department to look into information that the United States may have on this case. As a judge, I would hope that it would provide me with greater certainty and clarity on these heinous acts that are now part of our country’s history, something we are not proud of, but which the historical record will demand we adjudicate.”
  • “The El Mozote trial is nearing the end of its investigative phase and will soon move to sentencing. Though some expert military testimony is forthcoming, the main phases of the examination portion have been completed. Service members, including several soldiers and a general, have given their accounts of the relevant events, confirming that the massacre took place as well as the role played by various units of the [Salvadoran] Armed Forces. A lack of documents is the last big hurdle. Despite [Salvadoran] President Nayib Bukele’s assurances that he will collaborate, the [Salvadoran] Army has stuck to the position it’s taken since the investigation began in the 1990s: that no relevant documents exist.”
  • “Even if they no longer can be found in El Salvador, it’s still possible that there are copies or records of these files in the United States, a country that was closely involved with and aware of the [Salvadoran] Army’s operations in the 80s as part of its foreign policy agenda.” Though a good deal of documents were already declassified [by President Bill Clinton in 1983], the letter also asked for “any other document that was not declassified by President William Jefferson Clinton or subsequent presidents.”
  • The letter also asked for “any other document that was not declassified by President William Jefferson Clinton or subsequent presidents” and for files on “the operations of the Armed Forces of El Salvador in the Morazán area, including any information on military planning, operational planning, and war planning, and involving any of the military units that I have mentioned,” between 1981 and 1983.
  • The letter specifically solicited information on General José Guillermo García, General Rafael Flores Lima, and 14 others who were charged and remain alive; on Colonel Domingo Monterrosa, Mayor Armando Azmitia, and 14 others who were charged and are now dead; on the municipality of Arambala and the seven sites where the massacre took place; and on the four military units being held responsible: the Atlacatl Battalion, the Third Infantry Brigade of San Miguel, the Fourth Military Detachment in San Francisco Gotera, and the High Command of the Armed Forces.
  • The letter emphasized the need to “move forward with this case in an expeditious manner” and asks Pompeo for a response “within the period of time set forth by the law.”

A journalist for elfaro, a Salvadoran online newspaper, apparently added, “Among the [U.S.] files declassified in 1993, for example, are several diplomatic cables between San Salvador and Washington from January 1981, which make clear that then-U.S. Ambassador Deane Hinton was consistently transmitting details about the operation that would ultimately result in the massacre. ‘[I]t is not possible to prove or disprove excesses of violence against the civilian population of El Mozote. It is certain that the guerrilla forces…did nothing to remove them from the path of battle… Civilians did die during Operation Rescate, but no evidence could be found to confirm that government forces systematically massacred civilians in the operation zone, nor that the number of civilians killed even remotely approached the number being cited in other reports circulating internationally,’ read an initial cable from Hinton, from January 1981.”

The elfaro journalist also said, “Later, in another communication, [Hinton] . . .  offered a different account of what may have taken place: ‘The estimated population of El Mozote during the massacre was about 300 inhabitants. The Atlacatl Battalion conducted Operation Rescate from December 6 to 17 of 1981. The guerrilla knew of the operation since November 15. The civilians present during the operation and the battles with the guerrilla may have been killed.’” Following Clinton’s declassifications, several agencies have continued providing documents in response to petitions from human rights organizations.

Additional support for U.S. production of such documents comes from an analyst for the U.S. National Security Archive, Kate Doyle, who believes the U.S. has additional relevant documents about the Salvadoran civil war that could and should be declassified.[7]

U.S. Government’s Response to the Judge’s Letter

To date, Secretary Pompeo has not responded to the court’s letter; nor have the three others copied on that letter. The subject came up again at a March 11th Salvadoran court hearing in the case when the judge said, ““This information could be very valuable to us. It could clarify what happened.” A State Department spokesman, however, said, “We do not comment on the Secretary’s correspondence.”

Conclusion

 Given the congressional demand that the U.S. cooperate with the Salvadoran investigation of the El Mozote massacre and the U.S. support of human rights by its recent publication of the  latest annual report about human rights in every country in the world and Secretary Pompeo’s proud creation of the Commission on Unalienable Rights, there is no excuse for any further delay in providing an affirmative response to the Salvadoran judge’s letter and the requested documents.

This conclusion is buttressed by the following words in the March 11, 2020, State Department’s report about human rights in El Salvador:[8]

  • “In February [2019], in a renewed effort to shield the perpetrators of war crimes and human rights abuses committed during the country’s 1980-92 civil war, a group of influential legislators proposed a draft national reconciliation law. Despite Constitutional Court rulings in 2016 and 2018 that expressly prohibited a broad and unconditional amnesty, the proposed bill would have granted amnesty to several high-level officials who enjoyed immunity from prosecution due to their positions in the recent administration of President Salvador Sanchez Ceren. Victims’ rights groups, other civil society actors, and the international community successfully campaigned against the proposed bill, and President-elect Bukele stated his strong opposition to an amnesty bill and expressed his support for additional consultation with victims. On May 29, [2019] the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered the government to immediately suspend consideration of the proposed law. The proposed bill eventually lost support among legislators and failed to reach a floor vote.” (Section 2.E)
  • “Despite a June 2018 Constitutional Court order directing it to release military records related to the El Mozote killings and serious civil war crimes, the Ministry of Defense had not produced the requested documentation as of November 12 [2019]. On November 1, President Bukele stated that he was committed to the truth and that he would release the records. Previously, the Ministry of Defense claimed the El Mozote archive records were destroyed in an accidental warehouse fire. Civil society and victims’ groups continued to press for release of these archives.” (Section 2.E)
  • “On April 23, [2019] the judge in the El Mozote prosecution issued an order adding three new charges against the 16 remaining defendants: Torture, forced disappearance, and forced displacement. He also imposed several provisional measures on the defendants, including a prohibition on leaving the country or contacting victims, and a requirement that the defendants physically appear in court biweekly. The defendants appealed these rulings, which were affirmed by an intermediate appellate court. On February 14, [2019] the Legislative Assembly approved a transitory law establishing mechanisms designed to allow family members to be added to the El Mozote victims’ registry.” (Section 2.E)

=================================

[1] See generally list of posts in the “El Mozote Massacre” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: EL SALVADORThe massacre of children and others at El Mozote, El Salvador Perspectives (Dec. 10, 2017); Posts about El Mozote. El Salvador Perspectives.

[2] Zabiah, El Mozote judge asks the United States for confidential documents on the massacre, elfaro (Mar. 5, 2020) (Zabiah #1).

[3] Zabiah # 1, supra; H. Rep., 116th Congress, 1st Sess., Rep. 116-78, State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Bill, 2020 (May 20, 2019); H. Rep., Appropriations Committee Releases Fiscal Year 2020 State and Foreign Operations Funding Bill (May 5, 2019); H. Rep. Comm. on Appropriations. Public Witness Hearing: State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs (Mar. 12, 2019).

[4] Letter, State Dep’t to Senator Leahy (enclosing three-page report) (Feb. 5, 2020)(hyperlinked to Zabiah #1, supra).

[5] Zabiah #1, supra; Zabiah, General Bustillo breaks the officers’ script and admits that ‘rudeness’ occurred in El Mozote, elfaro (Jan. 26, 2020); Schwartz, What the El Mozote Massacre Can Teach Us About Trump’s War on the Press, The Intercept (Jan. 28, 2020); El Salvador general admits army carried out El Mozote massacre, Aljazeera (Jan. 25, 2020); Pierce, It’s a Bull Market for Bashing the Press. Under Conservative Governments, It Often Has Been, Esquire (Jan.27, 2020); Renteria, Salvadoran general admits army carried out infamous 1981 massacre, Reuters (Jan. 24, 2020).

[6] Zabiah #1 , supra.

[7] Alvarado, “The attorney general can ask the United States for information about El Mazote,” elfaro (Mar. 23, 2018).

[8] State Dep’t, 2019 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices: El Salvador (Mar. 11, 2020).

Spanish Court Upcoming Trial Over 1989 Murders of Salvadoran Jesuit Priests

On June 8, 2020, the Spanish National Court in Madrid will commence a trial over the November 16, 1989, murders in El Salvador of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. The sole defendant will be Inocente Orlando Montano, who at the time was a Colonel and the Vice-Minister of Public Security in that country and who on November 19, 2017, was extradited from the U.S., where he had been living, to Spain to stand trial.[1]

On May 20, 2011, the Spanish court had issued the equivalent of an indictment of 20 Salvadoran military officers, including Montano, for this horrible crime and thereafter requested El Salvador to extradite 15 of them still living in that country to Spain to stand trial, but the Salvadoran courts refused to do so. (As of November 2017, one of the four others had died, two were cooperating with the prosecution and one had been tried, convicted and imprisoned for this crime in El Salvador.) [2]

The law, including universal jurisdiction, facts and circumstances leading up to this trial have been discussed in many previous posts. [3]

The prosecution will be lead by attorneys from The Guernica Centre for International Justice and Spanish co-counsel Oilé & Sesé Abogadas. According to the Centre,

  • “The trial for the murder of the Jesuits and the two women they employed is extremely significant. This trial has the potential to reopen the discussion in Spain about the necessity and importance of an effective universal jurisdiction law. It also supports the ongoing realization that countries like Spain need to ensure that victims of human rights violations can find redress when legal avenues have been foreclosed in other jurisdictions due to restrictive legislation, corrupt judiciaries, impunity, or political opposition. This trial also comes at a time when Salvadoran civil society is struggling to push forward investigations and prosecutions in El Salvador following the Supreme Court’s repeal of the Amnesty Law in 2016, while simultaneously political sectors in El Salvador threaten to enact legislation that once again could shield those most responsible from prosecution and criminal sanctions.”

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[1] Bernabéu, Email: Trial Date Set for the Jesuits Massacre Case (Feb. 17, 2020); Former Salvadoran Military Officer Extradited from U.S. to Spain for Trial in Jesuits Murder Case, dwkcommentaries.com (December 1, 2017).

[2] Update on Status of Extradition of Defendants in Spain’s Criminal Case Regarding the 1989 Salvadoran Murders of the Jesuit Priests, dwkcommentareies.com (Aug. 22, 2016); Spain Ready to Proceed with Case Over the 1989 Killing of Jesuit Priests in El Salvador, dwkcommenaries.com (Nov. 19, 2017).

[3] See the posts listed in “The Jesuit Priests” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical:  EL SALVADOR.

Pope Francis Approves Beatification of Padre Rutilio Grande

On February 21, Pope Francis approved the beatification of Padre Rutilio Grande, a Salvadoran Jesuit priest who was murdered on March 12, 1977, by a Salvadoran death squad for his advocacy for people who were persecuted by the country’s military and death squads.[1]

His ministry and slaying inspired then Archbishop Oscar Romero (now Saint Romero) to become an  outspoken critic of the country’s military and advocate for El Salvador’s oppressed.[2]

Pope Francis has long expressed his intense admiration for both Grande and Romero. At the entrance to his room at the Vatican hotel where the Pope lives is a piece of cloth with Romero’s blood on it and notes from a catechism teaching Grande delivered. Last year during a visit to Panama, the Pope said,“I was a devotee of Rutilio even before coming to know Romero better. When I was [a priest] in Argentina, his life influenced me, his death touched me. He said what he had to say, but it was his testimony, his martyrdom, that eventually moved Romero. This was the grace.”

The official Vatican News stated the news of this beatification as follows:

  • “The Pope also recognized the martyrdom of the Servants of God Rutilio Grande García, a Jesuit priest, and his 2 lay companions, who were killed in hatred of the faith in El Salvador on March 12, 1977.”
  • “Murdered before the start of the Salvadoran civil war, Father Grande, who was a close friend of fellow Salvadoran and martyr, Saint Oscar Romero, became an icon for human rights in rural Latin America.”
  • “Known for his vigorous defence of poor, the Jesuit priest, an elderly man and a teenager were shot by a right-wing death squad as they were travelling in a car outside the village where he was born.”
  • “The horror that the assassination of Fr. Grande generated led Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador to take up the Jesuit’s mantle as a defender of the poor.  Three years later, Romero would succumb to the assassins’ bullets for his outspoken criticism of the military and work on behalf of El Salvador’s oppressed.”
  • “The decree on the martyrdom of Fr. Grande and his two companions does away with the need for a miracle through their intercession to qualify for beatification, the final step before sainthood, for which a miracle would be required.  The beatification date will be declared at a later date.”

In March 2003, this blogger was in El Salvador and attended a memorial mass for Father Grande at the church in the village of El Paisnal, where he had served as the parish priest, and stopped to pay my respects at Grande’s memorial on the road to the village where he had been murdered.[3]

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[1] Gomes, Indian martyr, Devasahayam, cleared for sainthood, Vatican News  (Feb. 22, 2020); Reuters, Pope Moves Slain Salvadoran Priest, Icon for Poor, Closer to Sainthood, N.Y. Times (Feb. 22, 2020); Assoc. Press, Pope Oks Beatification for Rutilio Grande, Salvadoran Martyr, N.Y. Times (Feb. 22, 2020).

[2] See posts listed in the “ Oscar Romero” section of List of Posts to dwkcommentaries—Topical: El Salvador.

[3] See Remembering Oscar Romero in Film, dwkcommentaries.com (Oct. 15, 2011) (includes photos of the sanctuary during the memorial mass and of the Grande memorial).

Former Cuban Judge Criticizes Cuban Legal System   

On January 13,  Edel González Jiménez, a former high-ranking Cuban judge who left the island in 2018 and now lives in Peru, told a press conference in Madrid, Spain about the many problems in Cuba’s legal system. Other details were added by Javier Larrondo, the president of Prisoners Defenders and a longtime anti- Castro activist.[1]

González Jiménez’s Comments

Based upon recently released Cuban government secret documents, González said the Cuban government is holding thousands of inmates on dubious charges and has the highest incarceration rate in the world. These records show that Cuba’s prison system holds more than 90,000 prisoners. (Previously the Cuban government had only publicly released the figure once, in 2012, when it claimed that 57,000 people were jailed.)

“What is important is what is behind those numbers,” Mr. González said. “People are in prison for stealing flour, because they are pizza makers and the government has set up a system where the only way to get flour is by buying in the black market from someone who stole it from the state.”

González said that Cuba’s judiciary was often controlled by state security forces that can manufacture cases against political opponents. “What happens, for example, when an issue has a political nature? Well then there is fear [by the judges of losing their jobs]. And that fear . . .can have a negative impact on justice” by “judges, fearful of losing their jobs, go along with evidence that is often flagrantly concocted.”

In ordinary criminal cases, however, judges are independent and free of government influence. González added, “I never received, in 17 years, any interference from either the [Communist Party of Cuba] or the Government.”

“The repression that I am seeing against some of my people is not what I want for my people. I have a lot of fear about the future. Every day Cubans face more fear. I don’t want blood on the streets of Cuba, I don’t want these imprisonments.”

González Jiménez also said that the majority of the Cuban people “unconditionally had accepted the system implemented by Havana more than 60 years ago.” Therefore, “the only thing we are asking for is that in the field of human rights, whether through mercy, it is understood that we have to work on the issue and that we have to take steps forward.” Indeed, “there are countless government officials who have a high sensitivity, who know that these human rights issues are hitting them and are delegitimizing even the country’s own image.” Such officials, however, are held back by their “own internal fear.”

González also raised a proposal for “national internal inclusive dialogue” between the State, opponents, dissidents and social sectors for the regulation of fundamental rights in the Cuban legal system.

Still, Mr. González insisted that there was time for Cuba to resolve its problems internally, and he warned against any outside interference. “We will not allow anybody to impose anything, that should be clear to all countries. Cubans can manage this alone without any kind of interference,” he said. This process “must be “sovereign, free and transparent.”

Mr. González also cautioned against coming to the conclusion that the high number of prisoners in Cuba was proof of a failed society and judiciary. Other countries, he said, had fewer prisoners, but that reflected a high level of “impunity” and failure to prosecute common and violent crime, while Cuba instead “maintains social order.”

Javier Larrondo’s Comments

Another participant in the press conference was Javier Larrondo, who runs an organization called Prisoners Defenders in Madrid, and who publicly announced his call for the Cuban government to respect civil rights.

“This [press conference] is an important blow to the regime,” Mr. Larrondo said.

Mr. Larrondo released Cuban court documents showing that dozens of men received sentences between two and four years in prison for offenses falling broadly under the category of “antisocial” — a phrase that can be applied to people who are unemployed, who do not belong to civic organizations associated with the state, who behave disorderly and harass tourists, and who associate with similarly “antisocial” people. In case after case, the description of the crime is identical, said Larrondo, suggesting that the police cut and pasted the language in the investigative report.

Cuban Prisoners Defenders and Civil Right Defenders reported that more than 90,000 people were in prison on the Island , where about 99% of the citizens tried are found guilty. In addition, Larrondo and Erik Jennische, director for Latin America of Civil Rights Defenders, said that in Cuba there are 37,458 people “in other situations of judicial and police control,” which gives a total of 127,458 convicted. That  is an imposing number of people who, as their “first criminal sanction, are being deprived of liberty, something of extreme rigor, and really unusual in most criminal systems” and who are less likely go obtain early release.

This analysis of the data showed that Cuba is “the first country for (number of) persons deprived of liberty in the world”, taking into account its population of 11 million inhabitants. The Island would be ahead of the U.S., El Salvador and Turkmenistan, whose data has been published by the World Prison Institute for Crime and Justice Policy Research.

In the files of prisoners obtained and published by the organizations (with the identity of the condemned hidden) elements are repeated such as lack of labor ties with the so-called mass organizations (controlled by the regime), being “prone to crime” for associating with “similar people,” practicing the “siege of tourism” and altering public order, as arguments to condemn citizens to sentences of up to three years in prison for an alleged “danger index. “This formula, known as “pre-criminal social danger,” frequently has been applied to opponents and other critical citizens of the Government to remove them from the streets.

This accusatory procedure “is frequently used for its speed and efficiency against dissidents, entrepreneurs and any type of person who is considered an urgent danger to the regime, which entails not only preventive detention, but very summary processes that prevent the proper exercise of the defense.”

The previously mentioned documents, according to the New York Times, showed that approximately 92 percent of those accused in the more than 32,000 cases that go to trial in Cuba every year are found guilty. Nearly 4,000 people every year are accused of being “antisocial” or “dangerous,” terms the Cuban government uses to jail people who pose a risk to the status quo, without having a committed a crime.

Conclusion

Last year, Mr. González’s former boss, Rubén Remigio Ferro, president of the Cuban Supreme Court, told the state newspaper, Granma that although the administration of justice on the island is improving, “deficiencies” still exist, such as trial delays, misguided decisions and a lack of professionalism. More recently President Miguel Díaz-Canel told judges while inaugurating the new judicial calendar that the courts must “remain a system that is distinguished first and foremost by its ethics, its transparency and the honest behavior of its members.”

From this blogger’s U.S. perspective, González’s career as a judge and his professed support for the Cuban Revolution should give these criticisms greater weight for Cuban officials. On the other hand, it was surprising there was no mention of at least a partial explanation of Cuban prosecution of individuals for “antisocial” behavior. Cuba knows that the much more powerful U.S. has a long history of hostility towards Cuba and has recruited some Cubans to engage in activities critical of the Cuban regime. Therefore, it arguably could be a matter of self-defense for the regime to arrest at least some of these individuals.

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[1] Robles, Ex-Judge Reveals Secrets of How Cuba Suppresses Dissent, N.Y. times (Jan. 13,   2020); 8,400 Cubans Serve Time for “Pre-Criminal Social Dangerousness,” Civil Rights Defenders (Jan. 13, 2020); In Cuba ‘the fear’ of judges threatens justice, says a lawyer, Diario de Cuba (Jan. 14, 2020); Cuba’s police state exposed:’an important blow to the regime,’ Democracy Digest (Jan. 14, 2020);  González: “Many high-ranking officials of the Cuban government are hurt by repression against dissent,” Archyde (Jan. 13, 2020). González also gave an extensive interview to ABC International, but the English translation is difficult to follow. (Gavińa, Edel González: “Many high-ranking officials of the Cuban government are hurt by repression against dissent,” ABC International (Jan. 14, 2020).)