Expats frequently meet unexpected anti-American opinions when they drift into discussions of world affairs with Latin Americans.
There are plenty of valid reasons for that, but most new expats who have relied on the U.S. media for years never really have been exposed to the Latin side of the story.
For sure there is some jealously of the wealthy country to the north. The animosity is a lot deeper.
The action by Pope Francis to designate the murdered El Salvadoran archbishop, Óscar Romero, a martyr provides a good hook to examine U.S. policies in Latin America. Most Americans probably could not find El Salvador on a map, much less remember its brutal history in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
They might be surprised to learn that Costa Rica’s own Óscar Arias Sánchez was instrumental in the 1980s and early 1990s to outline with other presidents the Esquipulas Peace Agreement that ending Central American warfare with the intervention of the United Nations.
The peace plan generally is seen as ending the civil war in Nicaragua, but it also led to the demobilization of U.S. backed Contras in Honduras and had an effect on the El Salvador civil war. Costa Rica was directly involved in the Nicaraguan conflict as a staging area for Contras, as a supply point and an emitter of propaganda. The principal Contra radio station was in San José.
Arias was the president who in conjunction with the Asamblea Legislativa ruled that Oliver North, the then-U.S. ambassador and the Central Intelligence Agency station chief would be forever barred from entering Costa Rica.
Much information is available locally on how the Nicaraguan civil war affected Costa Rica. Less well known to expats was the situation in El Salvador in which Óscar Romero played a key role.
Simply put, the military junta in El Salvador was prepared to kill everyone to remain in power. The death squads were not very selective, and if someone was a university student, of military age or an intellectual, they were going to be dragged from their homes and shot.
Romero was known as a conservative, but his opinions changed drastically when a friend was killed by a death squad. He preached against human rights violations until his murder March 24, 1980, as he celebrated Mass in a hospital chapel.
The best demonstration of the brutality of the civil war is what happened to the remote town of El Mozote. The residents had been promised protection as a military unit moved in seeking Marxists rebels. Many inhabitants of the area moved into the town on the promise of protection.
Instead, Dec. 12, 1981, the Salvadoran soldiers killed 800 persons, including children and women. They used rape as an instrument of war and then killed their victims.
At this time, the Salvadoran junta was supported strongly by the United States and the Reagan administration. The bullets that killed the villagers most certainly were made in the U.S. The troops had been trained by U.S. personnel.
The U.S. Embassy in San Salvador dismissed reports of the massacre. Reagan administration officials branded Ray Bonner, The New York Times reporter who broke the story the following January, as an advocate journalist. A Washington Post reporter, Alma Guillermoprieto, who also visited the massacre site, was incorrectly said to have worked earlier for a Communist newspaper in México.
It turned out that the extent of the U.S. Embassy investigation was to have a plane fly over the site long after the bodies had been buried.
In the face of harsh criticism,The Times recalled Bonner, who later quit the newspaper.
Eventually, after the 1992 peace accords, an Argentine forensic team unearthed the many hundreds of bodies.
El Mozote is just one of many U.S. missteps in Latin America. Assisting the assassination that led to the suicide of Salvador Allende in Chile was another. The change of government brought in the Pinochete dictatorship that murdered and tortured thousands.
As for impact on the United States there is the allegations by Gary Webb, a California newsman, that the Central Intelligence Agency was fueling the 1980s crack epidemic by importing cocaine from Central America to raise money for the Contras. The San Jose Mercury News eventually repudiated Webb’s three-part series and caused him to quit.
Subsequent investigations, including one by the CIA, substantiated many of his allegations.
The history of U.S. official and unofficial actions in Latin America, of course, go back much further. Everyone here knows about William Walker and the 1856 Costa Rican campaign against him.
So those new U.S. expats who seek to speak intelligently about relations between Latin America and their home country have a lot of homework ahead.