SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador – Reflecting on America’s role in another war-torn country, El Salvador, President Barack Obama paid homage Tuesday evening at the tomb of a Catholic archbishop gunned down by U.S.-linked death squads more than three decades ago.
Obama, who is facing questions from anxious lawmakers about U.S. military intervention in Libya, returns to Washington today.
On the last leg of a trip that also took him to Brazil and Chile, Obama pledged $200 million to Central America to battle a new menace: drug cartels.
He hailed President Mauricio Funes, the first leftist leader in El Salvador’s modern history, for his moderate policies and efforts to “overcome old divisions” still visible in this tiny nation.
Narcotics, public security and immigration were the main topics as Obama and Funes met in the ornate presidential palace, surrounded by tropical gardens.
But so was the weight of history, and Cold War forces that turned this nation into a proxy battleground in which 75,000 people died during the 1980-1992 civil war.
Moments before heading with Obama to a crypt beneath the Metropolitan Cathedral to honor slain Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, Funes thanked him for paying tribute to a prelate he called “the spiritual guide of this nation … and the universal validity of his message.”
Helicopters flew over the cathedral as Obama and Funes arrived. Obama, looking somber and occasionally shaking his head, listened as Funes spoke to him before a bronze reclined image of the slain archbishop. Obama lit a votive candle.
Gunmen assassinated Romero while he celebrated Mass on March 24, 1980, drawing an international outcry over massive human rights abuses in El Salvador. Romero, who had denounced death squads from the pulpit, became a martyr to leftists and the poor around Latin America.
The death squad was later proved to be linked to the U.S.-trained and financed army battling a Cuba-backed Marxist insurgency.
At a funeral Mass six days later, a bomb exploded and shots rang out, apparently from army gunmen on rooftops, sparking scenes of panic, terror and chaos among the throng of 250,000 faithful in attendance.