Allies, Beware: The U.S. Is a Fair-Weather Friend
A 77-year-old Salvadoran general is deported in chains now that Americans have forgotten his good service.
By Edwin G. Corr And Elliott Abrams in the Wall Street Journal
It may be dangerous to be an enemy of the United States, but in recent decades it often has been almost as risky to be a friend. There was Ngo Dinh Diem, the first president of South Vietnam, overthrown and assassinated by his army in 1963 after losing American support. Or the thousands of Iraqis and Afghans who assisted American troops a decade ago but are still waiting for the visas for safe haven in the U.S. The uncomfortable truth is that America has too often treated former allies as expendable.
The drama that played out this year around Carlos Eugenio Vides Casanova is a reminder of what can happen when time passes and Americans forget. Gen. Vides was El Salvador’s minister of defense in the government of José Napoleón Duarte in the 1980s. Duarte was an American favorite, with plenty of backing from the Reagan administration and Democrats who understood his commitment to democracy and human rights. That included his desire to resist attacks from the communist guerrillas of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), who were supported by Cuba and Nicaragua’s Sandinistas.
Human-rights abuses were rampant when Duarte became president in 1984: Political killings by the military or death squads linked to it exceeded 800 per month in 1981, according to a RAND Corp. paper from a decade later. In an infamous attack in 1980 four American churchwomen were raped and murdered by national guard soldiers when Gen. Vides was the guard commander. But two separate investigations—by the U.S. in 1983 and an official Salvadoran “truth commission” established when the civil war ended in 1992—concluded that Mr. Vides played no role in those killings (though the latter report suggests he helped try to cover them up).
Together Duarte and Gen. Vides dramatically reduced death squad killings, which dropped to 23 a month in 1987, according to an Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis report the following year. U.S. diplomats in El Salvador during that period can attest that Duarte’s key partner in reducing abuses and taming the military was Gen. Vides. Right-wing oligarchs in El Salvador repeatedly approached the army with plans for a coup against Duarte, but Gen. Vides and other loyal senior officers blocked them.
Mr. Vides moved to the U.S. in 1989 because his safety in El Salvador could not be protected. He has since lived in Florida, and his children and grandchildren are all U.S. citizens.
Two cases, both filed in 1999, brought legal claims against him in American courts. The first was filed by the families of the murdered churchwomen. In 2000 a federal jury ruled that Gen. Vides was not liable for the killings. The second was brought by three people who had fled El Salvador after being tortured during the conflict. In 2002 a federal jury in that case did find Gen. Vides liable, under the theory of “command authority”—that as head of the military, he was ultimately responsible for the actions of nearly 55,000 soldiers and police.
Those who recall Gen. Vides’s efforts to curb human-rights abuses in the 1980s find that conclusion laughable and unjust. Nevertheless, Mr. Vides handed over hundreds of thousands of dollars of his assets when the judgment went against him. But his accusers also wanted him expelled from the U.S. And now, at age 77, he has been.
An immigration judge ruled on Aug. 16, 2012, that he should be deported under laws allowing such treatment for human-rights abusers. On March 11, 2015, Mr. Vides’s initial appeal was rejected and he was given 30 days to depart. He decided he would leave the U.S. and return to El Salvador while his attorneys appealed the case.
But allowing him to take a commercial flight home, where his brother stood ready to meet him, was too dignified for the U.S. government. Two weeks later Mr. Vides was pulled over while driving near his home, arrested, shackled hand and foot, and transported to the immigration jail in Jena, La. His car was left at the side of the road. After days of complaints by his attorneys he was finally taken back to El Salvador on April 8 aboard a special Department of Homeland Security flight at taxpayers’ expense.
Perhaps if Duarte were alive to defend Mr. Vides, the former general’s treatment would have been different. But in 1990, just months after leaving office, Duarte died of cancer at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where the U.S. government had paid for his care in view of all he had done to fight communist guerrillas and human-rights abuses. Mr. Vides has lived long enough to see his former American partners forget all that they asked him to do, and all that he did for the U.S.
The problem here isn’t relatively recent laws that deny human-rights abusers the right to live in the U.S. The problem is that officials forget the risks that their predecessors imposed on others, the circumstances in which they acted, and the debts owed to those who made American successes around the world possible. Mr. Vides is back in El Salvador, which is now a democracy, thanks partly to his efforts in the 1980s. He was there when the U.S. needed him. But that was a long time ago, and to the authorities, he’s now just an elderly man with a disputed past.
For anyone receiving American promises and blandishments today, the Vides story is—unfortunately for U.S. national security—a sad and cautionary tale.
Mr. Corr is a former U.S. ambassador to Peru, Bolivia and El Salvador (1985-88). Mr. Abrams is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and was a deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush and assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs in the Reagan administration (1985-89).