In 1980, when El Salvador was erupting in guerrilla war and military violence, the Carter administration sent a little-known Foreign Service officer as its new ambassador, hoping he could help the US-backed government find a reformist middle ground. Instead, Robert White became an outspoken critic of the assassinations and massacres being carried out by US-trained military units and private right-wing death squads. His views cost him his career but earned him the respect of many Salvadorans and the vindication of history.
His brief tenure in San Salvador was marked by atrocities such as the assassination of Catholic Archbishop Óscar Romero in March 1980 while he was saying Mass in the national cathedral, and the abduction and killing that December of four American women, two church workers, a nun and a lay missionary.
Whiteworked to promote human rights, economic reforms and political negotiations between leftist rebels and El Salvador's junta. But he found himself at loggerheads with the rightist military and establishment, which had powerful allies in Washington and Miami.
White began denouncing security abuses in diplomatic cables, then in interviews and congressional testimony. He called the right-wing leader Roberto D'Aubuisson a "pathological killer" and accused him of orchestrating the execution of Romero. White also accused the Salvadoran national guard of murdering the four American women, two of whom he had dined with the night before their disappearance. He was there when the women's bodies were dug up, and said angrily, "This time the bastards won't get away with it."
As well as death threats in El Salvador the ambassador faced opposition from Washington hawks; Senator Jesse Helmscompared his posting to El Salvador to "a torch tossed in a pool of oil." After coming into conflict with Secretary of State Alexander Haig, White was removed from his post less than two weeks after Ronald Reagan took office. He retired, claiming that he had been forced out for political reasons.
He spent the next three decades speaking out on US policy and official abuses in Latin America while holding a series of academic and campaigning posts. In 1989 he was named president of the Center for International Policy, a liberal think. "US policy toward Latin America can be summed up in three words: fear of revolution," he said. "We blinked at repression and participated in the perversion of democracy."
Robert Edward White, diplomat and activist: born Melrose, Massachusetts 21 September 1926; married Maryanne Cahill (two daughters, one son, and one daughter deceased, one son deceased); died Arlington, Virginia 14 January 2015.
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