Innocent people, indeed, always suffer
Harold Pinter — Nobel Lecturer
But before I come back to the present I would like to look at the recent past, by which I mean United States foreign policy since the end of the Second World War.
I believe it is obligatory upon us to subject this period to at least some kind of even limited scrutiny, which is all that time will allow here.
Everyone knows what happened in the Soviet Union and throughout Eastern Europe during the post-war period: the systematic brutality, the widespread atrocities, the ruthless suppression of independent thought. All this has been fully documented and verified.
But my contention here is that the US crimes in the same period have only been superficially recorded, let alone documented, let alone acknowledged, let alone recognised as crimes at all.
I believe this must be addressed and that the truth has considerable bearing on where the world stands now.
Although constrained, to a certain extent, by the existence of the Soviet Union, the United States' actions throughout the world made it clear that it had concluded it had carte blanche to do what it liked.
Low intensity conflict
Direct invasion of a sovereign state has never in fact been America's favoured method.
In the main, it has preferred what it has described as 'low intensity conflict'.
Low intensity conflict means that thousands of people die but slower than if you dropped a bomb on them in one fell swoop.
It means that you infect the heart of the country, that you establish a malignant growth and watch the gangrene bloom.
When the populace has been subdued — or beaten to death — the same thing — and your own friends, the military and the great corporations, sit comfortably in power, you go before the camera and say that democracy has prevailed.
This was a commonplace in US foreign policy in the years to which I refer.
The tragedy of Nicaragua was a highly significant case.
I choose to offer it here as a potent example of America's view of its role in the world, both then and now.
Sir, I am in charge of a parish in the north of Nicaragua
I was present at a meeting at the US embassy in London in the late 1980s.
The United States Congress was about to decide whether to give more money to the Contras in their campaign against the state of Nicaragua.
I was a member of a delegation speaking on behalf of Nicaragua but the most important member of this delegation was a Father John Metcalf.
The leader of the US body was Raymond Seitz (then number two to the ambassador, later ambassador himself).
Father Metcalf said:
Raymond Seitz had a very good reputation as a rational, responsible and highly sophisticated man.
He was greatly respected in diplomatic circles.
He listened, paused and then spoke with some gravity:
'Sir, I am in charge of a parish in the north of Nicaragua.
My parishioners built a school, a health centre, a cultural centre.
We have lived in peace.
A few months ago a Contra force attacked the parish.
They destroyed everything: the school, the health centre, the cultural centre.
They raped nurses and teachers, slaughtered doctors, in the most brutal manner.
They behaved like savages.
Please demand that the US government withdraw its support from this shocking terrorist activity.'
'Father,' he said, 'let me tell you something. In war, innocent people always suffer.'
There was a frozen silence. We stared at him. He did not flinch.
Innocent people, indeed, always suffer.
Finally somebody said:
Seitz was imperturbable. 'I don't agree that the facts as presented support your assertions,' he said.
As we were leaving the Embassy a US aide told me that he enjoyed my plays. I did not reply.
I should remind you that at the time President Reagan made the following statement:
'But in this case “innocent people” were the victims of a gruesome atrocity subsidised by your government, one among many.
If Congress allows the Contras more money further atrocities of this kind will take place.
Is this not the case?
Is your government not therefore guilty of supporting acts of murder and destruction upon the citizens of a sovereign state?'
'The Contras are the moral equivalent of our Founding Fathers.'
The United States supported the brutal Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua for over 40 years.
The Nicaraguan people, led by the Sandinistas, overthrew this regime in 1979, a breathtaking popular revolution.
The Sandinistas weren't perfect.
They possessed their fair share of arrogance and their political philosophy contained a number of contradictory elements.
But they were intelligent, rational and civilised.
They set out to establish a stable, decent, pluralistic society.
The death penalty was abolished.
Hundreds of thousands of poverty-stricken peasants were brought back from the dead.
Over 100,000 families were given title to land.
Two thousand schools were built.
A quite remarkable literacy campaign reduced illiteracy in the country to less than one seventh.
Free education was established and a free health service.
Infant mortality was reduced by a third.
Polio was eradicated.
Dangerous example was being set
The United States denounced these achievements as Marxist/Leninist subversion.
In the view of the US government, a dangerous example was being set.
If Nicaragua was allowed to establish basic norms of social and economic justice, if it was allowed to raise the standards of health care and education and achieve social unity and national self respect, neighbouring countries would ask the same questions and do the same things.
There was of course at the time fierce resistance to the status quo in El Salvador.
I spoke earlier about 'a tapestry of lies' which surrounds us.
Taken generally by the media
President Reagan commonly described Nicaragua as a 'totalitarian dungeon'.
This was taken generally by the media, and certainly by the British government, as accurate and fair comment.
But there was in fact no record of death squads under the Sandinista government.
There was no record of torture.
There was no record of systematic or official military brutality.
No priests were ever murdered in Nicaragua.
There were in fact three priests in the government, two Jesuits and a Maryknoll missionary.
El Salvador and Guatemala
The totalitarian dungeons were actually next door, in El Salvador and Guatemala.
The United States had brought down the democratically elected government of Guatemala in 1954 and it is estimated that over 200,000 people had been victims of successive military dictatorships.
Six of the most distinguished Jesuits in the world were viciously murdered at the Central American University in San Salvador in 1989 by a battalion of the Alcatl regiment trained at Fort Benning, Georgia, USA.
That extremely brave man Archbishop Romero was assassinated while saying mass.
It is estimated that 75,000 people died.
Why were they killed?
They were killed because they believed a better life was possible and should be achieved.
That belief immediately qualified them as communists.
They died because they dared to question the status quo, the endless plateau of poverty, disease, degradation and oppression, which had been their birthright.
Poverty stricken once again — 'Democracy' had prevailed
The United States finally brought down the Sandinista government.
It took some years and considerable resistance but relentless economic persecution and 30,000 dead finally undermined the spirit of the Nicaraguan people.
They were exhausted and poverty stricken once again.
The casinos moved back into the country.
Free health and free education were over.
Big business returned with a vengeance.
'Democracy' had prevailed.
But this 'policy' was by no means restricted to Central America.
It was conducted throughout the world.
It was never-ending.
And it is as if it never happened.