Columnists

Matthew Behrens
Does Ottawa believe the Salvadoran government is terrorist?

| March 21, 2014
Photo courtesy of Matthew Behrens

It was down to the wire, but last week, Salvador Sánchez Cerén emerged as the next president of El Salvador on behalf of the FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front). A legal political party since 1992, the FMLN, under which Sánchez Cerén was himself a commanding general, had previously been a political-military coalition resisting the Salvadoran death squad dictatorships whose brutal U.S.-sponsored wars of the 1980s claimed over 75,000 lives.

During that decade, when slogans such as "Be a Patriot, Kill a Priest" were popular among government forces who disappeared, tortured and massacred thousands with impunity -- including the assassination of priests conducting mass -- Salvadorans from all walks of life joined the resistance under the FMLN umbrella. (The FMLN was widely accepted as the only available outlet for opposition voices, recognized by the governments of France and Mexico in 1981 as "a representative political force.")

Since Sánchez Cerén's election -- indeed, since the previous election of an FMLN government in 2009, at whose inauguration sat then Canadian Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Peter Kent and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- the Canadian government has carried on normal relations with the government of El Salvador. In addition, 63 per cent of Salvadorans living abroad who were registered to vote supported the FMLN.

Against this backdrop, two Salvadorans who refused to participate in the U.S.- and Canadian-backed terrorist regime that ruled the country during the 1980s -- and who, like thousands of their fellow Salvadorans, became associated with the FMLN -- are now facing a Kafkaesque immigration nightmare. At the same time as Canada recognizes the FMLN government in San Salvador, it is trying to deport long-time Canadian residents Oscar Vigil of Toronto and Jose Figueroa of Langley, B.C., because of their former membership in the FMLN, claiming it is an organization "that there are reasonable grounds to believe engages, has engaged or will engage in acts" that include "espionage," "terrorism," and "subversion by force of any government."

Canada calls FMLN terrorist force

Both men are understandably scratching their heads, but their cases represent the tip of the iceberg in the ongoing, ideological abuse of Canada's immigration system, long documented by the likes of Reg Whitaker in his excellent study Double Standard, and now represented by hundreds of Palestinians, Tamils, Iraqis, Kurds, Libyans, and others who have resisted tyranny in their homelands only to face "security inadmissibility" hearings after coming to Canada. In years to come, it will be curious to see if any of the individuals with whom Prime Minister Harper expects to meet shortly in Kiev will eventually wind up as inadmissible to Canada given their own role in the subversion by force of the democratically elected government of Ukraine.

The terror designation is a broad and amorphous one applied based on political expedience, with Ottawa welcoming individuals who have ordered torture and assassination (Bush, Cheney, Rice, Clinton, Obama, Kissinger et al.) while turning away former British MP George Galloway and numerous members of the African National Congress (though Nelson Mandela's advocacy of armed struggle to subvert the apartheid regime did not prevent him obtaining honourary Canadian citizenship). Indeed, Salvadoran judge Eugenio Chicas, invited by one arm of the Canadian government to attend a 2009 conference, was detained for 24 hours in Toronto by border officials horrified to find that he had been a member of the FMLN. 

In an interview shortly thereafter with the Globe and Mail, Chicas noted: "They told me that because of my affiliation with the organization, they wouldn't let me into the country. I told them that the war in El Salvador ended 17 years ago and the FMLN is now the governing party in El Salvador, but they told me that was the information they had available."

The notion of "membership" in a terrorist organization is so broad that literally anyone who contributes to a newsletter, makes sandwiches for a meeting, or babysits the children of a group member is held to be a member of that named group and, therefore, complicit in anything wrong the group is alleged to have done. As always, the world of national security is full of flaky rationales and loose definitions that are vague, elastic and lacking in any sense of consistency, due process and rule of law.

Twice accepted, but overruled

Oscar Vigil freely admitted in filing his 2001 Canadian refugee claim that he had been involved with opposition activities since Grade 9, and that he became media co-ordinator for the FMLN in 1988, but left in 1994. Both he and his wife, Carolina, were high-profile journalists who were subject to death threats in El Salvador. They have since lived in Toronto, raising a family and becoming deeply involved in human rights-related community activities, with Vigil's by-line appearing frequently in the Spanish language press while he also works as executive director of the Canadian Hispanic Congress.

Although Vigil was declared inadmissible under security grounds, a 2009 pre-removal risk assessment concluded he was a person in need of protection who should not be deported, as "there is a lack of state protection for journalists or social activists in El Salvador" and that he "faces a risk to life or of cruel and unusual treatment or punishment" if returned there. A 2012 Canadian Border Services Agency (CBSA) assessment found he did not directly participate in "any combat, guerrilla or terrorist activities during his involvement with the FMLN" and further that he "does not constitute a danger to the security of Canada." With that second positive assessment, Vigil was assured he was on the road to permanent residency and Canadian citizenship.

In 2009, Vigil also applied for ministerial relief under an exemption in the immigration act that allows humanitarian considerations to be considered in granting someone permanent residency when they have been found inadmissible on "security" grounds. But five years later, he has received no response.

Instead, in early 2014, at the same time his wife and three children were being sworn in as Canadian citizens, the Canadian government decided to ignore the positive findings of its own two assessments and ordered Vigil to be removed. In a coldly worded rejection, immigration case management officer Karine Roy-Tremblay acknowledged El Salvador is one of the 10 most dangerous countries on the planet, but sternly lectured Vigil that "it will be up to him to make the right choices to protect his security and his life." Roy-Tremblay also rejected out of hand the disturbing re-emergence of death squads in El Salvador and numerous other Central American countries.

Approved in principle, but overruled

While Vigil and his legal team consider their options, B.C.'s Jose Figueroa is marking six months in church sanctuary. In a scene that perhaps felt more akin to his experience in El Salvador than Canada, he has had to assuage his children's worries over the intensive CBSA surveillance of the church where he is currently staying.

Figueroa and his wife came to Canada in 1997 but in May 2000, they were denied refugee status because the Canadian government claimed El Salvador was a safe place and NOT because Figueroa, a teacher, admitted he was a member of the FMLN from 1986 to 1995. Indeed, the denial of their claim in fact recognized the FMLN as a legitimate political party and made no mention of alleged terrorism. In 2004, he and his wife were approved in principle for permanent residency following a positive humanitarian and compassionate application that was determined with full knowledge of his FMLN membership, good news for the family of five (including three Canadian-born children, one of whom has autism). Unfortunately, permanent residency was never finalized and, in 2010, Figueroa was declared inadmissible to Canada. An outline of Mr. Figueroa's protracted dealings with Canadian immigration authorities can be found here.

Immigration's Karine Roy-Tremblay handled this case as well, and noted with a similarly cold bureaucratese that even though Figueroa's intensive work with his autistic son made a huge difference in the youngster's transfer to a regular classroom, removing the father would not be traumatic as the kids still have their mother and "with all the technology available for communication," he can provide emotional support for his family from afar.

In an additional sign of how far removed from history and reality Canadian immigration officers tend to be, Roy-Tremblay patronizingly lectures in a manner that most would find offensive were it applied to anti-apartheid partisans who joined the ANC, even while that organization occasionally engaged in armed actions. Roy-Tremblay notes Figueroa's predicament is "not the result of circumstances beyond Mr. Figueroa's control as he chose at one point in his life to become a member of an organization that was involved in the commission of terrorist acts," even though, as is usually the case, said acts were deemed terrorist because they were in resistance to the status quo of a terrorist government committing horrific atrocities against its people.

As Mark Danner recounts in his study of the Salvadoran government's terrorist El Mozote massacre -- in which 733 civilians were murdered in 1981, many decapitated by soldiers -- the most visible signs of the government's dirty war "were mutilated corpses that each morning littered the streets of El Salvador's cities. Sometimes the bodies were headless, or faceless, their features having been obliterated with a shotgun blast or an application of battery acid; sometimes limbs were missing, or hands or feet chopped off, or eyes gouged out; women's genitals were torn and bloody, bespeaking repeated rape; men's were often severed and stuffed into their mouths. And cut into the flesh of a corpse's back or chest was likely to be the signature of one or another of the 'death squads' that had done the work, the most notorious of which were the Union of White Warriors and the Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez Brigade."

D'Aubuisson and the death squads

The Union of White Warriors was headed by Major Roberto D'Aubuisson, who praised Hitler and also founded the right-wing ARENA Party (which until recently ran the Salvadoran government and came in a close second in the March elections). As Elizabeth DiNovella reported in The Progressive, "The United Nations Truth Commission found that D'Aubuisson also ordered the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero [murdered while celebrating mass]. D'Aubuisson's death squads, run from his office in the Legislative Assembly while he was president of the legislature, had close ties to the Salvadoran and U.S. intelligence services. The Reagan and Bush Administrations condoned D'Aubuisson's activities and lavished funds on El Salvador's military throughout the civil war." During her 2009 tour of the countryside, DiNovella noted everywhere she went, pictures of the death squad leader were proudly hung in ARENA Party headquarters. It is not known if any former ARENA party members in Canada are inadmissible on security grounds.

While an immigration bureaucrat insists on labelling the FMLN a terrorist entity, Canada's Public Safety Ministry confirmed in an interview with the CBC (at 7:52 of broadcast) that the FMLN is not on Canada's list of terrorist entities (nor it is listed thusly anywhere on the planet), nor is Figueroa listed as a restricted individual (indeed, former Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Peter Kent has even written a letter of support for Figueroa).

Among Figueroa's numerous upcoming legal actions is a court application seeking a certificate from the Public Safety Minister under s. 83.07 of the Criminal Code in order to clarify that notwithstanding the finding of bureaucrat Roy-Tremblay, Figueroa is "not a terrorist and has not been involved in a terrorist organization." Although this request was submitted in June 2013, and the minister was obligated to respond with 15 days, Figueroa received nothing, and is now hoping the Federal Court will order the Minister to comply with the law and produce the certificate.

Such contradictions are maddening, but the law is the law, these bureaucrats seem to imply, and so it is that the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) member who heard Figueroa's case in 2010 could turn him down while still remarking, "I completely accept your evidence and testimony that you had nothing to do with the more violent activities" of the FMLN and that "your only purpose was to co-ordinate matters so as to open up the minds of the people to new and better political realities."

The IRB decision also quoted from the Salvadoran Truth Commission, which "never referred to the FMLN as a terrorist organization. That's clear. It referred to the group as a political organization. On the other hand, it did refer to the terrorism through the death squads of the government." Notably, it is estimated that the FMLN was found responsible for only 5 per cent of the violence reported. The IRB member then says: "I can't argue that a repressive regime that makes use of death squads needs to be changed. Nobody can argue with that. The question is how the change is brought about."

The IRB member later states: "What the people appear to have been trying to do was to stop a regime that ran death squads. There's some legitimacy, I would say, in trying to arrange matters so that death squads can be eliminated."

A right to resist

Indeed, that legitimacy is encoded in United Nations General Assembly resolutions on the right to armed resistance to throw off the chains of oppression.

Even with the FMLN in power (they won by a margin of less than 1 per cent), being deported as a national security risk would place Vigil and Figueroa on the target list of right-wing elements that continue to hold significant power in El Salvador, including powerful elite sectors of society that waged and benefitted from the brutal war against the country's population.

These two cases no doubt make life fearful for others who fled the Salvadoran civil war, and with new legislation on tap to allow the stripping of Canadian citizenship for alleged connections to terrorism, many in the Salvadoran diaspora may wonder if they could be next, especially if they speak out on such controversial topics as Canadian mining interests (and related repression) in El Salvador and other Central American countries.  

Three events to support these men and challenge the inadmissibility regime take place March 24 at 6 p.m. at Holy Trinity Church in downtown Toronto, March 28 at Langley's Walnut Grove Luthern Church, as well as a dinner in Toronto March 28.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. 'national security' profiling for many years.

Photo courtesy of Matthew Behrens.

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