Technically Roses in December is unimpressive. An hour-long television documentary from the early ‘80s re-released in conjunction with Human Rights Watch, the image and sound are deeply muddied from video disintegration. The graphics are horribly dated and the soundtrack’s dippy folk guitar is redolent of PBS kid shows from the ‘70s. These are superficial criticisms, but they were my first impressions.
They were quickly eclipsed by the images and the story being told. Directors Ana Carrigan and Bernard Stone start with a fact. We see bodies being dug up in El Salvador and learn that soldiers serving the military dictatorship have assassinated a group of nuns and a missionary named Jean Donovan in December 1980. And then we are told how the outrage of this simple fact was distorted and ignored by the United States government.
Secretary of State Alexander Haig did little to investigate the matter after initially pledging to do so. Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ronald Reagan’s ambassador to the United Nations said, “The nuns were clearly not just nuns. The nuns were also political activists. We ought to be a little bit more clear-cut about this than we usually are.” A frustrated Bill Ford, brother of murdered nun Edith Ford, says, “This mindless policy of supporting these murderers in El Salvador was going to take precedence over any human decency or any factual consideration and I can’t tell you how difficult that is for me to accept just as an ordinary American citizen.” The State Department charged the Donovan family $3,500 for helping to return her body to the United States.
Having described the reaction of the United States, Carrigan and Stone refute the official charges of radicalism by telling Donovan’s life story. She was raised in Connecticut to a middle class family. She was sociable, rode horses, went to a good college, and got a lucrative job in advertising. Dissatisfied with her life, she became more involved with the Catholic Church and with missionary work. When she told her parents she was going to El Salvador, they didn’t know where it was. She quickly became passionate in her work. In a letter she wrote, “I can’t quite put my finger on it, but something inside me is different.”
She was immediately submerged in a terrifying situation. The country was embroiled in a civil war and the Catholic Church was one of the few institutes of power that held wide appeal and could speak out against the military government in El Salvador. As a result priests were relentlessly attacked and persecuted. Donovan was attracted to the charismatic Archbishop Oscar Romero and his assassination in March 1980 dealt a terrible blow. He is quoted as saying, “The persecution of the church is a result of defending the poor.”
In the moving final act of the documentary, Carrigan and Stone rely heavily on Donovan’s diary and letters to friends to recreate the events and her mindset in the months leading up to her murder. She was torn between staying to assist the destitute, orphaned children and her friend’s pleas to leave the war torn country. She said, “I’m trying more and more to deal with the social sin of the third world. It’s not an easy question.” The longer she stayed, she knew, the likelihood of her death grew.
Produced less than two years after the murder, Roses in December is more detailed on the personal story of Donovan’s life than the United States active support for military regimes in Latin American during the ‘80s. This may have been intentional, but the murder of Donovan and the nuns was one of many outrages in which the Reagan government deliberately ignored inconvenient atrocities.
Robert White, the US ambassador to El Salvador at the time of Donovan’s murder, emerges as the clearest and most insightful voice on these matters. Unfortunately placed at the end of the film, he describes exactly what happened:
The beginning and the end of an intelligent policy in El Salvador was the sending of United States military advisors to El Salvador and huge amounts of military equipment unconnected in any way to improvements in the human rights situation. Once you do that, you give the military of El Salvador a blank check and that’s the reason there’s no solution to the murder of Jean Donovan and the nuns and there’s not going to be any because there’s no sanction. The United States will give and give and give because they think that it’s a fight between communists and anti-communists, which is nonsense.
Roses in December is an important reminder of the legacy of US foreign policy in Latin America in the ‘80s, which is scarcely discussed or reported in a mainstream forum. Carrigan and Stone hardly ever resort to rhetorical anger to make their point. The facts speak for themselves. The graphic images of the nun’s bodies force the viewer to deal with the concrete horror of the atrocity.
The United States was not responsible for the death of Donovan, but they helped facilitate it through indirect military support and willful ignorance, certifying their guilt through obstruction of an investigation and smearing the victims as “radicals”.
Unfortunately, this bipolar Cold War mindset has since been appropriated by the current Bush administration to fight its “war on terror”. and we have already seen similar shameful results in Pakistan and the Middle East when a one-size-fits-all doctrine is applied to complex regional problems. Though crackled and dated, Roses in December is a sobering cautionary tale for the festering humanitarian crises of our times.