A truth commission in the USA?

Baptist theologian David Gushee says … yes, we need one.
I hear similar calls from many of my friends around the world. Dr. Rene Padilla recently published this open letter to President Obama in the Journal of the Latin American Theological Fellowship. The article is reprinted with permission below the jump …

This letter was originally published in the Journal of Latin American Theology: Christian Reflections from the Latino South, 4, no. 1 (2009) [ISSN 1669-8649]. Reprinted by permission of both author and editor.
Open letter to President Barack Obama:
Very sincere congratulations to you for your election as the forty-fourth President of the United States of America! I know that it is rather unlikely that this open letter will ever be read by you. Still, I feel compelled to write it in order to express the hopes and concerns that I and many millions of people in the Majority World in general and Latin America in particular, I am sure, have regarding your role as president of your country.
Needless to say, you have an extremely difficult task ahead of you. You are succeeding Mr. George W. Bush, a man who has made his name as the very worst president in the history of the United States. His dreadful legacy to you is a country that is now harvesting the crop of unbelievable dishonesty and amazing ineptitude that characterized his eight-year administration. His legacy can hardly be worse than it is: two wars, the deepest financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and a massive loss of confidence in the United States and its institutions around the world.
In view of the facts, quite frankly, I was rather surprised to read your response to the question as to whether you would favor an investigation of possible crimes committed by the Bush administration. “I don’t believe that anybody is above the law,” you replied, but “we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.” Your response reminded me of the typical argument used by people who rejected the idea of taking to court the crimes against humanity committed under the military dictatorship (1976 to 1982) in my country of adoption, Argentina. If abuse of power on the part of those who hold power is not legally judged, does not that mean that they are regarded as above the law? Based on big lies—the existence of weapons of mass destruction and the presence of Al Qaeda—the invasion of Iraq, with its tragic results in terms of loss of lives and the unavoidable economic repercussions, is by itself enough reason to look back and make sure that the culprits, beginning with Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney, are penalized. To that crime should be added a whole list of ways in which power was abused during their administration: from rendition and detention programs and coersive interrogation methods, including torture, to illegal wiretapping; from the policy of rewarding political friends and punishing political enemies to the handing of billions of dollars in no-bid contracts to politically connected companies such as Halliburton in the failed reconstruction of Iraq; from the disregard of international law related to human rights to the meddling with scientific reports on the problem of climate change.
Most of these abuses of power are well documented, so there is no reason why Bush and the high-ranking members of his administration should be excused from being brought to justice. You are to be commended for your executive orders to forbid torture and to close down secret prisons overseas and the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, but you are not justified to use Bush-style state-secret arguments to get a trial court to dismiss lawsuits without evidence. If the law is to be vindicated, the time for impunity is over! As Robert Jackson, a leading prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials against Nazi criminals stated at the beginning of the trials in October 1945, “We are able to do away with tyranny and violence and aggression by those in power against the rights of people . . . only when we make all men [and women] answerable to the law.” If you do not look backwards to judge what Bush and his associates have done during their “war on terror,” you may be unintentionally giving a green light for their crimes to be repeated in the future. As George Santayana put it, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Accordingly, in Argentina, one of the accomplishments of the judicial power under President Nestor Kirchner and President Cristina Kirchner has been prison sentences, some of them for life, for people involved in kidnapping or killing civilians during the milatary dictatorship. General Jorge Rafael Videla, for instance, is under arrest for life. According to the latest statistics, 534 people have been taken to court in relation to violations of human rights during the years of state terrorism in this country. The crimes committed during the “war on terror” waged by the Bush administration around the world surpass by far the crimes committed during the “dirty war” waged by the military dictatorship in Argentina. Ideally, their perpetrators should be judged by the International Criminal Court, created in 2002 in The Hague, Netherlands, for the prosecution of state officials. The least one could expect of a US president concerned for justice is that he, in line with the so-called “Carter doctrine,” place human rights at the center of US foreign policy.
For now, however, the main topic in your presidential agenda is to get the economy of your country out of the deep hole in which it currently languishes. It is probably no exaggeration to say that no president of the United States since Franklin D. Roosevelt has had to face such a big challenge. You have publicly recognized that the Republican idea that economic recovery can be attained through another round of Bush-style tax cuts is already discredited by the outcome of the application of this policy in the past. Accordingly, in your campaign you rejected the “worn out dogmas” and promised real change based on a different ideological perspective. Once elected, however, you seem to have fallen into the trap of the bipartisan fantasy and have already wasted too much of your political capital—the capital given you by massive popular support especially on the part of young people—by concentrating on trying to make sure that the solution projected to stop the economic downslide expresses bipartisan agreement. The way that Congress has dealt with your economic stimulus project clearly shows how your desire to transcend partisanship can easily result in the empowerment of politicians who are at the service of the corporate hierarchy that has been and still is in control of the economy not only of the United States but also, to a large extent, of the world. The arguments used by the Republicans to reject your project are the same sophistry they used for eight years to support the economic policies that caused the situation that now requires the recovery measures.
The economy of your country is currently in free fall, the logical consequence of the neoliberal capitalist ideology of people who will try to use you as their corporate valet. What started with housing in the United States has become a financial crisis affecting millions of people all over the world. Restoring order in the economy must not mean restoring the status quo along the lines of the elitist ideology that favors the interests of the rich and disregards an equitable distribution of wealth. The trickle-down economy has proved to be a myth; the ideology on which it is based is totally discredited. No space should be left for the representatives of that economy and that ideology to continue to use the government to increase profits for a materially privileged sector of the population—to keep the wealthy rich by placing economic values above life values. The power of their corporate lobbies has to be brought totally under control. From this perspective, one wonders how much cooperation on this issue you can expect on the part of your Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, a former Wall Street man. An equitable distribution of wealth is not merely an economic but also a moral issue. As a matter of fact, it is closely related to the question of justice, which, according to the Judeo-Christian tradition, is at the heart of ethics.
According to Rebeca Grynspan, director of the United Nations Development Program for Latin America and the Caribbean, poverty in Latin America will grow between 10 and 15 percent this year, and about four million people will lose their jobs. This means that the percentage of poor will grow from 35 to 40 percent of the population, that is, from almost 200 million to 228 million. In a globalized world, the irresponsible management of the financial market in the United States is resulting in an increase in the number of poor in Latin America and all over the world.
Traditionally, the governments in Latin American countries have represented an oligarchy whose origin can often be traced back to colonial times. In the early 1980s, under the spell of the so-called Washington Consensus, promoted by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization, they bought the neoliberal capitalist package. By so doing, they became the main collectors of millions and millions of dollars for the benefit of multinational corporations and the transnational class. The distance between the rich and the poor grew in an unprecedented way, so much so that the 1980s and 1990s have been regarded as “the lost decades” in terms of development.
In the last few years, however, several Latin American countries have seen the emergence of a new brand of politicians: Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, and Fernando Lugo in Paraguay. Sometimes (especially in the case of Chávez!) you may question their “populist” style, but the fact remains that the socioeconomic and political platform of these presidents, all of them democratically elected, gives priority to changes that are urgently needed for the sake of a more just society—the same kind of changes that you included in your agenda during your presidential campaign! Despite their mistakes, these governments are trying hard to dismantle the structures that perpetuate injustice, exploitation, and the maginalization of the poor. They have rejected the bankrupt idea that the invisible hand of the free—unregulated—market, left to itself, will establish an order of justice and peace. Instead, they have fully accepted the responsibility that, as those who have been elected to govern, they have to do everything within their reach to make sure that everybody within the borders of their respective countries has an equal opportunity to enjoy life to the full. They all share the view expressed by Lula at a recent meeting of all these presidents held in Belem, Brazil, in connection with the third assembly of the World Social Forum: “The developed world used to tell us what we in Latin America had to do. They used to be infallible while we were incapable. They told us that the government was unable to do anything, that the market would bring development to our countries. But the market broke up because of irresponsibility and lack of control. The word for today is that another world is possible. More than that, it is necessary and unavoidable that we look for a new world order.”
President Obama, I would encourage you not to assume that these governments are to be discarded as opposed to democracy and inimical to the best human ideals that inspire your own administration. I suspect that if you were in their shoes you would probably have the same drive to make sure that the amazing wealth that these countries have in terms of natural resources does not become a “resource curse”—a way to attract corporate interests that leave little or no room for local development. Give them the benefit of the doubt and look for ways to establish the sort of relations with them that will honor your commitment to “a new era of transparency and openness.” I do believe that if the relations of your government with them are based on mutual respect and reciprocity, you will find in them valuable partners for the task of building a better world: not a world devoted to the ideology of consumerism but one more in accord with what God wants for the whole of humankind in terms of justice and shalom (wholeness, fullness of life).
Because of the prominent role that the United States has in world politics, its foreign policies have far-reaching effects. In your inaugural speech you stated that the Cold War was won “not just with missiles and tanks” but with leaders who saw that “our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please.” The time has come for the United States to design a foreign policy that does not reflect corporate interests, as has often been the case up to now, but an honest search for solidarity and reciprocity among all nations. I regard this as one of your most urgent tasks especially in light of the worldwide loss of confidence toward your country—an understandable result of a militaristic approach to foreign relations during the war-on-terror period, a defense budget of 500 billion dollars, and the expenditure of 300 million dollars per day in Iraq. Your Secretary of State, Mrs. Hilary Clinton, has already announced her objective of “renewing American leadership.” One fears what that may mean coming from a person who, at least as a senator, supported the invasion of Iraq! I cannot but hope that the pursuit of her objective is not carried out in terms of an imperialistic agenda inspired by the idea of “Manifest Destiny” but in terms of a service leadership that gives priority to the common good on a global scale. Under Fidel Castro, Cuba has won the heart of many people in Latin America not because of his Marxist ideology but because his poor country has provided, free of charge, training to hundreds of medical doctors in the first-class School of Medicine in Havana, and they are now serving among the poor in several countries. Also, many Cuban young people are engaged in campaigns to eliminate illiteracy in countries like Venezuela and Bolivia. What would happen to the image of the United States globally if instead of the hundreds of military bases that your country maintains all over the world, it had service posts (like the Peace Corps in times of President John F. Kennedy) sponsored by the Department of State, staffed with young people willing and able to help people, especially the poor, with regard to their basic needs?
Two more items should be given priority in your foreign policy agenda. The first relates to an acute problem that afflicts most countries in the world and may be regarded as the main cause for poverty in Latin America: corruption. The misuse of public funds by the political class is often compounded by the corruption of the executives of corporations, many of them from the United States, for whom the use of bribes in the signing of contracts is taken for granted. As Andrés Oppenheimer wrote several years ago, the fight against corruption will not be won quickly without changes in the laws in the United States and Europe to impose a more strict control over their multinational corporations and banks.
The other item deserving serious attention in US foreign policy is the question of climate change. No other country is so deeply implicated in this global problem as your own, yet your country has refused even to sign the Kyoto Protocol—the protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The anthropogenic interference with the climate system is producing its worst effects in poorer countries, including several in Latin America. In fact, there is plenty of evidence to substantiate the close relationship between climate change and poverty. Could it be that at this critical time in history God is allowing you to occupy this high political position precisely for the purpose of doing something about bringing together real concern for justice to the poor with real concern for the care of God’s creation? “He has told you, [President Obama,] what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).
C. René Padilla
President Emeritus
Kairos Foundation
Buenos Aires, Argentina