June 27, 2008
In 1981, only weeks into the first term of Ronald Reagan, Secretary of State Alexander Haig addressed the president’s obsession with fighting communism by assuring Reagan that El Salvador is “one we can win.”
Nearly 30 years later, as El Salvador approaches crucial national elections, it remains one of history’s tragic ironies that the fate of this tiny Central American nation may still hang on what we mean by an American victory there.
Peace accords in 1992 ended a brutal 12-year civil war that killed 75,000 people, mostly civilians. El Salvador might have emerged to become what nature had blessed it to be -- a tropical paradise -- and what real friendship with the United States could have helped it become -- a model for development and democracy.
Instead, 16 years after the war, conditions in El Salvador are as tenuous and as volatile as ever. This time, it is not open warfare but the slow agony of inequality, poverty and political repression that endangers the nation. Some say they fear another war if elections do not bring change.
This is why the special bond known as the “accompaniment,” forged between many North Americans and the people of El Salvador during the war years, is more important than ever.
It is worth reviewing some of the history. U.S. policy applied an anti-communist template that had failed from Vietnam to Central America, often thwarting the political revolutions needed to end the vicious exploitation of the poor by dictators and wealthy elites still claiming colonial privilege.
Surprising many, the Catholic church, in the flush of Vatican II, sided with the poor in historic regional meetings at Medellín, Colombia; Puebla, Mexico; and Santa Domingo in the Dominican Republic, proclaiming that “God shows a preferential love for the poor,” and that the Gospel and social justice are inseparable.
Something extraordinary happened in the early 1980s as ordinary U.S. citizens started to pay attention to the impact of U.S. policy in Central America.
It came about in part because of the well-publicized assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980, the rape and murder of four American church women later that same year, and the 1989 massacre of six Jesuits and their companions on the campus of the Jesuit university in San Salvador.
North American humanitarian groups and churches began sending delegations to El Salvador to act as witnesses and as human shields in the war zone. Their presence often protected people from both government and rebel forces.
Politics became intimate and personal as their encounter with the people of El Salvador opened the eyes of many North Americans to the truth that the Gospel only happens when it is lived fully. The death of Romero was only the most visible example of total self-sacrifice for the sake of justice. Thousands of catechists, teachers, lawyers, labor leaders, parents and children joined their blood to his in a river of sorrow that still waits to nourish the tree of life in El Salvador.
The growth of “sister parish” relationships brought thousands of Americans to El Salvador to see and feel this mystery of life overcoming death in the barrios and parishes. On returning to the United States they challenged their ideas about diversity, nonviolence, hospitality and advocacy. Ask anyone who has gone to El Salvador and they will say it was like falling in love.
El Salvador is more than a history lesson. A devil’s brew of neoconservative economics, U.S.-funded militarism, multinational exploitation, and a 20-year entrenchment by the right-wing ruling ARENA party that represents well the concerns of the country’s wealthy elites now grips the country as elections approach. (See related story) The threat of violence from gangs and shadowy death-squad groups makes politics a dangerous game in El Salvador, where elites own the media and U.S. support seems to favor the status quo.
All that the people of El Salvador ask of their American friends is this: Do not forget us. Pay attention to what is happening here.
But it is we who are blessed to open the door to El Salvador, which means “the Savior.” If we fail to hear the cry of the poor in events there, we risk closing ourselves to the Gospel that Lazarus once brought to Dives, who failed to see his own Savior in the poor man on his doorstep.
A missionary priest to El Salvador recently shared this memory from 1989. He recalled his visit to the Jesuit university where, just hours earlier, the bullet-riddled bodies of six priests, their housekeeper and her daughter had been removed from the rose garden and residence. He said he had knelt and scooped up some of the blood-soaked earth into his handkerchief to take back to the United States. He kept it as a sacred pledge never to forget.
National Catholic Reporter June 27, 2008