As we prepare to leave Miami, the flight attendant liked my travel show and bumped me from coach to first class. Alone in leather seats with my drink in a real glass, I look out the window and wonder "why did God put me here?" A chain of lights leads to Key West. Then deep in the blackness glitters the forbidden city of Havana. The pilot's door is fortified as we fly to El Salvador.
Landing in San Salvador, I'm met by Cesar who whisks me away in his car. In the coin dish I see shiny Lincolns and Washingtons. It's been 13 years since I was here last. My coins have become the local coins, and I'm in for big changes.
To many, this is boom time. Chains are thriving — Pizza Hut, Texaco, Subway. The Marlborough Man looks good on his horse. The Civil War is long over and, driving through town, it seems the US victory has been a huge success.
The minimum wage is about $1 an hour ($144 a month). It costs $3.50 to go to a movie. Cesar explains that, in El Salvador, a worker is happy to be employed. While in the USA minimum wage is a rock bottom level, most Salvadorans aspire only to minimum wage and that's all they get.
After one day, I'm settling in quite well. I'm speckled with bug bites, used to my frail cold shower, noisy fan, and saggy bed. I know that paper clogs the toilet and it's best to brush my teeth with bottled water. El Salvador provides the Norte Americano with a warm — and muggy — welcome.
Why Visit El Salvador?
My friend gives me a print-out of the US State Department's warning against travel in El Salvador. The dangers it describes unnerves me. "Wouldn't some beach time in Mazatlan make a little more sense for a vacation?" he wonders. Why would anyone go to El Salvador?
In spite of my privileged position, I have an appetite to know the truth. For many Americans, privilege brings with it the luxury of obliviousness. We don't need to know what the forces of globalization are doing because they don't affect us. We don't need to know the impact of a new International Money Fund (IMF) regulation on a person who sews clothing in Honduras or plants beans in Panama. Paul Wolfowitz may well be running the World Bank. Who cares? The victims of structural poverty care. Free trade, neo-liberalism, globalization are all concrete and real issues to the half of humanity trying to live on $2 a day. When it comes to these issues, you'd be impressed by their savvy.
When we learn that people in the poor countries know so much about us and our policies, I'm inclined to figure it's merely out of admiration of our way of life. When we are ignorant about others and their struggles, we are also ignorant about ourselves and our impact on others.
This blissful ignorance seems innocent and innocuous. But, combined with power, it can bring smug self-delusion, belief in our own superiority and a presumed right to dictate morality to others. This is the evil cocktail that causes good Americans to celebrate American Imperialism.
This privilege-rooted ignorance makes Americans easy to mislead into war. "Fighting for freedom," we willingly send thousands of our children to die and almost eagerly divert billions of much needed dollars from domestic spending to "defense." To populations on the receiving end of the American crusade, the "freedom and liberty" our president touts is freedom for corporations to exploit natural resources and liberty to take advantage of the labor of weaker countries.
Globalization is a Big Train, and it's Moving out
People in the Third World are told "Globalization is a big train and it's moving out. Get on or get run over." Even proponents don't claim anything compassionate about this power. It's presented simply as an unstoppable force.
America is pushing globalization with the zeal of an evangelist. Our ideological export after the defeat of communism is free trade. The World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Trade Organization (WTO) are its crusaders. Market fundamentalism is the creed of the new muscular "church of laissez-faire." The new virtues are deregulation, privatization, openness to trade, unrestricted movement of capital, and lower taxes. Attacking the theory is attacking America.
America's passion for freedom is more accurately a passion for free trade. It's driven not by altruism, but by a desire to open new markets to US firms and products. If you have resources, laborers, or potential customers, you must play.
Talking to economists in El Salvador, Nicaragua or the USA you notice everybody's reading out of the same play book. "Pro-growth" legal and regulatory policies weaken laws designed to protect the environmental and labor. National Security is capital.
If a country has a sick economy, the IMF and World Bank make a house call. The medicine is always the same: "structural adjustment." Structural adjustment protects investors from governments who may someday want to defend their people from the will of corporations. With new laws in place, corporations trump nations. The result is seen in countries where people power has been lobotomized out of their representative governments. One economist remarked, "The World Bank is the government of Bolivia." Wolfowitz wins without a war. It's the economics of empire.
Some believe this is just tough love as the rich world tries to pull up the poor world. The score card tells a different story. In the last 40 years, the average annual income in the world's 20 poorest countries has barely changed. In 1960 it was about $200. Today it's about $270. In that same period, the income in the richest 20 nations has nearly tripled, from about $12,000 to about $32,000.
The bottom half of humanity lives on roughly 5% of the planet's resources. The top 20% lives on over 80%. The greatest concentration of wealth in the history of the human race is happening at the same time our world is becoming a global village. A planet with more and more window shoppers is unstable, fragile, and — sooner or later — promises lots of broken glass.
Rather than call the poor end of our world the Third World and the Developing World, I think it's more accurate to use the terms "Two-thirds World" and "Underdeveloped Nations." Rather then developing, these nations are systematically kept underdeveloped. It's part of the big plan emanating from the USA. For instance: trade levies increase with processing. It's okay for a poor country to export peanuts but the prohibitively higher tariff for processed peanuts makes producing peanut butter almost impossible outside of the already developed world.
America's leadership in the drive for globalization is powered (and made possible politically) by politicized, militaristic, generally-fundamentalist Christians. Read to a neo-liberal Christian: "I was hungry and you fed me. Imprisoned and you visited me, naked and you clothed me. What you have done to the least of people, you have done to me." Most will look at you with disdain, turn their back, and continue to pound plow shares into swords.
In 2003 Dick and Lynn Cheney sent this message printed on their Christmas card "And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?" And their Christian friends — believing the USA can (and should by any means possible) bring moral salvation and economic leadership to the world — said, "Amen."
Bugs and Razor Wire
The capital, San Salvador, has nearly two million people. It's been 13 years since the end of the Civil War, a decade since the collapse of the coffee industry, and four years since two huge earthquakes devastated the country. The city has the highest homicide rate of any city in the Western Hemisphere and gangs are on the rise. Any nice home comes with a fenced in and fortified front yard. Rolls of razor wire are advertised in the newspaper for $33. In the wealthy neighborhoods, each street has an armed guard. Every sizable business posts a guard.
And there are lots of bugs. Members of my tour group notice the red bumps pock-marking my hands and a big discussion ensues over just what I have. Bugs are eating everyone in the group. But mine are different. Most think they are scabies. But scabies start in the webs of your toes and fingers and really itch like mad at night. "You want to rip off your skin" a woman who picked them up in Guatemala reported. "They are in you and create a groundhog-like trail of bumps up your fingers and arms."
Pharmacies — all advertising Viagra and Lavitra in their windows and each with an armed guard — seem to be on every corner. I drop into one. The guard — a rifle hanging from his Lavitra tee-shirt — opens the door. I don't know the Spanish word for Scabies and the pharmacist seemed unconcerned, recommending a $9 tube of bug cream.
I figure I'll tough it out without medicine. I draw two rough hands and make an inventory of the red bumps. Twenty-four hours later I count again...no change. I think I'm okay.
Scabies are scary. But my problems pale to El Salvador's. A few years ago, coffee crashed from 50% of the country's export earnings to about 3%. The maquila industry (finishing clothing for the USA) is the big new industry and now 25% of the local economy.
In 2001, two huge earthquakes killed 2,000 people. They destroyed or badly damaged a quarter of the private homes in the country, leaving 1.5 million homeless. Of course, it's the poor whose homes crumble in a shake. An earthquake of the same magnitude hit Seattle and no one died. Seismic safety is a luxury only the privileged can afford.
In the wake of the earthquake devastation, Salvadorans saw compassionate capitalists roll up their sleeves and move right in. Shirt manufactures moved into the earthquake devastated area to provide jobs...on condition that the government allowed them to lower the minimum wage from $144 a month to $85 a month. No problema.
Traveling to countries with populations recovering from war and natural disasters, First World travelers are struck at how people don't despair. Could it be, the poorer you are, the less you lose in a natural disaster. Perhaps poverty leaves you no time to get down...you're too busy surviving.
In 1492, Columbus Sailed the Ocean Blue
In 1524, the Spaniards arrived in El Salvador. They killed people, burned villages, and named the place Our Savoir. Enslaving the locals — branding them with hot irons like cattle — those first conquistadors established a pattern that persists to this day.
Land long used to grow corn (the local staple) now grew indigo (a better cash crop for export). As indigo needed flat land, locals were sent into the hills. Later, when the development of artificial dyes wiped out the indigo trade, coffee became El Salvador's top cash crop. Coffee needed to be grown on the hillside. The people were displaced again.
Rebellion after rebellion was put down as the land was Christianized. Making religion the opiate of the masses, Priests preached, "Don't question authority. Suffer quietly. Heaven awaits." The same theme is big today in the new textbooks (published with US help after 1991). Even today, when labor organizers try to mobilize workers against structural poverty they hear, "No, our struggles are God's will." Those promoting the left wing people's party (the FMLN) report their challenge is to teach that it's okay to get political and vote for change.
El Salvador won its independence from Spain in 1821. The victors were not the indigenous people but the descendants of those first conquistadors. They wanted to continuing harvesting El Salvador...without sharing with Spain. The real Salvadorans gained nothing from "independence."
After the popular uprisings and massacres of 1932, to be indigenous was to be communist. Local language speakers were killed. Traditional dress was outlawed. While people are allowed to have indigenous physical features, there is no indigenous culture in El Salvador. Today, the word "indigenous" means illiterate, ignorant, savage.
Jubilee Year: Justice or Slaughter?
There's a pattern in El Salvador history. Jubilee massacres...every 50 years. In the 1830s an insurrection and its charismatic leader were put down. In 1881, peasants suffered a big and bloody land grab. In 1932, after the great global depression and Communist influence complicated the mix, 30,000 were massacred following an insurrection. After 1932, when a white person looked at an Indian his head would drop. Indigenous culture was outlawed, the left wing was decimated and a military dictatorship was established. In the 1980s again, because the people had been repressed so cruelly, a 12 year civil war followed.
In the Bible, God calls for a Jubilee Year. He figures that, with the greedy nature of mankind, it takes about fifty years for injustice to build to a point that drives a society to violence. Therefore, the Bible says that every 50 years, the land is to be redistributed and debts are to be forgiven. Christians — the kind so outspoken about the "sanctity of life" — manage to ignore this bit. And rich Christians who do notice can't imagine God was serious.
Be a Patriot, Kill a Priest
When it came to poverty, Mother Teresa never asked why. Therefore, she was a favorite of the powerful. In the 1970s, Central American priests started asking why. Like Jesus, they were "liberation theologians." Also like Jesus, they threatened the powerful...and were killed. El Salvador's arch-bishop Oscar Romero asked why, and was gunned down while giving Mass. Empowered by Liberation Theology and opposed by the USA, the poor rebelled, plunging El Salvador into a long and bloody Civil War.
In 1959, the success of the Cuban revolution inspired revolutionary movements throughout Central America. In 1965 Vatican II encouraged the faithful to take their religion a little more personally. In 1968 the Catholic Bishops of Latin America met at Medellin (in Colombia). They called for Christians to live out the gospel and encouraged them to find dignity while on earth. This was Liberation Theology. In the 1970s, the first Christian Base Communities — which implemented this take on Christianity in their daily lives — were formed. In these Liberation Theology-driven barrios, resurrection is the responsibility of the community. When one is killed, he or she lives on in the community.
Historically, the power centers in Central America have been the military, the landowners and the church. (Same as in feudal Europe.) After Vatican II and the bishops' conference at Medellin, when the church decided to embrace Jesus' preferential option for the poor, the old alliance which so effectively kept the people down began breaking apart.
This was serious stuff and the USA took note. When Liberation Theology first stirred, in the late 1960s, Nelson Rockefeller was dispatched to find out what it was. He helped establish an American stance that considered this politicization of Christianity a direct challenge to American interests in Central America.
The story of martyrdom in El Salvador began here. Before, active peasants were killed. From the 1970s on, church leaders were targeted. "Be a patriot...kill a priest" was a fun bumper sticker-like slogan among El Salvador's national guard.
Even today, the American government funds the promotion of fundamentalism in Central America — the non-political "escapist" alternative to Liberation Theology. American televangelists supplement that by mobilizing their followers to send money so the downtrodden down south can be taught to "just say no" when it comes to the struggle for dignity.
Fundamentalist pastors are fond of claiming "God spoke to me." God often tells them something along the lines of "Suffer now, enjoy later." God becomes a healer, and a witch doctor...hungry people eat this up. This "message from God" tactic is convenient for politicians too. President Bush used it when he declared in a televised address, "God told me to attack Afghanistan, so I did. God told me to invade Iraq and so I did." How can you argue...especially when God doesn't care to talk to you?
The 1980s were the golden age of Liberation Theology and Christian Base Communities. In the 1990s after the peace accords ended the Civil War, this movement morphed into a political party (FMLN). Today, Liberation Theology seems dormant as a political force. The Catholic church is extremely conservative (the arch-bishop practices the Opus Dei brand of Roman Catholicism) and the charismatic Pentecostal faith (so USA-friendly) is booming. In both cases, politics are inappropriate in church. Don't ask why.
The Civil War
With the assassination of arch-bishop Romero and the shootings by government troops of mourners at his funeral, El Salvador tumbled into war. On January 10, 1981, Civil War was declared. The united guerilla front (FMLN) expected a quick win (in a month, like in Nicaragua) but Ronald Reagan spent $1.5 million a day to keep that from happening. With the success of the Sandinistas in Nicaragua in July 1979, Reagan was determined to stop the spread of communism. With Reagan there was absolutely no negotiation.
A policy now known by the American military as the "Salvadoran option," in which the innocent who allow the insurgency to exist will be targeted and terrorized, was waged with a brutal vengeance. It was believed that since the guerillas were maintaining their strength, the innocent civilians in territory they controlled were no longer innocent. Civilian women and children were considered combatants — fair game — in order for the popular revolt to become less popular. (It is effective. In fact, with the resilience of the Iraqi insurgency, the USA is considering the drastic "Salvadoran option" for that war too.) It wasn't until George Bush Sr. became president, El Savador had a new president, the FMLN approached the UN about mediating, and the Cold War ended that led to the settlement in 1992 and signing of the peace accord.
Suddenly, the guerillas shaved, washed, and found themselves members of parliament representing a now peaceful FMLN party.
Behind the Corrugated Tin Gate with Beatriz
Across town, we dropped in on Beatriz and her daughter Veronica who live in a shack on El Salvador's minimum wage. The place was as clean and inviting as a tin roofed, mud shack with a dirt floor can be. Beatriz sat us down and told of raising a family through a war and on $140 a month.
"The war moved into the capital, and our little house happened to sit between the police headquarters and the guerillas. At night I hid with my children under the bed as bullets flew. For ten years the war put us in a never-ending labyrinth of fear. Mothers dreaded the forced recruitment of our sons. Finally, we arranged a peace. But the peace accords didn't benefit us poor people. This "peace" is really just the futility of a continued struggle. People are very unhappy. In some regions there is even talk about taking up arms again. If war started again, I think some of us would die from the stress."
About her life, she said, "My house becomes a lake in the rainy season. Still, we are thankful to have this place. Our land was very cheap. We bought it from a man receiving death threats. He fled to America. While we make $140 a month in the city, the minimum in the country is much less — only $70 a month. Nearly half of our country is living on $1 a day. To survive, you need a home that is already in your family. You have one light bulb, corn and beans. That is about all. Living on minimum wage is more difficult now than before. Before, electricity cost about $1 a month. Water was provided. Today electricity costs $19 and water $14 — that's about 25% of a worker's wage. My mother has a tumor in her head. There is no help."
Beatriz's 22 year old daughter, Veronica, is as strikingly beautiful as one of the Latin pop stars so hot on MTV these days. She has a dream to go to the USA but the "coyote" (as the guy who ferries refugees across Mexico and into the USA is called) charges $6,000 and she would probably be raped before reaching the US border as an extra kind of fee.
As a chicken with a bald neck pecks at my shoe, I survey the ingenious mix of mud, battered lumber and corrugated tin that makes this house. It occurs to me that poverty erodes ethnic distinctions. There's something boring and uniform about desperation.
For Beatriz and Veronica, the tortilla is their basic meal. And a simple tortilla is my favorite food in El Salvador. Eating a thick corn cake — hot off the griddle — cooked and served by someone for whom this is an entire meal is a kind of communion. In that tortilla are tales of peasants who would bundle up their tortillas and run through the night as US helicopters swept across their skies.
For me, munching on a tortilla is a kind of solidarity — wimpy...but still solidarity. I'm what locals joke is a "round trip" revolutionary (someone who comes down here...but only with a round-trip ticket).
Latin America has been out of the news since the 1980s except for a few telegenic natural disasters. Perception among Americans is that the problems are fixed. Like so many perceptions of people whose world view is shaped by the TV, it is wrong.
For a review of the local economy from the experts, we visit ANEP — the National Association for Private Enterprise. Stepping into air-con luxury with big cushy swivel chairs, lots of flags and a brilliant power-point presentation, a well-dressed woman explains everything with simple and straight forward bar charts. Going from the rusty and bent chairs at Beatriz's with the balding chicken pecking at our feet to the heavily guarded ANEP building was a fascinating jolt.
The bar charts are big on numbers. Slow growth of under 2% has persisted for five years. Inflation is up to 6%. Overall, exports are up (traditional exports are down, clothing is up, non-traditional exports are up). Remittances are way up, bringing in $2.5 billion or 16% of the country's entire economy. There are pros but no real cons. We're told "Free trade presents benefits and challenges."
The recent collapse of the coffee market wrought massive environmental and social consequences. Without trees, only the coffee plants kept the steep hills from eroding in the rain. As the coffee plants disappear, erosion will give El Salvador an export that's not good for the economy...top soil. With legions of coffee workers now unemployed, their children are hopeless and directionless. Many are left with little to do but roam the cities in gangs and cause people to built even higher walls.
With a national economy of around $3 billion, El Salvador makes ends meet with the $2 billion sent home from refugee workers in the USA. More people are leaving today than even during the war. Families struggle to send one person abroad. There are two million Salvadorans living in the USA. Seven in ten families have an immediate member in the USA. "Refugee aid" like this is big throughout the developing world. In fact, remittances from refugees working in the rich world ($75 billion) are 50 percent higher than all foreign aid combined ($50 billion).
After El Salvador's Civil War ended, phone and electricity was privatized. The next big privatization move — here and throughout the world — is for water. Public monopolies are now private monopolies. Prices for utilities have jumped five fold. The Government used to subsidize health and education. World Bank and IMF want to privatize health, education, and water. What they want, they get. The right wing ARENA party — always in power here — oversees the neo-liberalization of the economy. Privatization is a precondition for getting loans from the World Bank.
The former president of the National Association for Private Enterprise (ANEP) became the new president of El Salvador in 2004 with USA interference making a mockery of local democracy. Today the government is the hand maiden of private enterprise.
The Central American Free Trade Association (CAFTA) is the big issue these days. CAFTA forces compliance. For instance, poor people were opting for folk remedies because they couldn't afford the drugs sold by pharmaceuticals. Pharmaceuticals won't stand for this. Honduras was recently forced to sell patent rights for its local plants to Monsanto. In the future, these may well be patented and unaffordable as well. There is no compassion in health care. Viagra may be on the push list, but a tube of bug cream costs a day's wages.
Since 2001, the US dollar has been the legal currency of El Salvador. Dollarization means the local government has no say in the country's monetary policy. The FMLN party was gearing up to challenge this, but 13 days after dollarization, the big earthquake hit and everyone had more important battles to fight. With the dollar, local elites have no risk of a radical change in government messing up their personal economies. It's a kind of voluntary colonization.
Honduras has an indigenous leader on its currency. Guatemala's paper money features a beautiful bird. El Salvador's was named for Columbus (Colone) and today it's the American dollar.
In this age of globalization, it seems even if national movements of liberation (like El Salvador's FMLN and Nicaragua's Sandinistas) were in power, they would not be allowed to address issues of structural poverty. Next struggles must be trans-national. Today forces for economic justice face an infinitely more powerful foe than their local elites...they face the IMF, WB, and a new religion whose creed is free trade. There's been a quantum leap in the reach of American-style capitalism and its power.
Bonsai Democracy in the Quarries of Capitalism
Democracy in countries that function as the quarries of capitalism is like a bonsai tree. You keep it in the window for others to see and when it grows too big, you cut it back.
That's the case in El Salvador. The negotiated settlement ending the Civil War meant the guerilla forces would trade their guns in for a spot in the government. They are welcome...as long as they don't get too powerful. After the FMLN gained more support in the recent election, the news on the only TV station with any credibility among the poor was dropped.
In the 2004 presidential elections, the FMLN candidate drew the attention of the White House. It must be frustrating for the Bush administration (which has so much on its plate these days). I can imagine a scene similar to the one Poland caused the Kremlin during another people's struggle. Khrushchev, exasperated by the spirit of the Polish people, famously complained, "Making Poland communist is like trying to saddle a cow."
Needing to saddle El Salvador, President Bush dispatched his brother. Jeb came through in Florida and he did in El Salvador too. In the heat of the campaign, Jeb flew in, shared the spotlight with the ARENA party candidate, and fed the rumor that the US would expel the two million Salvadorans living in America (that send El Salvador a third of its GDP) if the FMLN won. The TV ad showed a woman opening an envelope from the USA and reading a letter from her son, "Sorry mom, if the FMLN wins, this will be your last money coming from the USA." More evil, fear-mongering advertising from the Republicans. The US ambassador said that this was untrue...a week after ARENA won big. Good work, Jeb.
The FMLN does better in local elections because it is more personal and TV ads can't influence people so much. El Salvador legislators are paid an (astronomical on local terms) salary of $5,000 a month. Cynical as I've become lately, my hunch is that this is a clever and cheap way to corrupt idealistic guerillas trying to represent in the peoples' interest.
I asked an FMLN deputy about this. He answered, "In the war you didn't have time to consider your future. You didn't know if you'd be alive the next day. After the war, some FMLN leaders became more materialistic. While legislators are paid very well, FMLN legislators must contribute 30 percent of that to the party fund. Still, we make a lot of money."
In Nicaragua, the US ambassador was at the side of the right wing candidate as he campaigned. Throughout the developing world, the USA makes it clear that if the liberal candidates win, "relations will suffer." It's no wonder right wing pro-globalization parties representing the interests of international corporations keep defeating left wing people's parties. In 2004, after the Bush-friendly ARENA candidate won, Jon Sobrino (the leading Jesuit priest and scholar at the University of Central America) said, "When I hear the word, democracy, my bowels move."
Throughout the developing world, the biggest and most heavily fortified building in the land is the US embassy. When asked "Who really runs El Salvador?" most Salvadorans would say simply "the Embassy" (as the American Embassy is called here). As an American who can get in, the best thing about American Embassy — one of the most imposing embassies in the world — is its bathroom. You have to listen to the party line, but the air-con is great. And you can put paper in the toilet. You can't miss it. It's just outside of town, built upon the ruins of the old Indian capital.
Romero and Martyrdom
When Romero was made arch-bishop, wealthy Salvadorans sighed. If his reputation as a priest was any indication of how he would run the church, they believed the right wing had nothing to fear. But the growing violence against the poor and the repeated killing of church leaders drove Romero to speak out. Eventually this mild-mannered priest became the charismatic spokesperson of his people.
The reason for my visit was to remember Romero on the 25th anniversary of his assassination. Marching with thousands of his followers through the streets of San Salvador, it was clear to me...just as Romero prophesied...they killed him and he lives through his people.
In his last sermon Romero directed his words to the soldiers "You are brothers of the poor. These are your people. More important than any order from your commanders is God's order: Thou shalt not kill. I beg you. I implore you. In the name of God, I command you. Stop the killing." The next Monday, while saying a one-year memorial mass for the mother of Jorge Pinto, a Salvadoran journalist and newspaper owner who was bombed and hounded into exile, Romero was shot dead.
Romero promised that when he was killed, he would live on in his people. Murals show the people of El Salvador rising like tall stocks of corn with big smiles and bullet wounds in their chests. In Latin America, crosses are decorated with peasants and symbols of lives of peasants—healthy stocks of corn. While this is a land of martyrs, it's also a land of resurrection.
Romero embraced Liberation Theology. For instance, he invited us to see Christmas as the story of a poor homeless mother with a hungry baby. Romero taught that the lessons and inspiration offered by the Bible were tools for the faithful as they dealt with the struggles of their day-to-day lives.
The Pope has appointed conservative bishops throughout the world, setting the stage for a 21st century church without Romero's focus on Christ's special concern for the poor. In a recent papal message however, the Pope acknowledged that today our world is caught up in a fight between the powerful and the powerless. He instructed that a bishop's role is to advocate for the powerless. Twenty-five years later, the pope seems to be catching up with Romero.
To talk about Romero in El Salvador is to talk about the people who murdered him. Those are the people who founded the party that is now in power, ARENA. The Vatican knows full well Romero is heading for sainthood. While the local Catholic hierarchy is stalling the process, people throughout Central America are not waiting. For them, he's already Santo Romero.
A Feisty Sermon from Sister Peggy
During the repression of the 70s and 80s, many nuns and church women were murdered. They have certainly been resurrected in the nuns and church women so outspoken in El Salvador today. We met Sister Peggy, a North American Sister of Charity, who's spent most of her working life here. She talked to us in the church where Romero was assassinated. Here's some of her message:
The soldiers have faded into the back ground. They're not shooting people any more. The new martyrs are poor children dying in the face of indifference from people who either don't care or have their wealth based on suffering of others.
Latin America is one of the most Christian parts of our world...with one of the biggest gaps between the rich and poor. As the gap grows, it's a kind of war...a situation which is an enemy of life. Hunger is violence. There can be no peace when there is still hunger.
"Forgive and forget" is the mantra of the privileged class in El Salvador. The unprivileged can forgive, but they don't want to forget. We need to become "professors of never again" in our society. These days, any move to find justice is discredited. The right wing says "it just opens up the wounds of the past." We ask, "Whose wounds?"
The government would prefer to just forget Romero and all he stood for. It controls the media. It writes the text books. On the 10th anniversary of Romero's death, not a word was seen in the newspapers. On the 20th anniversary, Cardinal Mahoney of the USA came to the memorial Mass with 40,000 people attending. That was covered modestly in the papers. This year, on the 25th anniversary, the local papers are devoting many pages to the huge rallies and marches. Romero vive!
With the spirit of Romero so alive, El Salvador is becoming the school for the globalization of solidarity. As we globalize economics, we need to globalize love and compassion. We need to evolve from adolescent souls (playing king of the mountains) to adult souls. As we study all this, we must ask not "who am I" but "Whose am I?"
Poverty in this world of affluence is a scandal. We must gain a new perspective of scandal. Basta – enough! Enough scandal! In the littlest shack they understand free trade, preferential option for the poor...and preferential option for the truth. When will we have a preferential option for the truth?
Suffering and sadness are not synonymous. Salvadorans laugh as hard as they cry. They say, "If God wills, tomorrow will be better." Here in El Salvador we believe that, on the day you meet your maker, you will be met by an angel to wipe away your tears. Woe to you who arrive with dry eyes. While it's not in my vocabulary, a friend recently told me her new way to say FU: "woe to you who arrive with dry eyes."
The University of Central America. A Hotbed of Liberation Theology
The University of Central America (UCA) was founded by San Salvador's rich to give their children a safe and conservative environment for a higher education. The Jesuits established the notion of giving students skills to make the world a better place. Their mission today: to create liberation architects, liberation mathematicians, and liberation teachers. UCA gets no money from the government or local elites. It is funded by international aid. The Christmas packages from the wealthy to the professors stopped coming long ago and the campus has been bombed 25 times.
The six leading Jesuit professors were intellectual leaders of Liberation Theology and, therefore, considered leaders of the revolution. Because of that, they were murdered. Early one morning the Jesuits were taken from their humble quarters and dragged into the garden. One by one they were shot in the brains with exploding bullets because they were the "brains of the peoples' movement." Before the government death squad left they took time to shoot a bullet through the heart of a photo of Romero hanging on the wall...still trying to kill him nine years after his death.
Roses grow in a garden marking the place the six Jesuits were killed. The tomb of the six reads: What it means to be a Jesuit in our time: to commit yourself to take risks in the crucial struggle of our time — the struggle for faith and the struggle for justice that that same faith demands. We will not work for the promotion of justice without paying a price.
Lay Flat and Strum Your Guitar
Gathering at a hotel, we enjoy a trio of guitarists. They are "100% popular" (a term for anything perfectly in tune with the people's struggle). Enjoying them, I thought of the guerillas who once laid flat on the floors of their shacks under flying bullets. Strumming guitars quietly on their belly, they sang forbidden songs. Music is the horse that carries the words of poems — weapons of a peoples' irrepressible spirit.
Listening to their music — love songs to their country — I consider the ongoing struggle. While troubadours sing of Christ's preferential option (special love for) the poor, the forces of neo-liberalism relentlessly restructure society. Advocates of the people are like children hugging each other as a volcano erupts. Seemingly doomed. All the while, slender Latino fingers crawl between the frets like guerillas in the jungle. Not running from the forces of globalization but courageously engaging them.
They sing "our way of life is being erased...no more huevos picante, we now have omelets...no more colones, we now have dollars." They wonder musically, "How can a combo meal at a fast food chain cost $8 while $20 gathered at church feeds 200 hungry mouths. Why did God put me here?"
Behind me sits Fernando Cardenal — white and grandfatherly in his well-worn blue jeans. As the minister of education of Nicaragua's revolutionary Sandinista government back in the 1980s, he fought the USA and lost. Today his country — the revolution purged from its economy — is even poorer than El Salvador. But his bright eyes nod to the beat and message of this new generation's call to action.
Wrapping up my El Salvador visit with this inspirational concert, I considered how the superstars of non-violence (Ghandi, Martin Luther King, John Lennon, Oscar Romero) all seem to get shot. Are the pacifists losers? I'm a competitive person and I don't like this. My 1988 visit to Central America was filled with hope. I came again after the defeat of people's movements in both El Salvador and Nicaragua in 1991. The tide had turned and I wondered how the spirit of the people's movements — so exuberant just two years before — would fare after the American victories in their domestic struggles. Now, in 2005, after 14 years of neo-liberalism it is clear, there's only one game in town. Sure, Romero lives...and Jesus lives. And half the world is trying to live too...on $2 a day. As a Christian, I like to see religion function as a liberator rather than an opiate. Perhaps that's why I am so enamored with liberation theology in Central America.
The troubadours continue, "It's not easy to see God in the child who cleans the windshields at a San Salvador intersection...but we must."