Monday, November 19, 2007

Remembering the Martyrs of Central America

"No Hace Falta Tener Mucho Para Ser Mucho"
- Ignacio Ellacuría

Remembering the Martyrs of El Salvador and Latin America: The Vigil at the UCA, San Salvador

One of the most appalling acts carried out by Salvadoran forces during El Salvador’s 12-year Civil War (1980-92) was the November 16, 1989 massacre at the Jesuit University, the UCA. Military forces entered the campus, dragged six Jesuit priests from their beds, and brutally assassinated them, along with a university employee and her young daughter.

Every year, thousands of people from around the world gather to remember the martyrs of the UCA, and all of the martyrs of El Salvador and Latin America who struggled for justice.

Christine and I first came to El Salvador in 2005 and 2006 as part of the Casa de la Solidaridad program, where we learned about the history of the Salvadoran Civil War, liberation theology, political science of Latin America, as well as accompanied grassroots organizations in various communities. The Vigil was an important time for us to gather with our Salvadoran friends, teachers, and communities, and remember those who lost their lives.

Martyrs of the UCA:

Ignacio Ellacuría
Ignacio Martín Baró
Segundo Montes
Armando López
Juan Ramón Moreno
Joaquin López y López
Elba Julia Ramos
Celina Ramos

Why Were They Killed?

Many of the Jesuits were outspoken proponents of liberation theology, which encourages Christians to work to help create the "Kingdom of God" on earth by dismantling oppressive social structures. As God loves everyone, God does not want people to be poor. Poverty equals death, and is a result of "structural sin," which deprives people of human rights and basic necessities. In liberation theology, Jesus is recognized as being a subversive revolutionary, who was executed, like so many in Latin America in the last several decades, for protecting the poor and marginalized.

Liberation theology was a departure from earlier Catholic teachings, which often encouraged the poor and oppressed to "bear the cross" of their sufferings with the knowledge that God would reward them in heaven. This shifted in the 1960s with the Vatican II Council, and the following Medellín Conference of Latin American bishops, in which the Church was encouraged to attend to the "signs of the times," to speak out against injustice.

Liberation theologians reject the notion that the Church should be apolitical, because they see that Jesus was not apolitical--he advocated for social justice and the creation of the Kingdom of God on earth. It is not only the right, but the responsibility of the Church to speak out against injustice. In light of this belief, Archbisop Oscar Romero in the last homily before he was assassinated in March, 1980 denounced the Salvadoran military:

"I would like to make a special appeal to the men of the army, and specifically to the ranks of the National Guard, the police and the military. Brothers, you come from our own people. You are killing your own brother peasants when any human order to kill must be subordinate to the law of God which says, "Thou shalt not kill." No soldier is obliged to obey an order contrary to the law of God. No one has to obey an immoral law. It is high time you recovered your consciences and obeyed your consciences rather than a sinful order. The church, the defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, of the person, cannot remain silent before such an abomination. We want the government to face the fact that reforms are valueless if they are to be carried out at the cost of so much blood. In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cries rise to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression."

Like Oscar Romero, the Jesuits of the UCA were outspoken in their defense of the poor, which is why they were seen as a threat to the Salvadoran government (which was at the time, largely funded by the U.S. government).

The Voice of the Voiceless

Fr. Jon Sobrino, who survived the massacre because he was out of the country at the time, has since become one of the world's most prominent liberation theologians. The Jesuits are remembered and loved for being the "voices of the voiceless." Despite the assassination of Romero several years earlier, and the assassination of many other priests and clergy, they continued their work courageously, knowing that their lives were endangered.

The Vigil at the UCA not only commemorates the death of the Jesuits and 2 women, but is a time to remember all of the martyrs of El Salvador and denounce the continued impunity of the Salvadoran military who were responsible for over 80% of the assassinations. The majority of the soldiers who carried out the massacre were trained at the School of the Americas, the infamous U.S.-based military training camp for Latin American soldiers (the National Guard of Somoza, the previous dictator of Nicaragua, had his troops trained at the SOA, and the SOA has trained troops of many other repressive regimes throughout Latin America).

Close the School of the Assassins: Vigil at the SOA, Georgia

Every year, the anniversary of the massacre at the UCA is remembered at the School of the Americas Vigil outside of Fort Benning, Georgia. People gather from around the U.S. to demand the U.S. government to stop using U.S. tax dollars to train Latin American soldiers in repression and torture. Far from being unaware of atrocities committed by SOA alums, U.S. military advisers have been involved in directly overseeing operations many Latin American countries including Guatemala (whose 35-year civil war amounted to the worst genocide in the Western Hemisphere), El Salvador, Nicaragua, Argentina, Chile, Haiti, Dominican Republic, Columbia and other countries.

Currently, the U.S. government is constructing the ILEA (International Law Enforcement Academy) in El Salvador to train Latin American police forces in counter-insurgency and "anti-terrorism." Several other countries, including Costa Rica, rejected plans for the school to be built within their borders because of the school's refusal to be transparent about its activities. For more information see: "The ILEA: U.S. Exporting “Criminal Justice” to Latin America from a Base in El Salvador"

Below is a short slide show of the Vigil on Nov. 16th this year:

Vigil at the School of the Americas, Fort Benning, Georgia

El Salvador Photo Album

Report on El Salvador from Rick Jones, Catholic Relief Services (CRS)

Christine and I had the opportunity to attend a talk by Rick Jones of Catholic Relief Services gave to the students of the Casa de la Solidaridad (the study-abroad program that Christine and I both attended).

Rick identified three principal issues in El Salvador:
1. Violence
2. Immigration
3. Climate Change

El Salvador has the third highest homicide rates in the world (after Iraq and Columbia), and has the highest homicide rates in a country that is not at war. The majority of the homicides are attributed to:

1. Gang Violence
2. Organized Crime
3. Domestic Violence and Police Violence


What is shocking about these causes of violence is that police violence accounts for over 40% of homicides, according to CRS. This is attributed to the "Mano Duro" (Hard Handed) laws, which grant police amnesty for their actions.

While the Mano Duro laws were enacted a few years ago to combat gang violence, since that time, El Salvador has actually seen an increase in violence. Instead of investing money in education or programs that would provide an alternative for young people, the Salvadoran government enacted Mano Duro laws as a way to legitimate state repression.
Death squads sponsored by the Salvadoran government (ARENA party) are still active, and new "Anti-Terrorism" Laws have made protesting (even peacefully) illegal. On July 2, 2007, 14 people were detained for partaking in a peaceful protest against the privatization of water. The privatization of water is a hugely controversial issue in El Salvador, and throughout the Latin America, as allowing international corporations the right to sell water means much higher prices for water and less access (or no access) for the poor. The 14 people detained were labeled "terrorists," and could face up to 70 years in prison if convicted. Some of these “terrorists” include single mothers and poor campesinos. For more information, see the CRISPAZ article: Protests Against Water Privatization Thwart Saca Announcement


There are currently 2 million Salvadorans living in the US, or approximately 25% of the population. In 2006, the remittances (money sent to Salvadorans from family members abroad) totaled over $3 billion, or 18% of the GDP of the country. The $3 billion in remittances is more than double the amount of money invested in El Salvador in the form of FDI (Foreign Direct Investment), and is largely responsible for the decrease in poverty. While the statistics on poverty seem to be improving, this improvement is artificial and not sustainable. In many rural Salvadoran communities, there are no men between the ages of 15-45 because they have all immigrated to the US. In addition to tearing families apart, immigration causes many other social problems.

While El Salvador, in terms of GDP, seems to be doing well economically, the country would collapse with out remittances, and the extreme inequality in the distribution of income (Latin America has the most unequal distribution of income in the world) masks the severity poverty in the country.

Currently, there over 200,000 Nicaraguans living in El Salvador, and Nicaraguans are immigrating in increasing numbers to replace the lost Salvadoran population. Increasingly, human rights abuses and exploitation of undocumented workers that is found in the US is being repeated in El Salvador, as Nicaraguan undocumented immigrants have no political rights and work for lower wages than Salvadorans.

The immigration issue is of central importance throughout Central America, and should cause policymakers in the U.S. to re-examine the sustainability of CAFTA and NAFTA free trade agreements, which have had a de-stabilizing effect in the region, exacerbating poverty in rural as well as urban areas.
Effects of the U.S. Response

The increasing security of the U.S. border has not decreased immigration into the U.S., but has rather provided an opportunity for greater profits for smugglers or "coyotes." Because of increased security, the price of smuggling a person into the U.S. has risen, and it has become almost as profitable to smuggle people as drugs.

For this reason, the once-rival groups of coyotes and drug smugglers are uniting and building a strong network. The heightened security makes immigrating more dangerous, since immigrants must use more risky routes, and there is little incentive on the part of coyotes to ensure the safety of those crossing.

For women, immigrating is especially dangerous, and many women can expect to face violence and/or rape during the journey, or in the U.S., as undocumented workers have little legal protection and live in constant fear. The children of undocumented workers are also at risk, since they are left with friends or relatives in their home country, which can potentially be more dangerous for them.

CRS’s Strategy

In addition to working on grassroots development projects in El Salvador, Catholic Relief Services also works with transplanted Salvadoran communities living in the U.S., thereby trying to direct remittance funds into sustainable community development projects to support schools, cooperatives, and other projects that benefit communities in a lasting way.

Climate Change
Similar to Nicaragua, El Salvador faces almost every kind of natural disaster: volcano eruptions, earthquakes, floods, droughts, and hurricanes. El Salvador is the 2nd most deforested nation in the world (after Haiti), and over 98% of the rivers are polluted.

As the protests against water privatization indicated, water security is a central issue in El Salvador (as well as in Nicaragua). At the crux of the environmental issues is the conflict between long-term sustainability and short-term benefits. Multi-national corporations, as noted earlier, raise the prices of water sharply, making it less accessible for the poor. They also are legally permitted to export 100% of profits, so there is little investment in the local economy. Why a government would want to privatize water and other basic necessities often has to do with corruption, since government officials are part of the wealthy oligarchy of El Salvador and would personally profit from privatization.

Gold mines are currently a threat to water security throughout Central America, and are currently an issue of contention in El Salvador. Open- pit gold extraction uses large amounts of toxic chemicals that destroy the environment and pollute water sources. It takes 400 years before land is able to be used again after gold extraction. While gold mines pay $7/hour to workers rather than $7/day, mining companies also have to right to export over 90% of the funds out of the country.

Access to water is a human right, and unless actions are taken to protect access to clean water, many more conflicts will be seen in the coming years.

Why Privatization Matters

The issue of privatization of basic necessities (water, electricity, health care, education, etc.) is of central importance in Latin America. One of the problems with privatization, is that basic necessities are placed in the hands of foreign multi-national corporations whose interest is not the well-being of local populations, but in maximizing profits. Multi-national companies often have the right to export all or the majority of their profits, so invest very little in the local economies. While private companies often claim to provide better services, this is often not the case. Nicaragua is currently undergoing massive blackouts (which were not experienced before 2000 when electricity was privatized). Union Fenosa (a Spanish corporation) controls all of the electricity of Nicaragua, and has been caught tampering with meters. Because they have refused to pay the generators of electricity, there have been massive shortages. Instead of people paying lower bills for receiving less electricity, Nicaraguans' electricity bill have been the same as before the energy cuts or more expensive.

In the case of water, private companies sell water in bottles, which can be difficult (if not impossible) to transport to rural areas, and which produce huge amounts of waste, in addition to hundreds of times more expensive than public water.

As a neighboring country, and as a country that also faced a similar history of foreign exploitation and intervention, the current situation in El Salvador is very pertinent to Nicaragua.

Volunteer Missionary Movement Retreat

On the 14-15, Christine and I attended a retreat with VMM, which brought together all of the volunteers from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. It was a really rewarding experience, because we had a chance to reflect on our experiences thus far in Nicaragua, and also to hear about the experiences of other volunteers. What I enjoyed the most was perspectives of people doing volunteer work who were specialists (nurses or engineers), and also those at different stages of life. Damien and Mary who work in El Salvador, and Dan and Melissa who work in Guatemala both have young children accompanying them, which presents a lot of distinct challenges and joys. Stephen and Betsy, who work in Guatemala, are also in their late 60s and 70s, and their struggles are different from those that Christine and I might experience.

We are thankful to VMM for their support of Friends of Batahola Volunteers, and for the guidance that they have provided us so far. Throughout our two years in Nicaragua, Christine and I will have several opportunities to gather together with other volunteers from the region, as well as with VMM directors to share experiences

Visit to Cantón el Cedro: Casa de Cipote

When I studied abroad in El Salvador in the fall of 2005, I had the chance to spend some time accompanying the community of Cantón el Cedro in the community center Casa del Cipote (Children's House). Casa del Cipote offers a comedor (soup kitchen) for 105 children between the ages of 1-12, and offers them 2 meals a day. There is also a pre-school, kindergarten, and workshops in sewing, crafts, and computers.

Casa del Cipote began four years ago as a soy cooperative started by Sor Lidia, a Daughter of Charity. She wasn't content with only providing food for the community, so the helped to organize people, and raised the money to build the center where Casa del Cipote is located. With the help of community members, the land was leveled, and one concrete building was constructed, which has since been expanded to include a covered playground and another covered space for activities and presentations. Sor Lidia saw transformation in the community in the period of a few short years, and saw the children grow from being afraid to express themselves to being vivacious and outgoing. The women too were once very reserved and lacked self-confidence, but have since formed community and self-worth by coming together to help their community.

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