Thursday, March 25, 2010

Remembering the Assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero

He began to see that silence in the face of repression was acquiescence.

Thirty years ago, March 24, 1980, Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was assassinated as he celebrated Mass, by a member of Roberto D’Aubuisson’s death squads. The archbishop’s execution was only the most visible of a host of assassinations.

Archbishop Romero’s path was unique. He had started out as a quiet scholar who had little involvement with the world. His superiors picked him to be archbishop because they were sure they could count on him to obey their orders. Until that time, the Catholic Church in Central America had sided firmly with the elite landowners and upper classes. The priests and nuns who got involved with the “Liberation Theology” movement ran into opposition and were censured by Church leaders. Archbishop Romero was drawn into conflict with the government when his colleagues in the movement such as Fr. Rotelio Grande, were murdered by the death squads. He began to see that silence in the face of repression was acquiescence.

In 1980, the Civil War, which had been percolating since the mid-1970s, exploded into a conflict that would kill 75,000 Salvadorans. On December 2, 1980, four church women from the United States, Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clark; Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, and lay missioner Jean Donovan, were kidnapped, raped and murdered in El Salvador. In El Mozote, in Morazán department, El Salvador, on December 11, 1981, almost 1000 innocent civilians were massacred, the buildings of their village set afire with the bodies of the dead inside. As Alma Guillermoprieto, a Mexican-American journalist who was one of the first to see the site of the massacre, wrote, “countless bits of bones — skulls, rib cages, femurs, a spinal column — poked out of the rubble.” On November 18, 1989, in one of the most infamous instances, six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter, were slaughtered. The massacres, murders and assassinations continued unabated until a peace treaty was finally signed in 1992. Even then, the violence did not stop: the repatriation of Salvadorans and their children deported from the United States brought a new kind of bloodshed to El Salvador. Many of those children had grown up into criminal gang activity in Los Angeles, forming Mara Salvatrucha or M-13, and brought the violence back to their own country, making the streets almost as dangerous as they were during the civil war (officially, 1980-1992).

But El Salvador had never really been at peace since January 22, 1932, when the government engaged in the massacre known as La Matanza; approximately 30,000 indigenous people were murdered by General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez. It was more desirable to the government and the elites to kill the peasants than to feed them. El Salvador has such a gruesome history of state-sponsored terrorism, i.e., the government killing its own citizens, that one can only wonder what drives the violent inclination of the Salvadoran people.

When I first graduated from college, I wanted to travel but when I thought of going to Europe, I had a niggling fear. Most of those countries had killed or betrayed their Jews. As Rod Steiger’s character in The Pawnbroker said, “Europe is a graveyard.” Did I want to visit Paris with its splendid Eiffel Tower but whose Vichy government had collaborated with the Nazis? Or Germany, with its beautiful Bavarian castles and Nazi crematoria? Or Italy, one of the cradles of our civilization, but also the place where Mussolini gathered up the Jews and shipped them off to be killed in Germany?

The sad fact is that you can spin the globe and wherever your finger lands there has been some terrible war or massacre, often by one faction against another within the same country. Making my way east to China and India, or south to Africa, I can name murderous regimes in almost any place. In this hemisphere, the sad fact is that 90% of the indigenous people died at the hands the conquerors, either from combat or from the transmission of diseases that the inadvertently spread. If only the killing had stopped there!

 Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero, (August 15, 1917 – March 24, 1980) lying in state

Thirty years after his murder, Archbishop Romero’s words call out not just to the people of El Salvador, but to the governments and leaders of the world:

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.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

20th Century Central America: A Personal History

On that morning in the summer of 1975, my friend, Juan, told me we had to leave El Salvador immediately. Juan is Guatemalan, and had driven me to El Salvador on the last leg of my visit to Central America. I was there to see my mother's family, and to see my beloved Guatemala and El Salvador, my ancestral homes, again. I cannot believe that no one—either in the United States or in Central America—warned me that there were civil wars going on in both countries. I read the daily paper; my mother was in close contact with her relatives there, but nobody told me, no doubt, because it was not on their radar.

That morning, Juan came in and said we had to leave immediately. He really could not explain why—he did not understand exactly what was going on, but his friends had told him that there was going to be trouble and we should leave immediately. The next day, back in Guatemala, we heard that the University of El Salvador had been taken over by the military. I still have the notebook I bought at the university before we left. I have never written in it but it bears the university's logo. Soon after I returned to San Francisco, my friend Osvaldo was murdered walking through a park near his home in El Salvador. Was it a simple crime, a mugging gone wrong? Or was Osvaldo involved in the underground resistance to the dictatorship? What were you going to do about it if you thought the government engaged in state-sponsored terrorism against you or someone you loved? What could anyone do against the power of the state, even a tiny state like El Salvador? The state is always more powerful than the individual.

It was four years before the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero; he was then an auxiliary bishop and still bound to the more conservative, dominant arm of the Roman Catholic Church in El Salvador. After his friend, Fr. Rutilio Grande, was murdered by death squads in 1977, Archbishop Romero evolved to become the man who risked, and lost, his life to protest the political repression in El Salvador. 

Guatemala was also in turmoil; the civil war had afflicted the country for sixteen years by that time but the bloodthirsty dictator, Rios Montt, had not yet come to power and residents of the cities were disengaged from the genocide in the countryside. Yet to an outsider, not much was going on in either country. Their newspapers reported little, and American newspapers said nothing at all. Your relatives insisted that if you just stayed away from politics, you would be all right. When something bad happened, there was great reluctance to read too much into it.

What could you do if your own country, the United States, was supporting the dictatorships in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua? If it was providing the dictators' army’s arms and bullets? My country, the United States was doing just that. What could one person do?

We, whether raised in Central America or the children of immigrants in the United States, were brought up to eschew politics of any kind: ANY political involvement could get you killed. My mother harangued my father about his membership in the Teamsters for his entire working life, working herself up into a total fury when he became the shop steward (union representative) at the warehouse where he worked. When my mother found out that I was in the women’s movement, she went ballistic. Had she ever told us about the politics in her country, we might have been more responsive to her extreme reaction to what seemed to us to be commonplace activities.

To hear her tell it, life in El Salvador and Guatemala before she came to the United States had been a pastoral delight. Since I had visited Central America with her when I was a child, I had clear memories of their green hills, abundant flowers, and trees heavy with tropical fruits. What had been concealed from my child's eyes was the heavy hand of political repression. Later, as a graduate teaching assistant, I had students from upper-class Central American families who were dumbfounded to hear of the civil war going on in their countries, right under their noses. Of course, you are not going to see much of the world around you if you live in a gated community, surrounded by walls topped with broken glass to keep out intruders.

When, around 1979, I became involved in the women’s movement, I thought she would have a coronary. Nine years later, when I started a graduate program in Latin American history, I thought she took it as a declaration of war. I had thought she would be pleased; it would keep me linked to the culture of her ancestors, But her reaction was to demand, “Why would you want to do that? Don’t you know how dangerous it is?” Well, no, I did not. I had no idea what she was afraid of; had she ever confided in me, I might have known. I might have understood that what I took as irrational secrecy was actually deadly and justified fear.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Blowtorch Bob: The Duty to Remember Roberto D’Aubuisson

El Salvador’s Roberto D’Aubuisson (1944-1992) was uniquely malevolent. He would throw babies in the air and shoot them in midair, just for fun. The death squads of which he was the leader, hunted down and executed insurgents in the slowest, most exquisitely painful ways possible. The Spanish Inquisition could have learned a thing or two about torture from him: his favorite method involved a blow torch, earning him the nickname of “Blowtorch Bob.” I bet no one ever called him that to his face.

During the Salvadoran Civil War, 75,000 people were killed; 8000 were disappeared, and one million were left homeless, slaughtered by D’Aubuisson and his death squads. They killed a group of Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter; and a group of Catholic lay nuns who had just arrived in El Salvador. In El Mozote, they killed at least 794 townspeople: they separated the men from the women, locked them in a church, then took them out in small groups. After they raped the women, they murdered each one of them. Then they burned the bodies.

His crowning achievement was assassinating Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero: On March 24, 1980, one of his gunmen shot him in the heart as he was saying Mass. Romero’s offense? Demanding the end to the killing of innocent men, women, and children in El Salvador’s Civil War. What an odd demand from a Catholic priest: love thy neighbor.

When throat cancer killed D’Aubuisson on February 20, 1992 , sending him, one hopes, to join Satan’s own favorite sons, Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and Chauchesku in the first circle of hell, I vowed I would remember and celebrate his date of death every year. So today, I remember by telling my students, my friends, and you, my readers, about the fiend of El Salvador, Roberto D’Aubuisson.

D’Aubuisson’s education at the School of the Americas is particularly galling. The SOA, chartered by the United States Congress, and sponsored by the United States Army at Fort Benning, Georgia, gained its fame by training Latin American military officers in methods of interrogation, torture, kidnapping and executions. These methods were described by former United States Representative Joseph Kennedy (D-MA) as “worthy of the Soviet gulag.” Our government allowed and encouraged this instructional program as part of a perverted foreign policy focused on maintaining stability in the region at any cost rather than in protecting the basic human rights of all of the citizens of the hemisphere.

Today, of course, the U.S. Army claims that it was mistaken when it published manuals on torture and related topics, but that admission has come only as a result of pressure from human rights groups to close the school. Despite years of civil disobedience, protests and intense lobbying, the SOA continues its nefarious work, nowadays touting a new name and a curriculum that includes a seminar on human rights: the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation. The name may be new but we are not deceived: the leopard may have changed its spots but it is still as deadly as ever, turning out military officers who are the heirs to D’Aubuisson and his henchmen.

People never cease to amaze me. In an Alzheimer’s-like delusion of the past, the Salvadoran government dedicated a statue of D’Aubuisson and has a memorial Mass for him each year. One could argue that if anyone needs prayers for his eternal soul, he does but there is something ignominious about a tribute to a mass murderer who killed with such glee.

El Salvador also built a memorial to General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez, its dictator from 1931 to 1944, who is best known for the massacre of 30,000 Salvadorans in 1932 in what is now called La Matanza, or massacre, which is the turning point of Salvadoran history. After that, the indigenous people of the country grew fearful of being seen as natives and their culture was virtually obliterated. Is it an indication of the continuing disenfranchisement of the peasants in El Salvador that these two monsters would be so honored?

A year after the memorial was dedicated, D’Aubuisson’s son and several other state officials were murdered in Guatemala on a diplomatic trip: the sins of the father visited once again on his son? A son who was carrying out the same regressive philosophies espoused by his father? Perhaps there is some justice after all.

Nunca más.