A ceremony attended by 300,000 people was held on May 23, in the city of San Salvador to honor and celebrate the beatification of El Salvador’s deceased Archbishop Oscar Romero. Supportive commemorations were also held in Los Angeles and other cities. Pope Francis made the decision to beatify Romero which is a step before sainthood after designating him as a martyr who gave his life in 1980 for the cause of social justice. Prior to his death, the Archbishop had assisted poor communities in El Salvador in order to improve their lives and had been a public and outspoken critic of the brutal Salvadoran military. He had demanded that the army halt the widespread violence and killings being committed against innocent people who were merely attempting to exercise their basic rights. Monsignor Romero wrote a personal letter to President Jimmy Carter in early 1980 pleading with him to end US financial and military support of the Salvadoran armed forces due to its violence and human rights violations being inflicted upon civilians who merely wanted democracy. Carter never directly answered theArchbishop’s letter and Romero was murdered shortly after by a member of a right-wing death squad who shot him through the heart as he gave mass in a cathedral. Days after at Romero’s funeral service, Salvadoran soldiers opened deadly fire on the huge crowd that came to pay their respects to the martyred Archbishop. The murders by the government of many other Catholic church members were to follow as their peaceful activities to help the poor and pronouncements for an end to the violence had them branded as enemies by the military and their US trainers. These anti-democratic actions by theSalvadoran military and their allied death squads would lead to a violent and deadly 12-year long civil war which tore apart the country’s social fabric. Presidents Carter and particularly Reagan openly supported, financed, armed and trained El Salvador’s military and its death squads throughout the long war.
The background of the brutal 1980’s Salvadoran civil war
The civil war in El Salvador was caused by the repressive Salvadoran government that used violence to block fair elections and the democratic participation of the Salvadoran People and their chosen political parties. Peaceful gatherings were regularly attacked with deadly force as a brutal message was being conveyed by the military government to the civilian population that they should accept injustice and stay in their place. The majority of the people as well as many representatives of the church refused to do so as peaceful protests and public outcries continued to demand that the government respect human rights and cease their attacks upon civilians. These democratic aspirations were met by more violence and deaths on the part of the military. Leaving no other available option, the opposition groups coalesced into the FMLN (Frente Farabundo Marti de Liberacion Nacional) to oppose the US supported military government and civil war broke out. Both Presidents Carter and Reagan praised the repressive right-wing Salvadoran government as a “democratic” ally which opposed the Soviet Union and therefore needed to be given substantial economic and military assistance to crush their ‘subversive’ critics and opposition. Even the US Ambassador to El Salvador Robert White denounced the human rights abuses being perpetrated upon the population by the military and government supported death squads and for his honesty was removed from his post by Reagan who wanted him silenced. Soon, the dumps on the outskirts of San Salvador became periodically littered with bodies of students and others targeted for death for attempting to exercise their rights. This was followed by the kidnapping, rape and murder of four US churchwomen in El Salvador by government soldiers which was meant as a warning to the religious community to stop their peaceful activities which aided the poor. In 1989, six Jesuit priests at a Salvadoran university who espoused social justice in their teachings were also murdered by government soldiers who also killed their housekeeper and her daughter in order to eliminate any witnesses. In all, over 75,000 people died in 12 years at the hands of the armed forces who were armed and financed by President Reagan and trained at the US ‘School of the Americas’ at Fort Benning Georgia. During this time, Reagan also supported the repressive military of Guatemala who killed thousands and the brutal Contras rebel group in Nicaragua. This period in history was not a proud episode in US-Central American relations.
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The long and brutal civil war ended with positive and negative results
The thousands who died during the 12 years of government inflicted violence along with the thousands of Salvadorans who fled the war and settled in many US cities and countries left the country deeply divided. President Reagan had consistently refused to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the civil war and instead opted for a military victory by the repressive government which ultimately failed as the FMLN coalition forces successfully fought back. A positive aspect was that many people here in the US and other countries demanded an end to the killing and assisted in applying political pressure to bring the war to a close. Broad-based organizations were developed within El Salvador in addition to support groups abroad which were training grounds for organizers to develop democratic institutions and norms. Despite the right-wing opposition by Pope John Paul ll at that time to church members who followed the activist teachings of Liberation Theology, most religious orders sided with the Salvadoran people against the brutal excesses of the government. Presently, the people of El Salvador have voted freely without any widespread violence and have elected a government led by the former FMLN rebels who are now a legal party. This would have been unheard of a decade ago as both the present military and Obama have grudgingly accepted the will of theSalvadoran People for self-determination. On the negative side, El Salvador is still a poor country which lacks jobs and resources and has permanently lost many well-educated people who were vital to the country’s economy but who left during the civil war and never returned. Another growing social problem that resulted from the civil war and that needs to be dealt with in El Salvador are gangs which were initially organized in Los Angeles and other US cities by certain young Salvadoran immigrants. Many of these gang members have since been deported back to El Salvador where they have regrouped and recruited other unemployed young people to increasingly engage in widespread gang violence and criminal activities.
Monsenor Romero: a man of principle who was dedicated to justice
The ‘Dirty War’ waged in Argentina from 1976 to 1983 by the US supported military dictatorship resulted in thousands of deaths which Pope Francis as a priest did not publicly oppose at the time and therefore he was not harmed. The beliefs and convictions of Oscar Romero would not allow him to do such a thing and simply recede into the background and remain silent and safe. During this volatile and brutal period in Latin American history there were many churchmen and women who practiced Liberation Theology in various countries. This theology emphasized a socially active church and direct work among the poor as articulated in the old Gospel of the New Testament. Many of these church members, particularly the well-educated and outspoken Jesuits, were targeted as subversives by the US supported right-wing authorities and killed. During this time conservative Pope John Paul ll strongly criticized and condemned church members who practiced activist Liberation Theology. John stated that its emphasis on siding with and aiding the poor was an element of Marxism and threatened many of them with ex-communication from the church. Despite these threats, the efforts of these martyred church activists and followers of Liberation Theology contributed greatly to the struggle against tyranny, the defense of human rights and the development of present-day democracy within Latin America. They actually practiced the Gospel with their actions and not just with abstract words on Sundays. The facts of history will show that Archbishop Romero is a true hero and patriot who regardless of the danger he faced stood up to presidents and generals in order to defend justice and his people’s human rights. An historical evaluation of the actions of individuals will contrast the just principles and morality of Monsignor Romero with those of the unjust Presidents Carter and Reagan who committed crimes and behaved in an immoral and cowardly manner by supporting dictators with US weapons and giving orders to armed thugs to torture, rape and kill innocent people. The 1980’s was a decade of shameful anti-democratic and murderous US policies in Latin America that left deep scars which still exist. Many individuals who were guilty of crimes during these decades have not been held accountable nor punished for their murderous actions with many of them now living comfortably in the US. The peoples of the region are still recovering from this repressive period as a democratic and independent trend in Latin America is now beginning to freely take hold.