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Obama and the Legacy of Salvadoran Archbishop Romero

March 23, 2011

Yesterday, US President Barack Obama was finishing his 5-day tour of Latin America and while in El Salvador he visited to tomb of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Some may see this visit as a good will gesture that means the US is now on the side of justice, but this would be a naïve view of the significance of Obama’s visit to the tomb of the slain archbishop.

Romero was not only an advocate of the poor, but a spiritual leader who condemned militarism in El Salvador and the role that the US played in that militarism. In fact, Romero sent a letter to then US President Jimmy Carter just 5 weeks before he was assassinated and called on the US to stop sending weapons, military advisors and to not intervene diplomatically, economically or in any other way that would “determine the destiny of the Salvadoran people.”

The US did not listen to Romero’s plea for justice, instead they funded the bloody counter-insurgency war in El Salvador for the next ten years averaging a $1 million a day in military aid that resulted in an estimate 80,000 dead Salvadorans, most of which were murdered by the Salvadoran armed forces according to the UN Truth Commission Report.

In addition to the US role in militarizing El Salvador it has continued to intervene economically by brokering the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in 2006. Five years later the impact of CAFTA on workers and civil society in general has been devastating for the people of El Salvador.

One concrete example of how bad CAFTA is for El Salvador is the case of the Pacific Rim mining company, which has sued the government of El Salvador for $77 million because the government denied mining permits to Pacific Rim. The Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) has been engaged in a campaign in conjunction with Salvadorans to fight Pacific Rim for years.

In addition to visiting El Salvador, Obama also made stops in Brazil and Chile on his four-day tour of Latin America. In keeping with the spirit of Archbishop Romero one could conclude that the President has not promoted more democracy and justice in the region. In fact, this administration has continued decades long policies of isolating progressive governments and supporting militarism.

The Obama administration continues to support the embargo against Cuba, the covert war against Venezuela, the militarizing of Colombia, and the coup in Honduras.

The group SOA Watch particularly thinks that Obama’s visit to Romero’s is dishonest because of the US role in the Honduran coup and their commitment to training Latin American soldiers.

“While Obama tries to portray a change in the dismal history of US relations towards Latin America, nowhere is it clearer than in neighboring Honduras that the past is the present. Last Friday, Honduran teacher Ilse Velasquez became the latest victim of the repression unleashed by the illegitimate regime of Porfirio Lobo. She was hurled unconscious onto the pavement, then hit by a car, after being struck in the head by one of the many tear gas canisters shot by police into the peaceful crowd. Ilse was the sister of Manfredo Velasquez, a student leader tortured and killed by the Honduran military in 1981 who was the subject of a landmark trial at the InterAmerican court that led to the founding of COFADEH and significantly improved the ability of victims of human rights violations to demand justice from their governments

The common denominator in all of these incidents is the leading role of SOA graduates. The repressive Lobo came to power via illegitimate elections following a coup led by two SOA graduates against President Manuel Zelaya in 2009. One of SOA’s most notorious graduates, General Gustavo Alvarez Martinez, was the head of the Honduran Armed Forces at the time of their murder of Manfredo Velasquez. He was also the founder of the brutal Battalion 3-16, whose tentacles continue to penetrate current Honduran repression. The person responsible for ordering police repression against peaceful protesters that led to Ilse’s death on Friday is none other than the nephew of General Alvarez: Security Minister Oscar A. Martinez Guerrero, and a 1991 graduate of the SOA.”

If US President Obama really wanted to honor the memory of the slain Archbishop from El Salvador he would not continue to support militarism and war throughout Latin America and the rest of the world. In fact, Obama would do well to learn a lesson from Romero and follow the spirit of one the Archbishop’s last public words in 1980 where he calls on Salvadoran soldiers to lay down their weapons:

“Brothers, you came from our own people. You are killing your own brothers. 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 obeyed your consciences rather than sinful orders. The church cannot remain silent before such an abomination. … In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people whose cry rises to heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you: stop the repression.”


7 Comments leave one →
  1. Kate Wheeler permalink
    March 23, 2011 10:18 pm

    Thank for this commentary. Given Romero’s life and fight for justice, it was insulting to see Obama make this hollow gesture.

    “Pueden matarme, pero no la voz de justicia.”
    -Oscar Romero

  2. Susan O'Neal permalink
    March 26, 2011 10:13 pm

    Why is there no anti-war movement today? The United States is now overtly engaged in war in three different countries. I heard some high ranking military guy on tv today saying it would be helpful if before going in to some armed invasion/response, the government had a strategy, an end game. How true. In this regard President Obama has shown himself to be no different than GWB. How do we know when the war is “over” in Afghanistan? Can anyone even define the “mission” at this point? And, aren’t people still dying in Iraq? What happened to the spirit of Americans, who in the past boldly protested against war, against nuclear power plants and weapons, and in favor of civil rights?

  3. March 26, 2011 10:28 pm

    Susan, you raise important questions and I too wonder where the anti-war movement is in the US. My own analysis of it is that many of the people who were opposed to Iraq during the Bush years were Democrats who now think that Iraq is fine, Afghanistan is a just war and that the US bombing of Libya is for humanitarian reasons. I disagree with this reasons, but as someone who has tried to organize against these wars they have fallen on deaf ears, at least in Grand Rapids.

  4. Susan O'Neal permalink
    March 27, 2011 6:20 pm

    I haven’t really tried to organize any anti-war activities here in Central Illinois, but there really isn’t even any discussion going on about it, even among people who are more progressive-minded. The economy and lack of jobs is such a huge issue here, as I imagine it is in Michagan, as well, and there is so much going on/going wrong at once, that I think it is hard for most people to focus on this issue, even though it is a huge drain on the national economy, the one issue people here are focused on. Of course, these wars we are engaged in, not to mention some we have been or are secretly supporting, are wrong on several other levels.

  5. March 27, 2011 6:34 pm

    Susan, the economy and what the Michigan Governor is doing to the state budget certainly is a priority for many people here in Michigan, but it is important for all of us to make the connection between these policies and the cost of US wars abroad.

  6. Susan O'Neal permalink
    March 27, 2011 7:49 pm

    Jeff, I couldn’t agree more.

  7. September 25, 2011 10:05 am

    Your article pecfretly shows what I needed to know, thanks!

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