Why El Salvador Matters

National Catholic Reporter, June 27, 2008 | Go to article overview

Why El Salvador Matters


In 1981, only weeks into the first term of Ronald Reagan, Secretary of State Alexander Haig addressed the president's obsession with fighting communism by assuring Reagan that El Salvador is "one we can win."

Nearly 30 years later, as El Salvador approaches crucial national elections, it remains one of history's tragic ironies that the fate of this tiny Central American nation may still hang on what we mean by an American victory there.

Peace accords in 1992 ended a brutal 12-year civil war that killed 75,000 people, mostly civilians. El Salvador might have emerged to become what nature had blessed it to be--a tropical paradise--and what real friendship with the United States could have helped it become--a model for development and democracy.

Instead, 16 years after the war, conditions in El Salvador are as tenuous and as volatile as ever. This time, it is not open warfare but the slow agony of inequality, poverty and political repression that endangers the nation. Some say they fear another war if elections do not bring change.

This is why the special bond known as the "accompaniment," forged between many North Americans and the people of El Salvador during the war years, is more important than ever.

It is worth reviewing some of the history. U.S. policy applied an anticommunist template that had failed from Vietnam to Central America, often thwarting the political revolutions needed to end the vicious exploitation of the poor by dictators and wealthy elites still claiming colonial privilege.

Surprising many, the Catholic church, in the flush of Vatican II, sided with the poor in historic regional meetings at Medellin, Colombia; Puebla, Mexico; and Santa Domingo in the Dominican Republic, proclaiming that "God shows a preferential love for the poor," and that the Gospel and social justice are inseparable.

Something extraordinary happened in the early 1980s as ordinary U.S. citizens started to pay attention to the impact of U.S. policy in Central America.

It came about in part because of the well-publicized assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in 1980, the rape and murder of four American church women later that same year, and the 1989 massacre of six Jesuits and their companions on the campus of the Jesuit university in San Salvador.

North American humanitarian groups and churches began sending delegations to El Salvador to act as witnesses and as human shields in the war zone. …

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