Peace & Justice

This is the blog of the Commission on Peace and Justice for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, New York.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Romero Remembered

Commonweal magazine has an article by Robert White, the former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador who met with Archbishop Oscar Romero just before his death:
Thirty years ago, on March 24, 1980, a marksman shot and killed Archbishop Oscar Romero as he said Mass in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd in San Salvador. As established by investigative commissions of the United Nations and the Organization of American States, the assassination of Romero had been planned and directed by ex-Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, a former chief of Salvadoran military intelligence and a talented political demagogue. He was the symbolic founder of ARENA, the right-wing party that, with the help of the United States, controlled the government of El Salvador from 1989 until 2009.

The social order of El Salvador had traditionally rested on a tripod of the rich, the military, and the church. The rich ran the country. They controlled it through the military, and the role of the church was to counsel the poor to accept their lot and to wait for their reward in the next life.

Then, in 1968, in Medellín, Colombia, the bishops of Latin America adopted a “preferential option for the poor.” Pope Paul VI summarized Medellín when he said, “The poor have the right not only to share in the fruits of the society, but in the direction of that society.”

By 1977, Archbishop Romero had become the most controversial leader in the history of El Salvador. Each Sunday from his pulpit in the cathedral he denounced examples of repression by the Salvadoran security forces and called for the rule of law and a more just society. His words were heard not only by those inside the cathedral, but throughout Central America. You could walk down any street in the poor barrios and villages and never miss a word of Romero’s sermon. Every radio in every casita would be tuned to Romero’s homily.
. . .
It was the 1979 overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua that had focused the Carter administration on El Salvador. Critics accused the president of abandoning the pro-American Somoza and of losing Nicaragua to communism. Although these charges were wildly exaggerated, the harsh anti-Washington rhetoric of the Sandinistas and the influx of Cuban advisors in Nicaragua lent a certain plausibility to the accusations.

El Salvador, virtually next door to Nicaragua, was now irrevocably part of the Cold War. Hard-liners in the Department of Defense and the CIA argued that the Carter policy of human rights had to be subordinated to a military buildup if El Salvador was not to fall under the control of Marxist revolutionaries. On the other side, State Department officials warned that there was no military solution to the Salvadoran crisis, that it had been repression by the armed forces that had helped create the insurgency, and that a political solution was still possible.

Out of this debate came proposals to combine an American-backed, large-scale counterinsurgency effort with a far-reaching program of economic and social reform. This formula proved persuasive to Carter, who wanted to save his human-rights policy but also needed to demonstrate a determination not to lose El Salvador.

Shortly before my scheduled departure for San Salvador, a National Security Council meeting on El Salvador discussed the role of Archbishop Romero. Several spoke of his alleged anti-American sermons, his politicizing of religion, and his incitement to rebellion. The chief White House official present recommended I make a brief stopover in Rome to try to persuade the Vatican to pressure Romero to stop making bad matters worse. Not for the first time, I marveled at Washington decision-makers’ lack of understanding about the new role of the church in Latin America, their ignorance of the unrelenting persecution of priests, nuns, and lay workers by the Salvadoran military and the already strained relations between the Vatican of Pope John Paul II and Romero.

I had read Romero’s sermons and, while they were certainly combative, they accurately reflected the cruel reality of a lawless country where the poor had given up hope that any moderate government would risk challenging entrenched power. All the people’s trust resided in “Monsignor Romero,” who each Sunday spoke truth to power and inspired millions to believe that change was possible.

You should read the rest of the article here.