Archbishop Oscar Romero: Thirty Years and Little Learned

Archbishop Oscar Romero

Thirty years ago, Archbishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador was assassinated in the early evening at the tiny church, Divina Providencia. The day before, at the Cathedral of San Salvador, he had ended a sermon with words he directed at Salvadoran soldiers and police:

“I would like to make an appeal in a special way to the men of the army, to the police, to those in the barracks. Brothers, you are part of our own people. You kill your own campesino brothers and sisters. And before an order to kill that a man may give, the law of God must prevail that says: Thou shalt not kill! No soldier is obliged to obey an order against the law of God. No one has to fulfill an immoral law. It is time to recover your consciences and to obey your consciences rather than the orders of sin. The church, defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of human dignity, the dignity of the person, cannot remain silent before such abomination. We want the government to take seriously that reforms are worth nothing when they come about stained with so much blood. In the name of God, and in the name of this suffering people whose laments rise to heaven each day more tumultuously, I beg you, I ask you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!”

A single shot rang out and pierced Romero’s heart. As he bled to death those around him believed they knew what elements of Salvadoran society were responsible for the crime. Church and human rights groups recognized the killing as the familiar work of right-wing death squads. The Washington Post and other U.S. news outlets reported that Romero’s assassination might have been the work of “leftist” rebels.

Archbishop Romero had sent several letters to President Jimmy Carter pleading with him to stop all U.S. aid to what he considered a murderous regime. The day after Romero’s funeral, which itself was marred by violence when armed men in plainclothes fired into a crowd of mourners, Carter approved an increase in “non-lethal” U.S. aid to the Salvadoran government, which included cargo trucks, radar, riot control gear, and night-vision tracking equipment. Three days before he left office, Carter lifted the ban on U.S. arms sales to El Salvador.

When President Ronald Reagan came to power he poured even larger amounts of arms and money into the Salvadoran civil war making El Salvador the single largest recipient of U.S. aid in Latin America. Military assistance went from $5.9 million in fiscal year 1980 to $35.5 million in 1981, and then to $82 million the following year. During this same period, economic aid to El Salvador went from $58.3 million in 1980 to $114 million in 1981, and then to $182.2 million in 1982. [Americas Watch]

In the U.S. Senate, North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, who was then the Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, heaped high praise on Salvadoran Major Roberto D’Aubuisson and his men for being staunch allies in the fight against communism. Senator Helms’s blandishments came despite evidence that suggested elements of D’Aubuisson’s paramilitary organization were possibly responsible for murdering Romero. The career diplomat, Robert White, who was Carter’s ambassador to El Salvador called D’Aubuisson and his armed supporters “pathological killers.”

The killing in El Salvador escalated after Romero’s death. In late 1981, when reports surfaced that the U.S.-backed “Atlacatl Battalion” of the Salvadoran Army massacred peasants near the village of El Mozote, both the Salvadoran government and the Reagan Administration denied it happened. The El Mozote massacre had left 767 men, women, and children dead.

Americas Watch, the nonprofit human rights organization that monitors Latin America, estimated that in El Salvador right-wing death squads tied to the government’s security services were responsible for killing 30,000 people. And in 1991, a “truth commission” sponsored by the United Nations made clear that the Salvadoran military and the death squads were “one and the same.”

In the United States, the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES) emerged in 1981 as an umbrella organization of peace activists, clergy, and other groups that worked with refugees who were fleeing the bloodshed and seeking asylum. Each year CISPES activists held candlelight vigils on the anniversary of Archbishop Romero’s slaying. The first one took place on March 24, 1981.

And what did those who formulate United States foreign policy learn from the carnage in El Salvador? The same thing they should have learned from Vietnam: Whenever the United States sticks its nose into another country’s civil war it only raises the level of death and destruction making the politics all the more intractable. And in the end it achieves very little other than what could have been worked out peacefully in the first place.

We recently heard that the “conservative” members of the Texas State Board of Education voted to erase Archbishop Oscar Romero from children’s history textbooks, which is an ironic decision since their hero, Ronald Reagan, believed that Central America was the “front line” against the spread of Soviet communism in the Western Hemisphere.

Today, American drone aircraft are engaging in “targeted assassinations” in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere. More often than not these strikes result in the killing and maiming of innocent people, including women and children. On the one hand, Pentagon officials tell us the war in Afghanistan is about 85 percent political and only 15 percent military and that the only path to success is to win the hearts and minds of the people, to build schools and clinics, provide jobs and build infrastructure, and help improve the lives of regular people. While on the other hand, these same Pentagon officials tell us that the means to accomplish this noble and just end must include blowing away women and children with an endless barrage of drone attacks. They seem incapable of seeing, like in El Salvador in the 1980s, that escalating the violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan will do little to address the underlying social and political problems that produced the conflict in the first place.

Archbishop Oscar Romero gave his life trying to prevent a bloodbath in the country he loved. He tried to shield his people from the U.S.-backed repression, consistent with his mission as the top Catholic cleric in the country. Romero’s liberation theology didn’t arise from abstract ideological or canonical principles but was grounded in his seeing all around him the crushing poverty, hungry children, and innocent victims of class violence in El Salvador. Despite the actions of the mighty Texas Board of Education to erase his memory, Archbishop Romero will be long remembered as a friend of the oppressed, a champion of the poor, an advocate of peace, and a tribune for justice.

Joseph Palermo

Crossposted with Joseph A Palermo

Published by the LA Progressive on March 27, 2010
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About Joseph Palermo

Joseph Palermo is Professor of History, California State University, Sacramento. Professor Palermo's most recent book is The Eighties (Pearson 2012). He has also written two other books: In His Own Right: The Political Odyssey of Senator Robert F. Kennedy (Columbia, 2001); and Robert F. Kennedy and the Death of American Idealism (Pearson, 2008). Before earning a Master's degree and Doctorate in History from Cornell University, Professor Palermo completed Bachelor's degrees in Sociology and Anthropology from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Master's degree in History from San Jose State University. His expertise includes the 1980s; political history; presidential politics and war powers; social movements of the 20th century; the 1960s; and the history of American foreign policy. Professor Palermo has also written articles for anthologies on the life of Father Daniel Berrigan, S.J. in The Human Tradition in America Since 1945 (Scholarly Resources Press, 2003); and on the Watergate scandal in Watergate and the Resignation of Richard Nixon (CQ Press, 2004).

Comments

  1. I like Roberto D says:

    He was a fucking communist who also supplied the marxist rebels with guns. You have to remember the cathoilc church loves marxism and hates conservatives

  2. David Colcord Anderson says:

    As always, thank you for the opportunity to comment.

    We should applaud Romero’s self-sacrifices in attempting to aid the poor, and how he inspired many others in this manner. It seems he is a very popular figure within Latin culture. We should examine the heroes of all cultures and understand the virtues and lessons presented.

    A soldier that indiscriminately shoots non-violent fellow citizens is not a soldier, but a murderer, and if murderers are employed disproportioniately by a government, then that government is really a violent mob, regardless of the the self-proclaimed form of said government. Governments are a reflection upon those governed, and vice versa.

    If we are to believe the history taught Westerners, most all of the foreign wars fought since WWII in which the U.S. became involved were started by leftists backed by a communist power external to the country of conflict. The right within that country couldn’t resist calling in the ‘cavalry’, sometimes with massive influx of U.S. troops. I offer no endorsement of those wars.

    We didn’t tend to see many troops from the leftist puppet master’s country(s) charging into the remote conflict for several reasons:

    1. The left use the poor to fight their foreign wars. It is more advantageous due to the inherent doctrine. Pulling would-be corpses from the ranks of the impoverished is a cheap investment. Perspective… If convinced that you’ve been doomed to poverty by external sinful forces, some food, cash, a uniform, and a rifle can be enchanting.

    2. The right in the countries of conflict were definitely sometimes oppressors, oppressive dictatorships, what have you, no doubt. It would not be surprising for the leadership and top echelons to be weak from over indulgence. At other times, you have to consider that businessmen, engineers, doctors, et al, don’t really want to be ‘demoted’ to the role of soldier. Pay someone else to fight or let someone else fight for you for ‘free’.

    3. The U.S. strategy, perhaps in hopes of ending conflicts quickly, sent many troops to war. When conflict ends, order is restored or improved, and free markets allowed to function. As we know this was very successful ;)

    4. The left may not be so quick to seek an end to conflict. If there is no excuse for chaos and poverty, yet utopia hasn’t replaced disarray, the doctrine then comes into question. The Soviet Union lasted a many decades. ‘Free’ society in the United States is going on 400 years, though we must not forget the oppression of the indigenous natives or enslavement of blacks.

    But those that use Romero’s name and legacy to assert that all peoples’ in a state of poverty, in general, are largely there because of the intentional sins of some external person or force is rather incompatible with original, traditional, and even most modern Christian teachings. It seems unlikely the man’s beliefs were insincere given the adoration he is given by so many.

    But, his particular form of politicizing Christianity just isn’t that popular in ‘free’ societys. It is said this is why the Church, for all its own blemishes and contradictions, has been slow to elevate his posthumous status.

    The liberation theology is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”* to most who believe that disciplined self-maintenance and independence are the fundamentals enablers of felicity and upward mobility.
    *Winston Churchill

    Forgive me WC.

    Oscar Romero appears to be in a pretty comfy setting when the picture was taken. Of use to note is that an admonition against all violence was not quoted in the article, or often stated by Romero’s closest associates.

    Lastly, we see how much political power the Vatican still wields, when both the right and the left continue to court it.

    • Dan the Man says:

      Man, you have definitely not studied your history of oppressed people very well, both inside of America and outside of it. Try reading Du Bois and Foster on Black History. Try reading Rudy Acuna on Chicano History. Try reading “Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee.” Try reading Franz Fanon on Africa and Regis De Bray on Latin America. Try reading Karl Marx AND the Gospels of Jesus together and see if you can make the connection. You also do not express your thoughts very clearly as I am I left to guess as to what you really mean to say. In fact, I don’t think you really know what you are trying to say. Sounds like you can “talk it” but can’t “walk it.” Your historical anaylsis is anything but. As for “Sorry WC,” Winston Churchill was one of the biggest racist dogs England has ever known. Yuo don’t need to apologize to that guy. Read more. Talk less. Learn. Spread peace. Good luck. Good Bye!

  3. Uh–that’s not Archbishop Romero in the photo. That’s actor Raul Julia, who played him in the film “Romero.” Let’s not further confuse history and its later re-telling.

  4. joseph bell says:

    NOW ,I HAVE TO CHANGE MY LOVE OF CARTER ,TO ONE OF SHAME .. ARE WE ALL THAT CLUELESS ; I GUESS I WAS . CHECK OUT THE U.K. REPORTER IN AFGHANISTAN ,WHO JUST REPORTED ABOUT OUR TROOPS SLAUGHTERING WOMEN AND CHILDREN AND TRYING TO BLACK BALL MR. STARKEY ;THE U.N . AND THE USA. WANT THE NATURAL RESOURCES IN THAT COUNTRY ,THAT;S WHY THEY ARE LETTING CHINA MINE FOR COPPER WHILE WE PROTECT THEM .. IRAN IS BUILDING A GAS PIPELINE THRU PAKISTAN TO INDIA … WHO ARE THE ENEMY , WHO / WHOM IS THE GOOD GUY ‘NOT THE U.S.OF A&&&&&&&&&&

  5. Just wanted to be sure everyone knows that the picture is of Raul Julia the actor portraying Oscar Romero in an excellent movie. Thanks for the insightful article.

  6. Archbishop Romero’s assassins were trained by the US at the School of the Americas in Ft. Benning, Georgia. When Congress tried to close the school by cutting off funding because “counter-insurgency” training included techniques such as torture and assassination, the Department of Defense simply changed the name to WHINSEC (Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) and found a different budget line. This training facility remains in operation today though the movement to close it down again gains momentum.

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