From February 16 to 27, Sandra Snider, EBM Region 7 and Chair of the OPSEU Social Justice Fund joined a tour sponsored by the Horizons of Friendship in Cobourg. The goal of the tour was to visit small community projects, one of them supported by OPSEU’s Social Justice Fund through Horizons.
A Brief History of El Salvador
El Salvador is the smallest Spanish-speaking country in the Western Hemisphere. In 1524 Conquistador Pedro de Alvarado conquered El Salvador. By 1540 indigenous resistance was crushed and the country became a colony of Spain. El Salvador declared its independence from Spanish rule in 1821 and joined the United Provinces of Central America with Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica in 1823. It broke away from them in 1836 to form its own government. The Republic of El Salvador was established in 1839. In 1932 a military coup overthrew the only democratically elected President and 15,000 peasants were murdered. A succession of military dictatorships followed and in the 1960s the right –wing National Conciliation Party (PCN) took power and began a ruthless attack on the population of this tiny country.
In 1968 the theology of liberation was taking root among Latin American bishops and in 1977 Jesuit priest, Rutilio Grande, S.J. was the first of seven priests killed in the service of the poor in El Salvador. His death began the radical change in the Archbishop – Archbishop Oscar Romero. The Violence and repression escalated and the United States increased its military and economic aid to this brutal regime. The Faribundo Marti Liberation Front (FMLN), named after a 1930s revolutionary leader, emerged in the 1970s to fight for land reform and against the unjust regime.
The Devastation of Civil War 1979 – 1992
The anti-government guerilla activities intensified as the right-wing regime continued to crush the people and 30,000 people were killed by army backed right wing death squads. The final toll at the end of the war was 75,000 killed.
In February 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero wrote a letter to Jimmy Carter, president of the United States saying, “Please do not send any military or economic support to this government or there will be a blood bath in my country”. By the end of the war, the United States had invested over $6 billion in support to the brutal regime.
On March 23, Romero called on soldiers to obey the higher law of God and not kill their brothers and sisters. On March 24, 1980 Archbishop Romero was assassinated in a small chapel in a centre for cancer patients – the place where Romero lived. (One of the nuns told a story of how they knew that Romero would not agree to move into the small house nearby that the nuns built for him. Instead they asked one of the cancer patients to give him the keys. They knew he would not refuse one of his congregation).
A 12 year civil war devastated the people of El Salvador. Over 75,000 were killed in the war and thousands more fled the country for refuge in Canada and other countries. The war, natural disasters like earthquakes and floods and the history of impoverishment – all have drained El Salvador. Some facts:
- 6.5 million people live in El Salvador
- It is only 21,041 square kilometers in total area
- 50% of the people live in poverty, 19% of which is considered “extreme poverty”
- 90% of the country’s natural water is contaminated and half the population drinks untreated water
- Natural disasters have made things even worse for El Salvadoreans – Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and an earthquake in 2001 together left 1,200 dead and more than a million homeless
- The U.S. and major corporations dominate the economy and privatization is rampart
- Violence and escalating human rights abuses are rife – poverty and the proliferation of guns have led to high homicide rates that are12 times higher than murder rates in New York.
Everywhere that OPSEU traveled we heard the same story – the war had a devastating effect on the psyche of the people. Peasants, students, workers and internationalists were incorporated in to the struggle and took up arms. Why? They had witnessed the atrocities – they had walked down the streets and seen decapitated bodies, people shot down, peaceful mourners at Romero’s funeral gunned down in the streets. How can you recover from those memories?
In November 1989, six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter were assassinated at the Central American University in San Salvador.
Rose bushes are planted in the place where the priests were dragged and their bodies mutilated. Inside were the ravaged bodies of the housekeeper and her daughter. The housekeeper’s husband is still the gardener today; he was off the property at the time of the killings.
San Salvador Cathedral where Romero is buried. During his funeral, 79 people were shot and killed and hundreds more were wounded.
“Instead of a purge we got impunity!”
In 1992 a United Nations-sponsored peace accord meant the end of all atrocities – or did it?
After the war, there were various attempts at initiating peace:
- An Ad Hoc Committee was set up to purge the Armed Forces and expel those responsible for atrocities such as Romero’s killing. A Truth Commission was also set up to underline the responsibility of the state in these crimes. Neither of these has been successful in bringing those responsible to justice. At least the armed forces have been removed from the political process.
- The creation of a national Civilian Police – to create a more modern, democratically operating police force. This police force has been responsible for many of the denunciations of human rights.
- The Accord created the opportunity of creating a whole new independent judicial system. There was a new Supreme Court and a new way of electing magistrates, but the situation has actually become worse again since 2003.
- A Supreme Electoral Commission was created and in 1991 the FMLN was recognized as a political party.
The El Salvador of 2008 is still a country of hunger, violence, poverty and environmental destruction. Despite this, there are many grassroots organizations struggling to regain dignity and justice for the thousands of displaced and disenfranchised in that society.
- Total population of El Salvador – 6,980,000
- 47% men, 52.9 % women
- 40% of population – youth under 19
- In 2006 there were 3.3 million living outside El Salvador
- Population density 331.5 per sq km – highest in Central America
- Life expectancy – 70.6 years
- Poverty (UN figures) – 47.5 %
- Water access – 85% in cities; 43% in rural areas; 64% non-potable
- Employed – 54% of men; 41% of women
- School attendance – 35% male; 31% female
- Infant mortality – 32 per 1000/ in rural areas – 45 (Canada 3, Cuba 5)
Sister Snider was joined for part of the tour by OPSEU campaigns officer Brenda Wall. Sister Wall’s report on the tour will be available on-line soon.
Photos and story by Brenda Wall. For more information: firstname.lastname@example.org
El Salvador community organization thanks the Social Justice Fund for the truck they purchased with OPSEU support
March 12, 2009
When EBM and Social Justice Fund Chair Sandra Snider and Campaigns Officer Brenda Wall went on the Horizons of Friendship tour to El Salvador in February 2008, they were struck by the strength of the people at ACUDESBAL in the region of Lower Lempa.
Sister Snider came back with a special request to the Social Justice Fund to support the purchase of a truck for the many needs identified by ACUDESBAL. It has allowed them to strengthen and facilitate their work as it gives them a quick and effective means of traveling within and beyond the 29 communities within their region. All of their work is aimed at ensuring that the communities and youth have a future in the Lower Lempa and are not obliged to risk their lives travelling north to the United States in their desperate quest for work.
Here is a translation of the letter ACUDESBAL sent to OPSEU:
"Dear Sandra, Brenda and all the compañeros and compañeras from OPSEU
Please accept our fraternal greetings on behalf of ACUDESBAL. We hope that this card finds you well – in good health and that your prestigious institution is harvesting many successes.
We thank you immensely for the caring gesture you have shown towards our communities in the Lower Lempa. With your support, we now have a vehicle that strengthens our institutional work.
We pray that God will fill you with blessings, illuminate your path and strengthen your spirit of solidarity with our people.
Many thanks to all the sisters and brothers,
Jose Santos Guevara (Mario)
Blanca Irma Ventura
Jose Salvador Gomez
Sandra Snider, Chair of OPSEU Social Justice Fund, arriving in El Salvador
A mural of Oscar Romero in Suchitoto – the scene of many attacks during the war.
Rose bushes are planted in the place where the priests were dragged and their bodies mutilated.
Outside Romero’s house and his tomb
FMLN supporters preparing for a pre-election rally in Suchitoto, Feb. 17, 2008. The week before 13 people arrested in anti-water privatization protests were released from jail after international pressure.