Remembering Romero

As El Salvador celebrates Oscar Romero's beatification amid violence and inequality, his vision of social justice offers a way forward.

Felton Davis / Flickr

Across Latin America this past week, millions of the region’s faithful celebrated the beatification of El Salvador’s Archbishop Oscar Romero. The Catholic priest, who was gunned down while delivering mass on March 24, 1980, was declared a martyr by Pope Francis earlier this year following years of opposition by conservative forces within the Vatican. Beatification is widely believed to be Romero’s next step on the road to sainthood.

While his murder was never solved, its motivations were never in doubt. The years just before the country’s civil war, which officially began in 1981, were marked by violent repression. Popular discontent with growing inequality and a worsening economy led to increased calls for land reform and a new government, while electoral fraud extinguished any hopes for democratic accountability.

The US-backed military repeatedly blocked center-left parties from taking power while right-wing death squads assassinated political dissidents, put down popular protests, and instilled widespread fear among the population. As opposition groups organized and took up arms to fight back, the military escalated the violence. US support for the regime also increased.

Romero offered people comfort and courage in this particularly dark moment. He openly confronted the country’s murderous junta and rejected foreign intervention by the US. He demanded accountability for the wave of torture and disappearances, which would dramatically increase with the onset of the civil war. Perhaps most importantly, however, Romero explicitly stood with the poor and vulnerable against the wealthy and powerful, and demanded that his followers do the same.

In words and deeds, Romero professed his faith not just in the teachings of the church, but in the values he hoped would come to shape his country. He advocated a radical society for El Salvador that placed the abolition of social injustice, economic inequality, and violence at the center of spiritual practice. Romero’s leadership by example, and his insistence on directly connecting politics to religious faith, made him the international face of liberation theology.

Sadly, Romero’s vision could hardly be more distant from El Salvador’s present state. Broadly speaking, the country labors under the weight of a moribund economy. Inequality is high, with women and children bearing the brunt of abusive laws and a tattered polity.

President Salvador Sánchez Cerén — a formerly fierce guerrilla commander — has been distinctly ineffective in office, hamstrung by a conservative opposition and his own apparent incapacity for creative leadership.

Worst of all, though, the entire country exists in a perpetual state of siege. Salvadorans are currently under attack from armed actors within the country and predatory capital abroad.

At home, El Salvador’s gangs battle each other for street supremacy while simultaneously fighting an open war against the state. Since a government-mediated truce between the country’s gangs ruptured last year, murder rates have climbed to their worst levels in a decade.

The numbers are staggering. In the first five months of 2015 alone, estimates suggest that some 1,800 people have been killed. Just this month, over 540 people have been murdered. Violence against police and the military likewise surged, prompting the government to give security forces carte blanche in their fight against the gangs, and setting El Salvador on course to becoming the most violent country in the Western Hemisphere.

As if things weren’t bad enough, former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani showed up in El Salvador this month to provide security advice to the country’s business elites. Giuliani has enjoyed an expanding portfolio of business in Latin America in recent years, despite the fact that his standard-issue proposals for more law and order have failed to improve the region.

If Giuliani’s menu of suggestions is hardly surprising, it’s still distressing. In a meeting with government representatives and local business leaders in San Salvador earlier this month, Giuliani was unequivocal: El Salvador’s gangs “need to be annihilated.” In order to achieve this bold objective, Giuliani’s plan reportedly calls for heftier crackdowns on criminal activities, changes to the country’s legal system, and, curiously enough, reforms to the law governing private investment.

His proposals fit snuggly with the country’s broader turn towards conservatism. Following over a decade of right-wing rule that promoted neoliberal economic policies and “strong hand” security measures, El Salvador shifted gears in 2009 when Mauricio Funes of the leftist FMLN was elected president. Funes campaigned on a distinctly progressive platform that put forward populist policy ideas and social reforms. His tenure was marred, however, by rising crime and the increasing power of gangs.

Given the country’s domestic security crisis, it’s little wonder that strong-armed responses by the state garner support from significant parts of the population. Responding to popular dissatisfaction with the government’s handling of the gang problem, Sánchez Cerén has reverted back to many of the same iron-fisted tactics of the old conservative regime. Likely sensing this shift to the right — and eager to exploit the public’s fear — the country’s business leaders are advocating that the government kill the bad guys and free up markets.

Even as the country’s capitalist elite are demanding stronger national security policies in defense of private property, international investors are preying on El Salvador’s natural resources in the name of “free trade.” In 2006, the country signed onto the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which — promises of prosperity notwithstanding — has produced little in the way of development. In fact, far from initiating a period of market growth, CAFTA has exposed the country to significant danger.

Pacific Rim — an Australian mining outfit formerly headquartered in Canada that also has a subsidiary in the United States — initiated proceedings against El Salvador in late 2008 after the government rejected its bid to dig for gold. Pacific Rim is arguing that El Salvador violated its obligations to CAFTA by denying the company the chance to exploit the country’s gold. The multinational firm is demanding over $300 million from El Salvador in compensation for “loss of anticipated profits.”

El Salvador contends that Pacific Rim has failed to demonstrate that its mining practices would not harm the public health of communities near supposed gold deposits — a claim Pacific Rim categorically denies. The fear is justified. Modern gold mining employs cyanide-laced water in the extraction process; the chemical can find its way into local water supplies. Pacific Rim has staked its gold claims exclusively along Rio Lempa, the country’s longest river and primary source of potable water.

Local activists and international experts have sounded the alarm. According to one independent hydrogeologist who reviewed Pacific Rim’s environmental assessment, the company’s intended mining activities “would not be acceptable to regulatory agencies in most developed countries.” The fact that Pacific Rim didn’t mention those risks to the environment and public safety in its final assessment suggests that, at best, the company is uninterested in transparency. At worst, it is being intentionally deceptive.

The case is currently under consideration at the World Bank’s International Center for the Settlement of Investment Disputes in Washington, DC. This largely unknown arbitration body is expected to issue a ruling sometime over the summer. Beyond setting a terrifying precedent — one that could well be codified further through the Trans-Pacific Partnership — a judgment against El Salvador would deal a devastating blow to the country, its economy, and its people.

El Salvador simply can’t afford a $300 million fine for crimes it didn’t commit. Nor can it allow a multinational firm to enter its territory, take its resources, and threaten public health in the process. A decision in favor of Pacific Rim would also lend credence to critics’ claims that the country lacks the wherewithal to defend itself from predators within its borders or those seeking to loot the country from afar.

El Salvador may enjoy a brief respite from its troubles during Romero’s beatification festivities. Despite rising violence this month, the gangs agreed to a temporary truce in hostilities to honor the archbishop’s memory. The influx of tourists and media for the ceremony will offer a momentary boost to the struggling local economy, and raise awareness of El Salvador’s plight. But any positive effects will almost certainly be short-lived.

While genuine solutions to the country’s long-term problems aren’t easy to conceive, the starting points are clear. The way forward must begin with the successful defense of the country’s natural resources from outside actors, and a rejection of the sort of socioeconomic program being peddled by the likes of Giuliani. From there, reaffirming Romero’s aspirations for El Salvador as the basis for a countrywide political project would be a solid next step.

Romero preached a gospel that rejected the “idolatry” of wealth and private property, and spoke against the national security state. None of these, according to Romero, would lead to a more just, more peaceful nation. If anything, the late archbishop argued, they are the source of continued conflict and misery.

As Romero’s commitment to God and country is celebrated, we would do well to consider what he would have made of his beloved El Salvador today, and what he would have done in response.