Salvador's Saint: Thirty years after his death, Archbishop Oscar Romero remains a guiding presence.
On Monday, March 24, 1980, Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero was shot and killed while celebrating Mass in the chapel of the Divine Providence cancer hospital in San Salvador. Once regarded as a quiet, bookish cleric, Romero had dared to speak out against state-sanctioned terrorism on behalf of its otherwise voiceless and often impoverished victims. In his homily at San Salvador’s basilica the previous day, he directly addressed the army and national guard, “I implore you, I beg you, in God’s name I order you: Stop the repression!” Tragically, his appeal was not heeded. At least 75,000 Salvadorans died in the 12-year civil war between the U.S.-backed Salvadoran government and a coalition of rebel groups known as the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front. Though much has changed for the better since the war ended in a negotiated settlement in 1992, significant challenges remain. Thirty years after his assassination, Archbishop Romero continues to be a symbol of hope for those on the underside of Salvadoran history—a history inextricably linked, for better or worse, with that of the United States.
A couple of years ago, some of us who marched through the streets of San Salvador in the annual anniversary procession in Archbishop Romero’s honor experienced a collective intake of breath as we rounded a corner. Beside the road was a heap of body parts: arms, legs, torsos. A street vendor was hawking mannequins, but in this country, traumatized by violence, his dismembered wares cast a momentary spell that only laughter could break. Eighteen years after the end of the civil war, Salvadorans live with the anxiety of “having to accept the possibility of death—and violent death at that—at every hour, every minute,” says Juan Hernández Pico, S.J., a theology professor at the Universidad Centroamericana in San Salvador. El Salvador’s homicide rate is among the highest in Latin America, with approximately 4,300 murders reported in 2009, an average of nearly 12 each day.
Father Pico argues that the roots of violence lie in the “inequality of wealth and wellbeing.” Conservative estimates suggest that poverty afflicts a third of the Salvadoran population, and as many as half of those people survive on less than a dollar a day. The real numbers, though, may be much higher. Extreme poverty is especially rampant in rural areas. In upscale San Salvador neighborhoods like Santa Elena and Colonia San Francisco, by contrast, “you see beautiful, enormous houses surrounded by a wall of stone and crowned with electrified barbed wire.”
The Marginalized Poor
Despite the rapid postwar reconstitution of civil society, political life in El Salvador is marked by pervasive exclusions, most notably of the impoverished. “In El Salvador, the poor are the most socially marginalized group, and the reason is simple: they do not have the resources to make their influence felt in government,” says William M. LeoGrande, a specialist in Latin American politics and dean of the School of Public Affairs at American University in Washington, D.C. While such exclusions might be explained as the inevitable growing pains of a country in transition from civil war, their extent and severity have led some observers to conclude that El Salvador is still only nominally a democracy and that the social hierarchies of the 1970s remain largely intact.
Sonja Wolf, a researcher on El Salvador at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, contends that El Salvador is characterized by “electoral authoritarianism,” in which such outward trappings of democracy as multiparty elections serve to conceal radically undemocratic inequalities of economic power and political access. “The peace accords and the introduction of formal democracy, through elections, did not suddenly make El Salvador democratic,” Wolf says. “Many of the things that Oscar Romero said 30 years ago remain, sadly, very much valid.”
Since the civil war ended, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front has been incorporated into the political process as a party. In March 2009 Carlos Mauricio Funes Cartagena became the first F.M.L.N. candidate elected to the presidency, breaking a 20-year hold by the rightist Arena party. A popular television journalist, Funes ran on a moderate platform of crime reduction and health care expansion and captured 51 percent of the popular vote. Many analysts see his victory as an indication of increased dissatisfaction with the policies of the Arena party, though not necessarily of growing support for the F.M.L.N. Nevertheless, Wolf argues that “the victory was significant in that it finally ushered in an alternation of power, sent a message to the right that it does not own the country and gave the F.M.L.N. an opportunity to show that it can govern the country effectively.” Though hopes are high, President Funes faces robust political opposition. “He’s young, smart, forward-looking, and pragmatic—a lot like President Obama,” says LeoGrande. “However, he faces tough challenges. He is relatively inexperienced at politics, and he faces a stalwart opposition on the right that sees its own path back to power [as] based on preventing him from accomplishing anything.”
During the past decade, El Salvador underwent major economic reforms in an effort to lure foreign investment. In 2001 the country adopted the U.S dollar as its official currency, which helped to curb inflation and keep interest rates low but also led to price hikes as figures were rounded upward. As a result, Salvadorans do not benefit from a currently weakening dollar. In 2003 El Salvador signed on to the Central American Free Trade Agreement, but economic growth was a modest 3 percent a year until 2009, when the economy shrank by 3.3 percent. Goods were unequally distributed. As the manufacturing and service sectors overtook agriculture as the drivers of the economy, a new economic elite replaced the landed aristocracy (known locally as the Fourteen Families) that controlled the nation in Romero’s day.
In recent years, poverty rates have fallen, but the decrease has less to do with improved economic policies at home than with remittances from Salvadorans living abroad, which comprise some 18 percent of El Salvador’s gross domestic product. Although remittances provide welcome relief to many in the short run, they have also driven up prices. Since remittances are largely outside the control of policymakers and depend instead on the individual decisions of some 2.5 million Salvadorans working in the United States, they make possible few public projects and provide an unreliable foundation for long-term economic growth. In January El Salvador’s central bank announced that remittances had fallen 8.5 percent during 2009 to $3.46 billion, the first such decline in 25 years.
Fissures within Salvadoran society, which deepened and expanded over the past 30 years through civil and economic conflict, also divide the Catholic Church. “For some people in the church, the church’s mission is to save souls, get them to heaven. This seems to have little or no essential connection with social conditions,” says Dean Brackley, S.J., a theologian at the University of Central America. “For others in the church, the poor are the crucified vicars of Christ, and if we do not walk with them, we are not walking with him.”
Archbishop Romero’s successor, Archbishop Arturo Rivera Damas, continued to conceive of the church as a voice for those who suffered injustice, oppression and poverty. In 1995, however, a different tone was set when Fernando Sáenz Lacalle, a member of Opus Dei, was installed as the sixth archbishop of San Salvador. Though a vocal critic of gang violence and international gold mining, Archbishop Sáenz Lacalle, a Spaniard, cooperated closely with the Arena government and accepted awards from the military, including the honorific rank of brigadier general. During his tenure as archbishop, Sáenz Lacalle advocated for the canonization of Oscar Romero but did not participate in the annual March 24 procession and outdoor commemoration Mass. Though reasons were always given for his absence, many participants felt that the archbishop was not in step with the church for which Romero had spoken, the church of the poor. During the procession, marchers regularly took up the chant, “Queremos obispos al lado de los pobres” (“We want bishops on the side of the poor”).
The Case of Jon Sobrino
In March 2007 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a notification concerning “erroneous or dangerous propositions” allegedly present in the work of the U.C.A. theologian Jon Sobrino, S.J. A Basque Jesuit who served as Archbishop Romero’s theological adviser and confidant, Father Sobrino has written extensively about the plight of the poor as seen through the lens of Christology. The Vatican document takes issue with Sobrino’s emphasis on the church of the poor as the “setting” in which Christology is centered and expresses concern that his theology underplays the divinity of Christ. Unlike some other liberation theologians in Latin America, Father Sobrino was not silenced. Still, local catechists and parishioners are suspicious of the Vatican’s motives for having publicly reprimanded a theologian whose life work has been to stand decisively on the side of the country’s poor and marginalized. Meanwhile, the cause to canonize Archbishop Romero opened during the pontificate of John Paul II seems to have stalled under Pope Benedict XVI.
As the Salvadoran Catholic Church’s social influence has faltered, its membership has also waned. According to a report in October 2009 from the U.C.A.’s Public Opinion Institute, Catholics today make up just over 50 percent of the population, down from 64 percent in 1988. Protestant churches, especially Pentecostals, now claim 38.2 percent of the population. Yet there are signs that the church’s leadership has begun to recover its prophetic voice. In February 2008 José Luis Escobar Alas succeeded Archbishop Sáenz Lacalle as head of San Salvador. In an act unprecedented in recent history, Escobar, a native Salvadoran, invoked Romero in his inaugural homily, referring to him as a “martyr...who watches us from heaven and accompanies and blesses us.”
A 1993 report by the United Nations Truth Commission identified Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, founder of the Arena party, as the architect of Archbishop Romero’s assassination, but D’Aubuisson had died a year earlier, and his alleged co-conspirators have never been brought to trial in El Salvador. In March 2010, the Funes administration accepted the legal validity of reports from the United Nations and from the Inter-American Human Rights Commission, and Funes said that Archbishop Romero “was a victim of the illegal violence perpetrated by a death squad.” The administration also plans to open an investigation into the assassination, in compliance with a 2000 ruling from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
A Young Population
Since 35 percent of the Salvadoran population is below the age of 15, many are too young to remember Archbishop Romero. Yet despite continued divisions within church and society, or perhaps because of them, his legacy remains a powerful force in Salvadoran life. “Romero matters regardless of the generation,” says Ana Grande, 30, a second-generation Salvadoran-American who is a community organizer in Los Angeles. “For the younger generation, although they didn’t have firsthand contact, it is a remembrance of faith and justice. Others may have lost family members during the civil war and reflect on the courage that each of them had alongside Romero,” says Grande. Her great uncle, Rutilio Grande, S.J., was assassinated on March 12, 1977, just two and a half weeks after Romero was installed as archbishop. The murder is widely regarded as the tipping point in the archbishop’s shift from social moderate to human rights advocate. “Salvadorans in this violence-stricken country call upon San Romero de America in the hopes of converting their gangster children into productive citizens,” Ms. Grande says. “They call upon Romero in times of sickness or in despair. Whatever the case is, Romero is always present.”
In roadside murals and in the purses of campesinas selling fruit on the streets, the image of Archbishop Romero is ubiquitous. “What people remember is that he was present,” says Father Hernández Pico. “That presence, that closeness, that merciful attitude to suffering is what the Salvadoran people remember.” The result, he observes, is that “Romero has become a saint much earlier than the church has felt the need to canonize him.”