Salvadorans remember peace accords, celebrate martyrs, dream of a different possible world

by Jim Hodgson

This is a historic week in El Salvador. January 16 was the 30th anniversary of the Peace Accords that ended the country’s long civil war. And this weekend, four Christian martyrs will be beatified – a step toward sainthood – by the Roman Catholic Church.

The commemorations take place in a political and social context that is not what we hoped for when we watched news coverage showing the government and the rebels sign the accords at the Chapultepec Castle in Mexico City in 1992. The president today, Nayib Bukele, has dismissed the Accords as a “farce.” The country is on the edge of insolvency; Bukele flirts with cryptocurrencies that no-one understands; between 200,000 and 300,000 people leave the country each year.

Sometimes looking at the past can offer some signs for the future, and that’s why the celebration of the lives and witness of the martyrs this weekend matters.

Beatification of the Servants of God, Saturday, Jan. 22. Celebrant is Cardinal Gregorio Rosa Chávez.

Best-know in the group is Father Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit priest who was driving with 15-year-old Nelson Rutilio Lemus and 72-year-old Manuel Solórzano, to the small town of El Paisnal to join the town’s celebration of the feast of St. Joseph when they were gunned down on March 12, 1977, in Aguilares, 33 km north of San Salvador. 

The fourth man celebrated is Father Cosme Spessotto, an Italian missionary priest of a Franciscan order who had served in El Salvador since 1950, and was murdered on June 14, 1980, as he prepared to celebrate an evening Mass in his parish church in San Juan Nonualco, La Paz department. Like other church leaders, including Saint Oscar Romero (the archbishop of San Salvador, slain March 24, 1980), he had denounced the crimes of the military junta in the 1970s including the murder of Fr. Rutilio, thus drawing threats against his own life.

Fr. Rutilio’s death came as El Salvador’s civil war was beginning. Over the next dozen years, at least 75,000 people were killed; about 8,000 more were made to disappear; a million people fled. In 1993, the United Nations Truth Commission report attributed at least 85 per cent of the killings to government security forces and related paramilitary death squads. 

Salvadorans recognize many martyrs, among them the four U.S. church women who were killed near the San Salvador airport in December 1980, and the six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter who were killed in November 1989 at their home in the University of Central America (remembered in the photo above). May they all be recognized soon too! As James T. Keane wrote in America magazine this week, “We need more dangerous saints.” Photo: Jim Hodgson (2019).

It’s important to remember what the martyrs represent: a persistent witness to life as experienced by people long oppressed, marginalized, landless, impoverished, unemployed, violated on a daily basis. Their sacrifice amplifies the cry of the poor, and I believe influenced the negotiations that produced the Peace Accords in 1992.

The Peace Accords brought about a new legal regime in El Salvador. One of the negotiators for the Farabundo Martí Liberation Movement (FMLN) at Chapultepec was Nidia Díaz, who spoke recently with Jacobin magazine:

“All those laws that oversee the new institutions that are the product of the peace accords were made in COPAZ, the National Peace Commission. They weren’t a whim. In COPAZ, you had the FMLN and the government as parties, and, as observers, the Catholic Church and the UN and the parties that were in the legislature at that moment. All the laws — the law for the National Civil Police, the army, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, the Human Rights Ombudsman, etc. — were made in COPAZ and sent to Congress. There was a debate process. 

“Now Bukele comes along and says, ‘I don’t agree with these responsibilities and powers,’ and he tries to annul the laws and the constitution. He’s dismantling the democratic process that permitted his very election.”

Rev. Miguel Tomás Castro speaks at a Romero memorial event, March 24, 2009. Photo: Jim Hodgson

Another prominent defender of the peace accords is Rev. Miguel Tomás Castro of Emmanuel Baptist Church (known by its Spanish acronym, IBE). Speaking with the newspaper Diario Co Latino this week, he said:

“There is a lot of criticism of the Peace Accords and an attempt to diminish their value. I think we have to commemorate them, and why not celebrate that the Accords put an end to the armed confrontation? Of course there are various sectors, particularly in the city of San Salvador, and perhaps in other cities where people did not live the intensity of the war as it occurred in other parts of the country. We saw so many people suffer, our brothers and sisters in those communities, places where the war was very harsh and caused greater damage: those people celebrated the end of the war with much joy. And that cannot be hidden.

“And there’s more than one reason that it is important to commemorate and to give thanks to God for the end of the armed confrontations: it’s to say to our sons and daughters that we do not believe in hatred or in confrontation. The Peace Accords give a place for us to say to our younger generations that we want peace, a peace that reaches everyone and a peace that is the hand of justice.”

He was asked what his message would be on this 30th anniversary of the Accords:

“We say that there are two things that we have not been able to accomplish since the Peace Accords. As churches, really there are two themes: on truth, because we have not been able to close the chapter on the Accords without knowing the facts behind the conflict. That’s important; the United Nations recognized it. The second is reconciliation, because you can’t talk about Peace Accords without reconciliation. The church in that has a great responsibility, but it is also an ethical, more and spiritual debt with our people.

“Supposedly we were to go towards reconciliation, but there was an agenda of priorities and the theme of reconstruction was in first place, when reconciliation should have been the principal theme. Apart from whether we lived a conflict or no, the call of God is to see each other as sisters and brother, to build a spirit of family nation, where everyone of us makes an effort so that all of us have lives of dignity. It’s humiliating that every day people leave because there are no conditions here for that life. Something is going wrong.”

The model of reconstruction imposed after 1992 resulted in shopping malls and fast-food restaurants, not sustainable and participatory development or comprehensive land reform.

Even in the face of the current crises in Central America – violence, migration, the impacts of climate change – what gets proposed derives from tired models from the past. Social movements have a different vision.

In the United Church’s Mandate magazine (summer 2020), I reported on a conversation with Miguel Tomás and youth peace-makers in his church:

After 24 years, Acteal is still an open wound in Chiapas

In December of 1998, I travelled with several friends to Acteal to join events marking the first anniversary of the massacre. The survivors (including the woman at centre who faces the bishops) and families of those who died wore white shawls embroidered with red flowers. Today, reports (like this piece by Luis Hernández Navarro) show that little has been resolved in the community, the surrounding municipality of Chenalhó (where paramilitaries retain control), or Chiapas state.

Desire for reconciliation marks first anniversary of Acteal massacre

Text of an article I wrote that was published in Catholic New Times, Jan. 31, 1999.

ACTEAL, Chiapas, Mexico – The people who came to Acteal Dec. 22 made a brightly-coloured crowd.

Huipiles – hand-woven, brightly-coloured blouses – were evidence of the diversity of the people of Chiapas, many of whom used mountain paths to avoid military patrols. Baseball caps and t-shirts marked both the similarity and diversity of the rest of us who came from other parts of Mexico and the world.

Many people, perhaps 1,000 of the 5,000 who were there, wore ski-masks or bandanas to cover their faces. They were supporters of the Zapatista Army for National Liberation (EZLN), the mostly-indigenous guerrilla movement which launched a rebellion five years ago this New Year’s Day.

In the year since 21 women, 15 children and nine men were murdered here, Acteal has changed dramatically. There are many more buildings now, including a community kitchen and a new chapel, and one of bricks and cement: the tomb of the victims.

In another respect, Acteal is exactly the same: it is a community of refugees from other hamlets, people forced to come here out of fear of paramilitary death squads who operate in the mountains of Chiapas. The diocese of San Cristóbal estimates that there are 10,000 displaced people in the municipality of Chenalhó, where Acteal is located.

We gathered on the hillside near the tiny chapel where members of the community group known as Las Abejas (the bees) were at prayer the morning that the paramilitaries arrived. Below us was the ravine where most of them died. The permanent tomb is there now. On its cement roof, a makeshift altar was built, and this was where the two bishops of San Cristóbal, Samuel Ruiz and his coadjutor, Raul Vera, led the celebration of a memorial mass.

‘Tatic’ Samuel Ruiz (left) served as bishop of San Cristóbal de Las Casas from 1959 until his retirement in 1999; he died in 2011. Raúl Vera was coadjutor bishop in San Cristobal from 1995 to 1999, and was widely expected to succeed Ruiz. He was abruptly transferred to Saltillo in northern Mexico, where he served until his retirement in 2020. Vera grew into a role as a staunch human rights defender, including the rights of LGBTIQ people. Photos: Jim Hodgson, February 1999, Mexico City.

Las Abejas, still faithful to their vision of a non-violent solution to the conflict in spite of the Chiapas violence to which they have been subjected, planned the event. They were assisted by Pablo and Salvador, two former paramilitaries who helped plan the massacre and who repented their crimes. They were accepted the community’s punishment and were pardoned by the survivors.

The survivors and families of those who died wore white shawls embroidered with red flowers and sat in the centre of the large crowd.

As the community choir – something else that is new in Acteal – sang the first hymn, an army helicopter circled slowly overhead, three times in all with a final pass by several minutes later.

For many, it exemplified the kind of harassment to which the people have been subjected by the army over the past five years in this area, where there is one soldier for every 12 inhabitants. This, say human rights workers, is one aspect of the application here of low intensity conflict, a war strategy developed by the U.S. military to destroy the spirit of popular support for social change movements. 

The first reading was the story of a catechist, Alonso Vázquez Gómez, who saw his wife and baby killed in the first volley of shots. He came close to her and said, “Woman, get up. Woman, get up.” Neither she nor the baby responded. Alonso stood and cried out, “Forgive them, Lord, for they don’t know what they are doing!” He was cut down then by two bullets which entered his head. The Gospel reading was Luke’s brief, spare account of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, who spoke the same words as he died.

Bishop Vera spoke of “the scandalous forgiveness” by Jesus and Alonso of their killers and said we stood on holy ground. While about 100 people are in jail on charges related to the massacre, human rights workers say those responsible for its planning have not been arrested. Bishop Vera invited all to accept the “divine amnesty” offered by the victims, but warned that any “human amnesty cannot be impunity, much less amnesia.”

Bishop Ruiz said we were in the presence of martyrs and that Acteal was a unique moment in salvation history – one, however, that must never be repeated. “Acteal is the seed of a new Mexico, the peaceful, just and worthy Mexico of which we all dream,” he said, adding that it is a monument to peace and hope in the resurrection.

After a sign of peace and the communion shared amongst masked and unmasked, pacifists and guerrillas, Mexicans and foreigners, we left Acteal. We passed nervously through the same two military checkpoints which had inspected and recorded our identification and travel documents on the way in.

The next day, we heard of five foreigners whose documents were taken from them at the same checkpoints and who would have to appear later before immigration authorities to explain why they had attended a mass in the mountains on a sunny December day.

Something else that hasn’t changed: the unquenchable fear that the Mexican government bears towards Christians, Indians, intellectuals, artists, peasants and a few half-awake foreigners.

This potent combination knows that what Samuel Ruiz said is true: Acteal is the seed of the peaceful and just Mexico of which we all dream, and we will not rest until those words become reality.

Solidarity: It was my privilege to accompany a Canadian Religious Conference visit to the diocese of San Cristóbal in March 1998. Here, Doryne Kirby, IBVM, and Jean-Claude Trottier, SM, stand beside Bishop Ruiz. Photo: Simon Appolloni, Development and Peace, Toronto.

Gabriel Boric: Hope defeated fear in Chile 

“Thanks to life,” the headline on Página 12 (Argentina) news site today. “Hope defeated fear,” said Gabriel Boric. On the right: “Students full of dreams awakened a sleeping people.”

Jim Hodgson

Good news today is that Gabriel Boric has won the presidential election in Chile. In his campaign, he promised to bury the neoliberal economic system imposed by Augusto Pinochet’s 1973-90 dictatorship, raise taxes on the super-rich, fight inequality, expand social services, and strengthen ecological protection.

Boric won 56 per cent of the votes, compared to 44 per cent for his opponent, José Antonio Kast, a supporter of the dictator. Boric will be 36 years of age when he is sworn in on March 11.

But like his neighbour to the north, Peruvian President Pedro Castillo (elected in June), Boric will face both a fragmented congress and a deeply-entrenched system that will oppose his agenda.

Since the election of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1970 and despite the coup three years later, the left in Latin America has participated in elections and governed according to the rules of liberal democracy. They do so without sufficient regard for the roles of money, foreign interference and private media companies.

Check out the glasses! Gabriel Boric (left) and the statue of Salvador Allende at the Moneda palace in Santiago.

Chile has had several other relatively progressive presidents since the demise of Pinochet (Patricio Aylwin, Ricardo Lagos and Michelle Bachelet), but none could undo his political and economic system. They were referred to not as “socialists” but as “socios listos” – willing business partners. After widespread protests at the end of 2019, Chileans set in motion a process to create a new constitution, and the election of Boric may help to re-energize that lagging process.

But action by private bus companies in Sunday’s election, when they reduced service in poor neighbourhoods to try to suppress votes for the left, may be a sign of things to come. I was a young teen in a small town in western Canada in the early 70s, but I remember the transportation shutdowns – strikes by capital – together with other actions that damaged Allende’s government well before the coup. 

That progressive politicians are chosen in multi-party elections has never prevented the United States and its allies (including Canada) from supporting coups – and this is only a partial list, not counting the invasions – in Guatemala (1954), Dominican Republic (1963), Brazil (1964), Chile (1973), Argentina (1976), Venezuela (2002), Honduras (2009), Bolivia (1964, 2019), or the parliamentary coups like those in Paraguay (2012) and Brazil (2016). By the way, you should read Vincent Bevins (2020), The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade & the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World – and follow him on Twitter @Vinncent.

Former president Juan Bosch (1901-2001) in a campaign poster; two versions of Marta Harnecker’s hopeful look at 21st century politics.

I met Juan Bosch, one of the overthrown presidents, in 1987. He had been elected to serve as president of the Dominican Republic after the Trujillo dictatorship, but was ousted in September 1963 with the complicity of a White House run by that paragon of U.S. liberal democracy, John F. Kennedy. Bosch said that the United States was interested only in “formal democracy” – that elections appeared to be held; external funding allowed only if it came from the United States.

In a 1986 interview, Bosch said: “Only North American leaders think that democracy could or should function in any Latin American country the way it does in the United States.”

“It’s the right, not the left, that has historically blocked those paths,” insisted Marta Harnecker, chronicler of the Latin American left until her death in 2019.

“The possibility that the left has now to compete in many spaces openly and legally should not make us forget that the right respects the rules of the game only to the extent that they are convenient for them. To date, we do not see any experience in the world where the dominant groups are willing to renounce their privileges,” she wrote in 1999 (Haciendo posible lo imposible: la izquierda en el umbral del siglo XXI, p.351.) “What they will always try to block – and in this, no illusions – is any attempt to build an alternative society.”

Saint Oscar Romero, the slain archbishop of San Salvador, said something similar in 1979: “It’s natural that when the right feels that their economic privileges are being threatened, they will move heaven and earth in order to maintain their idol of wealth.

A memorial to Allende inside the foreign affairs ministry in Caracas, Venezuela. Photo: Jim Hodgson