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:

Finding hope in Canada’s election, the UN General Assembly and CELAC

The concurrence this week of a federal election in Canada with the spurt of diplomatic action around the United Nations General Assembly reminds me that I value political debate, and that the world needs urgent action on multiple, related issues.

What we have in Canada is what Marta Harnecker and others have called “polyarchy”—the alternation of power among elites, or the choice from among the elites of whom we wish to govern us for the next few years. And no: we should not be satisfied with that, but rather build toward a system that ensures that everyone can have a meaningful sense of participation in the social, economic and political decisions that most affect their lives. That means having societies and governments that are strong enough to control the worst excesses of capitalism and flexible enough to embrace diversity.

Monday night, Sept. 20 – Liberal minority government projected.

But, in Canada for the moment, we have what we have. Perhaps the most optimistic view is that some sort of new coalition among Liberals, the NDP and the Greens will be strong enough to achieve solid measures to limit climate change, advance justice for Indigenous peoples, promote a global recovery from the pandemic, and quick action on housing and child care.

Meanwhile, at the United Nations, world leaders appeared at the General Assembly podium or via video link. Some emphasized the UN Charter, with its affirmations of national sovereignty and self-determination, and (rightly) criticized the sanctions applied by powerful states against the more vulnerable. Others promised new action to try to enforce their version of a rules-based international order (that is: the corporate-led, neo-liberal one).

Again, amidst the contradictions, one has to look for signs of hope. U.S. President Joe Biden, beset by divisions in his own party and fallout from his border patrol’s gross mistreatment of Haitian asylum-seekers, promised “relentless diplomacy” (an improvement, I hope, from “endless war”).

Biden held two online summits: one to try to advance action on climate goals, and the other to advance action on Covid vaccines—including the urgent need for a waiver that would allow more widespread manufacture of vaccines. Biden promised a new contribution of 500 million doses to the global effort, raising the U.S. commitment to 1.1 billion doses. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who joined Biden’s pandemic summit, promised in the Liberal election platform that Canada will donate “at least” 200 million doses of vaccine through COVAX, the UN vaccine-sharing program, by the end of next year. Critics say the contributions are insufficient.

Participants in the CELAC summit, Palacio Nacional, Mexico City, Sept. 18.

Monroísmo vs Bolivarianismo

A few days earlier, Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador convened leaders of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) for a summit in Mexico City, in part, at least to strengthen the forum as a counter-weight to the U.S.-dominated Organization of American States (OAS).

Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro proposed replacing the “Monroe Doctrine” (promoted by the early 19th century U.S. President James Monroe—”America for the Americans,” meaning the United States and reflected today in the actions of the OAS) with a “Bolivarian Doctrine” that would uphold both the unity and the autonomy of the peoples of Latin American and the Caribbean, with CELAC as a space for common action.

Brazil and Colombia (led by the region’s two most conservative presidents) stayed away, but others either came or sent representatives. There were flare-ups over different approaches to human rights protection and economic policy, but in the end, the leaders issued a common declaration and called for an end to the U.S. embargo against Cuba.

Érika Mouynes (left), Panamá’s foreign minister, noted that she was just one of three women at the CELAC table. Claude Joseph (right), Haiti’s foreign minister, met outside the meeting with Mexico’s immigration service to express concern for Haitian migrants in Mexico.

Cuba VI – James Baldwin, racism, imperialism and ourselves

In the 2010 interview when Fidel Castro apologized to gay Cubans for his government’s treatment of them in the 1960s, he asked, “Why hate the United States, if it is only a product of history?”

At the same time, we need to name what is going on. For the sake of describing the intersections of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, and also economic, political and military power exercised in the world today, sometimes we talk about “Empire.” But there are moments, such as in discussions of Cuba (or in the wake of 20 years of war in Afghanistan), when we need to be more direct, and talk about imperialism: coercion and force used by stronger states against less advantaged peoples.

James Baldwin: “I attest to this: The world is not white; it never was white, cannot be white. White is a metaphor for power, and that is simply a way of describing Chase Manhattan Bank.”

For the gay African-American writer James Baldwin (1924-87), the way that the United States behaved abroad was tied to racism and homophobia at home. In an essay on Baldwin, the Indian writer and academic Prakash Kona wrote

“In sustaining the hegemony of powerful global elites who serve as engine for corporate capitalism America is guilty of keeping alive the notion of a civilization obsessed with its own sense of racial, moral and political superiority.”

To make his argument, Kona drew on Baldwin’s reflections on “American innocence” — “an innocence trapped in an unwillingness to take responsibility for one’s actions” that for Kona is most “clearly revealed than in their foreign policy in the third world.” That particular quality of “American innocence” is demonstrated perfectly by Dick Cavett in a question to Baldwin that opens Raoul Peck’s brilliant film, I am not your Negro (2016, currently streaming here). 

Peck again took up Baldwin’s themes in an essay in The Atlantic in 2000, saying that the people of the United States need to heed Baldwin’s words:

Why can’t we understand, as Baldwin did and demonstrated throughout his life, that racism is not a sickness, nor a virus, but rather the ugly child of an economic system that produces inequalities and injustice? The history of racism is parallel to the history of capitalism. The law of the market, the battle for profit, the imbalance of power between those who have all and those who have nothing are part of the foundation of this macabre play. He spoke about this not-so-hidden infrastructure again and again:

“What one does realize is that when you try to stand up and look the world in the face like you had a right to be here, you have attacked the entire power structure of the Western world.” And more pointedly: “I attest to this: The world is not white; it never was white, cannot be white. White is a metaphor for power, and that is simply a way of describing Chase Manhattan Bank.”

Cuba holds firm

While many other attempts to break free of U.S. hegemony over the Americas have been suppressed (Dominican Republic in 1963 and 1965; Chile in 1973; Honduras in 2009—to mention only a few examples) and others are under siege (Venezuela today), Cuba holds firm.

Yesterday (Sept. 16), Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador welcomed his Cuban counterpart, President Miguel Díaz-Canel, to events marking the 211th anniversary of the beginning of Mexico’s fight for independence.
“I have said and I repeat: we can be in agreement or not with the Cuban Revolution and with its government, but to have resisted for 62 years without submission is an indisputable historical feat.”  Texts of their speeches (in Spanish).

Many of us from the global North get involved in the global South out of a partly-formed sense of solidarity or misguided charity. We only start to think about imperialism when we see that our goals of social justice or an end to poverty are blocked outright by U.S. imperialism (the history of invasions and coups) or by systemic oppression and exploitation (debt, banking and trade rules, etc.). Social movements find that their way towards liberation is blocked by systems imposed from the richer, Northern countries.

Their starting point in Latin America was usually the problem Gustavo Gutiérrez described: poverty—and then what to do about it. My starting point has been among various expressions of liberation theology, social gospel or the preferential option for the poor, and aligning myself with similarly-inspired actions. Hence my support for political options like those taken in Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia and most recently (and still tentatively) Peru, and movements like the MST (landless people) in Brazil and the Zapatistas in Mexico. Those movements may not set out to be anti-imperialist, but to the extent that they are opposed by capitalism and its proponents, they must become anti-imperialist.

Gail Walker (left) of Pastors for Peace speaks to a gathering at College Street United Church in Toronto in July 2018.

By way of conclusion, some ways to connect with others who work in solidarity with people in Cuba.

Pastors for Peace and the larger coalition of which it is part, the Intereligious Foundation for Community Organization (IFCO), are based in New York City and led mostly by African-American and Latinx people. P4P has done a superb job of undercutting the US blockade of Cuba by simply breaking it: people go to Cuba in caravans, provide aid, and support US students to study medicine in Cuba. You can join their mailing list here for updates on Cuba.

In Canada, there are a variety of solidarity networks, including the Canadian Network on Cuba and the Canadian-Cuban Solidarity Association (CCFA) that promote friendship and share information. CUBAbility, a Toronto-based group, sends musical instruments and other aid. Some churches (notably The United Church of Canada) and trade unions work with partners in Cuba.