A Salvadoran Resurrection

SAN SALVADOR - At The Plaza Libertad today, inauguration
day of President Mauricio Funes, I will be thinking back to Feb. 28,
1977, when security forces opened fire there on hundreds of unarmed
civilians protesting a fraudulent presidential election. Less than a
week earlier, Oscar Romero, then considered a priest of the privileged,
had been installed as the archbishop of El Salvador.

Virtually unnoticed by the US press, that massacre prompted the
Unitarian Universalist Service Committee to act, leading the first of
17 congressional fact-finding missions to the region. That first
mission included a Jesuit priest, Robert Drinan, who was also a member
of Congress from Massachusetts. Romero and Drinan celebrated Mass
together in the unfinished cathedral, where Romero's decision to halt
construction had recently angered the powerful of El Salvador. "Only
when peace and justice are established and the hungry are fed, thenwe can resume building our cathedral," the archbishop explained.

By 1980, the diocese would document 1,000 Salvadorans a month dying
or disappearing at the hands of government-sanctioned death squads. It
would take the rape and murder of four American nuns that same year
before El Salvador finally came to the attention of most Americans.

Romero's assassination in 1980, as well as the kidnapping, torture,
and murder of several civilian leaders of the broad coalition known as
the Democratic Revolutionary Front, ended more than a decade of
nonviolent social change in El Salvador and marked the beginning of the
12-year armed struggle of the FMLN (Farabundo Marti Front for National

At the time, I was finishing a family-practice internship in
California, where I treated many Salvadoran refugees. The dispatch of
helicopters and US military advisers to El Salvador seemed eerily
reminiscent of Vietnam and led me to volunteer to care for civilians.
From 1981 to 1982 I worked in an area controlled by the FMLN, but was
bombed, rocketed, or strafed daily by US-supplied aircraft. In Vietnam,
pilots would have called it a "free fire zone."

I returned to the United States, testified in Congress, and traveled
around the States, speaking mostly to faith-based audiences. In 1986 I
was hired by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee to continue
its delegations to the region to help elected leaders understand the
brutality abetted by US tax dollars. After a 1988 mission,
Representative Connie Morela of Maryland and others began questioning
the billions of dollars in US aid to El Salvador. "Is it directed to
really helping the development of the country? Or are we just saying
that on paper?"

When the war ended in 1992, I was a guest at the ceremony in
Chapultepec, Mexico. As the guerrillas and generals signed the peace
accords, I cried in relief, having experienced some of the horror of
what was about to end. I also cried in sadness, thinking of the tens of
thousands of innocent civilian casualties.

Those peace accords allowed the FMLN to form a political party of
the same name. With the help of the United Nations and, to a more
limited degree, the United States, the struggle, which was always about
poverty and privilege, was transformed into a political conflict.

In January, the FMLN won a plurality in the National Assembly, and
two months later the presidency. In his victory speech, Funes urged
unity and reconciliation; he also committed his government to Romero's
"preferential option for the poor."

Funes also said one priority would be to strengthen relations with
the United States. The attendance of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton
at today's ceremony could signal how the United States, under the Obama
administration, may be reshaping its relations with the progressive
movement in El Salvador and perhaps in Latin America.

Weeks before he was murdered, Romero said, "If they kill me, I shall
arise in the Salvadoran people." Many, both here and in the United
States, believe that in this election Romero did, indeed, arise - in
the ballots of the Salvadoran people. Yesterday, at a Mass in the
cavernous, unfinished concrete Metropolitan Cathedral where Romero is
buried, I wondered if a time will come, under President Funes, for it
to be completed.

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