Top ten religion stories in El Salvador for 2008

By Carlos X. Colorado

Pope Benedict XVI does not adhere to conventional practices regarding news cycles and so, with only three days left of the calendar year, he upset the tidy little applecart of what we thought were the top ten religious stories for 2008 from El Salvador. Rome’s naming of Msgr. José Luis Escobar Alas as Archbishop of San Salvador also followed the Vatican tradition of raising eyebrows with the selection of a relative unknown to fill the most important position in the Salvadoran Church, rather than to give the post to a contender of high political profile (Rivera Damas in 1977, Rosa Chavez in 2008). The selection also echoes the Vatican’s willingness to go to relatively young man (Escobar is not yet 50; Luis Chavez y Gonzalez was not yet 40 when he was named last century!).


Undisputedly the top religious story from El Salvador in 2008, the election of Msgr. José Luis Escobar Alas as Archbishop of San Salvador did not have time to register in El Salvador in 2008. The story will develop over the many succeeding years. This story does not belong to 2008, as it will not belong to any one year. At 49 year of age, Msgr. Escobar is young enough to develop and mature into his new office, much like Archbishop Chavez did over the many decades he was in charge. The highest subtext of the story is the non-selection of Auxiliary Bishop Rosa Chavez as Archbishop, though it is hard to believe anyone would be surprised by that development, because the Vatican under Benedict XVI rewards traditional spirituality and eschews controversy. Many will try to interpret Escobar’s appointment under narrow-sighted analyses, which will miss the mark. For example, it is no good to think in terms of which archbishop would work for the soon-to-be-elected new president. Pope Benedict thinks much more long-term than that. Along those lines, it does not seem far fetched to conjecture that Escobar may one day be El Salvador’s first cardinal, or that in his archbishopric we may beatify the first Salvadoran saint. Not useful: Msgr. Escobar’s recent visit to Opus Dei (Romero visited, too), and his praise of Romero nemesis Pedro Arnoldo Aparicio (a fellow Vicentino). Bottom line is, we will just have to wait and see what the impact of the new archbishop will be. Isn’t that refreshing: an end of year story we can’t package and digest for you!


In a book entitled “The Truth About Christians in Salvadoran Politics”, Rev. Romel Guadron alleges that he and other Evangelical pastors have been receiving kickbacks (“bonuses”) from the ARENA government for their support of Pres. Saca’s election in 2004. If true, the allegations would constitute a significant stain, both on Saca’s government, which has remained popular even through the declension of the ARENA brand and of conservative governments worldwide, and especially on Evangelicals’ ascendancy in Salvadoran politics, which was seen as a sign of their having arrived, after years at the margins in this historically Catholic country.


Alicia Martín-Baró is a Carmelite nun from Spain. Importantly, she is the sister of Ignacio Martín-Baró, one of the Jesuit martyrs of the 1989 massacre at the Central American University (the “UCA”). In November, the family announced that they were instigating a legal process (a “querella”) in the Spanish courts, to seek justice in the matter of the UCA massacre, which has not been pursued in El Salvador beyond the conviction of low ranking army officers, due to the existence of a political amnesty law. More than the legal questions, the news stirred up predictable reactions in San Salvador, with the left supporting the querella, and the right opposing it. The surprise twist: the Catholic Church, including the UCA leadership, are sitting this one out. Even the FMLN presidential candidate said he would not upset the amnesty law or its ramifications.


In his 2008 holiday greeting, President Tony Saca gave Salvadoran military families a Christmas present, announcing the recall, at long last, of El Salvador’s troop in Iraq, which made El Salvador the last Latin American ally to stand by the U.S. in its Iraq war effort. A poll by the “Hechos” news program showed opposition to Salvadoran involvement topping 90% at the end of the year, though Saca’s policy may have helped Salvadorans in the States obtain an extension of their Temporary Protected Status. If so, then generations will debate whether it was a deal with the devil or a fair bargain.


Archbishop Romero, who was called “the conscience of El Salvador,” once described the conscience of El Salvador by saying that Salvadorans are “not naturally violent,” and that they possess “instincts” that favor a peaceful existence. That has not been the experience of the country. Outgoing President Saca acknowledged that much work is left to be done to curb violent crime, including the high profile gang affiliated “delinquency” which plagues Salvadoran culture. A late year report from the Latin American Technological Information Network gave El Salvador “the grimmest figures” in the continent, as far as murders per capita are concerned. Saca’s government pushed policies it called “Mano Dura” -- a “strong hand” against criminals. But it will take more than tough talking governments to cure the social ills that ail the country.


By and large, Salvadorans continued to opt to leave El Salvador for the promise of a better life elsewhere, and the United States continued to deport Salvadorans who arrived in the U.S. illegally. But, at lesser rates than last year. As many as 240,000 Salvadorans were allowed to live and work in the United States under Temporary Protected Status. The decline in the rate of the Diaspora may have more to do with depressed economic conditions everywhere, more than with any hope that the forces driving Salvadorans to abandon their country have been abated.


“It is not fair to put at risk the health of a nation and to harm the environment, so that a few who do not even live here can walk away with 97% of the juicy profits, leaving behind 100% of the waste products.” No, that wasn’t a newly discovered quote from Archishop Romero -- but, it may as well have been. Archbishop Saenz actually said this, in his renewed rejection of Pacifim Rim’s bid to mine for gold in El Salvador. The churches and the civil society have dug in their heels (the incoming archbishop signed the Catholic Church’s pastoral letter against mining), and even the Saca government has taken a stand against mining, but Pacific Rim seems determined to fight and they have some support, at home and abroad.


Throughout 2008, the FMLN candidate Mauricio Funes led the opinion polls as the preferred candidate to succeed ARENA’s Elias Antonio Saca as President of El Salvador, after four consecutive terms of ARENA presidents. More than a merely political story, the apparent inevitability of the Funes presidency is the result of much FMLN soul searching and, if it comes to pass, will be the cause of similar introspection by ARENA. The mere prospect of the former rebels coming to power raises profound questions about who the FMLN is: real democrats? Who El Salvador is: a real democracy? And, who ARENA is: an honest broker who would meekly surrender power if defeated?


Long maligned as communists, labor unions continued to be targeted for violent reprisals, according to a report by the International Labor Organization (ILO). The Confederation of Salvadoran Workers Trade Union (CSTS) reported that 10 people were fired in October after trying to set up a union at Industrias Caricia, a footwear company. The ILO also denounced the failure to investigate recent murders of labor leaders, and other violations, including reprisals for union activity, and even forced disappearances. Obviously, if not addressed, such developments constitute a failure of conscience.


When the Vatican selected Pres. Saca to receive its “Path to Peace Award,” the story was more notable for the protest it engendered than for the notability of what would otherwise be a fairly obscure award. Among those publicly protesting the award to Saca were the Italian branch of Pax Christi, the Christian Base Communities of El Salvador (CEBES), the Foundation for the Study of Applied Law (FESPAD), and the SHARE Foundation. The divisions showed that, after 16 years of “post-war” retrospection, El Salvador remains a deeply conflicted country, whose calm waters are mistakenly perceived as “peaceful” by outsiders.

Note from Tim: see Carlos' top 10 religious stories of 2007 at this link.


Anonymous said…
This is GREAT! Carlos, I can't think of one news story that has helped me to understand so much about the current situation (come to think of it- not 10 stories, either). I especially was moved to read Msr. Romero's comment about violence and peacefulness in Salvadorans. I worked with Salvadoran teenagers in LA during the 90s and I think a lot of them are among the deported...and maybe learned their violent ways - here.
Anonymous said…
"I worked with Salvadoran teenagers in LA during the 90s and I think a lot of them are among the deported...and maybe learned their violent ways - here."

wow...the same thing that happened when MS was formed way back is happening once again...we just can't see it. violent gang members are being deported back to El Salvador to fuel the ongoing delinquency.