Protesting the Empire as Obama visits

My post on US president Obama's visit to El Salvador on Tuesday pretty much reflected the coverage in Salvadoran and US mass media: Smiling schoolchildren waving US and Salvadoran flags. Two presidents elected on platforms of hope and change giving a press conference. A somber Obama visiting the tomb of Oscar Romero. A state dinner (where the pupusa was featured). This portrayal of the visit earned me a complimentary email from a contact at the US Embassy.

But not everyone was happy to see Barack Obama on Salvadoran soil. Protesters in the streets of San Salvador and in cyberspace raised their voices against a variety of aspects of US policy impacting this tiny country in Central America.

The video below from the SHARE Foundation shows some of the protests which were centered around the Plaza Salvador del Mundo. As the statue of the Divine Savior of the World looked on, a potpourri of civil society groups marched, demonstrated, and voiced their anger:

A regular theme seen and heard from the demonstrators was the characterization of the US as the "empire," imposing its imperial will throughout Latin America and the rest of the world on behalf of multi-national corporations.  ContraPunto described the demands of protesters who gathered at the Plaza Salvador del Mundo.  The Voices from El Salvador blog also provided photos from the protests.  There was an alphabet soup of civil society organizations, and their messages included demands that Obama leave the country, that CAFTA be repealed, for closure of the US-sponsored International Law Enforcement Academy, for immigration reform, for freedom for the Cuban Five, and in opposition to gold mining. ContraPunto also noted that:
Undoubtedly one thing most repudiated by protesters was the visit the crypt of Monsignor Romero [by Obama]. The Ecumenical Coordination of the Church and the Poor in El Salvador (CEIP) said it was an insult to the memory of Romero because he sought to build peace and the United States does not.
As Obama visited the Metropolitan Cathedral and Romero's tomb, the security presence was tight.   A police source told ContraPunto that there were sharpshooters on top of the National Palace and the National Theater.   How could you not be reminded of the sharpshooters from the US-backed government who fired on the thousands of mourners at Romero's funeral from those same perches?

Father Roy Bourgeois, founder of SOA Watch, told NCRonline that Obama's visit to Romero's tomb fell short:
Obama’s visit "could have been a historic moment," Bourgeois said, one similar to former President Clinton’s rare apology for the US role in the training and arming of Guatemalan security forces that slaughtered more than 200,000 civilians.

"Obama didn’t even acknowledge, let alone apologize for, the U.S. role in El Salvador," Bourgeois said.

Before arriving in El Salvador, Obama visited Chile where he declined a request to apologize for the US-backed coup that brought Augusto Pinochet to power. A U.S. Senate committee long ago confirmed that the CIA had orchestrated the coup, and SOA records show that hundreds of Chilean officers went through the school in the 24 months prior to the 1973 coup. Obama refused to offer an apology despite the fact that he told Chileans that a necessary ingredient to create a democracy is "accountability for past wrongs."

Prominently on sale in San Salvador was Fidel Castro's book, Obama and the Empire. Diario CoLatino published an interview with the Cuban Ambassador about the book.

Greg Grandin, author of Empire's Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism, wrote about Obama's visit in an article titled Barack Obama, Oscar Romero and Structural Sin in the Nation. He concludes:
We can only hope that Obama finds inspiration in Oscar Romero’s life: Romero, after all, started his public career as a cautious moderate who believed he could quietly work with El Salvador’s ruling class to coax needed reform. The reality of Salvadoran society forced his conversion into an outspoken, confrontational leader who directly attacked those who perpetuated what he called “structural sin:” “When the church hears the cry of the oppressed,” Romero wrote before his murder, “it cannot but denounce the social structures that give rise to and perpetuate the misery from which the cry arises.” If Romero was alive today, he would recognize CAFTA’s Chapter 10, along with the broader, disastrous policies Washington is pursuing in the Mexico-Central America-Colombia security corridor, as prime examples of “structural sin.”
But at El Faro, they noted that even the hard-line leaders of the FMLN, who have often used the anti-empire theme in their rhetoric in the past, had toned it down:
The speeches against America or against certain policies of that country were not even remotely heard during the recent commemoration of their March election victory of two years ago. FMLN leader Salvador Sanchez Ceren, who in late 2009 said they had to fight "against the empire" in reference to the United States, said Saturday before hundreds of supporters that Obama's visit is "good news."

The Salvadoran vice president also chose to remember the U.S. accompaniment of  El Salvador to reach the 1992 peace agreements but avoided mentioning [the US] military and logistical support which had supported some of the past dictatorships in El Salvador and more than once have been part of FMLN speeches.
Much of the reaction to Obama's visit by Salvadoran bloggers seemed to be negative.  Omar Nieto described the discourse in the blogosphere in a post for Global Voices.  As an example, he cites a post by Carlos Molina:
Why can’t we say anything to the genocidal power that comes to our house? We are afraid, it’s clear. Our fear is the same as that of someone who's had a family member kidnapped, the [fear] of blackmail that inhabits our nightmares: “You let me put a few [military] bases and I do not deport your father, your sister, your cousin …” (translation by Global Voices))
Bloggers like Victor in Alta Hora de la Noche, also reflected on the stop at Romero's tomb:
Monsignor Romero is not honored with the visit of the man alleged to be “the world's most powerful man”. He is honored by a memorial mass, or when an elderly couple from the very poor county of Morazán tell me with a smile that despite their physical aches due to the long journey, it was worth it. At last they have come to the Bishop’s grave, their Bishop.
Members of the anti-mining movement also used Obama's visit as a reason to raise their policy concerns. They focused attention on the impact of the DR-CAFTA trade agreement of which the US and El Salvador are parties. In particular, they pointed to DR-CAFTA's investor protection provisions which have allowed North American gold mining companies to bring arbitration claims against the government of El Salvador when the companies are denied the opportunity to mine for gold out of concern for the environment.

Members of the National Roundtable against Mining held a press conference to voice their concerns about the lawsuits authorized under DR-CAFTA . Originally, the $77 million lawsuit of Pacific Rim against El Salvador under DR-CAFTA was scheduled to have hearings in Washington, D.C. which would have overlapped Obama's visit. For reasons which were not immediately known, those hearings were rescheduled until May.  The confluence of Obama's visit and the prospective start to the hearings gave a push to the mining activists work.

Activists in the US in solidarity with the Salvadoran anti-mining movement worked to get concerned members of Congress involved.  19 members of the US Congress signed a letter to President Obama which was released in connection with the visit to El Salvador.   The letter called on Obama to act to eliminate investor protection provisions in trade agreements like CAFTA which allow multi-national corporations to bring arbitration suits for millions of dollars in damages against countries challenging enforcement of environmental regulations.

The impact of the US and its policies in El Salvador is undeniably enormous.  That power has been, and will likely continue to be, exercised both for good and for evil.   The demonstrations in El Salvador this week show that civil society groups intend to hold the governments in both countries accountable.


Carlos X. said…
Thanks, Tim. Great recap, as always. I know that at some level, it is extremely unfair to compare Father Roy to Mario Valenti, the ARENA leader who groused that Obama "should also [have gone] to the grave of Major Roberto d'Aubuisson." But, the trouble with symbolism is that it will always fall short of the expectations of just about everyone, especially those with laundry lists of expectations. There was a also another view posted on NCR from a dear friend, Scott Wright, which included various bullet point lists of things Obama should have done or announced during his visit to Romero's grave. I disagree. Symbols are potent, and I think at the end, El Faro got it right at the outset, when they noted the extraordinary magnitude of the moment. Just like the image of John Paul when he visited (what speeches did *he* give at Romero's grave), sometimes words get in the way.
Greg said…
I would presume it is likely President Obama did not apologize for the U.S. military role in El Salvador's 10 year civil war -

Because that role was, after a 10 year grassroots campaign here in the States (endorsed openly by the FMLN in both print and on CBS "60 Minutes", had this result.

The U.S. Governement and Department of Defense acknowledged officially our assistance was a U.S. military campaign.

Politically Clinton could apologize for U.S. clandestine/covert operations in Guatamala. He had plausible deniability. And you can always apologize for those catagories of military/para military operations.

Obama could not. No president I am aware of has apologized for official U.S. military campaigns in recent history. WW1, WW2, the Korean War, Vietnam, Urgent Fury, Just Cause and most recently Iraq/Afghanistan.

The war in El Salvador is a now acknowledged, authorized and honored U.S. military campaign with combat awards and decorations for those involved awarded and a monument at Arlington National Cemetery.

It is what it is.
Greg said…
As for visiting the grave of "Blow Torch Bob" d'Aubuisson -

An absurd "complaint".

d'Aubuisson was a vicious thug in every respect.

The U.S. Government was not going to endorse nor allow him any advantage to become president of El Salvador.

The efforts of the U.S. GOV, utilizing selected Army Special Forces advisors in monitoring roles throughout the country, kept all Concerned Parties advised with real time information as to the progress of the election.

I know this because I was one of those advisors and monitoring from the quartel in Usulutan.

Our information allowed the political observers to address many, many issues that arose during the election process. Both on the part of ARENA and the FMLN.

This included strong arm tactics by both sides and all too often wanton murder as an intimidation tool, again by both sides.

Roberto d'Aubuisson was not an option where U.S. foreign policy in El Salvador was concerned.

Any ARENA member or leader who "grouses" that he is some form of hero and deserves such recognition is taking a lesson out of the German SS mantra of "only following orders" and a truly sick belief that Himmler was simply a German patriot.