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Archbishop Oscar Romero—A Voice for the Voiceless
March 12, 2007

Perhaps the most visible advocate for El Salvador's brutalized poor was Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero Y Galdames; and like a great many others who dared speak out, he paid the ultimate price.
[Note: I will refer to the archbishop as "Archbishop Romero" or "Oscar Romero" rather than simply "Romero" to ensure that he is distinguished from General Humberto Romero, El Salvador's president from 1977-1979. It is one of the conflict's many ironies that the general, who directed the escalating repression, and the archbishop, who vehemently opposed it, shared the same patronymic.]

An improbable champion: Those who knew Oscar Romero before his ascent to archbishop would not have characterized him as a likely candidate for outspoken defender of the oppressed. As a bishop working in the department of Usulután, he actually closed down one campesino education center and only reopened it after five catechists were murdered. Some in the resistance believed he was afraid to speak out, and only discovered his courage once he was exposed to the militant urban movements in the capital. Others believed he was biding his time, believing conditions were not yet ripe for him to step forward. Regardless, he was appointed as archbishop of El Salvador, the country's highest position in the church, because he was believed to be a moderate if not conservative alternative to the other candidates available; his superiors in Rome sought to placate restive local elites who complained of activist priests—specifically his predecessor, Luis Chávez y González, who had served as archbishop from 1939-1977.

An activist predecessor: Archbishop Chávez had advocated a left-leaning spirituality known as "social Christianity," which obligated lay people to act to cure social ills without waiting for the religious hierarchy. This was a reformist movement, not a revolutionary one, and it did not call for change of the basic social, economic or political structure of the country. Even so, Archbishop Chávez encouraged the priesthood as a vocation among rural families, albeit well-to-do ones, a practice that over time helped build ecclesiastical support for the campesinos. He also stressed the Church's social doctrine, and sent many priests abroad to study in Europe to cure them of parochial elitism. Most significantly, he stressed cooperatives as an alternative for peasants losing land to agribusiness expansion, and sent priests to Canada to study cooperatives—a move that presaged the communitarianism later advocated by the Christian Democrats.

In the wake of Vatican II, and more specifically the Latin American Bishops' Conference held in Medellin, Colombia in 1968, the idea of a "preferential option for the poor" was developed, advocating greater clerical involvement with the lives and problems of the dispossessed. This provided the seeds of Liberation Theology, which moved beyond Social Christianity by advocating change in the political and economic structure, and called on the clergy and laity to work to bring such changes about.

This increasing social involvement of the Church, spearheaded by the Jesuits, created the Christian Base Communities (see Weekly commentary for February 26th, below), which organized the working poor, conducted Bible studies, and taught the campesinos that they had dignity before God, and should not have to suffer endlessly in this life at the hands of brutalizing elites. This created fierce tension with the oligarchy, which saw the Christian Base Communites as subversive, and responded predictably, with violence—not just against the poor, but against the priests and catechists who served them.

A changed man: Archbishop Romero replaced Archbishop Chávez in this environment, and shortly found his moderation tested when a close friend and well-known advocate for peasant rights, Father Rutilio Grande, was murdered on a remote rural road by unidentified gunmen. Despite Archbishop Romero's urgings, the government refused to investigate, and subsequently he saw the plight of the repressed in far more personal and vivid terms, leading to an increasingly fierce advocacy.

His major weapon proved to be his weekly sermons, broadcast by radio across the country, often heard not only on portable radios in private homes and at local social centers, but blaring from loud speakers in city squares. By some estimates, as much as seventy-five percent of the country listened to these sermons each week, and as his influence grew rightwing forces repeatedly bombed the radio station from which the broadcast emanated.

The archbishop made no secret of who he blamed for the intolerable repression:
The cause of the evil here is the oligarchy, a small nucleus of families that does not care about the hunger of our people. . . . They are not yet used to seeing the face of the Church turned to the poor. To raise the question of the rights of the poor is to call into question the whole established order. That is why they have no other category for us but that of subversives.

He also targeted the government itself and its repressive machine, pointing out that such tactics left the underclass no option but revolt, even to the point of violence:
When a dictatorship violates human rights and attacks the common good of the nation, when it becomes unbearable and closes all channels of dialogue, of understanding, of rationality—when this happens, the Church speaks of the legitimate right of insurrectional violence.

Accused by the right of seeking to undermine the government, the archbishop responded:
The Church is not against the government. The truth is that the government is against the people, and we are with the people.

He also denied that he was a leftist, though he agreed with much of the left's agenda:
I don't call them the forces of the left, but the forces of the people. Their voice is the voice of anger resulting from social injustice. What is called the left is the people. It is the people organized, and its cry is the cry of the people.

The archbishop digs in as violence escalates: Archbishop Romero looked guardedly upon the reformist coup of 1979, sympathetic to its stated goals, but skeptical that it could achieve them, stating openly that the new rulers could rally popular support only by demonstrating that their promises weren't "dead letters" (see Weekly commentary of March 5th, below). When, in January 1980, President Carter was weighing approval of non-lethal military aid totaling $5.7 million, Archbishop Romero wrote to him, pleading him not to send the trucks, communication equipment and uniforms the aid package comprised, arguing it would only enhance the government's "injustices and repression." (Carter sent the aid anyway.)

Meanwhile, the violence continued to escalate and the reformist junta came unraveled. Roberto D'Aubuisson, architect of the White Warriors Union, began appearing on TV, naming accused insurgents from information supplied by informants in ORDEN and ANSENSAL (see the Weekly commentary for February 26th, below), after which the persons he named routinely disappeared or were murdered. One such person was Attorney General Mario Zamora, a Christian Democrat whom D'Aubuisson accused of being linked to one of the guerilla groups. Zamora sued for libel, and five days later, on February 23, 1980, while he was entertaining guests at his house, a death squad broke in, dragged Zamora to the bathroom, and shot him twelve times in the face—a trademark of the White Warriors Union. (When D'Aubuisson was arrested for treason three months later, the government found documents describing a paramilitary operation resembling the Zamora assassination. D'Aubuisson escaped prosecution on any charges, however, due to corruption in the military and the judiciary.)

In early March, 1980, D'Aubuisson denounced Archbishop Romero on his TV program, and the archbishop used this and additional information he obtained about his being targeted for reprisal to make one last plea for the oligarchy to change its path:
[I]n the name of our people and our Church, I call on them to hear the voice of God and joyously share their power and wealth with all, instead of provoking a civil war that will bathe us all in blood. There is still time to take the rings from their fingers before they lose the hand. . . . Let them share what they are and have. Let them not keep on silencing with violence the voice of those of us who offer this invitation. Let them not keep on killing those of us who are trying to achieve a more just sharing of the power and wealth of our country. I speak in the first person, because this week I received notice that I am on the list of those who are to be eliminated next week. But let it be known that no one can any longer kill the voice of justice.

Last days: On March 23, 1980, in his Sunday sermon, the archbishop spoke directly to government troops, begging them to stop carrying out illegal and immoral orders:
The campesinos you are killing and your own brothers and sisters. . . . No one has the right to obey an immoral law. It is time to take back your consciences and to obey them rather than sinful orders. . . . In the name of God and in the name of this suffering people, whose cries rise to heaven each day more loudly, I beg you, I beseech you, I order you in the name of God: Stop the repression!

The following day, while he was saying Mass at the Divine Providence Cancer Hospital, a gunman at the back of the chapel fired a single bullet, piercing Archbishop Romero's heart in front of the whole congregation; the archbishop died on the altar.

An eerie calm descended across the country as word of the murder spread. Traffic stopped, businesses closed, out of respect for the fallen archbishop but also in fear of what would follow.

The funeral bloodbath, and the start of the civil war: Six days later over one hundred thousand mourners appeared at the archbishop's funeral at San Salvador Cathedral. Some reports claim that gunfire erupted in the crowd, at which point army snipers opened fire. Others claim the snipers began shooting without any provocation. Regardless, twenty-nine people were killed, and more than two hundred wounded. (Two days later, Carter's $5.7 million in non-lethal military aid arrived.)

All hope of avoiding civil war ended with the archbishop's assassination and its aftermath, and many in the Christian Base Communities and the mass organizations pointed to March 24, 1980, as the day they joined the insurrection, and most commentators mark this date as the beginning of the civil war.

Operation Pineapple: All indicators pointed toward Roberto D'Aubuisson as the assassination's mastermind. When a short-lived investigation into the killing indicated D'Aubuisson was involved, the presiding judge began receiving death threats, and he fled to Costa Rica, where he announced his conviction that D'Aubuisson was responsible. The U.S. embassy was also convinced of D'Aubuisson's guilt, and Ambassador Robert E. White testified to Congress the following year that "compelling if not one hundred percent conclusive evidence" existed that D'Aubuisson ordered the archbishop's assassination. When he was arrested in May, 1980 on treason charges, documents in his possession revealed the existence of an Operation Pineapple, the details of which—the number of men involved, the equipment used—matched the details of the archbishop's murder almost exactly. And a "highly placed" informant within D'Aubuisson's inner circle informed his embassy handlers that he participated in a meeting chaired by D'Aubuisson in which participants drew straws to determine who would get the privilege of killing the archbishop (this scene is re-enacted in Oliver Stone's Salvador, a film my young Salvadoran guide did not much care for: "It makes out like the government was all bad, and it wasn't like that," a testimony that is necessarily second hand, as the young man was barely a schoolboy when the war ended).

Regardless, it wasn't until the UN Truth Commission issued its report in 1993 that D'Aubuisson's role in the murder of Archbishop Romero was confirmed, and by that time it was too late to bring the former death squad leader to justice—he died from throat cancer on February 21, 1992.

The impact on religion in El Salvador—the growth of the evangelical churches: Violence against grassroots Church activists continued after the archbishop's murder, with chilling effect. The number of active priests plummeted—forty percent of rural parishes lacked priests, and many of the Christian Base Communities disbanded or went underground.

Archbishop Romero's successor, Monsignor Arturo Rivera y Damas, conducted a more distant and ambivalent relationship with the oligarchy and the government, in keeping with the tone set by the decidedly anti-Communist Vatican under Pope John Paul II. Nonetheless, a quasi-independent "people's church," comprised mainly of Jesuits, continued to minister in rural areas controlled by the guerillas, where the social and political organization of communities continued to be emphasized.

Although mainstream Protestant denominations were also active in El Salvador, particularly the Lutherans, evangelicals comprised the major Protestant presence in the country. Their numbers began to swell during the 1970s (and have continued growing to this day—the percentage of evangelicals in El Salvador has grown from below ten percent in 1960 to nearly forty percent today).

Some attribute the rise in the evangelicals to a rejection of Liberation Theology, but others see it as a repudiation of the violence and instability of daily life during the 1970s and 1980s. The growing popularity of evangelical Christianity appears to track with increasing population displacement. As the number of land-poor laborers grew and migrant labor increased, community and family bonds and tradition suffered. Traditional Catholicism was unable to adequately respond to the resulting sense of emotional loss and lack of direction, particularly given the decreasing number of priests. The emotionally gratifying message of Jesus Christ as a personal savior satisfied this lack, while at the same time conveying a sense of personal worth without the additional responsibility of social reform. Hope again was held out in the form of the afterlife (and the Second Coming), even while this life was spent amid violence, displacement, and misery, but with the added benefit of a direct relationship to a loving God, and the community of fellow believers.

The elites found an ally in this brand of Protestantism, not just in its repudiation of social activism but also in its embrace of laissez-faire, entrepreneurial, work-oriented values—not to mention its placement of blame for this world's evils on sin, not the ruling class. Elites sponsored proselytizing efforts on their landed estates, and significant numbers of the upper classes converted to Protestantism as well.

It can be argued, therefore, that Roberto D'Aubuisson and his allies and henchlings killed more than a single Catholic archbishop. They helped destroy a religious view of the world, in which God's love provided a promise not just for dignity in the abstract and eternal life in the hereafter, but for well-being in the day-to-day conditions of this life on earth, and justice for the oppressed.

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