Why El Salvador still means so much

By Michael Humphrey

On the Nov. 26 episode of “Meet the Press,” Congressman Duncan Hunter (R-California) explained to the nation why US involvement in El Salvador’s civil war (1980-1992) still matters.

He was actually discussing Iraq with host Tim Russert, when he said, “I think we are going to win this conflict. We won the military piece in taking Baghdad, and we’re now trying to stand up a free government. And, Tim, we’ve been here before.”

He spoke first of Eastern Europe and then … “In our own hemisphere, and you were there as well, in El Salvador, that was going to be a Vietnam where we bogged down. We provided a shield for that little fragile government as it stood up, and Salvadorans today are fighting side by side with us in, in Iraq.”

Hunter is not alone in making this argument. Vice President Dick Chaney used it during the 2004 VP debate. Even the thoughtful conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote how US support of the Salvadoran military during its civil war was a model for success.

I don’t know if Rep. Hunter, Mr. Cheney and Mr. Brooks have been to El Salvador very often. More importantly, I wonder if they ever saw the reality for the majority of people living in El Salvador at that time, the truly “fragile.” I wonder if they have ever spoken to a person whose loved one suddenly disappeared — some for voicing support of the leftist rebels, others for simply calling for reforms of a system where so very few controlled so very much, and some for teaching the bible to the poor.

This is the time of year when two of the most notorious crimes against humanity took place in El Salvador: the Nov. 16, 1989 assassinations of six Jesuit priests and two housekeepers at the University of Central America — which originally sparked the SOA protest vigil — and the Dec. 2, 1980 rape and murder of four US women religious. The primary work of these martyrs were teaching, cleaning houses, tending to the needs of the poor.

The connection between these and many other atrocities were linked back to our country through money, weapons and training. And yet, here are some of our leaders, lauding our involvement in that nasty war. It’s an illusion. And such illusions lead to bad decisions, which lead to tragedy.

This is where Kansas City comes in. Through religious and civic sistering relationships, hundreds of Kansas Citians have travelled to some of the poorest communities in El Salvador, both during the war and up to this very day. Our city is well-known in that country for the years of solidarity we have shared.

Kansas Citians can bear witness to the reality of many Salvadorans’ lives — I hope it’s not to presumptuous to say — better than most any US Congressman, Vice President or New York Times columnist. This edition of KC Olive Branch is providing some of those testimonies.

This doesn’t mean that those who have visited all share the same opinion about US involvement in that country. We would each have to speak for ourselves.

I have visited El Salvador three times and I’d like to speak for myself. I feel using El Salvador as a model for foreign policy success is a mistake. As the United Nations Chronicle put it: “At the root of the civil war and today’s urban violence … lies the same problem of economic inequality.”

Beyond El Salvador, in other parts of Central America and the world, the lesson holds: exacting our values with military force does not create permanent peace or prosperity.

Iraq will be the next frontier of such debates. It is important for the peace community to not relent as the history is written, because history does determine the future. It is important to remind our fellow Americans: Our invasion of Iraq was not wrong because it turned out badly. It turned out badly because it was wrong.

For more information about El Salvador, the martyrs and work in El Salvador today, go to: http://www.share-elsalvador.org/; and to http://www.cis-elsalvador.org/. These are the two main organizations who help Kansas City sister parishes continue their relationship with Salvadoran communities.


1 Comment »

  1. Doug Myler said

    Your thoughts on El Salvador are expressed very well. Mistakes of the past should not be held up as successes to help make more mistakes in the present and the future. With the death of Pinochette in Chile, the U.S. is and was knee-deep in the affairs of that country to the determent of thousands.
    One thing of note: Not to be picky, but Jean Donovan was a lay missionary. Not a consecrated religious.
    KC Olive Branch is very good! Keep the voice alive!

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