“The harvest comes because of the grain that dies.”
One year shy of 30 years ago on March 24, 1980, standing before the altar of a small hospital chapel, Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero of El Salvador held up his hands during his last Mass, consecrating this body and blood before his brothers and sisters. He was gunned down a day after pleading with Salvadoran soldiers to “stop the repression” and halt the killing of their brothers and sisters—and just a few weeks after he begged U.S. President Jimmy Carter to cease sending America’s murderous foreign aid into his small nation. Romero certainly understood that his words in those last weeks and days would be his own death warrant.
It’s hard to celebrate 29th anniversaries, the 20th and 25th having barely passed, and the 30th coming up so soon in a much more numerically satisfying fashion. So why acknowledge this awkward year at all? Why not wait another 12 months to commemorate the murder of this good man? Because in this 29th year since the brutal murder of Romero, El Salvador itself has likewise reached an awkward appointment, its own great moment of transition.
Three decades after a merciless conflict began that would eventually claim as many as 75,000 lives and generate 300,000 “disappearances,” the political inheritors of that struggle are poised to achieve at the ballot box what could not be achieved through force of arms: a takeover of the national government. Following the 1992 peace accords that ended the war, the leftist rebellion of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) transformed itself into a political party. In the years since, the right-wing ARENA Party (National Republican Alliance), whose founder Roberto D’Aubisson had a direct hand in the killing of Romero, has dominated El Salvador’s political life.
But this election cycle, FMLN presidential candidate Mauricio Funes has maintained a 15-point lead over his main opponent, ARENA’s Rodrigo Ávila. El Salvador began this 29th year with municipal and National Assembly elections in January that included a strong showing by the FMLN. The presidential election will take place on March 15.
The political and social direction of this small, still deeply impoverished Central American republic could dramatically pivot left around this 29th anniversary of Romero’s death. Despite the opprobrium of American big brothers in Washington, El Salvador could become the next country in Latin America making a dramatic turn to the left.
Many of the same issues of poverty and injustice that propelled the civil war persist, and the old ways and wounds linger. Electoral violence claimed the lives of three FMLN activists in late-night liquidations that were reminiscent of the ghoulish death squads that haunted El Salvador in the 1980s.
El Salvador endures its share of new troubles as well. It has one of the highest murder rates in Central America, a profoundly violent gang culture has been exported into El Salvador via deportations from the United States, and the current global economic downturn threatens the unsteady economic progress the nation has made since the end of the war.
What can the new Obama administration do to promote a better future in El Salvador? Nothing would be a good place to start. Washington has a lengthy history of civic and military initiatives that have borne bitter fruit in El Salvador and other nations of Central America. Though U.S. election monitors this March would be welcome, U.S. meddling is not.
Romero has been adopted as a martyr, too, by the secular left in El Salvador, but just as his society and his institutional church could not contain him, he is likely to escape the designs of FMLN operatives hoping to harness his memory March 15. But an orderly election that moves the people of El Salvador toward the peaceful and just future that Romero sacrificed himself to attain, one he knew that he would never see, well, that could be the beginning of his true rebirth among his people.