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Apr 22nd
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Central America Delegation Report Back PDF Print E-mail
Written by Lisa Sullivan, SOA Watch Latin America Coordinator   

A small SOA Watch delegation recently traveled to El Salvador to dialogue with this new government about the participation of Salvadoran soldiers in the SOA/ WHINSEC. Several officials of the new government, including Vice President Salvador Sánchez Cerén, met with the delegation and expressed an open spirit. Organizations within El Salvador echoed the plea that the new government withdraw troops from the SOA/ WHINSEC.

As we made our way through the thick brush of the steaming jungle, Mary Anne Perrone and I both agreed that we would have lasted about 5 minutes as members of the Frente Farabundo de Liberación Nacioal (FMLN) in this harsh region of El Salvador.  We were visiting an area that some 30 years ago held small farms before nature took over after their owners fled the brutal state repression directed towards peasant communities. The farms became jungle, and the jungle became the refuge of those who were struggling to resist a brutal military, helped along with a $1 million-day subsidy from the Reagan administration.  As we stopped for a few minutes of grateful rest, we asked our young guide Luis how he knew the area so well.

Luis, the guide, in a former guerilla camp.
“Unfortunately, I lost my father here” was his soft reply. “When I was a baby, there was a battle here, and my mother hid me in the bushes. My father disappeared that day”. Luis then told us of a woman who had then escaped to Honduras, thinking that she had lost all of her family. Years later, she learned that she was mistaken, and triumphantly returned.   I sensed that perhaps Luis held on to a similar dream, one that might have helped get him through a fatherless childhood. Perhaps any minute his father would reappear, walking through this jungle, to a joyous reunion.

In the heat of the jungle I learned two things about El Salvador.  The first is that there is almost no family in the country that was left untouched by the brutal repression and ensuing civil war of the 1970´s and 1980´s. This was confirmed by our visit to the wall of memory.  Our small SOAW delegation – Fr. Roy Bourgeois, Pablo Ruiz, Fr. Joe Mulligan, Mary Anne Perrone and I, searched for the name of Monseñor Oscar Romero. Even though the wall was divided by years and alphabet, it still took a long time to find Romero´s name, lost in a sea of other tiny names engraved on a granite wall that stretches on and on.

SOA Watch delegation in front of the Wall of Memory.
The second thing I learned was that, in spite of such enormous destruction, hope was never buried.  The hope of Luis of finding his father.  The hope of a people that another society is possible.  When the FMLN realized that they were unable to achieve their new society through resistance and force  - especially against so much military hardware from the north, they turned in their guns, but not their dreams.  They continued to build a dream of social and economic justice, piece by piece, meeting by meeting, neighborhood by neighborhood, town by town. And now, 30 years after they retreated to this jungle, they were now heading to the presidential palace. Maybe from there this dream could be shaped.

We had come to El Salvador as the last leg of a pilgrimage that has taken us to 16 countries that were sending troops to study at the School of the Americas.  It was fitting that El Salvador was the last stop on this heart-wrenching journey.  It was the murder of 6 Jesuit priests, their housekeeper, and her daughter in San Salvador, that led to the creation of the SOAW movement. Almost 20 years after this massacre, we were coming to El Salvador to ask the government that they stop sending troops to the SOA. This time, the government was comprised of the very same people who had struggled and resisted in these hills.

Our previous trips had let to the announcement of withdrawals from the SOA by five countries: Venezuela, Argentina, Uruguay, Bolivia and Costa Rica. This launched an important new strategy of the SOAW movement: close the school by attrition. However, the only Central American nation to make this public announcement – Costa Rica - was almost immediately pressured by the U.S. to reconsider its decision.  It was clear that while South American nations had sufficient resources, size and relative unity to make a sovereign decision about where to train their troops, Central America´s reality is different.  Their small size, tiny economies and most importantly – close proximity to the U.S. - has historically forced upon them an attitude of subservience to their gigantic northern neighbor.

At the recent Summit of the Americas, the Obama administration told Latin American leaders that they were going to focus on the present, rather than the past. However, in El Salvador, many told us that their present is their past.  A war financed by our tax dollars left almost no family untouched. Almost a third of the country´s population was forced to flee the country for mere survival. Most ended up in the slums of large U.S. cities, their children at the mercy of gangs. Today, two unmarked planes land daily at the airport of San Salvador, bringing backing unwanted refugees, some straight from jails, some who do not even speak their native language. El Salvador is plagued by violence and gangs imported from the mean streets of L.A. and other cities. While it would be wonderful for the new U.S. administration to simply announce that  today a new page has been turned in U.S.-Latin American relations, for Salvadorans, their today is still primarily shaped by their yesterday.

SOA Watch meeting with El Salvador VP Salvador Sánchez Cerén.
This was part of the message that we heard when we sat down at the table with several key FMLN leaders, including the new Vice President, Salvador Sánchez Cerén.  It was clear that they shared our desire to see this school closed. Who were we to tell them about the atrocities connected to this school? Tiny El Salvador has sent more soldiers to train at the SOA than any country, with the exception of Colombia.  It was also, however, made clear that they need to tread carefully in their relations with the U.S. In a country where U.S. missiles still dot the countryside, some of which we saw standing in for fences and church bells, it´s hard to forget what it might mean to resist the will of the north.  If any country in Central America is so bold as to  announce the withdrawal of their troops from the SOA, it will probably have to be in response to major public pressure within their own countries.

Fortunately, Pablo Ruiz of Chile was part of our delegation, and was able to share ideas in this regard. Pablo has helped to create a solid grassroots movement in Chile that is pressuring its government to withdraw from the SOA, and indeed has achieved a significant reduction in Chile´s numbers.  In El Salvador, Pablo spoke on the radio, in the newspaper, at union halls, offices of human rights groups, at a forum at the National University and from the podium of the National Cathedral about ways that citizens can share their concerns about the SOA with their government. Before we left the country, several prominent voices spoke out publicly on the issue.  At the huge May Day rally, Alicia, the founder of the Comadres group urged the massive crowds to call for a withdrawal. Fr. José María Tojeida, Dean of the University of Central America, published a column in a prominent national newspaper denouncing as “intolerable” the continued training of Salvadoran troops at the SOA.

Alicia, of Comadres, calls for withdrawal of troops from the SOA.
Without a doubt, none of our visit to these 16 countries would have been possible without key groups in each country helping to organize our visit. Perhaps nowhere was this help more evident than in El Salvador, where the Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (CIS) not only helped us to set up our numerous visits and activities, but their capable Cristy  Ayala accompanied us every step of the way, sharing her love and passion for her country in every free moment. Trained as a diplomat, instead of opting to churn out papers in an air conditioned office, Cristy is to be found guiding people to the back roads and steamy jungles of her country, pulling up rickety chairs and crates so that campesinos and displaced villagers can share with those from other places. It seems to me to be a true version of diplomacy, a true interchange that leads to change.

During our visit to Honduras the previous week, we were also blessed by the invaluable  help of Bertha Oliva, director of the Committee of Family Members of the Disappeared of Honduras (COFADEH). Bertha is the consummate expression of passion for justice that knows no limits. Her unending fuel is her love for her companion Tomás, who disappeared from her arms and into the hands of the Honduran military some 26 years ago. She was left tied, gagged and pregnant. The same determination that led her to break free of her bonds and deliver her child clandestinely, has led her to open every door and turn over every rock in searching for the disappeared and bringing those responsible for their disappearance to justice. Spending the week with Bertha, we realized that this kind of commitment has its consequences. One is that you can only sit in corner tables at restaurants, in order to see who might be following you. Not only did Bertha set up every meeting for us, but she personally drove us to and fro. The only problem with this was that Bertha only drives forward. If we needed to back up, I had to take the wheel.  It was a filling metaphor for a woman who knows no going backwards.

It was Bertha who led us straight to the President, the Defense Minister, the Chancellor, as well as to each of the presidential candidates for the upcoming November elections. Through these visits we found a fascinating political process to be unfolding in Honduras, far from the glare of the international spotlight such as that shining on El Salvador. Without much fanfare, President Manuel Zelaya, or “Mel” as he is known to the nation, has broken every mold and turned around every expectation that made him the hand-picked “safe” candidate of the U.S. embassy four years ago.  Rejected by fellow Honduran members of the elite when he asked for their help in shaping a new country, he turned instead to progressive governments in South America and to social movements in his own country. There, he found willing allies, but ones that pushed him into unexpected places and led him to make surprising decisions.

Lisa with Honduras President Zelaya.
One of these decisions was Zelaya´s bold expression of solidarity with Bolivia. When President Evo Morales ousted the U.S. ambassador from Bolivia because of his ties to separatist movements in his country,  Zelaya showed his support by refusing to seat the newly assigned U.S. ambassador to Honduras. In a country that has been almost ruled from the top floor of the U.S. embassy for decades, this was shocking.

Another bold step is his call for a constitutional assembly with popular participation as the only solution to creating a viable democracy.  We were invited to attend one of a series of fascinating day-long gatherings between the president, his cabinet, and all the major social movements in the country: campesinos, union leaders, indigenous communities, human rights and ecology activists, and so on. For 6 straight hours we took part in what was definitely one of  the most fascinating political meeting I have experienced in my long years in Latin America. Serious issues were passionately debated between the president and the social movements, such as whether to keep open the U.S. Palmerola air base, how to achieve wide-spread land reform, and whether to continue to be a part of CAFTA.  The issue of the SOA was raised by the groups assigned to look at security issues. The formal recommendation of the social movements to the president was that Honduras withdraw their troops, a point that received a loud round of applause.

Honduras was a country in which every one of our pre-conceptions was broken. On one of our last evenings we gathered with friends, among them a gentleman whose compassionate spirit was evident. We soon found out that he was none other than - an SOA graduate! The son of a working class family, he entered the Honduran officer corps half-heartedly when he was unable to enter the seminary, and was eventually sent to the SOA which was then located in Panama. He returned to Honduras, in the midst of years of brutal repression, where he was ordered time and again to capture and disappear “subversives”:  students, union activists, campesino leaders, etc. He obeyed - but in his own way. He rounded up the person he was assigned to capture, then took them to the Nicaraguan border and said: “now, go and disappear”.  Sometimes he first took him to his house to eat a home cooked meal before sending them off, or helped them to find a passport that they had stashed in a safe house. Eventually he was caught and exiled for years, then cut off from his military pension.

This same commitment to justice and compassion in spite of potentially difficult consequences was what propelled Monseñor Oscar Romero to speak out weekly in his radio masses from the cathedral of San Salvador, denouncing the brutal repression taking place. Under the orders of an SOA graduate, Romero was murdered while saying mass. The new president of El Salvador, Mauricio Funes, has said that he will dedicate his presidency to Romero and to his fervent commitment to the poor. Romero was aware that he might be killed, and said that if this happened, he would rise up in the Salvadoran people. In our conversations with Luis and Cristy and Alicia and Salvador, it seems like this might already be happening.
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Comments (1)Add Comment
FLMN takes office
written by Fred Jakobcic, June 01, 2009
My congratulation to FLMN in El Salvador. Not sure when I became aware of things in El Salvador, but fourteen years ago I bought and read a book, THE MASSACRE AT EL MOZOTE, by Mark Danner (April 1995). This is the kind of stuff the United States government covers-up, urges the mainstream media to cover-up or downplay or hide altogehter and that is the type of government that the United States supports around the world. No wonder they hate us. We need to do something about this but things have not changed enough, even with the new President Obama for it to turn too quickly too soon. That is why I support and favor such events as the FLMN takeover in El Salvador, Chavez in Venezuela, Morales in Bolivia and elsewhere in their efforts to throw off the yoke of United States, et al, dominance and influence that only favors and support tyranny, the elite at the expense of the people who want a decent life often denied by those in power. I wish the FLMN, and the good people of El Salvador all the best.
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