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In their first ever meeting, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez gave US President Barack Obama a copy of Eduardo Galeano’s classic historical essay, Open Veins of Latin America. A best-seller in Latin America, the book is arguably the most complete history of imperialism in the region. And the move by Chavez represents the importance of understanding the context of the rise of the left in Latin America if you want to work with Latin America. But when Obama got to the podium, he announced “I didn’t come here to debate the past, I came here to deal with the future.” The most recent country to join Latin America’s leftist block is El Salvador, with the election of the FMLN’s Mauricio Funes to the presidency. Salvadoran anthropologist Ramón Rivas believes that the only way mutual understanding can be achieved is with a commitment to understanding the present, by learning the past.

Story Transcript

Past is present in Latin America
Producer: Jesse Freeston

JESSE FREESTON, TRNN: As the heads of the governments of the Americas—minus Cuba—meet in Trinidad and Tobago this weekend, the spotlight has been firmly placed on US President Barack Obama, as he sits down with a continent represented in its majority by leaders elected to reverse decades of US-backed neoliberal policies.

BARACK OBAMA, US PRESIDENT: I didn’t come here to debate the past. I came here to deal with the future.

FREESTON: The most recent leader to join this group is Mauricio Funes, of El Salvador’s Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front. El Salvador’s first ever leftist president won’t take power until June 1 but is in attendance at this weekend’s summit. Over recent years, there’s been a tendency in the international media to attribute the arrival of left-wing parties to power in Latin America to some sort of pink wave or to an international movement based out of Venezuela. Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution may be a force of inspiration, but in Latin American countries like El Salvador, the victory of the left is better understood as the culmination of decades of struggle against neoliberal economics and government repression. I spoke to Ramón Rivas, director of the anthropology museum at El Salvador Tech University.

RAMÓN RIVAS, MUSEUM OF ANTHROPOLOGY, EL SALVADOR TECH. UNIV. (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): The world powers, above all the US, have tried to put us all in the same sack. This is a way to simplify a phenomenon, and it’s not right.

FREESTON: Many Salvadorans believe that this church here, this tiny Church of La Divina Providencia, is much more important to understanding how the left arrived to power in El Salvador than is anything that’s ever happened in South America. It was here, 29 years ago to this day, that Monsignor Óscar Arnulfo Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador, was assassinated. When Romero was first appointed to the position of archbishop in 1977, many in the social movement protested his conservative views. But Romero inherited a leadership position in a deeply unequal society suffering from an increasingly repressive military government, and he quickly began to speak out against government abuses, as well as the role of the country’s powerful oligarchy in perpetuating widespread poverty. Here is the segment of his last homily, delivered the day before he was assassinated.

ARCHBISHOP ÓSCAR ROMERO (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): I would like to make a special appeal to the men in the army. Brothers, you come from your own people. You are killing your own peasant brothers and sisters. It is high time you remembered your conscience and obeyed your conscience rather than a sinful order. In the name of God, in the name of this suffering people, whose cries rise to Heaven more loudly each day, I implore you, I beg you, I order you in the name of God: stop the repression.

FREESTON: During his three years as archbishop, Romero saw six of his fellow priests assassinated by government-allied forces before falling victim himself. Years later, in a US court, Salvadorans were able to find out that it was none other than the founder of the right-wing ARENA Party, Major Roberto D’Aubuisson, who was responsible for organizing the assassination of Monsignor Romero.

MAN: We can’t forget the murderers. Even if they are dead we must continue to remember, because if we forget—a people who forgets its own history will make the same mistakes again.

FREESTON: The influence of Romero cannot be understated. Marches, masses, and concerts can be seen around the country, marking the anniversary of the assassination of the man many in El Salvador refer to as the voice of the voiceless. When Funes declared victory on March 15, it was to the memory of Romero that he spoke.

MAURICIO FUNES, SALVADORAN PRESIDENT-ELECT: —the prophetic message of our martyred Bishop, Monsignor Óscar Arnulfo Romero, who declared that the church will always favor the poor. This idea will guide my actions, looking always to side with the poor and excluded.

RIVAS: It’s good to have a president who uses these specific quotes, which for many of us Salvadorans hold great significance.

FREESTON: Romero’s assassination was one of the major precipitating events to El Salvador’s brutal 12 year civil war fought between the FMLN guerrilla army and the US-backed military government. The war ended with the signing of peace accords in 1992, one of the stipulations of which was the creation of a UN truth commission. When that truth commission concluded one year later that 85 percent of the human rights abuses during the war were committed by government forces, the ARENA administration immediately passed a general amnesty law, prohibiting prosecution of crimes committed during the war, a law that still stands today.

MAN (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): It’s a historic moment, a very happy moment, yet sad at the same time because we can’t live and share this moment with so many friends and family who are no longer with us, including Monsignor Romero.

FREESTON: The violence of the Civil War sparked a massive migration of refugees. Today, roughly one-third of the Salvadoran population lives abroad, 90 percent of which are in the United States. And while many left during the war, the majority have left since the war ended, due to a lack of opportunity.

RIVAS: Throughout the entire process since 1992 to build peace in this country, there has been constant migration, and that’s our best that leave. And what happens? We find ourselves with completely disintegrated families in this country. We have to pay attention to the kind of family we have here. That traditional nuclear family that we had has changed. Now we have throughout this country old grandmothers caring for nephews, nieces, cousins, whole—I don’t know, different children and grandkids, because the parents have left for the US. This is the kind of family we have today; we have a tribe.

JESSE FREESTON: Every day, between 500 and 700 more Salvadorans pack up their lives and leave their country. Most arrive in the US without documents, where they live under constant fear of deportation in order to send home remittances to loved ones, remittances which account for roughly one-fifth of El Salvador’s GDP.

RIVAS: We’re the country whose own people are its instruments of production to generate capital. It’s sad to say, but in that sense our top export is the human being itself. That’s quite dramatic.

FREESTON: Economic migration is common inside El Salvador’s borders as well. This is Comunidad Victoria. The 800-plus families who live here on the side of the highway just outside the capital, San Salvador, are considered illegal squatters by their government. Tomas Peres is a unionized construction worker who can’t afford a roof for his makeshift home. His family of four share this bed. Tomas explains how he ended up in Comunidad Victoria.

TOMAS PERES, CONSTRUCTION WORKER (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): The last 20 years under ARENA, we have been marginalized. Since 2000 our salaries have been frozen. We no longer make the wage we earn; we make the wage that the private companies want us to make. Now we want the government to recognize what we need from it, and that they approach us to find out what our needs and wants are, that they fund housing and legalize this land.

FREESTON: In 2007 alone, while prices skyrocketed, 104,000 more Salvadorans fell below the poverty line, and according to UN, these trends have left 81 percent of Salvadorans earning less than a dignified wage. The recently defeated ARENA government is seen by many as responsible for creating this dire domestic situation by adopting a series of Washington-consensus economic policies, often without any national debate over potential effects.

RIVAS: On January 1, 2001, the country woke up using the US dollar without any prior consultation. It was a state secret. Nobody knew anything about it. They dollarized the country overnight—an unconstitutional move. Of course there was the well-known, dreamt-about free-trade agreement that favors the big business owners over the small business owners. Naturally, all this has been approved, with applause, by the defeated ARENA government.

FREESTON: When the government began the process of privatizing the public water utility in 2007, a large movement rose up in opposition. The government’s response was to violently repress the mobilization and charge 14 civil society leaders with terrorism—a crime which carries a maximum penalty of 60 years in prison under the country’s post-September 11 antiterrorism law. The government eventually dropped the charges under intense domestic and international pressure, but in the year in between that it took the Suchitoto Fourteen to clear their names, ARENA president Tony Saca was honored with both the Freedom Award from the International Republican [Institute] and its sitting president, John McCain,—

JOHN MCCAIN, US SENATOR: El Salvador’s politics and economy have been transformed. Today, former guerrillas are free to stand peacefully for public office, and economic growth is gradually eroding poverty. Understanding that people must see the economic benefits of democracy, President Saca has made the poor a focal point of his policies.

FREESTON: —as well as the Path to Peace Award, as chosen by the Vatican’s ambassador to United Nations. One week after the Suchitoto Fourteen gained their freedom, the youngest member of the group, 19-year-old Hector Velasquez, was assassinated in his home. He is one of more than 20 civil society and FMLN leaders to be assassinated in the three years leading up to the election. The country’s political violence is a phenomenon that President-elect Funes knows quite personally. His her older brother, Roberto, a student organizer, was murdered in 1980 by uniformed police, and in October of 2007, less than two weeks after declaring his candidacy for presidency, Funes’s eldest son, Alejandro, was found murdered in Paris, where he was studying photography.

FUNES: We don’t have to live in such a violent society, a society that kills the best of its youth.

FREESTON: Outside the church where Romero was assassinated for speaking out 29 years earlier, I spoke with one of the most recent victims of violent repression of the left in El Salvador.

WOMAN (SUBTITLED TRANSLATION): My sister was murdered on the Thursday. The elections were on the Sunday. On Thursday at 3 a.m., she was taken from her house, and we found her Friday, murdered with a machete and with bullet wounds. When we found her, she had a sign like this one on here. The letters read: “For being a traitor to the homeland. For being a traitor to the homeland.” I ask Monsignor Romero for help. I’m a mother to four children who died in the war. My kids died for the peace accords. And now that we’ve reached a triumph for our country, my sister is dead. What I’m saying is that the suffering in our country still hasn’t ended. We have many challenges remaining to overcome.

FREESTON: The story of the left in El Salvador is one example of the anti-imperialist struggles that have led to the victories of the various leftist leaders present at this weekend’s summit.

OBAMA: I didn’t come here to debate the past; I came here to deal with the future.

FREESTON: Whether Obama chooses to acknowledge the history that brought us to this day will be up to him. But what cannot be denied is the existence of a more unified and independent Latin American people than any previous US president has ever seen.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Ramón Rivas is the Founding Director of the Museum of Anthropology at El Salvador Technological University in the capital of San Salvador. Originally from the department of Cabaúas, El Salvador, Rivas received his doctorate in anthropology from the University of Nijmegen, in the Netherlands. He has served as dean of the El Salvador Tech?s Art and Culture School, and sat on El Salvador?s National Council for Culture and Art. He writes a weekly column in the Salvadoran newspaper El Diario Co-Latino.