Tuesday, January 20, 2015

D'Aubuisson, Oscar Romero and the political season

It was inevitable that the recent progress towards the beatification of slain archbishop Oscar Romero by the Roman Catholic church would become embroiled in politics as El Salvador approaches the March 1 national elections.   I say it was inevitable, because one of the main political parties, ARENA, was founded by Roberto D'Aubuisson, the man identified as the intellectual author of the assassination,  

The politics of Romero began with the announcement of outgoing San Salvador mayor Norman Quijano, that he would rename a street in the capital city after D'Aubuisson.   This generated an outcry of protest, leading some to speculate that Quijano had taken the step to spite the party who had pushed him out of the candidacy to return as mayor.   The FMLN denounced the plan and attempted to link it to the party leadership.

Quijano was replaced as an ARENA candidate by Edwin Zamora.  Zamora has proposed that if elected mayor of San Salvador, he would erect a monument to Oscar Romero in the capital.  The political leadership of ARENA also announced to the media that it was backing Zamora's proposal for a Romero monument and plaza and stated that the martyred bishop was an important historic and religious leader in the country.   Jorge Velado, part of ARENA's top leadership, lamented hypocritically, that the beatification of Romero, was being used by persons for political ends.

Meanwhile Roberto D'Aubuisson, Jr., is running to be elected as the mayor of Santa Tecla.   In an interview, he stated that the assassination of Oscar Romero (for which the UN Truth Commission gave responsibility to the candidate's father) was a "horrific" event.    But he said that it was also "horrific" for witnesses to blame his father when his father was not there to defend himself.   The candidate for mayor defended Quijano's proposal to rename a street for the elder D'Aubuisson, because his father had been the president of the National Assembly in 1983 when it adopted the present Constitution.  He asserted that it was common for important political figures such as Schafik Handal and Domingo Monterrosa (military commander of the massacre at El Mozote) to have public spaces named for them.

Despite the amount of hot air blowing around these issues, I don't think it swings votes.   Salvadorans know the histories of their political parties and have already made up their minds whether that history is important or not.

Friday, January 16, 2015

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon offers words for El Salvador

The Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, was in El Salvador today for the commemoration of the 23rd anniversary of the signing of the 1992 Peace Accords which ended El Salvador's bloody civil war.

In a speech to El Salvador's National Assembly Ban offered these thoughts:
Revive a new spirit of unity and solidarity.  Work to deepen reconciliation within Salvadoran society.  Fully realize the rights to truth, justice and the reparation of victims of gross violations of human rights in line with international commitments.   
In a larger sense, the best way to ensure that no one is left behind is by bringing in your country’s many voices into the decision making process -- including women, indigenous peoples and young people. 
About half of all Salvadorans were born after the 1992 peace agreement.  Your large youth population can be an engine for transformation.   
They need an inclusive economy that fosters investment, entrepreneurship, universal social protection and decent jobs.  They need opportunities to contribute to the future of El Salvador without having to look abroad.  
In a press conference he stated:
El Salvador faces important challenges that can only be addressed through dialogue and collective action. 
There is a need to uphold the spirit of the Peace Accords, deepen reconciliation and work together to reach consensus on key issues for the future of this country. 
We are of course deeply concerned about the level of citizen security and violence throughout Central America and in El Salvador.  I share the anguish and pain of so many innocent families who have suffered so much. 
I am encouraged by the establishment of the National Council on Citizen Security and Coexistence. The United Nations stands ready to continue engaging in this process.
I am encouraged that the National Security Commission has submitted their recommendation yesterday to the President and we discussed with the President and the United Nations is fully ready to support this recommendation. 
His Excellency, the President and I also discussed plans to widen consultation and dialogue on issues such as education, decent job opportunities and investment.
I also learned more about the recently launched five-year Development Plan, the priorities of which are aligned with those of the United Nations such as promoting an inclusive economic model and advancing universal social services and social protection. 
I am also pleased that the Plan places human rights at the centre of policy making.
I have encouraged President Sánchez Cerén to continue working to strengthen the human rights of women, children, the LGBT community and indigenous peoples and to beef up institutions to end impunity. 
The United Nations remains committed to continue working with Salvadoran institutions and civil society to consolidate the rule of law, ensure respect for human rights and promote sustainable and inclusive development.
One spot on Ban Ki-moon's agenda was the tomb of Oscar Romero.   He referred to this in his speech to the National Assembly:
 From here, I will pay my respects at the gravesite of Monsignor Oscar Arnulfo Romero.
Every year, the United Nations marks the anniversary of his death in a special way.
We have designated March 24 an International Day to pay tribute to the memory of the victims of gross human rights violations and promote the importance of the right to truth and justice.   
In every corner of the world, people honour Monsignor Romero’s legacy by striving to make it real in our time.  Let us continue to be guided by the example and the words of this mighty Salvadoran force for peace and justice.
As Monsignor Romero said: 
“Unidad quiere decir pluralidad, pero respeto de todos al pensamiento de los otros, y entre todos crear una unidad que es mucho más rica que mi solo pensamiento.”
(Unity means plurality, but respect for all the thoughts of others, and together create a unity that is much richer than my single thought).

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Oscar Romero now seen by Vatican as a martyr

Vatican theologians are widely reported to have determined that slain archbishop Oscar Romero meets the Roman Catholic church's definition of a martyr:
Slain Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero has moved one step closer to beatification.  Avvenire, the newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, reported Friday that a committee of theologians had confirmed that Romero died as a martyr. The designation means he can be beatified without having a miracle attributed to his intercession. A miracle is needed, however, for him to be made a saint. 
Romero was gunned down by a right-wing death squad in 1980 while celebrating Mass. He had spoken out against repression by the Salvadoran army at the beginning of the country’s 1980-1992 civil war between the right-wing government and leftist rebels.
A commission of cardinals and bishops must now sign off on the martyrdom designation and pass it on to Pope Francis for final approval. If approved, the long-awaited beatification could take place this year. 
Francis, who has made clear he wants to see Romero beatified, has said he plans to visit three unnamed Latin American countries in 2015, with El Salvador often cited as a contender. A Salvador trip would enable Francis to personally beatify the hero of many Latin American Catholics in his native land.
Not surprisingly, the Super Martyrio blog has the most complete coverage of what this news from the Vatican means:
First of all, the import of the theologians’ vote is that it enables the Church to designate Archbishop Romero as a “Blessed.”  This is the first step in the two step canonization process—in the second step, Romero can be called a “Saint.”  The first step is called beatification; the second step is canonization. Because Romero was proposed for the sainthood as a martyr, the decree certifying the validity of martyrdom is all that it takes for him to be beatified.  Someone who is not a martyr (like Mother Teresa or St. John Paul II) require the certification of a miracle in order to be beatified; Romero will not.  

All sainthood candidates, including martyrs like Romero, require a miracle for the second step (canonization), unless the requirement is waived by the Pope. 
[A]fter the theologians’ vote, there are still some formalities to be completed for beatification but, make no mistake, convincing the theologians is the biggest hurdle.  If we had to think of a secular metaphor to explain the process and the significance of the theologians’ vote, we could think of it as similar to the jury process under U.S. law.  If the jury finds in your favor, that is a major step.  You may still need to have that verdict certified by the court clerk, and have the judge issue a judgment, but the “heavy lifting” is done. 
It is also significant that the report mentions that the theologians’ judgment was unanimous.  This suggests that there is not necessarily a dramatic disconnect between those inside the Church and the outside world, where Romero has been very broadly accepted.  It lends credence to the theory (espoused here) that the hesitation about beatifying Romero had to do with “prudential concerns” (in Pope Francis’ words) rather than with the merits of the case.  The theologians’ unanimous vote will also make it very difficult for any remaining skeptics (of which there are a few) to argue that Romero is not deserving of the sainthood.
Read the rest of the post here.

There has been no word on whether San Salvador's ARENA-led municipal government still plans on naming a street for Roberto D'Aubuisson, the man who ordered the assassination of Romero.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Prudencia Ayala

It is a shortcoming of this blog that I have never previously written of Prudencia Ayala.   Born in 1885 in the department of Sonsonate, El Salvador, to a humble family with indigenous roots, Ayala rose from being a seamstress to being the country's first female candidate for president.

She was a poet, an essayist and a feminist.    Her writings in the early decades of the 20th century supported unions and women's rights.   She criticized the dictators of Central America and foreign (US) military intervention in the region.   Her activism led to her arrests and imprisonment for short periods in both Guatemala and El Salvador.

In the 1920s she founded the periodical Redención Femenina (Feminine Redemption) where she wrote in support of women's rights.

In 1930, Prudencia Ayala put herself forward as a candidate for president of El Salvador, at a time when women were not even allowed to vote in the country.   Her campaign platform included support for unions, integrity and transparency in public administration, limitations on sale of alcohol, respect for freedom of worship, and recognition of the rights of children born out of wedlock.

It was a campaign ridiculed by the male hierarchy in the country, but prominent Salvadoran philosopher, writer, journalist and politician Alberto Masferrer wrote at the time:
Prudencia Ayala defends a just and noble cause, which is the right of women to vote and hold high positions. Her government program is not inferior in clarity, practicality and simplicity, to the other candidates who are taken seriously.
Ayala's presidential candidacy was ultimately rejected by the country's supreme court.  Prudencia Ayala died July 11,  1936.  Women would not get the right to vote in El Salvador until the Constitution of 1950, but the initial groundwork was put in place by Ayala.

In 2014, the Salvadoran government posthumously decorated Prudencia Ayala with the Order of José Matías Delgado.

Online references (all in Spanish) for more information about the life and thought of Prudencia Ayala:

Thursday, January 08, 2015

The Salvadoran electorate

El Salvador is in the middle of election campaign season as the country heads towards a March 1 election day where the country will elect deputies to the National Assembly, mayors for every municipality, and representatives to the Central American parliament.

The country's Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) has compiled the roster of citizens eligible to vote in the upcoming election and provided a statistical picture of the electorate.

There are a total of 5,096,035 voters on the roll for the March 1, 2015 election.   52.7% of those voters are female.

It is a young electorate --  a majority are under 40 years old and 30% are less than 30, and 766,000 voters were born after El Salvador's civil war ended in 1992.

28% of the voters are located in the department of San Salvador with the remainder spread over the country's 13 other departments.

There are 184,363 persons on the election roles who are living outside of the country.   The 2014 presidential election was the first election in which Salvadorans who live outside of the country could vote from abroad.

US extends TPS

This week the US announced that it would extend yet again Temporary Protected Status for Salvadorans in the US without proper documents at the time of the 2001 earthquakes in El Salvador.  Salvadoran nationals are eligible for this status if they have been continually in the US since February 13, 2001, have committed no crimes and have registered during each preceding 12 month period. Persons registered under TPS are not subject to being deported back to El Salvador, even if their original arrival in the US was illegal. TPS includes work authorization from the federal government allowing TPS enrollees to be legally employed. 

There are approximately 215,000 Salvadorans in the US on TPS.    TPS was originally granted to suspend deportations to El Salvador on humanitarian grounds after the 2001 earthquakes.   TPS has been extended every 18 months thereafter.   Since TPS only applies to Salvadorans in the US as of February 12, 2001, each person on TPS has lawfully lived in the US for almost 13 years.

The current extension runs though September 9, 2016.  Persons currently enrolled in TPS must re-enroll between January 7 and March 9, 2015.

Several groups are advocating to convert the status of the thousands of Salvadorans in the US on TPS to permanent residence (a "green card").   They point out that migrants on TPS have paid fees to the government to maintain their status, have paid taxes, have undergone background checks, and have done everything else required by the law.  If you are in the US on TPS, the law prohibits you from returning to El Salvador or you lose your status.   That's a very anti-family policy of forced separation for people who have complied with all the requirements of the law for the past 13 years.   It seems to make good sense to change TPS to a green card to allow the reunification of families.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Returning to El Salvador as a deportee

IPS looks today at what awaits the thousands of Salvadorans who each month are deported back to their home country from the United States or Mexico, in an article by Edgardo Ayala titled From the American Dream to the Nightmare of Deportation:
At least two flights from the United States and three buses from Mexico bring back around 150 deportees every day. The authorities are alarmed by the sheer numbers. In the first 11 months of 2014, a total of 47,943 deportees reached the immigration office – 43 percent more than in the same period in 2013. 
The migration authorities project a total of 50,000 deportees for 2014 – a heavy burden for this impoverished Central American country of 6.2 million people, where unemployment stands at six percent and 65 percent of those who work do so in the informal sector of the economy. 
The army of returning migrants does not have government support programmes to help with their reinsertion in the labour market, deportees and representatives of civil society organisations told IPS. 
Many of them have put down roots in the United States, and they return to this country with no support network and with the stigma of having been deported, because the impression here is that most of those sent home are gang members or criminals.
Read the rest of the article here.

Monday, January 05, 2015

Sánchez Cerén speaks on public security

Salvadoran president Salvador Sánchez Cerén gave a press conference today as he meet with his security cabinet to talk about the crime problem in the country.  The year 2014 closed with 3912 murders in El Salvador, an increase of 57% over 2013.   Police also reported that almost 1500 gang members were counted among those murder victims.

The president acknowledged the increasing level of homicides committed by the gangs.   Despite that, Sánchez Cerén said his government would not negotiate with the gangs and was going to pursue them  to bring them to justice.

He announced that his government was working on plans to combat the violence, the majority of which he blamed on the gangs fighting for control of territories where they could commit extortion or sell drugs.

Sánchez Cerén acknowledged that homicides had gone down during the period of the truce, but indicated that the government would not follow such a strategy in the future because the truce had allowed the gangs to grow and strengthen themselves.

So we know that the government's strategy is not the truce process,  but I don't think we have any idea what the government's strategy is.    Meanwhile the murders continue...

Saturday, January 03, 2015

Top 2014 religion stories

Here is our annual round-up of the top religion stories from the past year in El Salvador submitted by our friend Carlos Colorado.   Be sure to also read his overview on the news surrounding Oscar Romero in 2014.

Top Ten Religious Stories for 2014

If you click on the label for the topic “Religion” in Tim’s Blog on the right hand side of the screen, you will call up both institutional news relating to particular churches and stories that focus on ethical issues facing Salvadoran society. Tim himself came to El Salvador through the church: “I have been visiting El Salvador since 2001 in connection with the relationship which my church in Wisconsin has with a sister church outside of Tonacatapeque,” Tim tells us in his profile. Accordingly, this roundup on El Salvador’s top ten religious stories is not intended as a narrowing filter, but rather as a barometer of the great debates that El Salvador has been wrestling with in a given year. 2014 was no different.

1. El padre Toño
A good story is equal parts personality quirks and broader themes and issues. The story of Father Antonio Rodriguez (Padre Toño) is a case in point. Padre Toño is a Spanish-born Passionist priest who made a name for himself in El Salvador by working with the maras or youth gangs. Typically, Padre Toño appeared in civilian garb and was known for a maverick streak—operating largely on his own, often critical of authority. In July, Padre Toño was charged with essentially crossing the line from being an advoctate to becoming an accessory to the gangs, allegedly smuggling cell phones into the jails, improper influence peddling and other wrongdoing. After reportedly being squeezed by prosecutors by the use of “intimate secret recordings” of the priest, Padre Toño copped a deal. “Murky at best, the case of Padre Toño, shows the perils for anyone who might act in the role of a mediator with the gangs,” Tim appropriately concluded when reporting the story here.

2. The Catholic Church's Stance on National Security

From the same breeding ground as Padre Toño, other stories this year shined the spotlight on the role of the Church in confronting the scourge of gang-related violence and killing that has afflicted the country. Clearly, the Catholic Church in El Salvador has taken on a higher profile than any time since the 1980s, when the Church was vocal in denouncing human rights violations. In a widely quoted phrase, Archbishop Escobar warned in August that El Salvador was getting dangerously close to being “a failed state” due to the strength of the maras. The government strongly resented the statement. Even Pope Francis weighed in on the issue, warning a young Salvadoran to “beware the maras” in a web chat with young people. Later, the archbishop softened his tone with the government and sent his auxiliary to serve on the government’s security roundtable, but the criticism stung.

3. The Evangelical Churches' Stance on National Security

If the Catholic Church has seemed ambivalent in its response to security issues, supporting a truce with the gangs in prior years and then withdrawing its support, for example, the Evangelical Churches appear more consistent in addressing problems at a grass roots level. In addition to offering activities and alternatives that appear to more readily and directly engage the problem (as opposed to the Catholic approach of focusing on policy solutions), Evangelical Churches also have taken up high profile efforts such as organizing defiant marches for peace in gang-infested communities.

4. El Salvador's New Profile: "Half-Catholic"

A Pew Research Center report on religion in Latin America cemented a reality that has been decades in the making: El Salvador is officially half-Catholic. Analysis in Catholic circles has been maddeningly “self-referential” (as Pope Francis might say; i.e., focused strictly on in-house explanations, such as Vatican II, Liberation Theology, or inadequate Catholic leadership), but the real reasons have more to do with broad global trends and regional history. PROLADES, a Protestant think tank, has comprehensive explanatory materials here (in a nutshell: Protestants have been targeting Central America since the early 20th C., but were only able to crack the nut in the 1990s based on millions of dollars infused from the U.S. and local Catholic churches weakened by ferocious political persecution in the 70s and 80s).

5. Gang violence infringes freedom of religion
Many stories this year highlighted gang violence directed at individuals engaged in religious activities or affiliated with a particular church (six members of an evangelical church were killed in Tacuba; the Elim Church denounced attacks against its members; the 84 year-old guard of the Don Rua Church was murdered; a man was shot dead at “La Luz del Mundo” Evangelical Church in San Salvador; numerous other crimes were directed at people going to church, leaving church, or allegedly impeding them from going to church). While most gang violence is indiscriminate, it is so widespread that its mere pervasiveness appears to be an affront to the right to worship. Still, there may be a deeper animus.

6. The Child Immigrant Crisis

A huge story in U.S. news earlier this year was the surge in unaccompanied children from Central America seeking entrance to the United States. Like other stories here, the spike is believed to have been caused by a rise in gang violence in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala.

7. Romero beatification

The Salvadoran government and the Salvadoran Church both pressed the Vatican to expedite the beatification of slain Archbishop Oscar Romero. In my blog, I predict Romero will be beatified in 2015.

8. The UCA Martyrs

El Salvador observed the 25th anniversary of the massacre of the Jesuit staff of Central American University in 1989. Tim covered the story here.

9. New episcopal bishop

The Episcopal Church in El Salvador got its first new bishop, Rev. David Alvarado, in the second election in the Church’s 80 plus years in the country. He takes over from Bishop Martín Barahona in 2015.

10. New Catholic TV Channel

Finally, in a clear effort to stem the losses to Evangelical Protestantism, the Catholic Church got its own TV station this year. It plans to reach 85% of the country’s inhabitants.

Friday, January 02, 2015

Top 10 stories from El Salvador in 2014

Here is my annual tally of the top 10 news stories coming out of El Salvador during the past year:

Salvador Sánchez Cerén from the FMLN wins a tight presidential race.   For the first time since the end of El Salvador's civil war, the presidential election required two rounds to decide.  Former president Tony Saca captured enough votes to prevent either Salvador Sánchez Cerén from the FMLN or Norman Quijano from ARENA from winning in the first round.   In the second round, Sánchez Cerén won by only 6000 votes out of some 3 million votes cast, in a highly polarized election.   Quijano conceded only after weeks of challenges before the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and the courts.

The election of Sánchez Cerén, a former guerrilla commander and member of the FMLN's traditional leadership, put in place an administration farther to the left than the prior government of Mauricio Funes.  It means the social programs put in place under Funes will continue, but also means even greater antagonism between the government and the country's business and conservative elites.

The collapse of the gang truce.   The so-called "tregua" or truce between El Salvador's largest gangs completely collapsed during 2014 leading homicide rates to climb back to 2011 levels.   The tally in 2014 of 3875 murders was a 56% increase over 2013.

Although Salvadorans ranks criminal violence as the top problem facing their country, no party or presidential candidate presented a plan to deal with the problem which had any credibility with voters.  After newly-elected president Salvador Sánchez Cerén took office, his two crime initiatives have been an emphasis on community policing and the formation of a national council on citizen security.  A group of religious leaders suggest that ongoing dialogue with the gangs is necessary, but the sole initiative of the national council, so far, has been to hire former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani as a consultant.  

A president jailed for corruption.   The end of 2014 finds former Salvadoran president Francisco Flores under house arrest on corruption charges.   The charges relate to $10 million or more of cash from the government of Taiwan, allegedly intended for relief of victims of the 2001 earthquakes, but which were apparently used for ARENA political purposes.   The lack of progress on the case has led to calls to remove the judge overseeing the case as well as criticism of attorney general Luis Martinez.

Child migration.   Tens of thousands of unaccompanied minors from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras crossed into the US, creating a political and humanitarian crisis in the US.   The young migrants were fleeing violence in their home countries, often seeking reunification with parents in the US, and frequently led on by promises of migrant smugglers.  The plight of the unaccompanied minors made the conditions of poverty and violence in Central America a prominent news item in the US for a period of time as journalists worked to explain the causes of child migration to a northern audience.

Constitutional Chamber continues to reform democracy.    The Constitutional Chamber of El Salvador's Supreme Court continued to issue decrees favoring the power of individual citizens over the power of the country's entrenched political parties.   The court ruled that the political parties had to be transparent about their finances and make internal elections more democratic.   It ruled that politicians who had been elected as members of one political party could not defeat voters' expectations by defecting to another party.   The court made elections for the National Assembly much more complicated by ruling that voters should be allowed to vote for candidates in more than one political party if they wished.   Politicians and the political parties grumbled about the rulings, but are reluctantly complying.  

Chikungunya.   A mosquito-borne virus from Africa reached the Americas this year and El Salvador was particularly hard hit.    Chikungunya, a disease which causes fevers and severe joint pain, is transmitted by the same mosquitoes that transmit dengue fever.

Padre Toño.   Spanish priest Father Antonio Rodriguez has been well known for his work in the barrios of Mejicanos, where gangs rule the streets.    The work of the priest known as Padre Toño included efforts to provide ways out of the gangs for gang members and alternatives to gangs for at risk youth.   He had a complicated relationship with the gang truce.    But in 2014, things took a bizarre turn when Padre Toño was arrested, and eventually pled guilty, to delivering illegal items into prisons for gang members and influence peddling.   His sentence was suspended and he was permitted to leave the country.   The case showed the political risks for anyone who ventured too close to El Salvador's gangs and the truce process.

Romero sainthood cause appears closer.    The first Roman Catholic pope from Latin America, Pope Francis, has made no secret of his admiration of the murdered Catholic archbishop Oscar Romero.   Already popularly known as "Saint Romero of the Americas,"  official beatification by the Church might actually happen in 2015 according to some.

Second round of MCC financing.  US relations with El Salvador during 2014 were highlighted by US approval of a second $277 million round of Millennium Challenge Compact aid financing for El Salvador.  The two largest projects are $110 million for improvement of the coastal highway along El Salvador's Pacific coast, and $101 million for improvements to El Salvador's education system, including vocational and technical education.   But there may be even more impact on El Salvador from president Obama's executive action towards the end of the year to protect millions of undocumented migrants living with children in the US from deportation.

Chaparrastique volcano eruption.  The Chaparrastique volcano near San Miguel volcano erupted on December 29, 2013.   Throughout 2014, nervous residents watched the signs of internal seismic activity and occasional output of volcanic gases, but El Salvador's most active volcano did not repeat its activity despite warnings from the environment ministry that magma seemed to be moving closer to the surface.