By DEWITT KENNARD
The total number of the world’s displaced people is at an all-time high. Fear of persecution caused by war, race, religion, or political affiliation is a force that drives these people from their homelands.
El Salvador, a country that lost about 25 percent of its population to migration during its civil war, is one of those countries whose name has popped up regarding U.S. immigration and our DACA program, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. DACA involves the future of about 700,000 young “dreamers,” and El Salvadorans make up the largest number.
DACA represents only a small part of the quandary of Latino immigration. This conversation has overlooked the crucial reasons why so many Central Americans have left their countries of birth. The explanation is straight forward: broad social inequality, injustice and gross human rights abuses, much of which has been supported by Washington’s years of complicity that has crushed the fabric of much of Central American society.
In San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, there is a prominent road named after our own United States president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. This road leads straight to the most remarkable sight of this Third World nation, to the monument “El Salvador Del Mundo,” The Savior Of The World. Here you will see the figure of Jesus standing atop a sphere of the earth placed high on a pedestal. It’s a reminder of a people’s profound faith throughout their troubled past. FDR Boulevard is also a reminder of the powerful scale of our own government’s foreign policy, and our country’s unrestrained footprint pressed deeply into the smallest country in all of Central America.
This injustice began five centuries ago with Spain’s conquest and continues to this very day with the power and might of the descendants of what is termed “The Original 14 Families.” These families are the ruling authoritarian oligarchs who, still today, dictate from their local plantations and from their palatial Miami estates.
Over centuries, how can a handful of people continue to dominate a country’s population? Firepower vs. spears, arrows, and machetes is one answer—and a little help from their friends in Gringoland, the U.S. government.
The year 1932 was one of bitter unrest in El Salvador. During the Great Depression the market price of the country’s main cash crop, coffee, had collapsed. The peasant worker was paid with tortillas and beans, and with scrip that was good only at the boss man’s company store. (Does that sound like the Mississippi Delta plantations during slavery and our own Jim Crow years?)
With “The Original 14 Families” controlling over 80% of the useable land, inequality and poverty brought the peasant to rebellion. This insurrection was instantly crushed, as waves of indigenous people and peasants were slaughtered. Within the first three days of fighting, an estimated 25,000 rebels were killed. The worker organizing had been led by Farabundo Marti, an activist whose goal was to help the poor. Marti, along with an estimated 30,000 mostly indigenous people, was killed during this unholy massacre that is now called La Matanza, the Slaughter.
The 1980s rebellion
Let’s move forward a few decades and closer to home. Since land reform was nowhere in sight, the average Salvadoran peasant was still living in misery, and starvation as was evident in the bloated stomachs of malnourished children. After years of rule by the “14” and its ruthless military dictators, the tragedy of this nation was now being played out on the battlefields of its countryside and in its capital city. This was an internal peoples’ civil war, a revolt after so many years of repression. It was not created by outside agitators.
This Cold War period—with our new U.S. president, Ronald Reagan taking the helm—was about to sizzle all of Central America. Reagan’s paranoia of communism had been inserted deep into the psyche of generations of Salvador’s military officers who the U.S. government had trained at its “School Of The Americas” in Panama. As part of the 1977 Panama Canal Treaty, the U.S. government was forced to move its school from Panama. The Pentagon chose Ft. Benning, Ga.
The enormity of suffering of the Salvadoran people was about to expand at a rapid pace.
The rag-tag FMLN guerrilla group, named after the martyred Farabundo Marti, was overpowering the U.S.-backed Salvadoran forces. The U.S. government had poured billions of dollars into arms and training to beef up El Salvador’s police, its National Guard, its army, and its air force, which was using savage white phosphorus and napalm jelly bombs. U.S. Special Forces trainers and the CIA were now playing a major role in creating paramilitary security forces that in turn led to the Escuadrones Muertos, the “death squads.”
It was December 1980 when three American Maryknoll Sisters and lay workers were returning from a conference. They never reached their destination. Instead they met their early and unjust deaths. When the bodies of the four beaten, raped, and murdered women were unearthed from a shallow grave, our Secretary of State, General Alexander Haig, stated that the nuns may have been armed and were attempting to run the military roadblock. Years later, low ranking guardsmen were convicted of this god-awful crime.
At this point, Congress was becoming reluctant to fund the continuation of this dirty war. El Salvador’s leaders desperately needed a major military victory. Hence, the grim reaper began his midnight creep.
El Mozote was a war-neutral, rural community of around 1000 people, mostly Evangelical Protestants. Again the human face of another cruel, repulsive massacre was about to appear.
The Atlacatl Battalion, which the U.S. government had trained for counter-insurgency, had been fighting guerrillas in the region. The battalion commander had heard that some of the villagers had sold food and supplies to the FMLN. During the next three days of December 1981, over 900 El Mazote villagers were tortured, raped, and murdered as the U.S. government helped El Salvador’s leaders chase its common obsession with choking out communism. This bloodbath was presented to Congress as the needed military victory.
“When I feed the hungry, they call me a saint.
When I ask why they have no food,
they call me a Communist.”
— Brazilian Archbishop Helder Camara
“BE PATRIOTIC—KILL A PRIEST”
— a war cry of the “death squads”
The Peruvian priest, Gustavo Gutierrez, had written “A Theology of Liberation,” a Biblically based “preferential option for the poor” that had been taken up and preached throughout much of Latin America. It was a Christian approach to dealing with poverty and oppression. The U.S. government accused these priests of being Marxists and Communist sympathizers.
In 1977, at age 60, the priest Oscar Romero was elevated to Archbishop of San Salvador. This new archbishop had many challenges ahead as he became an outspoken critic of his own government’s years of human rights abuses. Then orders came from the oligarchs in Miami. During his brief four-year tenure, Archbishop Romero became the eleventh priest in El Salvador to be assassinated.
Since those days, it has come to light that Col. Nicolas Carranza, who headed the Treasury Police, helped arranged the archbishop’s assassination. Freedom of Information Act records show that Col. Carranza had been on the CIA’s payroll, receiving as much as $90,000 per year.
November 1989: The University of Central America in San Salvador was a highly respected Jesuit University. The Salvadoran government considered it to be a refuge for subversives as civil war continued to rage. Several of the university’s priests were pushing for a “negotiated and peaceful” settlement to the brutal war that had claimed over 75,000 lives, many being noncombatants.
Darkness had fallen on the UCA campus as the infamous Atlacatl Battalion, trained at the U.S. government’s “School of the Americas,” rolled in and to the Jesuit professors’ modest quarters. Six Jesuits were executed. Their housekeeper, Julia Elba Ramos, and her 16-year-old daughter, Celina, had been visiting. They too were executed.
Above is a short list of the Salvadoran government’s human rights abuses as the U.S. government supported them in their common goal of defeating the FMLN and to help the “Original 14” in maintaining the status quo.
A nation of refugees
Today, with unbridled violence and gangs ruling its streets, El Salvador has become the most murderous country in Central America. With U.S. government complicity, the fabric of this country’s society has been shattered, and a nation of refugees has been created.
The U.S. government does not apologize for its complicity and dark history of backing right-wing butchers around the globe. That’s not in its repertoire. But what our government can do is open its blind eye and heart in offering a legal path to citizenship for these DACA “dreamers” who were brought here by their parents and now have settled roots in America. Among them are people who pick the food we eat, care for our children and rock them to sleep at night, keep our tech systems humming, and wear the U.S. uniform on many battlefields around the globe.
Rather than “thanking them for their service,” why not offer them the benefits of citizenship?
America is still perceived by prospective immigrants as an island of hope, the voice for the voiceless. Approximately 27 states now offer sanctuary, a safe haven for these young people, hence denying ICE detainers their gutter tactics in attempting to capture and deport them. And yes, our country’s bright shining and principled beacon of hope is still standing tall, representing our nation’s inclusiveness in action.
As the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Morris Dees said, “We’re all immigrants. Some came to this country on slave ships, some on free ships. Our nation’s strength is in its immigrants.”
Today we have a president who, with his dehumanizing language, has inflamed a vicious, anti-immigrant sentiment. We, the people, must not build his Wall, and we must never hang a “No Vacancy” sign from our Statue of Liberty. To save the soul of this nation, we can do better. As a people we must.
In 1994 the writer was in El Salvador as a U.N. election observer.
DeWitt Kennard: firstname.lastname@example.org