Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Lost Opportunity

Early this week, we watched the film Romero, about the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador in 1980. The film described his journey from a cleric who tried to remain apolitical to one who understood that his religious calling required him to be on the side of the oppressed in his country. For this he was killed, while saying mass. He was one of tens of thousands killed in a country of just a few million, hundreds of thousands of whom fled the country during that period.

When we finished the film, we realized that the anniversary was coming up -- tomorrow, in fact. As I have for many years, we will light a candle in his honor. A friend reminded me that she named her son -- now a young man -- in his honor.

Being caught up in my own work, I was scarcely paying attention to President Obama's Latin America tour, even though Latin America is the main area of my academic work. I was quite startled, then, to realize that on his way home, the president was stopping in El Salvador. "Amazing," I thought. I wondered if a U.S. president had ever visited before, and I thought it fortuitous that he was visiting so close to this important anniversary.

Then I received a message from a fellow Latin Americanist (that is, a scholar who studies Latin America), urging us to write letters encouraging the President to commemorate the Archbishop's death, particularly since he would be there so near the anniversary. By the time I received her message, the president was already there, so I checked in with her about what may have happened. She replied that the president did refer to Archbishop Romero, but only in platitudes. I went to the White House blog, where I found two articles that mention the archbishop in the context of the visit, and my colleague was absolutely right: the remarks of President Obama and President Funes really define platitudes: positive-sounding words that signify nothing at all.

El Salvador is still in deep trouble, two decades after civil war officially ended. And that trouble has a lot of implications for the United States, related to drug traffic, immigration, and gang violence. So the two presidents exchanges ideas about these problems and some proposed remedies. At least in the public remarks, however, no mention seems to have been made of the deep roots of these problems, and our complicity in them at many levels.

The Obama presidency is all about social media, so I am hoping that in a small way I have been able to use the White House blog both to learn and perhaps to make a difference. Here is what I just sent to the White House:
I am pleased that the president visited the grave of the martyred archbishop of El Salvador. A colleague mentioned that platitudes were exchanged, and my reading of the WH blog suggest that even that barely happened. On the eve of the anniversary of a brutal assassination of a good man by our allies at the time, more should have been said about the historic complicity of the U.S. in all that has gone wrong in El Salvador. 
Moreover, from what I can tell, immigration was discussed, but coffee was not. This is like discussing birth without mentioning pregnancy. We cannot simply paper over the problems of migration and development -- we must look at root causes arising from injustice. For more on connecting the dots between coffee and migration, please see my page at 
Thank you.
I invite readers of this blog to get involved, and to start challenging your federal legislators and the White House to look at the entire region with a deeper sense of history. As indicated by the COHA analysis of the visit, the U.S. approach appears to continue demanding more of Central Americans while demanding less of ourselves. If this is the best that a progressive president can do, social justice in this hemisphere is far from fruition.

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