Creating Hope in the Midst of Fear


“Forgive us, Monsignor, for we have elected your assassins once again . . . ” read the top part of the banner hanging from the stage outside of the Cathedral of San Salvador during the Mass commemorating the 24th anniversary of the murder of Monsignor Oscar Romero. This Mass came on the heels of the ARENA party’s victory in El Salvador’s presidential elections. The ARENA party, which staunchly supports US economic and political policy in Central America, has won all four presidential elections since the signing of the peace accords in 1991.

In contrast to the banner, the words of Bishop Rosa Chavez’s sermon that night struck a more hopeful note. “It is true that people voted out of fear in these elections,” Chavez explained, “but if we can create hope in the midst of fear then the spirit of Monsignor Romero will truly be with us today.”

Before his assassination in 1980, Romero said that if he were killed, he would rise again in the Salvadoran people. During the long years of war, disappearances, mass murder and political repression that followed, people kept Romero’s promise in their hearts; they will have to continue to do so to meet the challenges of the years to come.

It seems likely that many Salvadorans did vote out of fear. As an election observer with the Center of Exchange and Solidarity (CIS) and as part of a delegation from the Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America, I saw how the supporters of the political party in power, including US representatives and mainstream media outlets, propagated fear. For example, some CIS observers visited a maquiladora, or sweatshop, just days before the elections and were told by the workers that their DUI’s (the identity documents needed for voting) had been stolen from them by their employers. Additionally, there were reports alleging that workers in some maquiladoras were fired on the day before the elections and told that they could have their jobs back if the ARENA party won the presidency.

Additionally, representatives from the United States such as Roger Noriega of the US State Department and Otto Reich, an envoy of the Bush administration, made public comments in the weeks before the elections which insinuated that Salvadorans should consider what kind of relations they want to have with the US before voting for the leftist FMLN party, whose presidential candidate Shafick Handal was a leader of the rebel forces during the civil war. Most troubling of all was the rumor initiated by supporters of ARENA that the US would cut off family remittances from the US to El Salvador if the FMLN won the elections. Although some US representatives, such as Arizona Democrat Raul Gijalva (D-7), attempted to denounce the US interference in El Salvador’s elections, the Salvadoran press paid scant scant attention to these statements. However, when Representative Thomas Tancredo of Colorado (R-6) published a statement only a few days before the elections saying that US authorities might find it necessary to control the flow of remittances if the FMLN were elected, it was the headline story in the mainstream “Diario de Hoy” newspaper. Many Salvadorans with whom I spoke said that the fear of losing family remittances, which amount to a significant portion of the average Salvadoran’s income, was a driving force behind the wide margin of victory for the ARENA party, which received almost 57% of the popular vote.

A main source of disagreement between the ARENA and FMLN political platforms was their stance on the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), recently sent into fast-track legislation by the Bush administration. CAFTA would allow for wide scale privatization of public services in El Salvador. Already, the privatization of telecommunications and electricity in El Salvador during the 1990’s has meant skyrocketing costs for consumers with little or no improvement in service. Additionally, CAFTA would facilitate US ‘dumping’ of subsidized agricultural products into El Salvador’s market and permit multi-national corporations to patent the seeds that Salvadoran farmers have used freely for generations. ARENA claims that CAFTA will provide jobs for Salvadorans while the FMLN and other critics argue that these jobs will not come with any guarantee of just wages, labor rights or prolonged sustainability. Additionally, opponents of CAFTA say that the people of Central America had little or no input into the terms and content of the trade agreement, even though the expansion of free trade will impact them the most. Where, they ask, are the voices of the poor and marginalized considered in all of this?

A few days after returning home to the US I saw Richard Perle on C-Span giving a lecture sponsored by the Heritage Foundation about the issues of pre-emptive strike and the re-organization of the US military to meet today’s new challenges to US hegemony. In this lecture, Perle was very forthright about the “common sense” of pre-emptive strike and other principles that constitute US foreign policy today. Listening to Perle’s talk it might seem to make sense that the United States should always do what is in the best interests of the United States and should cooperate with those who will support and further those interests. This is not isolationist, Perle argues, because it does not mean that the US is unwilling to work with other countries, only that it is unwilling to work with countries that disagree with it on minor and major policy points. The unspoken assumptions behind Perle’s comments are that expansion of free trade and US military and political leadership worldwide (through military force or political coercion) are good for the United States and the world. Furthermore, there is no serious analysis in Perle’s commentary addressing the question of why other people in the world might harbor hatred against the United States.

Having traveled to El Salvador and Iraq within the past eight months I must say that the assumptions which undergird US economic, political and military intervention must be seriously questioned if US citizens are to contribute to the creation of hope in the midst of fear. The New York Times and other newspapers today displayed the gruesome dismemberment of four US contractors who were killed in Falluja, Iraq yesterday (March 31). To me, this terrible scene brutally reflects the consequences of siege and warfare everywhere. In a visit to Cinquera, El Salvador, last week, community leader Don Pablo told our group of election observers about the young children and women from Cinquera who were mutilated and raped by Salvadoran troops, many of whom who were trained by the US military at the infamous School of the Americas. Through my work with Voices in the Wilderness I know the stories of a few of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children who wasted away from lack of medicines during the US/UN sanctions. Also, CAFTA is a twin of Executive Order 39 signed by Paul Bremer in September of 2003, an order which allows for 100% ownership of Iraq’s public industries by multi-national corporations and lets 100% of the profits of these corporations leave Iraq. How can it be possible to create hope in the midst of such tragic violence and injustice? How can these people have hope when it seems that the political and economic decision-makers who shape their future do not consider their views and destinies?

The disappointment that I saw in the faces of Salvadorans the night after the elections was a mirror image of the frustration which Iraqis expressed to me in August of 2003 about the fact that the US occupying forces had not made things substantially better or more secure for them. Imagine the disappointment that Iraqis felt after the US invasion when they saw a large military presence, complete with tanks, defending the Ministry of Oil and not one US soldier defending the hospitals, while looters carried away essential medical equipment and supplies. A similar disappointment was felt in El Salvador last week after the United States administration, through its direct interference in the outcome of El Salvador’s elections, failed to defend the principles of democracy. The actions of the United States, in both Iraq and El Salvador, have perpetuated an impoverishment of human rights and true democracy, and yet it seems to me that the people of both countries are resilient and determined to be hopeful. Perhaps this is because they have no other choice but to find hope in the face of the memories of a difficult past and the shadows of an uncertain future. In response, it seems that I, as a US citizen, have no choice but to consider first and foremost not the interests of my own country but rather the well-being and human rights of those whose lives are most dramatically impacted by the policies of my government and the consumerist, individualistic culture which molds these policies.

JOHN FARRELL, 29, is an organizer with Voices in the Wilderness in Chicago. He recently worked as an election observer in El Salvador and traveled and worked with Voices in Iraq last year. He has a BA in English and Spanish education and an MTS, Masters of Theological Studies from Loyola University Chicago. He can be reached at: