When Fr. Leo O'Donovan, SJ, Georgetown University's president, asked me to coordinate Georgetown's response to the assassination of the Jesuits and their co-workers in El Salvador, I had no idea how profound an experience the assignment would be. It has involved me in the lives of a nation and a people in ways I can never forget. I have journeyed with some remarkable men and women on the road "From Madness to Hope," in the words of the United Nations Commission on the Truth for El Salvador regarding human rights violations in the country.
Though I never met the martyrs, they are very real to me in their courage and commitment to justice. Their murders were an attack on university people living out Fr. Ellacuría's idea for a university. For him and for his colleagues, a university had to be committed to engaging the "national reality," which in El Salvador meant poverty and oppression. The Jesuits and their co-workers who died that night challenge us to live out the social responsibility of our own universities today. Our national reality is different in many ways, but the opportunities and challenges are no less demanding of vision and courage.
The poor, who make up the majority of Salvadorans, have given me new eyes with which to see truth and human dignity. "The poor" is not just an economic descriptor but real men, women, and children struggling to survive in the midst of need. We can learn much from their struggle. This came home to me again in very graphic fashion when I recently visited my brother, a Jesuit who lives and works on a Nicaraguan farm co-op. The men and women there, economically poor but rich in many other ways, have so much to teach us about dignity, integrity, courage, and community.
It is a privilege to have known and worked with Jesuits like Fr. Jon Sobrino, the eloquent spokesman for the martyrs, and Fr. Chema Tojeira, who as provincial led the response of the Jesuits at the time of the murders and who now serves as Fr. Ellacuría's successor as president of the University of Central America. I will never forget the indomitable courage of Maria Julia Hernandez, former ally of Archbishop Romero and director of Tutela Legal, the archdiocese's office for human rights. At the trial of the soldiers accused of killing the Jesuits, she sat each day facing the men she has so resolutely investigated. And no one interested in El Salvador will forget Ruben Zamora, whose brother was killed, whose house was bombed, who himself was exiled, but who returned to run for the presidency in 1994.
Congressmen Affected by Slain Jesuits
All you ever hear from the School of the Americas and the Secretary of the Army . . . are rationalizations about a 'few bad apples,'" says Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass., on right), whose interest in closing down the U.S. Army's School of the Americas (SOA) at Ft. Benning, Ga., stems from the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests and two women at the University of Central America in San Salvador.
McGovern knew four of the Jesuits from working with them on human rights and education issues while he was an aide to Rep. Joe Moakley (D-Mass., on left), sponsor of a current amendment to cut SOA funding.
"How many bad apples does it take before we shut this school down?" continues McGovern. "It's not just El Salvador or Guatemala in the past. It's today in Colombia. It's today in Peru. It's today in Bolivia."
This summer, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 230 to 197 to eliminate part of SOA's funding. The school's opponents point to UN and other independent reports that indicate that graduates of the school were responsible for many assassinations, massacres, and atrocities committed during Latin America's civil wars over the last 30 years, including the 1980 killing of Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero and the rape and murder of three American nuns and a lay volunteer; the 1989 murders at UCA; and more-recent military-led attacks on human rights activists in Guatemala and Mexico.
While United States officials were hardly distinguishing themselves in El Salvador, Congressman Joe Moakley and future Congressman Jim McGovern [see box story] risked their lives to uncover the truth about the Jesuit murders, and they remain committed to this day. My first trip to El Salvador shortly after those murders was with an ecumenical group led by Heather Foote. From her and her colleagues I learned the importance of international and ecumenical solidarity groups that have forged strong North-South relationships of giving and receiving. Tom Quigley of the United States Catholic Conference was my first mentor on El Salvador. Back in Washington, I have worked with Margie Swedish, the eloquent leader of the Religious Task Force on Central America and Mexico. The list goes on and on.
As positive as all of these relationships have been, my experience of our own country's behavior in El Salvador and indeed in all of Central America has been both eye-opening and painful. Without engaging in U.S.Ðbashing, I would argue that we have lost much of our moral standing with our neighbors to the south through the policies we have promoted and the friends we have kept. Our government, in particular the State Department, Pentagon, and intelligence community, has lost significant credibility by distorting and even lying to Congress and the American people about what was happening and what we were doing in Central America.
The Truth Commission reports on El Salvador and Guatemala have detailed our sorry record in supporting some of the worst human rights violations and violators in the region. Not long ago I heard a Pentagon official say that we were "married for life" to the Colombian military, widely recognized for its human rights abuses. Previously, these embarrassing endorsements were excused as necessary to "stem the Red Tide"; now they are excused as necessary to fight drug traffic.
As a country, we have moved from seeing Central America as a buffer against communism to a problem we would like to forget. In El Salvador we spent over $5 billion from 1980 to 1992 to militarize the country but since then have spent less that 10 percent of that amount to help the country implement the peace accords. Eliot Abrams, the architect of the military buildup, is quoted as saying, "Central America is no longer of interest to us." President Clinton, on his recent trip to the region, presented a much more positive policy, but the fact remains that we are not assisting the region to any significant degree.
I find it morally offensive for us as a country to wash our hands and walk away from a country and a region we have to a large extent militarized, manipulated, and seriously harmed. We are abandoning people we have forced to march to our drumbeat for so long and at such cost to themselves.
We can hope that this year's commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the Jesuit murders and next year's commemoration of the twentieth anniversaries of the assassinations of Archbishop Romero and four American women will not only remind us of the message of these martyrs but prod us into more responsibility for our brothers and sisters in El Salvador and indeed in all of Central America.
On Jesuit college and university campuses, the anniversaries remind us of the men and women who tried to be voices for the voiceless and power for the powerless. We are reminded of what a twelve-year-old girl said at the funeral of the Jesuits and their co-workers: "Don't cry for them; imitate them."