In 2004 my partner Penny and I travelled to El Salvador as guests of the FMLN (Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, one of two of the country’s major political parties). We toured this tiny Central American country for two weeks visiting many tiny municipal councils, environmental advocacy organizations, human rights organizations, women’s groups and disability groups. It was a real eye opener and a profound experience — we definitely got a crash course in El Salvadorian history.
For decades, almost all of the land in El Salvador, including all of its agricultural land, was owned literally by just a handful of very wealthy families. The population as a whole was extremely poor and the government, in the pockets of the rich, made certain that any effort at even modest wealth redistribution or land reform was quashed immediately, sometimes brutally.
By the 1970s, five tiny rebel groups were fighting to overthrow the government. They were well intentioned but no match for the brutal El Salvadorian military. Eventually, each of the five groups approached Cuba for assistance. This resulted in Fidel Castro inviting the leaders of the five rebel groups to Havana where he insisted they join forces under one umbrella as a pre-condition for Cuban support. The FMLN was born.
By the 1980s, the FMLN was on the verge of victory but US President Ronald Reagan massively increased military support to the El Salvadorian military. At one point the only nation in the world receiving more military support from Washington than El Salvador was Israel.
Into this volatile mix came the appointment of a new archbishop. The pope at the time very deliberately selected a conservative for this position — Archbishop Óscar Romero, who fit the bill perfectly. He was a lifelong conservative who had demonstrated little if any support for the public yearning for social justice. Archbishop Romero moved comfortably within ruling class circles and did not believe the church should meddle in societal conflict.
Once appointed archbishop, however, the archbishop underwent a philosophical transformation. He witnessed the assassination of many priests for the “crime” of working with parishioners to try and improve the lives of ordinary citizens. His sermons became more and more outspoken. And then it happened — Archbishop Romero delivered a sermon in which he pleaded with El Salvadorian soldiers to disobey orders to kill the innocent. He was then no longer acceptable to the powers of the day and the order was given to have him assassinated. The archbishop’s murder on March 24, 1980 was one of the most notorious crimes in modern history.
The nation erupted into full-blown civil war with neither side able to achieve a decisive military victory. Finally, an internationally brokered peace accord ushered in democratic elections. Today, the FMLN forms the democratically elected government.
The perpetrators of the assassination subsequently fled to the US. All efforts to hold them legally accountable failed. The defence was that the perpetrators could not be held accountable in American courts for crimes committed outside of America.
Then along came a young and idealistic lawyer, Matt Eisenbrandt. He and a number of like-minded lawyers had stumbled across an obscure American law — the Alien Torts Act, which specifically permits legal action in the United States even if the criminal act has been committed outside the country. The perpetrators were successfully sued and significant judgements were claimed against them.
My friend the political activist and author, Tom Sandborn, and I are incredibly honoured to be hosting Matt Eisenbrandt’s book launch Assassination of a Saint Monday, April 3, 7:00 p.m. at St. James Community Square, 3214 W. 10th in Vancouver.
In these times when the sky is filled with so many black clouds it’s so important we remind ourselves that justice can and will prevail against all odds. I urge you to join us for what will no doubt be an evening to remember. See you April 3.