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Monday, November 30, 2009

El Salvador Journal 2005 Part I

This is the first journal I wrote while in El Salvador in 2005 as part of a Development and Peace delegation

El Salvador Journal

Twelve days of journeying and learning

Paul McGuire July 2005

I will not tire of declaring that if we really want an effective end to violence we must remove the violence that lies at the root of all violence: structural violence, social injustice, exclusion of citizens from the management of the country, repression. All this is what constitutes the primal cause, from which the rest flows naturally.

Oscar Romero SEPTEMBER 23, 1979

This is my journal documenting my trip this year to El Salvador. I took over one hundred pages of notes while on my trip. I do not intend to make this a faithful recording of these notes. Rather, this will be my account; words and images of ten days of learning. I hope this journal will serve as an accurate recounting that will help people gain a better understanding of what took place.

Our days centered on encounters with Salvadoran groups. We usually met with these groups for three hours. This gave us a chance to learn about their history, their current work projects and their goals for the future. We became very good listeners and the stories that we heard were inspiring.

Travel to El Salvador can take the better part of a day. We left Ottawa at 6:30 in the morning and arrived in the capitol, San Salvador around 8:00 PM. We met our guide, Miguel at the airport and we were transported to the Oasis, our home for the next ten days.

The Oasis is an incredible place. Run by ex-combatants, Damian and his wife, Carolina. We met groups, mainly from the US, who were there to work and visit sites from the war and local work projects. The place was rarely empty, a very interesting mix of people. There is some hope here. The United States has done a great deal to hurt this country. It is refreshing to see so many American students willing to learn some of the history of the long relationship that exists between the United States and El Salvador.

Oasis, San Salvador

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

“We Won’t Let them Turn our Town into a Desert”: The Salvadoran Resistance to Metallic Mining

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

by Julia Kaminsky, NY CISPES. Originally published by American Jewish World Service, one of ASIC’s international partners

“Que bello”—how beautiful, whispered my 17-year-old neighbor Chepe as we stepped back to admire our work, paintbrushes still in hand. What had started out that morning as a faint sketch on an otherwise unremarkable wall was now colorfully taking form as a mural of a crane encroaching upon a lush landscape. A steady stream of people had been arriving since the morning—on foot, on bicycles, in the back of a rusting red pickup—all eager to take up brushes and declare their opposition to gold mining in their town.

In March 2008, I arrived in San Isidro, a rural municipality of 10,000 people in Cabañas, one of El Salvador’s poorest regions. I was there to volunteer with Asociación Amigos de San Isidro, Cabañas (ASIC), a grassroots community-development organization. When I first set foot in the dusty town, I had no idea that I was walking into the epicenter of a national and international battle.

The gold-rich subsoil of northern El Salvador has attracted various foreign mining companies, among them Pacific Rim, which operates the most advanced gold exploration project in the country. It operates in San Isidro, near tributaries of the Lempa River—the lifeline of much of Cabañas and El Salvador. Exploratory drilling—the process by which the company finds gold deposits—has deepened groundwater levels, causing water sources in several of San Isidro’s rural communities to dry up.

A local activist, Graciela Funes, pointed to an empty cement tank that once was a well, saying, “People used to come here to wash their clothes, bathe, and bring water to their houses. I am afraid that we will be left without water.”

If Pacific Rim were to receive the extraction permit that it seeks from the Salvadoran government, the results would be disastrous. In a single day, the mine would use 900,000 liters of water—a quantity that could sustain the average Salvadoran household for 20 years. It would also use two tons of cyanide and other toxic substances, which would end up in the rivers, groundwater, air and rain.

Due to heavy deforestation, a long dry season, and inadequate facilities for treating wastewater, Salvadorans’ access to potable water is already low, particularly in rural areas. And given the importance of water for agriculture—the principle livelihood in the region—residents are outraged that their land is being ravaged for foreign economic gain.

In collaboration with local youth and other community groups, ASIC has painted three murals in San Isidro that celebrate the environment and denounce the exploitation that threatens to destroy it. They are part of an awareness campaign designed to get community members involved in the anti-mining movement.

When we finished our project, the community held a celebration inaugurating the murals. Hundreds of people from surrounding municipalities attended the event, which included a performance by 22-year-old rapper Wilfredo Lainez, a local hero for his socially conscious music. That day, he gazed out intently at the audience as he rapped: “We won’t let them turn our town into a desert.”

Armed with paint, words, and homemade beats, the people of San Isidro—from lawyers, to farmers, to young kids dreaming of a better life—are uniting, a veritable David up against a bulldozer-clawed Goliath. They have been joining forces with similarly affected communities throughout El Salvador and Central America through coalitions like the National Roundtable against Metallic Mining (see below). It is my hope that their work will pay off, and that access to clean water will become an inalienable right for all rather than a privilege for some.

I asked Ramiro Rivera, a community leader from a nearby town, why this cause is so important. He replied: “We are asking for respect, because even as a small community, we have dignity.”

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Road From Aguilares: Twenty Years Later: Remembering the Martyrs of El Salvador WILLIAM REISER | NOVEMBER 16, 2009

A group of highly trained Salvadoran soldiers entered the campus of the University of Central America in San Salvador shortly past midnight on Nov. 16, 1989. While their primary target was the president of the university, Ignacio Ellacuría, S.J., they murdered and mutilated nearly the entire Jesuit community—Ignacio and five others. A seventh member of the community, Jon Sobrino, S.J., was in Thailand teaching a course on Christology. The soldiers also murdered Elba and Celina Ramos, the Jesuits’ housekeeper and her daughter, who slept on campus that night to escape the anxiety caused by the bullets and artillery around the neighborhood where they lived.

What happened that night brought home grimly yet powerfully the prophetic dimension of teaching and research, when these activities are informed by an option for the poor. The 32nd General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, which met in 1974-75, put the entire order on record: “The mission of the Society of Jesus today is the service of faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement.” The 33rd General Congregation (1983) reaffirmed that direction and insisted that “we wish to make our own the church’s preferential option for the poor.”

A Weak-Willed Congress

The civil war in El Salvador lasted 12 years, from 1980 to 1992, and claimed 75,000 lives. The incompetence of American foreign policy with respect to the conditions that led to the conflict and in understanding who benefitted from the U.S. support of the Salvadoran military was appalling. As a result of the assassinations at the university, a weak-willed U.S. Congress finally began to face the problem of U.S. complicity in the Salvadoran situation. Representative Joe Moakley, Democrat of Massachusetts, was appointed to lead an investigation that turned out to be as courageous as it was eye-opening. El Salvador was not the only place in Latin America where the poor were being abased. Nine years earlier, four North American women who were returning to El Salvador—two Maryknoll sisters, an Ursuline nun and a co-worker—were raped and murdered on their way from the airport. And two days before Archbishop Oscar Romero was gunned down at the altar on March 24, 1980, another Jesuit, Luis Espinal, was ambushed in La Paz, Bolivia, and silenced for his defense of the rights and dignity of the poor.

The stories of such “martyrs for justice,” as Father Jon Sobrino calls the slain Jesuits and many others, do not begin with the martyrs themselves but with the people on the bottom—the victims of poverty, miscarriages of justice and class prejudice; the throwaways and the “disappeared.” The story of the Salvadoran Jesuits, for example, takes us to the political, social and economic oppression endured by peasants so poor that they needed to be catechized before they could imagine that the world could be different. What would El Salvador look like if God’s will were done on earth, just as it is in heaven?

Father Ellacuría and his companions understood that the mission of a Christian university as an apostolic instrument is not disconnected from the economic and political conditions of the society in which it is located. On the contrary, the university’s mission derives directly from its awareness of the everyday reality that poor people endure. But as Father Sobrino explains in his essay “The University’s Christian Inspiration,” because a university needs resources it is almost by necessity implicated in a world of economic and political power, and “this incarnation amid power tends to distance the university from social reality as lived by the poorest and most marginalized.” Indeed, even the church has to be careful never to lose sight of the world of the poor, and contact with it. Preachers and teachers whose hearts and intelligence are immersed in that world are more attuned to the deeper rhythms of Scripture. Distance from the poor leads to distance from God.

Aguilares and Rutilio Grande

Aguilares was the village where Rutilio Grande, S.J., had been working and the place to which his close friend, Oscar Romero, rushed when he heard the news of Grande’s assassination on March 12, 1977. It was also where Romero later, as archbishop, experienced a profound spiritual awakening. The bishop’s “place,” he came to understand, is with his people; he is never more bishop than when walking alongside the poorest and most vulnerable of his diocese. Aguilares was also where the Jesuits, so suspect in the eyes of El Salvador’s elite and of Archbishop Romero himself earlier, came to be of one heart and mind. The poor were powerless. Christ became poor, which means that he also became powerless. And the reason for the impoverishment both of Jesus and the people? Because, in El Salvador, others had become rich and privileged at their expense. Poverty is visible, but the oppressive forces that create structural violence are usually hidden. One needs the lens of solidarity to perceive those forces, and Aguilares gave the archbishop the lens that enabled him to identify what he saw as crucifixion.

Father Ellacuría and the other Jesuits in his community had already undergone their “Aguilares moment,” the flash that shatters the familiarity hiding the underside of everyday life. What immediately grabs attention is that they were murdered, not the conversion process that led to the radicalization of their vision. In the case of the archbishop, however, it is less his murder that fascinates us than the story of how a conservative churchman became prophetic.

By contrast, Ignacio Ellacuría’s conversion, his embrace of the central categories that came to be associated with the theology of liberation, unfolded gradually, largely through reading, study and discussion. His theological orientation was rooted in the Second Vatican Council. He had fully digested Paul VI’s encyclical Populorum Progressio (1967) and the documents from the Second Conference of the Latin American bishops in Medellín, Colombia, in 1968. His doctoral work in philosophy sharpened his ability to decipher the historical reality that was El Salvador. Apostolic activity without a vision of the kingdom of God tends to validate itself in terms of helping people into the next life but at the risk of meekly acquiescing to the way things are now. Apostolic activity with a vision of the horizon wants to transform the world. It is a faith that does justice, which means that the church—especially its pastors and teachers—tries to make its voice heard in the political arena. As a result, Romero encountered severe opposition among the Salvadoran elites and their military, and in some corridors of the Vatican.

Because the demands of social justice often require stepping into a country’s political life, Father Ellacuría found himself immersed in negotiations between the government and the revolutionary resistance during the course of the country’s civil war. What is intriguing is how he came to his view of justice and liberation by reading and studying and through the clarification of thought and expression that results from conversation and argument. As they fulfill their mission, Christian universities facilitate such a shift in perspective. Some people actually do read their way into conversion. St. Ignatius did so while recuperating after the battle in Pamplona, although even in his case some spiritual lessons were learned only from experience and not from books.

Ellacuría’s Aguilares Moment

I suspect, then, that Ellacuría’s Aguilares moment was in fact extended over some time. While he read, studied and talked, the world in front of him never lost its political and social immediacy. His ability to imagine was not insensitive to “the joys and the hopes, the griefs and the anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are poor or in any way afflicted,” as the opening line of Gaudium et Spes put it, by class loyalties or ecclesiastical privilege or doctrinal mindset. Since fear keeps truth at bay, it closes our eyes to hard realities we need to face. The Jesuits’ Central American Province newsletter noted: “When people would ask Ellacu if he were not afraid he would say no, but, he added, he no more took credit for that than for lacking a sense of smell. He just didn’t have one.” The world of the poor and of victims was not outside, awaiting full access to his mind and heart. It was already within him.

Jesuit colleges and universities become effective instruments insofar as they have a critical mass of faculty members and staff who share the same Christian inspiration that Ellacuría and his companions brought to the Catholic university in San Salvador and by which they transformed it. The hard part is not assembling the critical mass, however; it is discovering that inspiration and keeping it alive. Here I draw on personal experience. By 1988 I had been teaching theology for 10 years. The theology was in line with Vatican II. I drew widely and appreciatively on liberation theology and Catholic social teaching; the forceful words of the Society’s 32nd General Congregation about justice and faith struck a deep chord. To this point, I could follow Ellacuría. But then, over the course of a weekend, I came face to face with poverty among families no more than a mile from the campus in Massachusetts where I was living and working.

A Late Personal Discovery

Within weeks I was looking at the underside of life in rundown apartments, where shadows and shouts awakened long-buried fears about violence, about different lifestyles, about brokenness and isolation. The memory of Romero—not his martyrdom but his enlightenment—enabled me to make sense of what was happening. I myself was passing through an Aguilares moment, and the people I met were Latino. It was a moment of feeling terribly disoriented and unmoored, yet at the same time untied and excited. Even now, more than 20 years later, I cannot figure out why the discovery took so long in coming. Its delay was not for lack of better training or critical reflection, nor was it for want of forceful church documents and living models. More likely it had to do with fear and insecurity: not a fear of death so much as a fear of hostility, violence and failure, of not knowing how to respond to circumstances and backgrounds so different from my own and so greatly beyond my control.

The next step is obvious. We develop friendships with the very ones who have made us unsettled and afraid. While we might not be as free as Jesus when it comes to seeking the company of those at the margins, at least as a start these friendships enable us to move beyond fear and insecurity, defensiveness and hostility. These relationships reshape how we observe, interpret and respond to the world. The lesson of the martyrs is that whether we think of the world in local or global terms, there is no way to escape the route toward the mortal conflict that tears society in two, except by what Paul called “this ministry of reconciliation.” Working for justice is absolutely essential. But if suspicion and estrangement are not overcome, the kingdom of God remains only partially realized. We may be able to read ourselves into the horizon of justice, but we cannot read ourselves into freedom from fear. The way to that liberation passes through the villages and homes of the poor—the road that leads from Aguilares.

William Reiser, S.J., is a professor of religious studies at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Update from Real News on Pacific Rim's suit against El Salvador

El Salvador's gold fight goes international

After activists block their permit, Canadian company uses US trade agreement to sue Salvadoran gov't

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


We will be having our first meeting for our July 2010 trip.  If you are outside the Ottawa area and would like to be involved, please e-mail Paul McGuire (address below)



Thursday, November 12,

Frank Ryan Catholic School

Collective of Ontario Teachers Moving for Peace, Action, Development, and

Relationship in El Salvador

Unite with us for the third trip in forging sustainable links between Ontario Teachers and communities in El Salvador


 “Because there is nothing more genuine and honest than being involved in communities taking charge of their own lives.” Maureen Bourke, Gr 12 religion teacher, Holy Trinity H.S.

 “Because it’s a total rush seeing that social justice and economic sustainability is about survival and not just trendy catchphrases.” Wayne Ng, social worker, Student Services

 Because you love adventure and learning outside of the box

 Because you want to learn about meaningful partnerships with grassroots development agencies such as Development and Peace, Salvaide, CRIPDES, etc..

 Because your sense of social justice and analysis of the critical issues affecting people in the North and the South matters

 Because you want to witness El Salvadoran social movements as…

 Communities attempting to protect their own land from Canadian mining ventures

• Workers defending their rights in maquila and agro-export plantations

• Farmers collectivizing over the impact of biotechnology on food security

• Peasants (campesinos) struggling to recuperate land

• Women struggling to fully participate in their society

 Because you want to apply such experiences to the social teachings of the Church

This meeting is for all Board staff members who would like to join our delegation this July. This introductory meeting will take place November 12 from 4:00 – 5:30PM. Please contact Paul McGuire for more information.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

El Salvador listed as one of top ten countries to visit!

Lonely Planet, the travel guide publisher, has released the 2010 edition of its Best in Travel report. This year, incredible as it might seem, El Salvador was listed as one of the top 10 countries in the world to visit. From the report:

El Salvador sneaks up on you: in lefty lounge bars in San Salvador, at sobering war memorials and musums, and along lush cloud-forest trails; it's a place of remarkable warmth and intelligence, made all the more appealing for being so unexpected....Ane when it comes to cities, none in Central America is smarter or cooler than San Salvador, with first-rate universities, museums and galleries, a vibrant bar and live-music scene, and an array of progressive NGOs, both local and international.

The number one country in the list was New Zealand. The other countries named in Lonely Planet's top 10 were Germany, Greece, Malaysia, Morocco, Nepal, Portugal, Suriname, and the USA.