Lessons from the Salvadoran Civil War

My dad always tears up after watching the 2004 film Voces Inocentes. The first time we watched it together I remember him staring at the screen with glassy eyes and a faraway look on his face. He was somewhere back in El Salvador reliving the civil war that drove him away from his homeland and to the United States.

The Salvadoran Civil War officially started in 1980 and ended after twelve years. The unofficial start occurred years ago dating back to the  16th  century where the Spanish conquest of El Salvador established a military dictatorship, and thus began the long battle between the government and the guerrillas of native people. The ongoing war between the people and the government was later aided by the United States. The role of the U.S. was to supply the Salvadoran government with weapons and military advisers in order to suppress the guerrillas. What the superpower nation would gain from aiding the Latin American country was a guarantee that the Marxist guerrillas would be contained and that their political views would not take over in El Salvador. It was a matter of self-interest and concern over the global containment of communism that caused the U.S. to become deeply involved with the Salvadoran militia and its agenda. By setting up an advantage for El Salvador’s military government against the guerrillas, the U.S. also knowingly sealed the fate of civilians caught between both sides of the battle.

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The role of the U.S. in the Salvadoran civil war was reported as an unwitting action that later resulted in being a false statement. Both President Carter and Reagan were fully aware of the massacres and inhumane violence that the Salvadoran military used against the people of El Salvador.

My father left El Salvador in 1987. He was twenty years old and was running away from his home after an air raid. In his arms he was carrying my two year old step-brother. The account of my dad’s life in El Salvador is just one of the many stories of the violation of human rights in the war torn country. With the U.S. having originally denied that their role in the Salvadoran role was a purposeful act, it raises the question as to whether any national superpower should be allowed to decide the fate of country for self-interest or ‘national security’. The world was unaware of the war crimes committed in El Salvador mainly due to the censorship of the media. News sources reporting massacres in El Salvador would be denounced by the U.S. as war propaganda, and the country went on as far as refusing to acknowledge the deaths of American nuns in El Salvador that were brutally murdered by members of the Salvadoran militia; these members were trained and supplied by the U.S. The U.S. went to extreme lengths to cover up the stories and to lessen the impact that the accounts were meant to bring in order to show the world the atrocities being committed in El Salvador. This power should not have been abused because it resulted in the deaths of many innocent people. Most of the deaths in El Salvador during the civil war were comprised of children. With this knowledge one would believe that a leading nation would have helped defend the voiceless, but instead the U.S. kept an anti-Communism agenda at the cost of lives.

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Other leaders arose to defend the voiceless. Óscar Monseñor Romero was the archbishop of El Salvador. His defense of the Salvadoran people cost him his life. Interestingly, he was shot dead during a private mass after having recently spoken out against the U.S. government supporting the Salvadoran military. The assassination of Romero is thought to be a contributing factor in the onslaught of guerrillas and revolts against the Salvadoran government. His death was able to rally people to speak up and have their voices heard. What people would fight against was the oppression of the poor and the mistreatment of the common obrero. The U.S. was heavily involved in Romero’s assassination as well as many assassinations that they immediately denied. This example of the U.S. barely containing the reports of war crimes in El Salvador proves that where there is a dominating force, the suppressed will always fight back. What helped spark the movements against the Salvadoran was Romero’s death, the poverty, and other oppressive factors against the people.

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Mural of Óscar Romero. “I offer my blood for the redemption and resurrection of El Salvador. That my blood may be a seed for liberty.”

I believe that nations should aspire to have the same mindset as individuals like Romero. Rather than rely on self-interested politics, national leaders should set an example of compassion and work to improve the lives of people in war ravaged countries like El Salvador. While the U.S. cannot travel back in time and fix the damage it inflicted on the Salvadoran people, it can learn from these events to not sacrifice lives for the sake of the weak pretense of ‘national security’. Seeking sanctions in the U.S. does not equate to being a threat to democracy or even to being a terrorist. In the present day, I think that the U.S. should serve to protect people that do not have the luxury of democracy, people who are oppressed and searching for a better life. Rather than meddle with the infrastructure of other countries, the U.S. should be working to repay for all the atrocities that it has willingly participated in. It owes it to the people of El Salvador. It owes it to my dad and to the millions of other people that were displaced or killed in the war. If not them then what other nation will step up for the defenseless?

The song “Casas de Carton”, originally by Ali Primera,  featured in the film Voces Inocentes, was banned in many Latin American countries for its lyrics that criticized the state of the poor in comparison to the government.

English translation of the lyrics:

Cardboard Houses

How sad, the rain is heard
On the cardboard roofs
How sadly my people live
In the cardboard houses.
The worker comes descending,
Almost dragging his footsteps
For the weight of suffering
Look how much is the suffering
Look how much the suffering weighs
He leaves the pregnant woman above
The city is below,
And he loses himself in its tangle.
Today is the same as yesterday
It’s a world without tomorrow.
How sad, the rain is heard
On the cardboard roofs.
How sadly my people live
In the cardboard houses.
Children the color of my land
With the same scars
Millionaires of worms, and
Therefore how sadly the children live
In the cardboard houses.
How happy the dogs live in the
House of the exploiter
You’re not going to believe it
But there are schools for dogs
And they give them education
So they don’t bite the newsboys
But the boss
For years, many years
That he is biting the worker.
How sad, the rain is heard
On the cardboard roofs.
How far away, passes hope
In the cardboard houses.
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