“Many people would like the poor to always say that it is God’s will that they are poor. It is not God’s will for some people to have everything and others to have nothing. This cannot be of God.”
- Blessed Oscar Romero, whose canonization was approved by Pope Francis last week.
It can be difficult for those of us 'north of the border' to understand why Oscar Romero, and what he represents for millions of Latin Americans, was once seen as highly controversial.
Romero’s influence and legacy is deeply rooted in the particular social, political, and historical context of his day. Just as our understanding and appreciation of Jesus grows if we examine the “historical Jesus”, learning more about the realities of 1st century Palestine and the grounding of his ministry in an Old Testament-informed worldview, a reading of Oscar Romero through the lens of the realities of his day helps us appreciate his heroic and enlightened witness to the cause of justice and equality in the midst of chaos.
Below is the first part of a simplified, streamlined look at the major influences on Oscar Romero’s El Salvador - a window into what factors formed the man, and how this soon-to-be-saint became a prophetic witness for our time.
In the aftermath of conquest by the Spanish, El Salvador - Romero’s homeland, the smallest and most densely populated country in Central America - underwent a time of extreme economic and political instability. Just as in Canada we see modern social problems plague Indigenous communities stemming from the living legacy of colonialism, the Spanish exploitation of countries like El Salvador created massive inequality between a few wealthy elites and the vast majority of Salvadorans.
In this densely populated country - ten times that of neighbouring Nicaragua - land equalled power, and landholders became the “ruling” elite once El Salvador gained independence from Spain. Just two percent of the population controlled 60% of fertile land, amassing wealth by exporting a bounty of produce, sugar cane, cotton, and indigo - especially indigo. By the mid-eighteen century, the so-called “fourteen families” held a monopoly on trade and began switching production from indigo to coffee on a mass scale. The story of modern El Salvador begins here - with the humble cup of coffee, and the trail of violence and horror left in its wake.
Coffee production is a fickle thing. Extremely labour intensive, it also requires land at high altitudes, thriving in mineral-rich, volcanic soil - the same land that peasants, or “campesinos” (from the Latin campus, meaning 'field'), tended in order to eke out a living. These two factors - the need for cheap labour and an unquenchable thirst for land - gave way to elites repealing the right to the commons (i.e. land became a private privilege, not a public right), leaving millions of peasants landless and destitute. The lucky few who still maintained a meagre plot could no longer feed their families year-round from its harvest; those without any land at all had to squat or wander, completely reliant on piecemeal wages or room and board from coffee plantation labour, neither ever guaranteed due to the vast surplus of workers and a harvest schedule that varied with the seasons.
So radical a change in such a short time led to a succession of peasant revolts, and by the early 20th century a government-backed military police, the National Guard, was in full force throughout the country to squelch any further rebellion and protect the interests of landowners. By the time of Oscar Romero’s rise to prominence in the 1970s and ‘80s, these factors led inequality and poverty in El Salvador to reach breathtakingly dire levels:
• 8% of the country’s population controlled 50% of its wealth
• 58% made just $10 or less per month
• 70% of Salvadoran children under 5 years of age were malnourished
• 45% of people had no access to drinking water on a regular basis.
Given the lack of investment in social structures that might have stabilized the country or mitigated inequality, it seems no wonder that one of the strongest, organized institutions in the country, the El Salvadoran military - with its roots, remember, in protecting only the rich - led a succession of military coups and brutal repression of any rural, campesino-led resistance. El Salvador continued on this path of polarization based on rich versus poor, landed and landless, with the formation of two opposing camps. Broadly, these two groups were made up of the dominant, land-holding class and their military allies (who seized power by force in the 1930s) on one side, versus the “left-wing”, campesino-sympathizing resistance, often referred to as guerrilla fighters, on the other.
In this ‘powder keg’ of a climate, it’s easy to understand how Marxist philosophy, predicated on an economic paradigm of repression, class warfare and the need for common ownership, was ripe for adoption by both many of the disenfranchised and dislocated peasantry, and eager social activists. And given the lack of social change benefitting campesinos, hindsight means it's seemingly self-evident that unrest would continue to foment right up until the 1960’s and ‘70s, culminating in an all-out civil war from 1979-82.
In Part 2, I’ll pick up the story with a discussion of the Catholic Church’s history in El Salvador, the conflicting pressures on the Church to be either a moral mediator or political agitator, what liberation theology is (and what it isn’t), where Oscar Romero’s witness fits amidst all this turmoil, and how his example proves to be a highly relevant and prophetic witness, especially in our present age.