Friday, May 22, 2015

Top Latin America Stories, May 22, 2015

It's complicated: Romero's beatification highlights long-standing cleavages in Church and El Salvador

Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to turn out tomorrow in San Salvador to celebrate the beatification of Archbishop Oscar Romero, 35 years after he was shot in the heart saying Mass.

The presidents of Ecuador and Panama will be in attendance, along with the VPs of Costa Rica, Cuba and Belice, reports the AP.

When Romero was named Archbishop of El Salvador in 1977, he was supported by conservative factions who considered him apolitical. But the military regime which repressed popular rural movements, and persecuted liberation theology priests who worked with the poor and organized peasant movements earned his enmity.

Romero dedicated his office to serving social justice. He involved himself in labor disputes, human rights claims and gave refuge to rural populations fleeing persecution.

The entire nation tuned into his radio sermons in the late 70s writes Carlos Dada in the New Yorker. There he demanded social justice and denounced human rights crimes perpetrated by the Army. The day before his death he called on soldiers to disobey orders and stop abusing civilians, reports the Washington Post.

Romero's beatification represents a sea-change in Vatican policy towards Latin America and, specifically, in the definition of martyrdom.

Similar martyrdom beatification processes are underway for other priests killed in Latin America, such as Argentine Bishop Enrique Angelelli, killed in 1976 at the beginning of Argentina's Dirty War. 

The AP explains that while martyrdom traditionally people who were killed for refusing to renounce their faith by people who hated the person's belief in Christ. But Romero was killed in a Roman Catholic country. The papal decree that he was killed out of hatred for the faith implies a new interpretation: that that martyrs can be killed, even by church-going Catholics, out of hatred for their Gospel-inspired work in favor of the poor and disenfranchised according to Archbishop Vincenzo Paglia, the main proponent of Romero's cause.
While Pope John Paul II came from a history of resistance to communism, Pope Francis understands the parallel struggle with the Cold War's other major power, the U.S. The Washington Post's coverage notes that Romero's beatification is both a sign of Francis' Latin American sensibilities as well as a gradual healing of Cold War cleavages. The AP also emphasizes the moves potential for unification and healing.

"In terms of the church itself, (Romero's beatification) signifies something of an end to an unpleasant, controversial time when Oscar Romero and people like him on the left were vilified and downgraded and distrusted because they were seen as being too close to the real enemy, which was international communism," said the former Latin America policy adviser to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Tom Quigley in the AP.

(As an aside, Mary Anastasia O'Grady doesn't buy this touchy-feely healing perspective: in her Wall Street Journal column is this week she claims the Pope's warmth towards Cuba's Raúl Castro is the result of Francis' "Argentine sense of cultural superiority over the money-grubbing capitalists to the north and faith in the state to protect it.")

For years Romero's canonization process had been blocked by papal hierarchies and actively opposed by Salvadoran Vatican representatives. Pope Benedict XVI surprisingly pushed the case forward noteThe Guardian and the AP, while Francis made began the formal process.

Salvadoran conservative groups say that Romero is a divisive figure, and that his sainthood will be manipulated by leftist factions. On the other hand, proponents of his beatification have tried to strip his legacy of politics, saying that he acted strictly according to the Gospels. 

But Romero's legacy is intensely political, explains Dada. He was killed because he went against the military regime and the established powers that backed it. And because they knew they could get away with it. "There is an institutionalized violence expressed in a political and economic system that believes progress is only possible through the use of the majority as a productive force conducted by a privileged minority," wrote Romero a few months before his death. 

Romero's death 35 years ago was a critical moment in the beginning of a civil war that claimed over a 100,000 lives in El Salvador. The army opened fire at the more than 100,000 mourners at his funereal, killing dozens.

Battle lines between different factions in El Salvador were drawn. The AP profiles the particularly strong example of brother and sister Roberto d'Aubuisson and Maria Luisa de Martinez. He is the mastermind behind Romero's assassination, according to the U.N. Truth Commission report, while she sits on the board of the foundation that bears his name and has lobbied for his sainthood for years.

And the cleavages surrounding his assasination continue to impact El Salvador today. After peace accords were signed in 1992, the Arena party, founded by D’Aubuisson, governed until 2009, when it was replaced by the FMLN, the political party that replaced the leftist guerrilla movement of the same name.

El Salvador is wracked with poverty and gang violence, legacies of that time. The most optimistic analysis says the beatification can be a ray of light in the dark. The AP quotes a priest organizing the weekend's celebration, saying he hopes it "will be a point of hope ... Afterward, we can love and break the prejudices that may exist at an ideological and party level."

News Briefs

  • At least three dismembered bodies were found wrapped in blankets in a cemetery near Chilapas, the Guerrero state town that was occupied by an armed gang for days earlier this month. The takeover by vigilantes -- apparently part of a turf war between gangs, Los Rojos and Los Ardillos --resulted in a reported 10 disappearances, added to six from previous months, reports the AP. But the exact chain of events of the take-over and the disappearances is somewhat muddled. The latest version published in the media says the Chilapas was invaded by 200 armed men on the weekend of May 9, apparently members of a community police force who said they were "bothered and tired of the situation of violence that prevails in the region (and) decided to up arms and take the municipality, demanding a change in the municipal secretary of public safety, and state intervention," explained the Guerrero state governor. While he says there were no reported missing during the five day occupation, townspeople say there were 30 disappearances, reports Animal Político. The supposed community police say Los Rojos are responsible for 30 disappearances in the same period. Some locals say Los Ardillos were behind the takeover. The Chilapas mayor says the vigilantes numerically overwhelmed the official forces in the area, and that they indiscriminately attacked and beat up locals, in addition to the disappearances. The AP notes that the state prosecutor added to the general confusion surrounding the episode, saying that the missing 15 people are being held by the vigilantes who will have to return them. The Los Angeles Times yesterday published a version of the story, saying the takeover was by members of Los Ardillos (see yesterday's post). (TheBBC has some impressive pictures.)
  • At least 18 guerrilla fighters were killed by the Colombian army yesterday, one of the deadliest confrontations since peace talks began between the FARC and the government in 2012, reportsReuters.
  • Andres Oppenheimer says the impact of the U.S. investigation into Venezuelan officials' alleged drug trafficking activity on the Maduro administration should not be over estimated. Though the story was reported with a lot of hype internationally, the allegations are old news in Venezuela, he notes in his Miami Herald column. Though it won't topple President Nicolás Maduro, it also won't help him. In the end hyperinflation, food shortages and a "remarkably strong" political opposition will have more to do with defeating the current government, he says.
  • On that note, Venezuela's currency tumbled this week: reaching a new low of 400 bolivares to the dollar, from 300 to the dollar just last week. This is a marked acceleration in the devaluation process, it took more than two months for the black market bolivar rate to go down to 300 to the dollar from 200 in February, reports the Wall Street Journal. Experts say inflation in Venezuela could reach 120 percent this year.
  • The New York Times reports on Brazil's extremely high rate of death at police hands. At least 2,212 people were killed by the police in Brazil in 2013, according to the Brazilian Public Security Forum. This compares to 416 in the U.S., which has a larger population. Though the topic is hardly new, the piece notes that killings by the police surging in Rio as the authorities clamp down in preparation for the Olympic Games next year. Yet in Brazil proponents of harsh policing tactics are gaining strength, according to the piece.
  • As a counterpoint, decreased poverty has not reduced the Brazil's high homicide rates, reports the Los Angeles Times. The nation's death toll of more than 64,000 in 2012 (most recent data) is comparable to the number of people who have been killed annually in Syria's civil war. 
  • Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff is on extremely shaky ground, reports the Wall Street Journal. Lawmakers are debating impeaching her in relation to a $2.1 billion embezzlement scheme at Petrobras (though the investigation has not linked her personally), the currency has plunged and the economy is heading into a recession. In response Rousseff is attempting to reverse economic policies and change her personal style. But the political U turn risks leaving her isolated from her own Workers' Party.
  • Brazil's main opposition leaders plan to accuse Rousseff of crimes related to public finances, specifically accounting maneuvers that helped shore up the country´s fiscal results in recent years, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • In the midst of an ever widening corruption scandal affecting Guatemalan government officials, and with ongoing protests against the administration, President Otto Pérez Molina announced a cabinet shakeup yesterday. Interior Minister  Mauricio López, a close collaborator, resigned. The intelligence chief, the energy and environment ministers, and the deputy interior minister were also removed yesterday, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • Chilean President Michelle Bachelet ratified polemic legislative reform proposed by her administration. In her annual address to the nation she promised to take on social inequality and forge ahead with constitutional reform, reports the Wall Street Journal.
  • An outsider candidate is leading the polls for governor in Mexico's Nuevo Leon state, a sign of voter dissatisfaction with the ruling PRI party. The candidacy of former mayor Jaime Rodríguez is part of a wider trend of independent candidates running against the traditional parties, reports the Wall Street Journal.

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