Martyr Romero, Francis Ascendant

Michael Orion Deschamps (Powell) I Spirituality & Religion I Commentary I February 20th, 2015

"We are workers, not master builders, ministers, not messiahs. We are prophets of a future not our own." - Monsenor Oscar Romero

Something very important happened a few weeks ago. Pope Francis declared Oscar Romero, the archdiocese of El Salvador who was murdered by El Salvadorian fascists in 1980, to be a "martyr of the faith." He has been put in the forefront of the beatification process - the process in which a figure becomes recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church.

Romero is a bit of an icon in Latin America. For El Salvadorians, he could be compared to a Catholic Che Guevera - and has long been seen as a martyr for his faith, even if the Vatican only recently sees it that way. Murals with his face adorn Ciudad Barrios, where fireworks were set off after Francis' announcement. T-shirts are sold with his visage on them, just as there are of Che. There have been several films made about him, the most impressive being the documentary "Monsenor," which featured a full soundtrack.

Oscar Romero is a critical figure in modern Latin American history and in geopolitics, but not simply for El Salvador. Romero destroys the widely-accepted narrative about what tyranny looks like. The many conversations I have had, where people have genuinely said to me that they thought all the dictatorships that tormented Latin America for many decades were socialist in nature, are evidence of this false narrative. Romero's life and death expose this.

It was not communists or anarchists who killed Romero, an archdiocese with direct ties to the church establishment, simply for promoting views that were in argument with the fascist ideology of death that kept Latin America in service to its privileged northern neighbors - it was right-wing death squads. There's little of comparative horror in the history of Cuba or Venezuela, the boogeymen that American fascists like to paint as tyrants.

Specifically, the order to kill Romero came from Major Roberto D'Aubuisson, a man who was nicknamed "Blowtorch Bob" for his use of the tool in interrogation practices. D'Aubuisson enjoyed the support of Cold War hawks from the US as he justified his death squads as "combating the spread of Marxism in Latin America." He also has been tied to the massacring of church workers in El Salvador. He eventually died of esophageal cancer.

Contrary to misconceptions, Hugo Chavez invoked God (and infamously - the "devil") a great deal while he was alive; and it is perfectly allowed to set up a Catholic church in Cuba. Raul Castro was even very receptive to the overtures presented by Pope Francis that led to the end of the idiotic embargo policy, which lasted a shameful half-century. Progressives and radicals are wary of religion, but not out of hate; and often with good reason. They have seen it used as a tool, again and again, of social control by the same people who are quick to eliminate - with harsh means - anyone (for example, Martin Luther King, Jr.) who tries to appropriate its use as a tool of progress and justice.

A ban on Romero's beatification stood for some time until Francis' lifting it. As sad as it is to admit, the Catholic Church was once much closer to people like Romero's killers than to Romero. Fascists had a love affair with the Catholic Church and the church played a role in lifting up regimes like Augusto Pinochet's in Chile. Liberation theology, the socialist-tinged Catholic ideology that Francis is an obvious fan of, and Romero was strongly associated with, long faced hostility from the Vatican until very recently.

The Catholic Church, despite its current leadership, had a nasty reputation for a reason. This is part of why Romero's martyrdom - not only being recognized but also being pushed toward sainthood - is so incredibly important. This is a great step for Francis, and for the church, towards genuinely following the principles set forth by the original martyr of the faith, Jesus of Nazareth. But it's not enough. Before he was killed, Romero wrote a letter to Jimmy Carter, who was then the president of the United States, in which he bluntly laid the blame for the horrors of El Salvador's civil war on the White House lawn: "The contribution of your government, instead of promoting greater justice and peace in El Salvador, will without doubt sharpen the injustice and repression against the organizations of the people which repeatedly have been struggling to gain respect for their most fundamental human rights."

Francis should say exactly this when he speaks before Congress later this year. He should tell Congress, many of whom I believe may be ignorant of this history, a cold, hard truth: that the United States government has been the greatest perpetrator of inequality, death, and evil in the western hemisphere; and possibly the world. This truth didn't escape Romero; in fact, it ultimately took his life. D'Aubuisson's terrorizing of El Salvador was inspired, justified, and supported by American Cold War ideology, and the United States government is therefore not without blame for his assassination.

Francis has already said many things that will have made him enemies. He's shown himself to be one of the most impressive world leaders since Nelson Mandela; but it's one thing to talk the talk in Manila or Rome - Washington D.C. is the den of the capitalist beast. Francis is a man of such empathy and humanity that he will not be able to step foot in the ghetto that is America's capitol without weeping at the inequality and evil that is depleting the nation's soul. He will, as Hugo Chavez once did in the United Nations upon speaking after George W. Bush, and as I did when I worked for conservatives in Washington D.C., "smell the sulfur."

Saying such things will make Francis plenty of enemies. However, there is little that fascists can do when we speak truth to power. Once it has been said, it echoes to everyone who hears it. No bullet has ever killed the truth.


"Why it's such a big deal that Oscar Romero was declared a martyr by Pope Francis." Washington Post. < >

"Report of the UN Truth Commission on El Salvador." United Nations. <