2014 Stanford Delegation

2014 Stanford Delegation
Stanford Delegation in the UCA Chapel

Sunday, March 21, 2010

3/21: Reflections from 2010: Cabanas and Pacific Rim

Despite all the hope that Funes' new administration and the international solidarity movement (ever so present in the country this week for celebrations of Romero) bring, it all seems to crumble in the face of an overwhelmingly complex set of problems that seem to have no reasonable solutions in sight. Mining is one of those problems. Corruption is another. Drug trafficking yet another. And all three, as we saw today in Cabanas, are intricately related.

Pacific Rim, a Canadian mining company, appears to be one of the most aggressive mining companies pursuing exploitation rights in developing countries. According to established CAFTA (Central American Free Trade Agreement) doctrine, Pacific Rim sent surveyors into El Salvador to investigate the prospect of mining for precious metals in the country. To the great (dis?)advantage of El Salvador, they found millions of dollars worth of gold in the mountains of the Cabanas region, near Honduras. Pacific Rim filed the appropriate paperwork to acquire exploitation rights, waited the determined time period, and when such rights had not been granted, sought international legal action through CAFTA. The trial is currently under review by a tribunal in Washington DC.

Meanwhile, in Cabanas, people have begun to actively advocate for a law demanding an end to all mining in the Cabanas region. These activists--as we saw in the day of protests and action in La ciudad Victoria on behalf of the anti-mining faction in the region--draw much of their strength from the life and work of Oscar Romero. And sadly, many of them face the threat of following in his footsteps.

Four anti-mining (and two pro-mining) activists have already been killed in the conflict, and many more have received serious threats and assassination attempts. Marcelo Rivera, the first to be murdered, was found severely tortured and strangled 14 days after he was disappeared. However, the attorney general and his appointed investigator on the case covered up the murder, claiming the autopsy demonstrated Rivera had been killed by hammer blows to the head. Today at the rally, we heard Miguel Rivera, the brother of Marcelo speak about the loss of his brother and the need to continue the fight. He stated unabashedly that everyone must know that they are targets of violence and hatred--and that anyone may be next. The reality of those words weighed heavily on us all.

Padre Luiz Quitanillo, who led the ecumenical service this afternoon, has also been threatened, followed, and ambushed on numerous occasions by opponents to his call for justice and an end to mining in these rural communities. Part-way through his sermon he broke into tears, stating, "Please forgive me but I am scared. You know, men can cry too." This statement, bold and honest while simultaneously countering the prevailing culture of machismo in the country, hit home. Like Romero, Quitanillo probably understands well that his time may come soon. Yet he has no choice but to continue his fight for his people and for their livelihoods.

These activists, along with the free press radio station Radio Victoria, have been receiving increasingly dangerous threats beginning in 2006 but intensifying heavily since last summer. While many theories exist, there is still not a clear understanding where these threats are coming from. There are essentially three major pro-mining factors at work here, and at times they overlap entirely. Determining who is at fault and who is simply a front man is challenging. Yet the three groups preside over the situation of fear and condemnation of anti-mining activism in the region.

The first group are the right wing mayors of many cities in the department. These mayors, supported by ARENA (the right-wing political party in the country) have people in high places supporting them. The money ARENA has accumulated from privatizing industries and siphoning off money through widespread corruption has helped maintain these politicians in power. The second group, of course, is Pacific Rim and their supporters. While they have only a small official presence in the region, it is impossible to rule out the possibility that they have hired thugs to do their dirty work for them. Finally, the third group are the drug traffickers. While the traffickers have no direct stance in the mining industry, they do have an interest in ensuring that the region is accessible for their regular border-crossings.

While politics are changing and Pacific Rim is currently being managed through legal action, the drug trade is essentially untouchable. No one dares speak out against it, for fear of immediate retribution--and death. With a problem so intractable so fundamentally tied into the mining issues in Cabanas, it is hard to imagine a solution any time soon. However, seeing the powerful grassroots support, the unprecedented and historic international solidarity, and the commitment of people in the face of danger to stand up for their rights, one has to hope, if only briefly, that justice will be had in the region.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

3/20: Reflection from 2010: National Solidarity March

When we first arrived at Salvador del Mundo for the national solidarity march honoring murdered Jesuit priest Oscar Romero the sun was blistering. The crowd was surprisingly small, until we encountered pockets of people hidden away in the small triangles of shade created by the stage, speakers, and banners, seeking a respite from the hot, still afternoon air. The emcees at the event constantly called out to the crowds, trying to rile them up, calling for "Aplauso, aplauso, mas fuerte!" but the crowd resisted, lethargic and seemingly uninspired. As the afternoon progressed, more and more groups arrived, filling in the empty spaces. Every so often an emcee would take the mike to welcome another new solidarity group who had come from some far corner of the world to share in the celebration and commemoration of Oscar Romero. There were groups from many departamentos (regions) of El Salvador, as well as Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, the US, Canada, South America, Cuba, and even Italy and Germany. In fact, the overwhelming number of foreigners was concerning, if not off-putting. In a solidarity movement such as this one, what does it mean to see (perhaps?) more foreigners than nationals celebrating? My impression is that the most likely constraint for nationals was money and time--there were likely many Salvadoran citizens who would have desired to participate in this powerful event, but did not have the luxury to travel long distances by bus, or pay bus and hotel fees. The foreigners, however, had no problems forking out for long airplane flights and extended hotel stays. While I found this imbalance to be largely concerning, I tried not to be consumed by it while I focused on the event itself.

Throughout the afternoon we listened to a series of musical groups, performing well known and revered songs praising the life and work of Monsenor Oscar Romero. Just as the sun began to set, the entire group--hundreds of people--proceeded down Alameda Roosevelt, chanting and cheering in solidarity of the struggle for liberty and freedom from poverty and oppression. The procession passed by landmarks both grand and ordinary--Optica la joya, an eyeglass store, and Parques Bolivar, celebrating the great revolutionary Simon Bolivar, and Parque Cuscutlan, home to a memorial naming over 25,000 victims of the Salvadoran Civil War. The march ended at the national cathedral, where the entire crowd was led in a mass and vigil. All along the way,calls of "El pueblo, unido, jamas sera vencido! The people, united, can never be divided." and "Romero vive! La lucha sigue! Romero lives. The fight continues." populated the dusk, as people from all countries joined together in the call and response. These calls, and the energy they invigorated, were initiated almost entirely by young people. It was amazing to see the excitement the youth brought to this process--it reminded me of organizing for Obama during the primaries and leading up to his election. If they feel anything like the hope that we all felt in that electoral climate, that bodes very well for the future of democracy and poverty alleviation in El Salvador.

Perhaps the most powerful moment in the march occurred before the march had even begun. Recently elected President Mauricio Funes appeared--unannounced--to speak to the crowds about the legacy of Romero and the importance of continuing his work. Coming from a country who's administration had been involved in the murder of Romero and many other Jesuit priests during the civil war less than 20 years ago, this was a powerful statement about the new direction for the country under this new leadership. This marks the first time the Salvadoran head of state has formally recognized or spoken at an event commemorating the death of Oscar Romero. Funes spoke of bringing young people together around the movement for justice, and specifically of a project he initiated to create a national soundtrack for the movement, incorporating traditional musical styles but also hip-hop, heavy metal, and other "music of youth". He also unveiled a new mural to be painted at the airport, welcoming everyone--both foreigners and returning Salvadorans, some driven out by the war itself--to a country that publicly honors Romero's struggle for the poor and is committed to continuing that struggle. Funes' message was loud and engaging, and the crowd perked up to hear him speak. Despite the heat, the excitement in the air was palpable. While many listeners probably understood very little (there were just as many foreigners, if not more, than Salvadoran nationals), Funes' messages did not fall on deaf ears. It stands to be seen how much he will actually change, but this march, and his words, definitely give reason to be hopeful.