What would Oscar Romero say to Barack Obama?

by Scott Wright

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The following commentary was taken from the Pax Christi USA Web site.

Today, March 24, we commemorate the anniversary of the martyrdom of Archbishop Oscar Romero. On Tuesday, President Barack Obama visited Romero’s tomb in the cathedral of San Salvador, to conclude his first visit to Latin America and El Salvador.

It is an occasion that lends itself to reflection -- and action -- as Christians, human rights organizations, and people committed to peace and justice -- and to remember the legacy of Romero, the prophet-martyr of Latin America.

It is, as well, a moment to imagine what the archbishop might say to the president on this occasion.

We recall Romero’s words to President Carter, in 1980, pleading with him not to send U.S. military and economic support to the Salvadoran government:

"Instead of favoring greater justice and peace, your government’s contribution will undoubtedly sharpen the injustice and the repression inflicted on the organized people, whose struggle has often been for respect of their most basic human rights."

If Romero were alive today, we are confident he would express the same concern to end U.S. military and economic support to governments that violate human rights and enable transnational corporations throughout the continent of Latin America to privatize the land, natural resources, water, and social services for profit to the detriment of its peoples.

Between 1980 and 1992, the United States sent more than $6 billion to the government of El Salvador, most of which was spent on direct military aid or economic support funds to bolster the war economy.

More than 75,000 people were killed during the war, the great majority attributed to actions by the military. Four U.S. churchwomen, six Jesuit priests, and Archbishop Romero were killed by soldiers and officers trained by the U.S. School of the Americas, now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, in Ft. Benning, Georgia.

Because of this past history, and the deaths of so many innocent victims, Obama's visit to Romero's tomb merits at the very least a public apology from him for our government's role in these deaths. It is not totally inconceivable for a president to do so. We recall former President Clinton’s official apology to the people of Guatemala following the revelation of U.S. support for what the UN later characterized as the genocide of 200,000 indigenous people by the military of that country.

But the important thing is not only to set the record straight about the past. We ought to be even more concerned about the role that the United States is playing in Latin America since Obama was elected president two years ago.

These concerns include:

  • U.S. support for a military that carried out a coup in Honduras and for the current government that continues to repress organized sectors of civil society;
  • The renewal of U.S. efforts to secure Free Trade Agreements with the governments of Colombia and Chile, given the continuing repression of Afro-Colombian, indigenous, and rural communities in Colombia, and the continuing repression against Mapuche indigenous people in Chile;
  • The continuing efforts of the United States to isolate the peoples of Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua and to intervene in their affairs;
  • And the continuing presence of U.S. military bases on the continent of Latin America, including U.S. support for ILEA, the international police academy, in El Salvador

"Instead of favoring greater justice and peace," Romero might say again, "your government’s contribution will undoubtedly sharpen the injustice and the repression inflicted on the organized people, whose struggle has often been for respect of their most basic human rights."

Of equal concern is the failure of the Obama administration and the U.S. Congress to promote more vigorously and to pass comprehensive immigration reform in the United States. Instead, Obama has aggressively promoted the militarization of the U.S.-Mexico border, ordering raids on the homes and work-places of undocumented immigrants in communities throughout the United States, and has brought untold suffering to immigrant families by deporting more than 400,000 immigrants in 2010 -- more than under the previous Bush administration.

These are the concerns that we can imagine Archbishop Romero might have for Latin America. But just as other church leaders, Nobel Laureates, and Christian base communities in El Salvador and Latin America have expressed their concern about the United States role in a post 9/11 world, we can imagine Romero would have done the same.

As Christians in the United States, we too want to express our grave concerns regarding the U.S. War on Terrorism and the continuing military actions by the United States in three Muslim nations -- in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and most recently, in Libya.

As a Nobel Laureate, President Obama has been given a sacred trust to end violence, not to promote it. We echo the prophetic cry and denunciation of Pope John Paul II, no stranger to war himself, who said very clearly following the 1991 US intervention in Iraq:

"No, never again, war, which destroys the lives of innocent people, teaches how to kill, throws into upheaval even the lives of those who do the killing and leaves behind a trail of resentment and hatred, thus making it all the more difficult to find a just solution to the very problems which provoked the war."

We urge President Obama -- just as Archbishop Romero urged President Carter -- "If you truly want to defend human rights," and we would add, to change direction and to promote peace, it is imperative to end U.S. military actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya and to seek alternative means rather than violence and war to defend human rights and to promote peace and justice.

Archbishop Romero was, above all, a passionate defender of life.

"Nothing is as important to the Church," he said, "as human life, especially the lives of the poor and oppressed. Jesus said that whatever is done to the poor is done to Him. This bloodshed, these deaths, are beyond all politics. They touch the very heart of God."

We recall, in this context, the victims of current U.S. wars: the more than one million Iraqis who have died since the invasion of Iraq in 1991, ten years of sanctions, and a second invasion in 2003; the tens of thousands who have died in Afghanistan, including those seven boys gathering firewood last week, victims of still another unmanned drone attack; the victims of the bombings going on today in Libya; and the thousands of U.S. men and women in the military and their families who have been sent to war and who bear a disproportionate burden among U.S. families of suffering and death caused by those same wars.

We must be committed to bind up and heal the wounds of war of all the victims, and there is no other way to do that than to end our addiction as a nation to war.

Fifty years ago, President Dwight D. Eisenhower expressed concerns about a rising "military-industrial complex," which he described as "a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions," with the potential to acquire "unwarranted influence" in the halls of government.

Archbishop Romero, too, was a severe critic of the ideology of national security -- the very same ideology that justifies the "military-industrial complex" and a "permanent armaments industry of vast proportions" here in the United States -- as "incompatible with the Christian vision of the human being...and to its vision of the State as the administrator of the common good."

In that light, we call on the United States to assume a leadership role in the defense and promotion of fundamental human rights and to:

  • Close the military prisons in Guantanamo and Bagram;
  • End the practice of torture, extraordinary rendition, and indefinite detention;
  • Fulfill the treaty obligations of the UN Convention against Torture to investigate, prosecute and punish those officials guilty of torture in the previous administration;
  • Ratify the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention against Torture, and the UN Convention for the Protection of All Persons against Enforced Disappearances;
  • Promote the entry of the United States into the International Criminal Court;
  • End U.S. military aid and training to countries that torture, and to value human rights as an integral dimension of global human security.

We recall the words of Archbishop Romero, which he proclaimed in the very cathedral where President Obama stood, one day before he was assassinated at the altar.

His words, addressed to the military of his country, still speak to us today -- and to President Obama, as the leader of the most powerful nation in the world:

"Brothers, you belong to our own people. You kill your own brother peasants; and in the face of an order to kill that is given by a man, the law of God should prevail that says: ‘Do not kill!’ No solider is obliged to obey an order counter to the law of God. No one has to comply with an immoral law. It is time now that you recover your conscience and obey its dictates rather than the command of sin.

"The Church, the defender of the rights of God, of the law of God, of the dignity of the human person, cannot remain silent before so much abomination. We want the government seriously to consider that reforms mean nothing when they come bathed in so much blood. Therefore, in the name of God, and in the name of this long-suffering people, whose laments rise to heaven every day more tumultuous, I beseech you, I beg you, I command you in the name of God: ‘Stop the repression!’"

[Scott Wright is the author of Oscar Romero and the Communion of Saints and co-author of Oscar Romero in the Modern Spiritual Masters series from Orbis.]


SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador -- President Obama and his family spent a packed overnight March 22-23 here and took the place by storm. Reactions in this polarized society couldn't help but be mixed, but many were positive.

Obama surprised and pleased most people by his historic visit to the tomb of Archbishop Romero, the 31st anniversary of whose martyrdom we celebrate today.

Obama arrived under two clouds.

His administration had been decisively instrumental in allowing an illegal coup to stand in Honduras a year-and-a-half ago and for the elections organized by the coup-masters to go unchallenged. And, of course, he arrived as U.S. cruise missiles were raining down on one more Arab country. While Salvadorans know tyranny of the Gaddafi stripe, they are also very sensitive to war.

Many probably sensed that Obama, like Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, has mounted a horse he cannot fully control. He said as much when asked about helping "legalize" undocumented Salvadoran immigrants in the United States: The U.S. Congress is tying his hands. (Few drew attention to the 50-odd immigrants that the U.S. has been deporting by air to El Salvador each day for the last three years.)

The most dramatic moment of Obama’s stay was his visit to Romero’s tomb in the cathedal crypt. He listened to the current archbishop, José Luis Escobar, in silence, then closed his eyes, ostensibly in prayer. Before leaving the cathedral, the protestant president lit a candle at the rack near Romero’s tomb.

The press, dominated by the right, spilled barrels of ink about Romero, about his life and ministry. (The main media had air-brushed Romero from Salvadoran history until 1999 when the Anglican Church mounted his statue, along with seven other martyrs, on the façade of Westminster Abbey.)

Now there was the scramble to insist that the memory of this great spiritual leader be "de-politicized." One columnist felt the need to point out how he had denounced the Jesuits in 1973 (four years before becoming archbishop) for spreading "red" literature. Nowhere, among all the bloviation, was it breathed who had actually killed Romero: the founder of the main right-wing party which governed from 1989 to 2009.

Obama’s visit says something about Romero, increasingly a man for all seasons and for all peoples. Jesus said, "If I am lifted up, I will draw all to myself." In Romero we see what that means.

His courageous defense of the poor, in the name of the gospel and unto death, is drawing everyone to him. The beauty of his life, his preaching and his self-gift, seduces. This is the way forward for all of us, especially, of course, for the Church.

Obama’s visit also says something about the president. Surely, it burnishes his image, but give him credit. Even as he exercises U.S. power, with its militarism and imperial sway, he detours to acknowledge a champion of the poor and a martyr for the truth.

I imagine the president saying to himself, "Even if I’m not quite there, I want to acknowledge this greatness." Last year, recalling Romero, the U.N. General Assembly declared the anniversary of his death, March 24, the International Day of the Right to the Truth, especially for victims of human rights abuses.

The Obama Administration recognizes that it can collaborate with the Funes Administration, unlike more corrupt counterparts in neighboring countries, in the fight against narco-trafficking and the street crime and endemic poverty killing thousands and fueling massive emigration.

There is a convergence of interests between the U.S. government, on one hand, and, on the other, the FMLN, the party of the former guerrillas who brought Funes to power in an alliance with business groups fed up with the corruption of right-wing parties with personnel on the take with the cartels.

On this visit Obama announced funding of $200 million for combating crime in the region. Guns and crime control open government spigots. But in June there will be more credit ready to flow for local development.

This will go mostly to the usual subjects for the usual kinds of projects, that is, to the construction companies (of course, through the banks) for expanding the airport, for a port, for highway and other infrastructure development.

Apparently a smaller component will go to re-activating agriculture and to medium and small enterprises. It’s not how you and I would do it, but that is how politics works, both here and there.

This credit will steeply increase the already inflated Salvadoran national debt, making us still more dependent on the U.S. Whatever the intention, this Obama-hug will hold us close.

If a future FMLN government wishes to turn south and ally more closely with the social-democratic left in South America, if it wishes to trade broadly with China, it will have to think twice. Re-negotiating these big debts will come with thick strings attached.

Rumors are even floating that the government of Afghanistan may invite El Salvador to send troops there. San Romero, pray for us.

I confess: I was hoping, unrealistically, that before Romero’s tomb Obama would silently ask pardon for all that U.S. governments have done this past century to sustain privileged oligarchies and their militaries in Central America.

Shortly before his death, Archbishop Romero wrote to President Jimmy Carter begging him in no uncertain terms not to send military aid to the Salvadoran government that was murdering hundreds of civilians each month.

I am left wondering, What kind of letter would Romero write to President Obama today?

[Jesuit Fr. Dean Brackley has been at the University of Central America in San Salvador since 1990, when he volunteered with others to help replace members of the faculty killed during the Salvadoran civil war.]

For more coverage of Obama's trip to Romero's grave, see:

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