Heroic martyrs spur Latin America in new direction


I find Latin America a fascinating continent, though I have never been there. But I am inspired by the stories of the suffering of countless numbers of ordinary people who resisted the authoritarian rule of US-backed right-wing regimes. Many of these regimes served to protect the economic interests of the local (largely white) wealthy elite as well as the economic agenda of US corporations.

Thousands were killed or tortured – brutally – at the hands of death squads during the Reagan years. Others simply disappeared.

Heroic peace- and justice-loving women and men rose to resist such tyranny and oppression through sheer moral force. And their blood soaked the soil of the continent. People like Oscar Romero (El Salvador), Chico Mendes (Brazil), Ita Ford (El Salvador)… It’s a long list. Today, their sacrifices have inspired a new generation to take a more independent political, economic and social path, rooted in their local indigenous cultures, towards justice and peace.

This is an excerpt from a piece I wrote for the Malaysian Herald last October…

When people wonder about the legacy of the late Archbishop Oscar Romero, who was assassinated while celebrating Mass in El Salvador in 1980, they need look no further than what is happening in Latin America today.

Romero fought for the rights of the peasants in El Salvador and was at the forefront of the Church’s struggle on behalf of the poor. This move of his angered the vested business and economic interests in the region.

Political analyst Noam Chomsky has said the United States virtually declared war on the Catholic Church in South America for taking the side of the poor. The United States would have been so much more comfortable if the Church had remained on the side of the rich and the powerful.

So many priests, activists and community leaders were tortured, murdered or simply ‘disappeared’ during the bloody 1970s and 1980s. In November 1989, six leading Jesuit intellectuals and two of their employees were murdered by a US-trained elite battalion.

Shortly before he was murdered in 1980, Romero wrote a letter to President Carter, pleading with him to end US support for state terror. Chomsky recounts how Romero informed the rector of the Jesuit University, Father Ellacuria, that he was prompted by his concern over a “new concept of special warfare, which consists in murderously eliminating every endeavour of the popular organisations under the allegation of Communism or terrorism…”

Carter never responded and instead sent more financial aid.

This tactic of smearing and targeting those who champion the interests of the people, especially the poor, continues to this day around the world.

Minutes before he was murdered, Romero had read from the Gospel of John: “Unless the grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains only a grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit ”(Jn. 12:23-26).

Romero’s funeral was the largest demonstration in the history of El Salvador if not Latin America. The government was so nervous that it lobbed bombs into the crowd attending the funeral, killing some 30 people and injuring hundreds.

Today, Romero’s grain is bearing much fruit in Latin America. An entire continent is rising to resist the might of US-sponsored corporate-led globalisation, which promotes neo-liberal economics that widens the gap between the rich and the poor while fabulously enriching a tiny minority.

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