Letter From El Salvador
On my last afternoon in the country I went to see Maria Julia Hernandez, for several decades El Salvador's guardian of human rights. She works in an office so spare the only ornamentation is a large cross flanked by a pair of photographs of the assassinated Archbishop Romero, with whom she worked a generation ago. Even when she is most critical of American policy or of cruelties in El Salvador, Hernandez smiles indulgently. She has the beatific visage of a Buddha or--on her own religious compass--of a slowly aging Latina angel. "Human rights today is a very delicate subject here," she said. "In a structural way the majority of people are threatened every day--by the gangs, of course, but also by bandits and even the national police, who are very corrupt and take bribes. They also still use torture. The problem with youth gangs is real, but the police don't try to solve it except by force. This is no good--we have to include young people in choosing their futures, not simply suppress them."
Hernandez pointed to a kind of violence worse than that caused by gangs or police, which Professor Cuellar had alluded to when he mentioned human rights in the home. "Family crimes against women and children," she said, "this is more serious than the gangs. Men with no jobs turn to domestic violence. Women are killed in horrible ways. As El Salvador's debts go up, social conditions go down. The same causes exist that were here before the civil war--social and economic inequality, the threat and reality of violence. The politicians are shouting now instead of shooting, but the conditions are the same as before. Men have so few jobs, the factories that exist exploit women terribly and the remesas are not healthy for an economy or a people."
I asked if she had any hope.
"Solidarity," Maria Julia Hernandez said, smiling more broadly even as she described a country on life support. "I always have hope that enough people will come together to work for a just society. The United States could help by understanding that other people, not only Americans, are human beings too, and by paying attention to international agreements on the environment, global warming and human rights. I admire so much in the United States--the goodness and generosity of the people, and the values and rights you believe in--but your foreign policy is terrible. We should bring our soldiers home from Iraq, and so should you. Why do you have such a terrible foreign policy?"
"Why?" I said.
"You tell me," she said, still smiling.