The Legacy of Four Women

The Legacy of Four Women

On the twenty-fifth anniversary of the murders of four American churchwomen in El Salvador, George McGovern and Representative Jim McGovern journey to El Salvador to assess what has changed and how the legacy of the churchwomen affect human rights worldwide.


San Salvador, El Salvador

On December 2, 1980, four American churchwomen–Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan–who were engaged in a mission of mercy in war-torn El Salvador were pulled from their van, raped and murdered by troops of the Salvadoran National Guard.

We were invited by the Washington Office on Latin America and the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities to participate in a weeklong series of events in El Salvador marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of the slaying of the women. We decided to make the trip not to recall the horrific tragedy or to decry the misguided US foreign policy toward Latin America back in the 1980s. Instead, we made the visit to celebrate the lives of these remarkable women and to be inspired by their selfless example.

Our visit also included special memorials to other victims of the brutality that was meted out to those perceived by government and security forces as objectionable critics. In 1980 the much admired Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated while presiding over mass in a small chapel near a cancer hospital in San Salvador. He had repeatedly deplored the repressive tactics and the neglect of the poor and vulnerable by the ruling authorities. Today, Archbishop Romero is regarded by multitudes of Salvadorans as both saint and savior–a treasured national hero of courage and compassion.

We both have followed events in El Salvador for many years. One of us worked on refugee and human rights issues in that country for more than two decades. The other became painfully aware of the violent nature of the conflict when a letter of invitation to speak at the University of Central America (UCA) in San Salvador from the distinguished rector of the university arrived in the mail. On the day the letter came–November 16, 1989–the rector, five other Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her teenage daughter were all murdered on the grounds of the university.

This series of shocking assassinations, the work of Salvadoran officials who were determined to eliminate their more influential critics, still reverberate across the political, military and religious circles of El Salvador.

The open conflict that killed more than 70,000 Salvadoran civilians between 1980 and 1992 has subsided, but the wounds and memories of war and the unresolved clash of interests–especially the painful gap between the rich and poor–remain.

At the same time, we did see several positive developments and signs of hope. Since the signing of the 1992 Peace Accords, the military has largely retreated to its barracks, civilian national police now guard the streets (albeit underpaid and underdeveloped) and civil society is flourishing. In the heart of the capital is a marvelous children’s museum, built almost entirely with private contributions, that is one of the finest such museums we have ever seen. It offers an array of educational, cultural, scientific and recreational experiences that will surely arouse and expand the intellectual curiosity, the imaginations and the quest for pleasure and learning among the children. What makes this museum so special is that those involved in the project are dedicated to making sure that every child–rich and poor–has access to its treasures.

Another gem on the plus side is the impassioned work of Dave Evans, a US veteran who lost both of his legs in the Vietnam War. The beneficiary of artificial legs supplied by our government, Dave and a dedicated group of Salvadorans work in a clinic in downtown San Salvador to provide prosthetic devices to soldiers and civilians who lost limbs in the war. Their services go to needy people–regardless of their current politics or which side they fought on during the civil war. And if a child comes in who has lost a leg or an arm in picking up an unexploded shell or a landmine–or because of cancer or some other affliction–Evans and his staff fit the child with a prosthetic limb. All of these services are provided within the limitations of a tightly administered, underfunded budget. They’re short on money and are currently getting no direct help from either the Salvadoran or US governments.

On a broad scale, what we were privileged to witness in El Salvador was a dramatic demonstration of alternative sources of power that in the long run may prove to be stronger than military or material power. Call it spiritual or moral power, or compassion and courage, or faith, or love–but do not overlook it if you wish to see a brighter, more hopeful future for Central America.

We are thinking of the four American churchwomen who lost their lives in service of the poor. A quarter of a century later the light of these brave women shines as an inspiration to the multitudes across El Salvador. Who remembers except with a shudder the heavily armed soldiers who brutalized these women? But these four dedicated churchwomen are remembered as the Joan of Arcs of our time. Their power came from faith, service and community–and their legacy has been movingly enriched during the past 25 years in works and projects dedicated to their memory by their families, the Orders of the Maryknoll Sisters and Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, the Ursuline Sisters, and the Salvadoran and US faith communities.

One of us is a Catholic, the other the son of a Wesleyan Methodist clergyman. We both were inspired as we observed the lasting power of old-fashioned love and devotion to what is decent and just in human affairs as exemplified by the Maryknoll and Ursuline Sisters, the Jesuit priests and other communicants. We have no doubt that the martyred Archbishop Romero stands higher in the hearts of his countrymen than the governing and military authorities that killed him while he prayed in a chapel. So it also goes with the six priests gunned down while in the service of their university.

Regrettably, it has become fashionable under the Bush reign to ignore the poor both at home and abroad. Mr. Bush perceives America’s greatness and strength to be our military might–our ability to invade and obliterate other nations. He has turned the United States into a country that is more feared than respected around the globe. When our president travels here and abroad he appears with the rich and powerful and ignores the poor and oppressed. Perhaps one reason for why we have failed to effectively confront terrorism is because current US policies–of disdain for the poor and a trashing of our commitment to human rights–actually fuel the rage, humiliation and hopelessness that breed terrorists.

Our great nation was born out of revolution–dedicated to human rights and dignity for all. The United States should rightfully be a champion for the poor. We should be the leaders to end hunger, illiteracy and poverty. It should be us–not Castro or Chavez–to whom the downtrodden in the world look for help and inspiration.

For all the talk in Washington about “faith” and “values,” it is important to remember that religion is not about talk, it’s about action. The churchwomen were killed not for what they said–but for what they did. It is the height of hypocrisy for the President to talk about moral values when his Administration violates them on a daily basis.

To be sure, El Salvador faces many serious challenges. The country urgently needs clear-eyed, public-spirited political leadership capable of facing the realities of today and offering intelligent proposals to address the country’s longstanding economic and social inequities.

For example, El Salvador needs public and private investment designed to provide good jobs and lift the poor out of their poverty, especially for the majority who live out in the long-neglected rural countryside. A more just tax system needs to replace the current dominant tax, a regressive sales tax. The country should develop a graduated income tax without the loopholes that enable wealthy people to evade their fair share of the tax responsibility.

In addition, the network of quasi-criminal youth gangs that have sprung up in El Salvador represents a serious problem–both for themselves and for their citizenry. We believe that more must be done by El Salvador, with the help of the United States and other countries, to provide job, recreational and counseling assistance for these restless young men. In visiting with some of the onetime gang members, they all mentioned the need for a sense of belonging, and meaningful job opportunities are high on their most-wanted list.

And finally, on the issue of immigration, El Salvador’s current population is 6.5 million; another 2 million have migrated, the vast majority of them to the United States. It is not simple to devise a working answer to this migrant challenge. We know, however, that migration–legal or otherwise–is fed by the streams of unemployed and the conditions of poverty. The answer is not to build a wall around the United States to keep immigrants out.

Ireland has historically sent its jobless and hopeless citizens to the US while warring against each other at home. But today the Irish economy is flourishing and both migration abroad and conflict at home have subsided. This suggests a hopeful model for El Salvador. What is needed is a carefully planned investment program, funded by the governments of El Salvador, the United States and other countries targeted to lift the standard of life for the poor. Our current development aid program for El Salvador is worthy of support, but it is severely underfunded and needs to be substantially increased. And while trade is one aspect of this investment, it cannot be the only factor unless we want to continue the status quo.

We have always believed that we belong to the greatest country on earth. As American patriots looking back on our recent involvement in our small neighbor to the south, we as a nation are sometimes more generous in supplying the weapons of war than the tools of peace. El Salvador–like so many countries–has had too many guns stamped “Made in the USA” and not enough of the wealth contained in our Bill of Rights, the Sermon on the Mount and the wisdom of the Hebrew prophets.

One final note. US policy toward El Salvador during the 1980s represented a sad chapter in our history. When high-ranking Bush Administration officials talk about adopting the “Salvador Model” for Iraq, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld suggested recently, it represents either a complete ignorance of that history or an embrace of a policy that tolerated murder and impunity. A better approach is the one championed by the four American churchwomen and one that is faithful to our founding ideals.

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