Saint Romero of El Salvador, but for who?

Monseñor Romero

The views expressed in this blog post are mine alone. They do not represent the views of any entities I am affiliated with in the past, present, or future.

Earlier this month, the Catholic Church announced it would elevate Monsenor Romero into Sainthood. Believers and non-believers can agree that the man is an important figure in Latin American politics, religion, and daily life.

He was a disciple of Christ, surely. But was he a Robin Hood, too? Or maybe a communist supporter? Perception depends on who you ask, but what is for sure is that he was a prominent enough figure in the Cold War to be turned into a Warner Bros. movie.

That’s not being tongue-in-cheek. When discussing Latin America, Central American countries are often overlooked in favour of their larger, South American relatives, like Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Colombia, etc. (anyone who wrote a thesis on Central American telecom policy development will know this.)

(Okay, that one was tongue-in-cheek).

Romero is often referred to as a Patron Saint of Latin America. For him to make his way into water cooler chats in North America, and also inspire U2 to write music about the country (as I’ve previously written), is an accomplishment.

Who was Monsenor Romero

For those who are unfamiliar, here’s a very brief/quick summary of who this man was (there’s a lot more to his story. I encourage you to check it out):

Romero was the Archbishop of San Salvador and was a respected figure within his flock.

What separated Romero from other priests was his willingness to publically speak out against injustices in a time when Latin America was rife with military dictatorships. Economic divides had permeated through the social cracks that had spread through the country (and even now, after the fall of many dictatorships, continues to exist). Unfortunately, as in the case of many Human Rights defenders, this made him a target by those who didn’t like what he had to say.

In 1980, just one day after calling on soldiers to turn the other cheek and disobey orders (which implicated human rights violations), Romero was shot dead while celebrating mass. It’s unclear who shot him, but a UN truth commission found that his death was orders by the country’s prominent right-wing death squad leader, Roberto D’Aubuisson. El Faro, a Salvadoran online investigative journalist website, dug into the story in the late 2000s and claims they spoke with a person implicated in the plot. That person implicated d’Aubuisson.

His assassination was a catalyst in driving the war. Guerilla groups quickly identified with him as a martyr. The war lasted fourteen years, and since then, Romero has been elevated to “hero” status by many Salvadorans, including those in the political realm.

Saint Romero, but for who?

Romero embodied humility. While I support the recognition he has garnered, the name that has taken the place of the hero troubles me.

National heroes emerge based on who people identify with. Canada has its own list of national heroes: Terry Fox, Margaret Atwood, Gord Downie. The list is as long as the 401.

Romero’s name, though, has been mixed with politics to the point where his message has been diluted as if it were used in a game of “telephone.” The game has been played by the Left (FMLN, former guerilla group) and, ironically, the Right (ARENA).

For instance, ARENA mayoral candidates promised in 2016 that, if they had won their municipal elections, they would build monument honouring Romero and name prominent streets after him. The rationale is that it would be appropriate to honour the significant contributions of a man of Salvadoran heritage (the argument might have merit – after all, Kingston has their “Tragically Hip Way”). But does that justify not investing resources in complex issues, such as investing in social programs? The FMLN, on the other hand, continues to build on Romero’s legacy to fit within their political brand of the former good guy guerillas who want to make El Salvador prosperous and just.

In reality, since the end of the country’s civil war, both parties have 1) shown ineptitude and have not accomplished their goals, 2) have been caught up in corruption scandals, and 3) have failed to respect basic human rights. Even the most hard-core left-wing FMLN supporters would have to admit that since it came into power 10 years ago, the party have come up far short in growing the country.

So in spite of what’s going on in El Salvador, it’s important to not forget that a man died at the altar, shot through the heart, fighting for real, important causes: Human Rights. The ability to live free of oppression. Anti-corruption. The willingness to love his brothers and sisters.

Simply put, Romero has been elevated to hero status. The status is well-deserved and should be respected. But for us to truly embrace the messages he died promoting, we should bring his status back to earth.


Remember Your Fellow Activist

In November 1988, my parents left El Salvador and came to Canada, uncertain of what would become of their future. That didn’t matter: sure, Canada’s winter was tough, but the war in El Salvador was tougher.

They came searching for peace. They found it, and as a result, were able to start a family and have their kids graduate from college and university (yours truly went on to finish his graduate degree).

The cruelties of war were ones my parents and their generation experienced firsthand; ones which I have been fortunate enough to miss out. Even as someone who reads and writes about Latin American issues, I find it hard to imagine or understand them. Here in Canada, we’re fortunate to live in a country that has never gone through a civil war.

As you read this, thousands of kilometers away, real people—activists—are on the ground in Latin America doing real work in hopes of making their countries better: in El Salvador trying to keep kids out of gangs, in Venezuela fighting to restore democratic rights, or in Colombia trying to restore peace after half a century of fighting between the government and FARC. The list is endless.

And unfortunately, it’s a struggle. Activists often put their lives in danger. Living under the constant danger of death threats is part of the job. They’re aware of the risks. They accept them for the love of humanity.

So, to the children of my parents’ generation: we haven’t lived through violent struggles, but let’s not forget that these struggles exist. I’m lucky enough to share my thoughts behind the safety of a computer screen.

Others aren’t afforded that luxury.

The views expressed in this blog post are mine alone. They do not represent the views of any entities I am affiliated with in the past, present, or future.

Mexico Has Learned From Previous Tragedies

Image result for mexico earthquake

As seen in the October 2017 edition of Eco Latino (Ottawa)

Mother Nature hasn’t been good to the Caribbean and Mexico these last few weeks. Hurricanes in the former and earthquakes in the latter have created worry.

The clean-ups will be long and costly. However, in these hard times, I find relief in Mexico.

To be clear: the Mexican earthquakes have been tragic. Anywhere where an earthquake destroys buildings and kills hundreds is a place that deserves a spot in any news cycle.

But at these times, it’s important to pause and see Mexico for the country it is. Mexico is better equipped to deal with these tragedies than other Latin American or Caribbean countries—by international measures, Mexico is better developed (Mexico is one of two Latin American countries in the OECD. The other is Chile.) and has made moves in recent decades which may have saved thousands of lives leading up to the 2017 earthquakes.

Earthquakes aren’t new to Mexico. For instance, the 8.0 Richter scale earthquake that shook Mexico City in 1985 killed thousands of Mexicans (estimates range from 5,000 to 45,000) and resulted in the collapse of over 400 buildings.

After that quake, new codes were implemented to strengthen buildings: buildings are now required to have reinforced concrete as well as better load distribution. One Mexican engineer told the Agence France-Press that these regulations likely saved thousands of lives during the most recent quake.

He may have a point. The damage in the 1985 quake is arguably much worse than that of the September 19, 2017 quake, which (at the time I write this) has so far claimed 308 lives and 44 buildings—far less than the thousands of lost lives and hundreds of lost buildings in the 1985 earthquake.

These codes are a sign that Mexico has learned from its past, and it’s a sign that Mexico can rebuild. Leave no doubt: the latest quake is a tragedy, but it’s one the country can overcome.

The Venezuelan Revolution Will Not Be Televised

My newsfeeds over the last year have been filled with viral videos, news clips, and outrage over Venezuela. Some are expecting the country to fall into a civil war.

How did the country fall to this depth? Venezuela was at once one of Latin America’s stronger economies. Did Western influences undermine Chavismo? Or was Chavismo doomed to fail?

Much is made of the influence of Hugo Chavez, with good reason. Chavez entered Venezuelan politics following a period of Latin American frustration over external influences in its backyard—the neoliberal policies brought on by “Western Imperialism,” as argued by many. A “Pink Tide” was rolling through Latin American politics as left-leaning figures became leaders of countries. Chavez was one of them.

People wanted change. Chavez signified that change.

And so “Chavismo”, or the “Bolivarian Revolution” swept through Venezuela. Chavez’s policies shrunk poverty levels in the 2000s. He brought heavy regulation across the nation’s industries in the name of social progress, and, quite notably, began relying heavily on oil exports to bring in some cash for the country. Whether done with good or bad intentions (corruption isn’t rare in Pink Tide-era Latin America), many analysts agree that these policy decisions were the seeds that grew into the malnourished apple tree that is present-day Venezuela.

Chavez became increasingly polarizing in his final days. He spoke out against the West (here publicly speaking out against the USA, and here publicly speaking out against Spain), accusing it of undermining the Bolivarian socialist efforts. His policies made it difficult for private investments to flourish, which was significant given the amount of social programs he implemented. By the end of his days, the poorest of Venezuela’s segments were feeling the pinch from economic shortages (see here for more). Chavez flew to ally Cuba to receive Cancer treatment but succumbed to his illness in 2013.

The general election that followed to fill Chavez’s vacant seat was indicative of how the country felt about Chavismo. Chavez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro, ended up winning the election, but by only a razor thin margin of 1.5%. That meant that half of the country was tired of Chavismo.

But the other half was willing to give it one last go.

That was 2013. Since then, oil sales haven’t been the same, meaning the country has continued to free fall from the summit Chavez promised to climb.

There are a number of events that have taken place over the last four years since Chavez’s death that illustrate the state of the country. Here are just some of the more recent story-lines I’ve decided to highlight:

The country’s economy has continued to plunge in recent months, with reports of inflation running at more than 700 percent.

Food Black Market
Access to food is scarce. Venezuelans are waking up early to line up in front of grocery stores for a chance to get their daily rations—“chance” because rations aren’t guaranteed. This has allowed a food black market to flourish, with consumers paying up to 100 times the regular price for basic food items like corn.

The black market runs deep.

The Venezuelan army was put in charge of distributing food rations, and as a result (and as reported by the Associated Press), investigators have discovered that soldiers of different ranks within the military have played a significant role in directing the market. Soldiers and generals have been reported to take significant percentages of sales.

Public Health Concerns
According to Venezuela’s Health Ministry, the country’s infant mortality rate shot up thirty percent in the last year. More than 11,000 babies died because of a lack of basic medicines and food. Furthermore, at that same time, three-quarters of Venezuela’s adult population reported having lost an average of 19 pounds in the past year.

International Concerns and room for Canada
The Associated Press reported that the country is pulling out of the Organization of American States. The Globe and Mail also reported that, much to the chagrin of Venezuelan officials, Peru’s Foreign Minister Ricardo Luna has publicly stated his wishes for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to act as a mediator in the crisis.

Protests against the country’s government have been commonplace and have unfortunately left casualties: In the last three months, more than 70 have died in demonstrations.

Desperate to Leave
More recently, the Globe and Mail noted the effects the crisis is having on neighbouring countries: many Venezuelans are leaving their homes; 150 Venezuelans a day are seeking asylum in Brazil, and an estimated 550,000 are living illegally in Colombia.

The Associated Press also reported that the number of Venezuelan asylum requests for the US is also on the rise as

The most recent data from Citizenship and Immigration Services show 8,301 Venezuelans requested asylum in the first three months of 2017. That compares to 3,507 in the first quarter of 2016 and puts the country on pace to surpass last year’s record of 18,155 requests.

And those are only a few of the story-lines. Do a quick Google search and you’re bound to find more.

From Chavez to Maduro

Keep Your Eyes Peeled

An editorial note: I’ve written this post in part because some within my social circles are confused about what’s happening in Venezuela. I can’t blame them. For one, there’s a long history of Venezuelan politics to cover (consider my version a NotesByHenry Coles notes). Also, at the conception of this blog post, the world had just been hit by the news of numerous London terrorist attacks and the Trump/FBI saga. There’s only so much news one can absorb.

The other part of me is genuinely concerned and the region and the real-world consequences of this crisis—for instance, as I’ve written above, the ripple effect that is Venezuelan migration can already be seen in the migration patterns of refugees. History has shown how Latin American civil wars in the 1980s altered the demographics of Western countries—not just in Canada and the US, but also in faraway countries like Australia and Italy—which has fueled conversations around immigration politics, civil rights, etc. (*ahem* the 2016 US election, *ahem* Brexit).

As I’ve written in my previous post about Fidel Castro’s legacy, this post isn’t meant to criticize socialist policies. It’s meant to examine what happens when a country is mismanaged, regardless of whether you lean toward the left or the right.

We could learn something from this case—the issue is complex but one worth keeping an eye on. The threat of civil war looms on the horizon.

Colombia: Agree or Disagree, You’ll Probably Learn Something

In early April, I attended a discussion on Colombia’s post-civil war future hosted by the Canadian International Council. For those who don’t know, the Colombian government recently ended a five-decade-long war with one of the country’s prominent rebel groups, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia—People’s Army (FARC, in Spanish).

Overall, it was a great discussion. I was impressed by the level of interaction between audience members and the moderators.

But even more importantly, I was impressed with the quality of ideas exchanged during the discussion. I was reminded that peaceful disagreements can exist in political arenas which are known for mud-slinging.

For instance, while there were disagreements on how to ensure the smooth transition from war-time to peace, there was common ground found between all camps in that 1) the peace treaty is important for Colombia to move forward (even if it contains clauses of contention), and 2) Colombia’s infrastructural needs cannot be ignored, particularly the need for roadways to connect Colombia’s rural areas with its urban ones–roads connect people, literally and figuratively. Roads help drive the economy. Roads are good for peace.

But those were only a few ideas exchanged at this discussion. For the most part, disagreements outnumbered the agreements, but I was reminded of how fruitful these civilized, educated discussions could be. I walked away with a better understanding of how Canada can play a role in the peace process. I also left with a sense that all could play a part in the discussion, whether it’s actually sharing ideas or just being informed of current events.

It seems as though we are constantly bombarded by sad news—countries being bombed, social injustices, violent crimes. In the midst of the negativity, it’s refreshing to hear the promotion of peace in a country that saw fifty years of war.

I heard one professor remark that she had stopped researching the armed conflict because she thought she would never see the end of it. I think all sides in attendance were pleased that she was wrong.

Spreading the Word: News Media and Bad Policies

Spreading the Word: News Media and Bad Policies

This piece will appear in the April 2017 edition of Ottawa’s Eco-Latino.

Calling all researchers: the world needs you.

Last month, I examined the legacy of El Salvador’s civil war, one which includes an ongoing gang problem that has no end in sight.

Why has the country’s gang problem gone on for so long?

Many researchers point to failed anti-gang strategies; specifically, right-wing ARENA’s “Mano Dura” (“Hard Hand”) strategies introduced in the 2000s, which focused too much on incarceration and not enough on rehabilitation or bridging social gaps—gaps which have existed since El Salvador became a country in 1841.

A few weeks ago, I picked up Mano Dura: The Politics of Gang Control in El Salvador, a book written by Mexican-based researcher Sonja Wolf. Like many commentators, Wolf argues that at the heart of the gang problem are the socio-economic issues that plague the country. Simply put: El Salvador can hunt gangsters all it wants, but if it doesn’t address the conditions that give birth to gangs, the problem won’t go away. It’s putting a Band-Aid on a bullet hole.

What struck me about her argument was how mainstream news media pushed for ARENA’s “Mano Dura” policies even though they were flawed from the very beginning. It’s alarming—for instance, she suggests that the two leading newspapers in the country, El Diario de Hoy and La Prensa Grafica, failed to question the effectiveness of these policies because the owners of each paper had entrenched interests with ARENA. As a result, the public saw “Mano Dura” and “Super Mano Dura” as legitimate anti-gang options.

It’s unfortunate that this is only crystal clear in retrospect, but in a country where inequality has historically been “the way it is,” it’s easy to see gangs as the source of evil that require the holy fist of the state.

But let’s be clear: gangs are bad, but the governments that have been unable to bridge the social gaps—the same governments, on the right and left, that have been caught literally stealing millions of dollars from public funds—are arguably worse.

This is where researchers can fill the gap that Salvadoran journalists can’t. El Salvador lacks independent journalists and media outlets, and because of so many aligned interests are held by its biggest news outlets, it’s difficult to find ones that critically examine anti-gang policies and hold presidents accountable. It’s easier said than done, but it’s necessary.

Media producers, for good or bad, select particular stories to follow. Imagine if mainstream news outlets were our only sources for information? There’s a reason why some of my friends identify Trump vs. Mexico as the most important story in Latin American affairs right now, while being unaware of the ongoing food crisis in Venezuela.

So I’ll tell you what I used to tell my students: read your books. Knowledge can go a long way.

Notes by Henry listed in list of Top Blogs of 2017


Some exciting housekeeping news to take care of.

A highlight, indeed–Notes by Henry was listed in Focus Economics Top 101 Blogs of 2017. See it listed here!

Thank you, dear readers, for stopping by Notes by Henry. Discussing Latin American issues is something I’m personally passionate about, and it’s through discussion and engagement that we can hammer out the issues within the region.