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Salvadorans Question Obama on the Anniversary of Romero's Death

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SAN SALVADOR -- After strolling past tanks, M-16-wielding soldiers and U.S.-trained snipers lining España Avenue, President Obama was greeted by the subdued smile of the Archbishop of San Salvador, Monseñor José Luis Escobar Alas. Alas served as the guide leading the president to his ultimate destination in the storied Catedral Metropolitana: the tomb of El Salvador's patron saint of peace, Monseñor Óscar Arnulfo Romero, who was assassinated March 24, 1980.

As if to avoid diplomatically tricky talk about how the cathedral served as one of the main centers of Catholic and revolutionary protest against a string of U.S.-backed governments, Alas handed Obama a copy of the biography Oscar A. Romero. The author of the book, Monseñor Jesús Delgado, claims on behalf of the church to know who "the intellectual assassins and those who pulled the trigger" in the murder of Romero were. Alas went on to regale Obama and his guest, Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, with stories about the architectural and artistic details of the cathedral.

Among the art surrounding Obama and his entourage in the lower level of the cathedral where Romero rests is one of 15 paintings making up the Via Crusis, the path Christ followed in the Passion, by Salvadoran artist Luis Lazo. The 6 feet by 4 feet acrylic painting features a muscular, seated Pontius Pilate with an arrogant look on his face as he prepares to condemn to death the silently stoic Christ. Lazo donated the series because, he told a local paper, he wanted to "sanctify the place and invite Salvadorans to prayer and redemption" offered by the Via Crucis tradition.

In this sense, Lazo's painting is symbolic of the questions asked by millions of Salvadorans: Will Obama acknowledge -- and apologize for -- his country's role in training, funding and politically backing the Salvadoran governments responsible for the death of Romero and more than 80,000 other, lesser-known Salvadorans? Will he follow the steps of Salvadoran President Funes, who mentioned Romero while initiating a process of formal forgiveness after being elected, like Obama, two years ago?

On the 31st anniversary of the assassination of Romero by U.S.-trained paramilitary death squad operatives, Salvadorans want to know if Obama will do his part to end the spirit of impunity that many here feel is at the heart of the generalized brutality that makes their country one of the most violent countries in the world.

"Monseñor Romero is the maximum symbol of impunity in El Salvador," said Ricardo Vaquerano, editor in chief of the popular El Faro online newspaper. "Obama's visit (to Romero's tomb) is an important symbol because it creates spaces and perhaps sends the message that the United States believes that justice is possible in El Salvador," he said, adding, "but symbols are not enough." Vaquerano worries that the more than $200 million in military training and equipment Obama announced this week may only add fuel to the violent fire that is daily life in El Salvador.

For Vaquerano, as for many Salvadorans, El Salvador will not see beyond its violent post-war peace until it severs the long line of impunity, stretching from the 10-year-old recruiting of Mara Salvatrucha, or 18th Street, gang members in the shantytowns of Apopa, to the Salvadoran business and military leaders alleged to have planned the murders of Romero and thousands of others in the privacy of gated mansions in the elite Escalon neighborhood.

Looking down on the Escalon from a beatific patch of the garbage-filled northern hills of Santa Tecla, 88-year-old Madre Luz Isabel Cuevas or "Madre Luz" (Mother Light), appreciates Obama's visit to the tomb of Romero. "Obama gave us a nice gesture," said Cuevas, who smiles at the "irony of lots of military men guarding Monseñor's tomb. "Monseñor would probably be laughing right now."

If anyone in the Land of the Savior ("El Salvador" in Spanish) knows how Romero might have responded to Obama's visit, it is Cuevas, the last living witness to the murder of Romero, her longtime housemate, friend and "santo" (saint). From the wheelchair she uses to navigate her way around the Hogar de Ninos de la Divina Providencia (Children's Home of the Divine Providence), Cuevas said that Romero would have "exhorted Obama to love, to become a co-redeemer with Christ, to help the poor."

She contrasts Romero's love and redemption approach with the military approach favored by those who ultimately took his life.

"Monseñor Romero would never be in agreement with sending more military, more armaments to El Salvador. He would tell him (Obama) that, if he wants to help El Salvador, he should bring tortillas to mitigate hunger and jobs to all those that need them," Cuevas said.

Most importantly, said Cuevas, Romero would ask Obama to help end the impunity at the top of the Salvadoran social ladder.

"Until there is a justice that includes the intellectual and material authors of his (Romero's) and other murders," she said, "there will be justice for none."

This report was made possible by support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.