Bush's visit eclipses El Salvador's past
BY CATHERINE ELTON
Special to The Herald
SAN SALVADOR - On display in a university museum, which thousands visit
every March, are photos of
Archbishop Oscar Arnulfo Romero's life, paintings of his death, and, in a small glass box, the blood-stained
scapular he wore when he was gunned down during a Mass in the early days of El Salvador's civil war 22 years ago.
Ever since that bloody March 24, the murder of a man revered as a vocal
champion of the poor is commemorated
with a candlelight vigil, special Masses, and other celebrations befitting a martyred hero.
But this year, the visit of President Bush, who meets here on Sunday with
the presidents of Central American
countries, is getting far more attention, and complaints about the bad timing of the White House
are largely going unheard. For most of the people of El Salvador, the war is over and they have moved on.
''The insurgency is now a political party and the nation is functioning
as an electoral democracy. That's not to say
it's perfect, but compared with the rest of Central America it's doing quite well,'' says George Vickers, Latin
America director for the U.S.-based Open Society Institute. ``El Salvador is seen as a success story for U.S.
While the date chosen for Bush's visit is widely considered a coincidence,
the fact that he chose El Salvador as a
destination for his three-stop Americas tour is not.
Not only is the government widely seen as the star pupil of free-market
advocates in Central America, but it has
been the most responsive in the region to U.S. anti-narcotics strategy, opening its territory for the establishment
of a drug-traffic monitoring center.
And it has taken, at least in rhetoric, the boldest anti-Castro stance in the region.
Likewise, with the exception of relatively small sectors of the population,
Salvadorans' conflicting views about the
United States have given way to much sympathy.
''Despite what happened in the war, resentment towards the United States
is not what one could have expected,''
said Luis González, the director of a Central American University weekly political journal. ``Those who suffered
most in the war still resent the U.S., but in general people don't resent the United States, not even the
Those who object to the timing of the Bush visit haven't forgotten the
U.S. support of a military and government
blamed for wartime human rights violations and assassinations -- such as Romero's.
''This is a country that suffered so much trauma by his death, how are
we supposed to interpret the fact that
Bush's visit coincides with a day of such social and religious importance?'' asks Jesús María Amaya, one of the
organizers of a Sunday march that will celebrate the life of Romero and protest the free trade talks on Bush's
Nevertheless, the Bush visit is expected to go off smoothly because of
the widespread support for everything
Ironically, this may have little to do with policy toward El Salvador.
Indeed, many here felt abandoned by the
United States after the war, when reconstruction aid and support fell far short of expectations. The change of
attitude has far more to do with the Salvadoran emigrants who went north to earn a living in the United States.
El Salvador's emigration tradition began in the late 1960s, but picked
up during the 1980s as many fled violence
and forced conscriptions. After the war ended, the migration phenomenon continued as Salvadorans fled the
country's economic woes.
MONEY SENT HOME
Today estimates indicate that roughly a quarter of the Salvadoran population
is living in the United States. The
$1.9 billion they send home nearly equals the combined income from all of the country's exports.
''What mattered in terms of U.S-Salvadoran relations 20 years ago is not
what matters to Salvadorans today,''
said Miguel Cruz, executive director of the Central American University's Public Opinion Institute.
``Salvadorans don't see the U.S. as the evil empire -- they see it as a
place that offers economic future, both for
those who emigrate and those who stay here and receive remittances.''
U.S. FLAGS, FASHION
It is not uncommon to see buses in the capital and even in smaller towns
with American flags emblazoned on the
bumpers or upholstering the seats. U.S. fashion and music has permeated all levels of Salvadoran society. People
from the smallest towns in the farthest corners of the country migrate northward. Even some of those one would
''There are people who participated in the guerrilla and were active members
of the country's left who have
emigrated to the United States and who want to go,'' said González.
Even those who still view U.S. economic policies as exploitative, who are
against a trade accord with the United
States and who plan to express those views in a march on Sunday, admit a lot has changed.
''We no longer see weapons, helicopters and Marines coming here from the
United States,'' says march organizer
Amaya. ``Now we see dollars.''