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Column: President Higgins returned to a changed El Salvador today

As President Michael D Higgnins arrives in El Salvador today, Paul Dillon writes a profile of the Central American Republic.

Paul Dillon

WHEN I INTERVIEWED Michael D Higgins for Village magazine in 2011, some months before his presidential campaign started, it was very obvious that he saw a broad and expansive presidential role in representing Ireland overseas. The role would not be solely that of an economic envoy; he would see far beyond the confines of Europe if elected.

During that interview, we spoke in depth about politics in Central America. Michael D outlined how he was originally motivated to get involved in solidarity work in the region:

In 1980, you had the shooting of Archbishop Romero in El Salvador. Eamon Casey was involved in Trocaire and I was invited to go to El Salvador.

And then I went to Nicaragua and it was then I began my long association with the Sandinistas.

That began a relation shop with Central America that would develop. Much later, I was part of an international delegation which met with Senator Ted Kennedy. It was Kennedy who put down the motion in congress which ended the formal US military intervention in Central America.

Civil war

When Michael D last visited, El Salvador was in the grips of Civil War. That war pitted the El Salvadoran military, supported by the United States, against the FMLN, a left wing guerilla group. Fast-forward 30 years, and the FMLN, now a political party, is in government.

Before the civil war, El Salvador had effectively been a dictatorship, with few avenues for democratic expression. Peasants, trade unions and social movements were repressed.

The peace of today is a result of the 1992 peace accords which laid the basis for land reform, provided for democratic elections, and set up mechanisms to protect human rights.

The violence of the civil war took 75,000 lives between 1979 and 1992. The violence of the civil war, has however, been replaced by gang violence.

Entrenched gang violence

Gangs such as MS-13 and Calle 18, which originated in the United States, have become entrenched in El Salvadoran society. They are deeply involved in crime networks, violence and feuding.

Between 2009 and 2011, about 4,000 people were murdered each year by gang members. But after a church brokered peace deal, the number of murders has fallen: last year 2,195 were killed, according to national police figures.

At the time of Michael D’s last visit, there would have been considerable interest in Ireland about El Salvador. Bishop Eamon Casey, then a hugely popular figure in Catholic Ireland, had visited El Salvador and publicised the human rights abuse there. The case of Archbishop Romero, gunned down while saying mass in San Salvador in 1980, was well known in Ireland as a result.

Romero, who was once a conventional Catholic, was radicalised in office by the huge injustices faced by every day El Salvadorans and by the influence of liberation theology. Romero had appealed to soldiers not to carry out injustices against their fellow citizens and raised the plight of the oppressed internationally.

Liberation theology grew in the aftermath of Vatican Two and aimed to align the church with the concerns of the poor and the oppressed. It was hugely influential in Latin America in the 1970s and ’80s, and inspired many activists to work against the US backed dictatorships in the region.

‘America’s backyard’

The power and influence of the Catholic Church in El Salvador has waned somewhat. The role of liberation theology in the  church in has declined. Today the El Salvadoran church is often publicly embroiled in defending El Salvador’s abortion regime, which is one of the most restrictive in the world.

El Salvador is very much defined by its relationship with others. The United States keeps a watchful eye on a region which some in the US see as “America’s backyard”.

An estimated two million El Salvadorans live in the US. The right wing Arena Party has strong links with right wing figures in the United States congress. In the run up to last election, Arena threatened that a victory for the left would jeopardise the future for El Salvadoran citizens in the US.

Next year, there will be a Presidential election. Salvador Sanchez Ceren, the FMLN candidate, is a more radial figure than the current President, Mauricio Funes, who although supported by the FMLN, is not a party member. If Sanchez Ceren is elected, El Salvador will likely move closer to other countries with left wing Governments in Latin America, with whom the FMLN has deep links.

Michael D’s visit will be hugely well received and will hopefully improve links and solidarity between the people of Ireland and El Salvador.

Paul Dillon is a political activist who spent three months working in El Salvador in 2010. He blogs at www.pauldillon.ie. You can follow him on twitter at @PaulDillon82 of find him on Facebook.

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