Bill Clinton visited El Salvador in March of 1999 as president. There were not very many concrete results from the visit, although the president talked about trade agreements, immigration and drug traffic.
On March 22 and 23, President Obama will visit El Salvador to talk about combating poverty by economic development, immigration and security, especially about the violence associated with gangs and sometimes connected with drug traffic and organized crime.
Like Clinton, Obama will make a pointed reference to the violent times of the civil war. This he will do when he visits the tomb of Archbishop Oscar Romero in the cathedral of San Salvador.
The archbishop, who had been very critical of the military and the power elite that he called the “oligarchs,” was assassinated while he said Mass at a convent chapel. His death was called a sacrilege by his successor Archbishop Fernando Saenz Lacalle, but the Vatican’s Congregation of Saints has not yet ruled whether it can be called a martyrdom, mostly because of political issues.
Archbishop Romero’s grave has become a reference point in the geography of protest against the social inequities of Latin America. His image has been used and, according to some bishops, misused by left-wing political groups, including FMLN, the party that put Mauricio Funes, El Salvador’s president, in power. In El Salvador it is not uncommon for the FMLN offices to be decorated with images of Che Guevara and the archbishop. Considering that Archbishop Romero had written an open letter to then-U.S. President Jimmy Carter asking him to cut off military aid to the government, which was repressing leftist groups, it is quite historic that President Obama will visit the tomb.
But much more is expected of President Obama when he comes to El Salvador. He is very popular here, and President Funes explicitly compared himself to Obama in his 2009 presidential campaign. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was present at Funes’ inauguration in May 2009. Some analysts say her coming made Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez absent himself, although he had given generously to the electoral campaign of the FMLN, the party formed by the ex-guerrilla groups from the civil war era.
Although the present Salvadoran administration has exchanged ambassadors and made agreements with Cuba, El Salvador is a much friendlier place for the U.S. than its neighbors. Honduras has yet to recuperate status after its "constitutional” coup. Guatemala has great problems of corruption and international drug trafficking. And in Nicaragua, the Sandinistas hang on to power under the Chavez disciple Daniel Ortega.
By contrast, a recent poll said that 74 percent of Salvadorans think President Obama’s visit will have positive results.
What they expect mostly has to do with the Salvadoran economy, which has been languishing since the crash of 2008. Some are expecting Obama to unveil an aid package of perhaps at least $200 million. This would be in addition to the “Millennium Challenge” projects awarded in 2006 that total $460 million.
Security, a great issue in a country with 6 million people and a homicide rate of 14 victims per day, is also on the agenda. Central American countries have asked for $800 million to combat crime. Gang warfare, which has taken a greater toll in lives than the civil war in Salvador, has now been connected to drug traffic and organized crime. The infamous Zeta mafia from Mexico is alleged to have started working in Central America.
While the aid requests might shock U.S. voters hard hit by the recession and skyrocketing budget deficits, they should recall that U.S. aid to El Salvador during the war years was substantial, hitting $557.8 in the year 1987 alone.
The presidents will talk about combating poverty and that has a connection also with the immigration issue.
Funes believes that a sound economy in El Salvador will stop the hemorrhage of illegal immigration to the United States. He holds that there would not be the problem of illegal immigrants if there were economic opportunity in the home country.
Meanwhile, the Archbishop of San Salvador has publicly challenged President Obama to reiterate his pledge to support immigration reform, which he did most recently in his State of the Union Address. This is an issue for many illegal aliens from El Salvador in the U.S., including especially wives and children of legal residents.
Since it is estimated that one-in-five or even one-in-four Salvadorans live in the U.S., almost everyone in the country has some relation to the immigration issue. The president of El Salvador seems to be thinking more long range on the problem and would rather have the Salvadorans staying in El Salvador.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.