UUSC led on Central American human rights

UUSC led on Central American human rights

Three years before he was murdered, El Salvador's Archbishop Oscar Romero told us: 'Tell the world what is happening here.'
Richard Scobie


The times in which we live mold us, test us, and define us. Events like the Second World War loom like great shadows over whole eras. For me, as executive director of the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee from 1972 to 1998, the long war in El Salvador was such a defining event.

In the mid-1970s few people in the United States knew or cared about El Salvador, a country about the size of Massachusetts with a population of 5 million. The UUSC was equally unknown, but it was one of the only North American organizations with any interest in El Salvador. The leadership role we carved out for ourselves on Central American human rights lifted the Service Committee to a new level of visibility and effectiveness in foreign policy circles.

For centuries the Salvadoran economic and military elite had brutally exploited the peasantry. Then, in the 1970s, the Salvadoran people became caught in a cruel geopolitical struggle between the capitalist West and the communist East. Government-sponsored death squads targeted anyone who supported reform of any kind—priests, professors, students, farmers, union organizers, protesters of election fraud. You didn’t have to do much to get labeled a subversive, and the targets of this nasty campaign included UUSC’s project partners.

In April 1977 I made my first visit to El Salvador with John McAward, the UUSC’s director of international programs. We interviewed victims and witnesses of government-sponsored violence and met with the country’s Catholic archbishop, Oscar Romero. A small man with a scholarly demeanor, Romero saw that his faith would compel him to speak out against the government repression. With grave sadness, he told us about the deepening crisis. “What can we do?” we asked. His response: “Tell the world what is happening here.”

McAward and I talked for hours about what our little agency could do in the face of such terror. Traditional development activities were of little use: Years of work with an agricultural cooperative could be swept away by the army’s death squads in half an hour. Mulling over Archbishop Romero’s plea, we came upon the idea that the UUSC could bring U.S. lawmakers to El Salvador to educate them about what was happening.

The congressman who was most interested was Rep. Robert Drinan of Massachusetts. A Jesuit priest and former dean of Boston College School of Law, Drinan was distressed that the Salvadoran right wing had singled out Jesuits as particularly subversive. In December 1977 McAward escorted Drinan on the first UUSC congressional delegation to El Salvador. They met with the U.S. ambassador, Salvadoran government officials, generals, the political opposition, the church, the press, and victims of human-rights abuses—a balanced itinerary that characterized all our delegations. Drinan returned a zealous defender of Central American human rights and helped us distribute our reports widely in Congress and to the mainstream media. Our delegations won the reputation in Congress as the best way to see the full picture.

During the next fifteen years the UUSC sponsored more than twenty delegations, giving more than thirty congresspeople from both parties an incomparable view of the social and political realities in Central America, especially as the Reagan Administration expanded U.S. support for right-wing regimes in the 1980s. A number of the people our delegations met with were murdered—including Romero, who was assassinated while saying mass in 1980. Most were civilian peasants, numbering in the hundreds of thousands in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. Our work for a just peace in El Salvador was recognized in 1992 when Heather Foote, one of McAward’s successors, was invited to represent the UUSC as an observer at the signing of the Peace Accords that formally ended the civil war.

Excerpted from the author’s memoir, To Advance Justice (AuthorHouse 2005).

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