WHAT IS WRONG WITH "ROMERO"
By James Roth
March, 2001

 

Archbishop Oscar Romero of San Salvador was a great hero of the struggles for liberation in Latin America during that region’s "long dark night," a period lasting from the 1960s through the 1980s. He was an archbishop very briefly, a mere three years, 1977-1980, and he was an unlikely hero. The upper hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church in Latin America was firmly allied with the economic and political elite. But Archbishop Romero emerged as the "voice of the oppressed" in El Salvador after he reached the pinnacle of that hierarchy. His remarkable transformation into a defender of the poor and oppressed when he had reached such a privileged professional and institutional status marks him as one of the most extraordinary figures in history. His assassination elevated him to the level of martyr for almost all of the peasants and workers who fought in desperation to free themselves from the oppressive conditions they faced in El Salvador. His martyrdom is honored throughout many other countries in Latin America. Among religiously motivated North American opponents of neocolonialism, no name is more revered than Romero.

Romero’s brief reign as archbishop and his transformation from a mild-mannered theologian into a hero of the struggle for "human rights" is chronicled, in a way, in a low-budget film, Romero. Although the film received mixed reviews from establishment film critics, mostly for mediocre acting and a sometimes-confusing script, Romero is still a staple among North American audiences with an interest in and appreciation for the liberation struggles of the people of Latin America. Among the many heroes of liberation struggles in Latin America, few deserve the appreciation Archbishop Romero has received, so one might be pleased that the movie continues to receive attention despite its technical flaws. I have a different opinion. The movie version of his life and contribution to those liberation struggles has flaws that go far beyond the inadequacies of the technical aspects of the movie itself. The movie is just plain wrong about Romero and wrong about the social world he inhabited.

Before I begin my critique, I want to say what is good about the film. The good aspects all lie in the filmmakers’ intentions. They clearly wanted to honor Romero, who richly deserves honor. They wanted to emphasize his gentleness, fairness, humility, bravery, eloquence, and compassion. They also wanted to show how he responded nobly to the great responsibility of being archbishop. And they wanted to do all of this in a way that would bring Romero’s story home to a North American audience.

Unfortunately, in their efforts to do that, the filmmakers end up portraying Romero as less brave, radical, compassionate and astute than he really was. The film also does an injustice to the struggle of the common people of El Salvador. In the process, the political and social conditions in El Salvador at the time are distorted. The broader context of El Salvador’s place in the geopolitical schemes of the United States is completely neglected.

 

How the Film Underestimates Romero

The film attempts to show how Romero changed in response to his responsibilities as archbishop. As a bishop, he saw himself fulfilling his obligations by being a theologian and occasional adviser to the archbishop. It seems clear that he did not offer unsolicited advice. To have done so would have been out of keeping with his humility. He was, according to all reports, devout, bookish, and unassertive.  Given the elite circles in which he circulated as a theologian without a parish, and never having done much analysis of political economy, he probably was rather conservative.   But his conservatism was a matter of inaction rather than ignorance or insensitivity. It is extremely unlikely that he was as ignorant of conditions in El Salvador as the film portrays him. Nor is it likely that he knew next to nothing about liberation theology.

Romero and Rutilio Grande, a Jesuit of some notoriety in El Salvador, were good friends (Armstrong and Shenk, 1982:91). It is inconceivable that Grande did not talk with Romero about conditions in his parish and offer his analysis of the causes of poverty throughout El Salvador. Grande’s analysis would certainly have been consistent with liberation theology, which places the blame for poverty squarely on economic exploitation and the political powerlessness of the poor. In short, Romero certainly knew that most El Salvadorans lived in poverty and were regularly terrorized by the National Guard and other agencies of repression.

It is also unlikely that Romero was as timid and organizationally inept as he is portrayed in the film. It is possible, of course, to mistake a humble and reserved nature for timidity. It is also likely that, given Romero’s acceptance of Church hierarchy, he knew his "place" and was not assertive before he became the leader of the Church in El Salvador. That should not be taken for timidity, however. Timid persons do not get named archbishop anywhere!

Romero was not a liberation theologian when he was named archbishop. But he would certainly have been familiar with that theology. He had studied in Rome for several years at a time when the Vatican was opening up to progressive theological perspectives. In 1968 at the Latin American Bishops Conference in Medellín, Colombia, the preferential option for the poor was elevated to one of the basic principles of Church doctrine. At that conference, liberation theology was given a significant hearing and gained the support of many bishops. By the early 1970s, liberation theology was widespread throughout Latin America, most prominently in Central America. As an outstanding theologian, Romero would have been well versed in such an important theological movement in his own region. As a friend of Grande’s, it is likely that he even accepted a good bit of it, even if he did not speak or write openly about it.

That Romero knew a great deal about liberation theology and had given some thought to the earthly role of the Church is revealed by the forceful nature of statements he began making as soon as he became archbishop. He certainly did not know what to do about the repression, violence, and poverty in El Salvador. Few did. But he did know how to describe it and where to place the blame for it. His statements condemning repression and economic injustice began to appear only a month after he became archbishop. These were not warm-fuzzy statements about loving one another and being more willing to share, either. He was a bit slower to become confrontational with political authority, but that, too, began to emerge in his second month as archbishop, when he refused to attend a new (unelected) president’s inauguration (Armstrong and Shenk, 95).

The film does provide excerpts from some of his homilies, speeches and interviews. But these pronouncements are presented as background in the form of radio speeches while the screen is filled with other people or with Romero doing something else. If we are not distracted by the images on the screen, we hear Romero saying, "I believe economic injustice is the source of the violence," and "The mission of the church is to join with the poor." But we never see him saying those things. As many media critics have stated, the image is more powerful than the word. We simply do not see Romero making the point that the church is one with the poor or that the source of violence is economic injustice.

These statements—and hundreds of others that could have been excerpted from his collected works—indicate that Romero saw economic injustice as the cause of both poverty and violence. He was well aware that the military was merely the most immediate agency of repression. The military murdered and tortured and terrified people in the service of the civilian ruling class—the fourteen extended families who owned most of the land and nearly all the commercial assets of El Salvador. Romero knew that. But in the film, we only see his confrontations with military and paramilitary officials, only rarely getting a glimpse of the real rulers of El Salvador. Once a patriarch tells him that the church is a whore. On another occasion, Romero calls the "president-elect" a liar. We never see Romero confronting these people about the obscenity of their wealth or their exploitation of landless peasants and underpaid workers. If the film is to be believed, the military was Romero’s major enemy. His own statements belie that conclusion.

The film would also have us believe that Romero was a pacifist, that he was opposed to violence by all sides in El Salvador’s conflict. When a young priest announces, near the end of the film, that he is going to take up a gun to join the guerrillas, Romero becomes angry and shouts at him.  Romero did try to maintain clear boundaries between the church and any political group, and he did discourage priests from carrying guns.  But that was not because he believed that all violence in all circumstances was wrong.

The film also suggests that Romero opposed the actions of the guerrilla groups organized against the illegitimate and repressive government. Although many pacifists among those who supported Romero and the peasant and working-class struggles of Salvadorans wanted to believe that Romero was another King or Gandhi, the historical record does not bear out such a belief. Weeks before he was murdered, Romero said, "Christians do not fear combat; they know how to fight…. The church speaks of the legitimate right of insurrectional violence" (Cockcroft, 1996:163). In short, Romero embraced the political objectives of the guerrillas and at least condoned their armed insurrection, although he certainly sought a nonviolent path to the resolution of El Salvador's conflicts.

The film, by substituting the filmmakers’ ethical stance for Romero’s, distorts Romero’s real legacy. The film portrays him as neutral in the civil war, whereas the preponderance of evidence suggests that he was firmly on the side of the revolutionaries. While he did maintain a clear distinction between the Church and the revolutionary movement, that did not mean to him that the Church was to be neutral on issues of justice. In matters of justice, he steered the Salvadoran Church to the left, to the side of the revolutionaries. He attempted to play mediator in the conflict, but that mediation was not simply a matter of bringing the violence to an end. Rather, of even greater importance, it meant establishing a more just and equitable society. As Romero saw it, mediation involved convincing the ruling class and military to accept most of the political and economic program of the guerrillas. That crucial aspect of Romero’s contribution is almost completely eliminated from the film.

In other words, Romero was a revolutionary. Although, like every sensible person including most of the guerrillas, he wanted the violence to end, he understood and accepted the justification for the guerrillas’ use of violence to defend their communities and press their demands. The "political" Romero is assiduously avoided in Romero. The film makes him out to be a gentle, compassionate, honest, nice guy (which he was) who wanted everyone to behave better. But by not portraying the depth and complexity of his analysis, the film presents his "problem" as evil, arrogant, bigoted, selfish people who just can’t stop fooling around with machine guns, assault rifles, and the tools of torture.

 

How the Film Distorts El Salvador

Portraying El Salvador’s violence as a struggle between good and evil people deflates the significance of the people’s actual struggle, which was for social justice, i.e., a radical, revolutionary transformation of Salvadoran society.

Romero’s speeches indicate that he believed that the violence began with the inequality of wealth and the exploitation of peasants and workers. Yet the film never shows peasants and workers at work. It never takes us inside the homes of the poor, so we do not see the desperate poverty of the majority of Salvadorans. When the poor get to speak, they describe only the disappearances of family members or call on Romero to speak for them. In other words, the actual social conditions prevailing in El Salvador are never illustrated, never given an image.

The work of the religious and lay people who were singled out for assassination is never depicted. As far as we can tell from the film, Grande’s main offenses were that he interfered with a National Guard attempt to prevent citizens from voting and picked up hitchhikers. We never see Grande as an organizer of political dissent. We see Lucía’s murder, but we don’t see her and thousands of women like her speaking out courageously against the disappearances of loved ones and the terrible living and working conditions of the poor. Villez and Osuna never get to say why they are so fervent in their solidarity with their parishioners, and we never see them in their everyday work in their parishes.

The guerrillas, when they are noted at all, are portrayed as almost as "bad" as the military. This is necessary in order to make it seem reasonable that Romero could stay neutral. We see any guerrillas only once, when Romero is shown the conditions of the poor by an angry masked man who treats him with contempt. (It is noteworthy that we don’t see what Romero is shown on this "excursion.") And a government minister is kidnapped, held for ransom, and then murdered by the guerrillas when part of the ransom is not delivered.

It is never made clear that the guerrillas were mostly peasants, with a few workers, students and intellectuals sprinkled through their ranks. That at least a fourth of the guerrilla fighters were women is not noted. There is no mention that the guerrillas were able to function at all only because of the massive support they got from villagers throughout the country.

The film's depiction of the kidnapping and murder of "Rafael Zelada," the government minister, reveals the film’s distortion of the guerrillas. During the period 1977-1980, when Romero was archbishop, only two government ministers were murdered. One was Carlos Herrera Rebollo, a minister of education who was shot by guerrillas in an ambush. The other was Attorney General Mario Zamora, on February 23, 1980. But the guerrillas did not murder him. He was assassinated by a death squad working for elements in the government Zamora served! (Cockcroft, 163; Armstrong and Shenk, 141.) Later that year, in November, a death squad assassinated a former government minister, Enrique Alvarez Córdova, who had been minister of agriculture and was a member of the Fourteen Families. At the time of his murder, Alvarez was president of the Democratic Revolutionary Front (FDR), the political arm of the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), the leading guerrilla organization at the time. (Former US ambassador Murat Williams eloquently laments Alvarez’s assassination in the excellent documentary, El Salvador: Another Vietnam [1981].)

There is a gruesome irony in the decision to distort the murder of Zamora (represented by Zelada in the film). It does an incredible dishonor to Mario Zamora and also to his brother Rubén, who joined Alvarez as a leader of the FDR. Later, Rubén Zamora became the leader of the Democratic Convergence, which led the former guerrilla movement in an attempt to participate in electoral politics. Zamora escaped many death squad assassination attempts, several of which occurred after the peace accords were signed in 1992. The film makes it seem that the very groups with which the Zamora brothers later became identified were responsible for Mario Zamora’s murder. And in the attempt to boost Romero’s image by denigrating the guerrillas, the film reduces Romero’s legacy by not showing his complete solidarity with the Zamora brothers and the groups in which the dead man’s brother became a leader.

There is another distortion, perhaps not as serious, in the sequence of scenes concerning Zelada’s murder. The film has Arista Zelada pointing out the irony of Zelada being kidnapped because he was "a supporter of land reform." This distortion also dishonors Mario Zamora. The land reform program under discussion by the government at that time had been rejected by peasant organizations as inadequate. That, apparently, was also Romero’s and Zamora’s view. What little of it had been set in motion by 1980 was being used by the National Guard as a means of identifying peasant leaders to be assassinated. Finally, a government-sponsored death squad assassinated Mario Zamora partly because he advocated a more progressive land reform program.

Because the film focuses so narrowly on Romero and his personal transformation, the broader context that defined his greatness is wiped away. The film refers to only one massacre, the particulars of which it misrepresents. There were actually many massacres and thousands of individual murders. A few days after the February 1977 election day depicted in the film, the military actually mowed down 100 people in San Salvador’s Plaza Libertad.  The film’s reference is to a massacre of 70 people at an open-air church service on the occasion of Romero’s inauguration as archbishop.  If that is a reference to the Plaza Libertad massacre, it should be noted that the demonstration was a political one, protesting the stolen election, not an outdoor mass.  The movie does not show or report anyone being killed on election day itself, but several opposition candidates were murdered, as were a number of would-be voters.

The film also depicts the occupation of the cathedral in San Salvador and implies that Romero resolved the crisis on the day the occupation occurred. The reason for the occupation of the cathedral is not explained. It occurred after the military gunned down more than twenty unarmed demonstrators on the cathedral steps. The occupation lasted several weeks. In solidarity, demonstrators occupied churches throughout El Salvador. Romero visited the cathedral occupiers two or three times, but was not present when the occupation ended. What role he played in ending the crisis is unknown. (The occupation of the cathedral is described in Manlio Argueta’s novel, One Day of Life [1983], and, of course, in many histories.)

During 1979, the year before Romero was assassinated, National Guard massacres and death squad assassinations escalated (Cockcroft, 162-163). We see nothing of that in Romero. The killing continued after Romero’s death. Anthropologist Leigh Binford (1996) lists 20 known massacres of between 12 and 1000 victims each from January 1, 1980 (just before Romero’s death) to January 1, 1982, in just one small part of Morazán Province (102). The film could also have noted that 80,000 people, who risked their lives to do so, attended Romero’s funeral. Indeed, 39 people were killed and 200 wounded by the military on that occasion (Cockcroft, 163).

The guerrillas have never been accused of any massacres. All were committed by the military and government-sponsored death squads. The guerrillas did, of course, kill people; they were an armed force. But they committed few acts that would constitute terrorism. They did execute some government officials on the recommendation of villagers. They executed some POWs, including a couple of US helicopter pilots who were flying a combat mission in contradiction to official US policy. They also kidnapped a few wealthy individuals and held them for ransom and the exchange of political prisoners. One of those kidnapped was the daughter of President José Napoleón Duarte in 1985. She was released unharmed in exchange for millions of dollars and 150 political prisoners.

While the guerrillas did commit human rights violations, their violations were extremely mild compared to the atrocities of government forces and death squads. They did not torture their victims. They did not commit random acts of violence in order to terrorize an entire population. The film should not have made the guerrillas and the government’s military moral equivalents. Certainly, Romero did not think they were. Jon Sobrino, S.J., a theologian and friend of Romero’s, described Romero’s position:

He did not judge sin from a hypothetical center, but from the point of view of the oppressed…. He avoided denouncing everything and everyone equally…. He denounced the kidnappings and assassinations of innocent people. But he made clear that a massacre or the bombing of a civilian population is not the same as burning [empty] buses; profaning a church is not the same as occupying a church (Armstrong and Shenk, 103).

The film also fails to represent the political conditions at the time. As noted above, although the military ran the political show, there was another power behind the throne: the Fourteen Families. The president was almost always a general, but he could not stay in power without the support of the economic oligarchy.

There were actually three governments during Romero’s three years as archbishop. Romero is seen in the film as dealing with just one political figure, the "president-elect." But General Carlos Humberto Romero (no relation) voided the election described in the film and made himself president. In other words, there never was a president-elect to deal with. General Romero’s government was overthrown by a dissident group of military officers on October 15, 1979. The new government included some civilians in the ruling junta, including Mario and Rubén Zamora. But nearly all of the civilian members of the junta resigned in early January 1980. So for nearly three months before Romero was assassinated, a strictly military junta ruled the country. It was a particularly brutal dictatorship, in response to which Romero’s homilies and public pronouncements became stronger and tinged with frustration.

The film makes it seem as though Romero had been the only voice condemning violence and injustice in El Salvador. In fact, there were many others. Until his murder, Romero’s prominence both inside and outside El Salvador was overshadowed by people like Guillermo Ungo and Enrique Alvarez Córdova, among others. It was Romero’s position as archbishop, the top-ranking church official in El Salvador, that propelled him to fame in martyrdom. I am not trying to belittle Romero’s contribution to the struggle for justice. On the contrary, I am arguing that he was a leader among others, many of whom shared his fate. He was part of a much greater movement, on which he had a profound impact. His bravery and eloquence motivated many thousands of people to mobilize resistance to their oppression, to create a liberation movement. It was that movement that enabled him to be great. The movie makes Romero seem smaller than he was by removing the context of the movement in which he participated.

 

The United States, El Salvador and Romero

The film is intended primarily for a U.S. audience. It is in English. Although it features a number of Latino actors, they all made (or were trying to make) their careers in the United States. One wonders, then, why the role of the United States in the unspeakably vicious repression in El Salvador is mentioned only once in Romero, and then without providing any indication of the enormity of the U.S. intervention. The single reference to the U.S. contribution to the violence occurs when Romero mentions that he has sent a letter to the U.S. president (Carter) asking that military aid to El Salvador be cut off.

The audience is not told that the U.S. contributed about $500 million a year in military aid for a period of twelve years to various dictatorships that ruled El Salvador from 1977 to 1989. The U.S. brought Salvadoran military officers to train at the School of the Americas (SOA). One of the graduates of the SOA was Roberto D’Aubuissón, who was the leader of the death squad that assassinated Romero. Other SOA graduates participated in the many massacres that occurred after Romero’s death and the murders of many priests. The U.S. also sent military advisers to El Salvador. These advisers directed field operations, gathered intelligence, and identified labor leaders to be "eliminated." They also provided weapons training and conducted indoctrination "seminars."

The military aid included helicopter gunships, which few Salvadorans could pilot. The "advisers" flew them into combat areas on many occasions. They also provided air transport for crucial maneuvers.

The U.S. helped establish several death squads, including the one led by D’Aubuissón. Through the CIA, the U.S. funded, supplied, and trained death squad members. Many death squad members were CIA informants (i.e., the CIA knew ahead of time when, where, and against whom death squads would attack) and also carried out operations planned with the full cooperation of the CIA.

The U.S. staged several "demonstration elections" in El Salvador. Edward S. Herman and Frank Brodhead (1984) devote a 60-page chapter to El Salvador in their detailed analysis of elections staged as propaganda for the benefit of voters in the U.S. The U.S. decided when and how elections would be staged. It provided campaign financing and advice for selected candidates. If a government the U.S. had put in power through these carefully planned elections could not deliver results the U.S. liked, it cooperated with selected military officers, many of them on the CIA payroll, to replace it with another without benefit of an election.

The U.S. blocked meaningful reforms by nearly always backing the most conservative factions in juntas, congresses, and elections. The only land reform program to be considered was one recommended by the U.S. It provided some of the funding when D’Aubuissón decided to establish his own political party, ARENA, although it did not support D'Aubuissón in the 1984 elections.  When Jose Napóleon's government faltered, however, the U.S. threw its support to ARENA.  The U.S. so thoroughly controlled ARENA that when a demonstration election took place in 1989, D’Aubuissón was not permitted to be its presidential candidate. The U.S. did not object to D’Aubuissón’s policies. It was just that his image—a crucial factor in demonstration elections—was very bad in the U.S., where it mattered most. A former U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, Robert E. White, had called D’Aubuissón a "psychopathic killer" in a memo to the State Department, and the memo had been leaked to the press. Furthermore, D’Aubuissón was already widely suspected of having masterminded Romero’s murder, a suspicion later substantiated in the report of the UN Truth Commission on El Salvador in 1993. But he was just the right man to organize the party to carry the banner of US policy in El Salvador!

It is interesting to note that Romero did send a letter to President Carter asking that U.S. military aid be stopped. The letter was sent just weeks before he was assassinated. In many statements, Romero showed that he understood the U.S. role in the destruction of his country and the murder of its people (Armstrong and Shenk, 139). It should also be noted that two days after Romero’s funeral, the U.S. Congress awarded the Salvadoran military a special gift of $5.7 million on top of its regularly budgeted support (Cockcroft, 163).

In summary, the U.S. government had a hand in every aspect of the campaign of terror against the Salvadoran people. It chose the governments, organized and financed political parties, financed the government’s side of the war, provided war materiel, established and trained death squads, trained military officers, provided on-the-spot advisers for military operations, and even supplied some of the equipment used to torture political prisoners. It also conducted an unrelenting propaganda campaign to mislead U.S. citizens about conditions in El Salvador and obfuscate its role in creating those conditions, thereby undermining a potential source of international solidarity upon which the oppressed of El Salvador depended in their struggle.

It is not clear to me why the filmmakers so assiduously avoided this aspect of the context of Oscar Romero’s life. Perhaps they were afraid that raising this aspect of Romero’s struggle would alienate viewers in the United States. But those likely to attend a showing of the film would probably be well aware of U.S. policy in El Salvador. Perhaps the filmmakers thought that their message in honor of Romero would be diluted if they entered politically controversial territory. But Romero was politically controversial. Indeed, it was his short period of political engagement rather than his long career as a theologian that marked him out for greatness. Whatever their motivation, the filmmakers missed a great opportunity to educate U.S. viewers about their country’s Central America policy and its support for regimes that regularly violate human rights. They also gave a false and diminished impression of the man they wished to honor by failing to portray his willingness to take on the world’s most powerful military machine.

 

Conclusion

Romero is a weak portrayal of a strong man. The film is unfaithful to the real character of Archbishop Romero. It underestimates the aspects of character that made it possible for him to rise to the challenge of his awesome responsibilities. It falsifies by neglect his political analysis and engagement, the very aspects of his life that raised him to prominence and won him a place in almost every Salvadoran’s heart.

Romero also fails to appreciate the strength of the Salvadoran people. They serve as the chorus in the opera, singing Romero’s praises and decorating the stage. The depths of their oppression and their dedication to the struggle for liberation never receive attention. They are portrayed as helpless victims whom Romero tried vainly to rescue. The eloquent voices of leaders other than Romero and of a courageous people are silenced.

The role of the U.S. government in the atrocities of El Salvador is similarly neglected. A film directed at a U.S. audience that does not suggest an avenue in which that audience might become engaged in Romero’s struggle serves Romero’s legacy very poorly.

 

References

Argueta, Manlio (1983). One Day of Life. New York: Vintage Books.

Armstrong, Robert, and Janet Shenk (1982). El Salvador: the Face of Revolution. Boston: South End Press.

Binford, Leigh (1996). The El Mozote Massacre. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Cockcroft, James D. (1996). Latin America: History, Politics, and U.S. Policy. Second edition. Chicago: Nelson-Hall.

Herman, Edward S., and Frank Brodhead (1984). Demonstration Elections. Boston: South End Press.

Notes

          James D. Cockcroft’s book, Latin America, contains a brief but very useful bibliography on
          El Salvador, page 176.

         Several collections of Archbishop Romero’s homilies, letters, statements and speeches are available in
         paperback.