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Salvadoran peace shaky, says diocesan official

NCR Staff

With reports from El Salvador of exacerbated poverty, resurgence of death squads and runaway crime, the success stories of the 1992 peace accords that ended that tiny nation's 12-year civil war may seem exaggerated.

But Msgr. Ricardo Urioste, a key figure in the San Salvador archdiocese since it was headed by Archbishop Oscar Romero, says net gains of the peace process are both real and many.

From 1980 until the peace accords were signed, "to even speak of peace or dialogue in El Salvador would be the blackest sin one could commit," the 71-year-old archdiocesan moderator and former vicar general told a U.S. audience Nov. 7. Urioste said the electoral process in El Salvador has matured considerably to the point where the last two elections were free. And, despite numerous difficulties, the country's supreme court is "authentically independent," although judges in lower courts can still be "bought off or intimidated," he said.

But a great deal of unfinished business remains. The Salvadoran military, Urioste said, continues to dominate the country, and "most sadly, most painfully, death squads occasionally rise."

Urioste offered a personal interpretation of the peace process and of the climate in El Salvador during a five-day visit to the United States. His trip was sponsored by the Washington-based SHARE Foundation, an organization backing empowerment projects in impoverished areas in El Salvador.

Prompted in part by the assassination in San Salvador of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in 1989, the Salvadoran government was "in some ways obligated to sign" the peace accords, Urioste said. The negotiations and their implementation followed an arduous path, along which government officials dragged their feet.

Lack of strong commitment to the accords "explains why there have been difficulties implementing (the accords) since they were signed," he said. "It explains why there are both civilians and military in El Salvador today who are opposed to the peace accords and who create obstacles to their fulfillment."

Speaking at a lecture jointly sponsored by SHARE and the Washington Office on Latin America, an organization that monitors U.S. policy in Latin America, Urioste said that creating peace and constructing democratic institutions are not simple tasks in a country controlled for decades by the military.

"For 50 years, the military dominated every aspect of our life. Only with the signing of peace accords has this ended, and when I say ended, I mean in its crudest aspect." Democracy, Urioste pointed out, is more than free elections. It has to do with daily life, with the quality of life for each person, he said.

The military still hold a considerable amount of power in El Salvador, Urioste explained, even though, except for minister of defense, members of the military do not hold high political office. But, he said, nearly 60 percent of El Salvador's national budget is still spent on the military.

"Why do we need 30,000 soldiers when we need health care, and education, and other needs are so grave," he asked.

The peace accords, Urioste said, demanded a military responsible to civilian control along with judicial and electoral reform and social and economic improvements. The slain Archbishop Romero had outlined these tenets of a democratic society during his regular homilies, an action used by the right and the military to brand him a "subversive, a Marxist," Urioste said.

Urioste expressed concerns about El Salvador's new civilian police force. The force, he said, is necessary, but concerns have grown about human rights violations committed by its members. "We need to look at this country's perverted legacy. Those who have power abuse that power and dominate others," he said. "We see this happening in the police force. People in charge of investigating abuses were, in fact, responsible for these assassinations."

The 1991 Truth Commission and the peace accords a year later recommended that death squads be investigated and dismantled. This has not occurred, Urioste said.

"These death squads were never investigated by the government after 1992. That is the root of the problem today. We can attribute at least 50 assassinations since the peace accords to them. Nobody inside or outside El Salvador should be unconcerned about this problem."

Urioste acknowledged small advances in agrarian reform and in some levels of the economy. As for the church, he said, historical problems persist. "When people begin to put faith into practice, they begin to be observed as suspect and are questioned," he said.

National Catholic Reporter, November 22, 1996