The Vision of Oscar Romero: Introduction and a History of Conflict in El Salvador [Part 1]


oscar-romero-iconOscar Arnulfo Romero was a visionary leader of the Roman Catholic Church in El Salvador during a time of extreme violence and oppression. Ultimately, Romero laid down his own life as a martyred shepherd of El Salvador’s suffering people. In addition to martyr, he was also a prophet who was “the greatest source of hope for millions of impoverished and oppressed Salvadorans, and… the greatest threat to the greed and arrogance of the oligarchy… that ruled El Salvador” throughout the twentieth century.[1] Romero’s example of leadership and his vision of the church is most worthy of study and replication in the world today. In this paper, I will explore Oscar Romero’s vision as it was witnessed in both his ministry as the archbishop of El Salvador and in the four pastoral letters he published as archbishop. A history of El Salvador focused on the roots of its will be offered first along with a brief biography of Romero. After exploring Romero’s vision, I tell my own story and present an ethological analysis of twenty first century American society. Finally, I conclude this paper by considering the implications of Romero’s vision on my own vision for ministry in light of my story and ethological analysis.

A History of Conflict in El Salvador

The history of El Salvador is primarily a story about its land. Sadly, this story has been one of violence and conflict because land in El Salvador – the smallest of the seven Central American republics – is a scarce, and valuable, commodity.[2] As a Spanish colony, El Salvador’s economy was designed to function as an agricultural machine for high-priced goods like cocoa and indigo.[3] Control of the land was transferred to Salvadorans of Spanish descent when independence from Spain was declared, even though 95% of the population was indigenous or mestizo people.[4] This tiny, landowning minority held all the political and economic power in the country, which functioned as a virtual oligarchy.[5] For a short period of time after independence, indigenous peoples were allowed to live on their communal lands, but these rights were removed in the late 1800s to make way for economic development via the coffee trade.[6] With no land, the majority of the indigenous and mestizo population was reduced to working as day laborers with very low wages on large coffee plantations. The coffee trade boomed throughout the first decades of the twentieth century and dominated the Salvadoran economy by the start of the 1930s.[7] By this time, the political and economic power of the landed oligarchy was secure while large portions of the population suffered in rural poverty. This situation of extreme inequality created an enormous potential for class conflict.[8] When global coffee prices crashed after the Great Depression, many workers lost their jobs or had their wages reduced.[9] The nation had become a tinderbox; the slightest spark would engulf the nation in a firestorm of ethnically-charged class struggle.

In 1932, the inferno erupted when the national military took control of the government in order to brutally suppress a massive peasant revolt led in part by the Salvadoran Communist Party.[10] Nearly 30,000 people, mostly indigenous, were killed by the military in what came to be known as “la matanza” – the slaughter.[11] After this event, the oligarchy and the military were united in their determination to stamp out “communist agitation,” and political power was ceded to the military with the expectation that the economic and political interests of the oligarchy would be secure.[12] However, the military often tried to take a more liberal, reformist approach towards the demands of the peasants instead of the direct repression preferred by the oligarchy.[13] Since these efforts never amounted to any significant structural changes, such as agrarian reform, the oligarchy’s power was never threatened.[14] On the whole, the military-controlled government responded with “arbitrary violence and repression” against any moderately-left-leaning political organization that confronted its authority.[15] These groups were immediately branded as “Communists,” while also being condemned by the Roman Catholic Church, who gave their blessing and support to the status quo.[16]

By the 1960s and into the 1970s, paramilitary organizations had formed on both sides of conflict and began to “engage in a deadly spiral of political violence.”[17] The mid 1970s saw an increase in human rights abuses and public protests in addition to the formation of mass popular front groups and labor unions which took up the work of social justice through strikes, demonstrations and parades.[18] As the government used increasingly brutal tactics of repression against the rural poor, also known as campesinos, discontent with the church’s complicity in these crimes grew louder within the ranks of the clergy.[19] Upon encountering the families of five slain campesinos in his diocese in 1974, “the seeds of conversion” were implanted in the heart of one particularly conservative clergyman, Oscar Romero, a well-respected bishop among the government and church hierarchy whom God would soon call to be the cry for justice on behalf of these oppressed, silenced people.[20]


[1] Robert S. Pelton, Monsignor Romero: A Bishop for the Third Millenium, ed. Robert S. Pelton (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2004), 4.

[2] Encyclopædia Britannica Online, s.v. “El Salvador,” accessed December 15, 2012, http://original.search.eb.com/eb/article-9110098.

[3] The Center for Justice and Accountability, “Background on El Salvador,” accessed December 15, 2012, http://cja.org/section.php?id=199.

[4] “Background on El Salvador.”

[5] Cynthia Arnson, El Salvador: A Revolution Confronts the United States (Washington, DC: Institute for Policy Studies, 1982), 7.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Arnson, 12-13.

[8] William M. LeoGrande and Carla Anne Robbins, “Oligarchs and Officers: The Crisis in El Salvador,” Foreign Affairs 58, no. 5 (Summer 1980): 1085.

[9] Arnson, 13.

[10] LeoGrande and Robbins, 1085.

[11] “Background on El Salvador.”

[12] Arnson, 15.

[13] LeoGrande and Robbins, 1086.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Arnson,18.

[16] Ibid.

[17] “Background on El Salvador.”

[18] Encyclopædia Britannica Online.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Scott Wright, Oscar Romero and the Communion of Saints (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2009), 34, 35.

3 comments on “The Vision of Oscar Romero: Introduction and a History of Conflict in El Salvador [Part 1]

  1. […] ← The Vision of Oscar Romero: Introduction and a History of Conflict in El Salvador [Part … […]

  2. Lingyy says:

    Can i copy that for my class workk

    • joe d says:

      Lingyy,

      Thanks for reading.

      On your question: No, you can’t “copy” it because that would be plagiarism. Did you mean to ask if you could cite it as a reference in your class work? I suppose you could do that, but I highly doubt that your professor would accept an unpublished paper on a personal blog as an appropriate research source. You’d be much better off looking at the sources I cite and doing your own research.

      Good luck on your research!

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